by Jeannie Vanasco
Brilliance Audio, 2019
Review by Christian Perring on Nov 26th 2019
Jeannie Vanasco is a professor of English at Towson University. Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl is her second memoir. She reflects on the time in high school when her best male friend Mark sexually assaulted her. She also reflects on her other relationships, and another time she was assaulted. What makes this memoir especially notable is that Vanasco contacts Mark 14 years after that night, corresponds with him by email, talks to him on the phone, and then meets him several times, interviewing him about what happened, what led to it, what it meant to them both, and how they process their encounters. It's a very self-conscious book with Vanasco analyzing what she says in her conversations with Mark, talking about her project with her therapist, colleagues and friends, noting her tendency to want to make Mark feel comfortable in talking with her, and finding that she regrets doing this.
This is a memoir with a lot more worrying than anger. Vanasco debates about the best language to use for what Mark did to her, and she settles on describing it as rape. She debates whether it is a good idea for her to contact Mark but sees value in writing about her experience with her interviews with him included. It turns out that while Vanasco has gone on to get 2 MFA degrees and a job at a college, plus a husband, Mark has not had relationships, has only had jobs he does not much like, and lives in depression and solitude. He calls himself a feminist and feels terrible about what he did that night. It destroyed their friendship and Vanasco's close relationship with his parents. He has never told anyone about what he did and he has not sought out a therapist.
At the party when Mark assaulted Vanasco, they had all been drinking heavily. It was not clear to what extent that Mark had planned his assault, although there was some reason to think that he had given some thought to it ahead of time, and this is one of the questions that she had for him when talking with him. Mark's responses are a bit mixed, but it does seem that he had wanted to get her alone when she was drunk. He sexually touched her despite her protests, and stopped her from getting away. It is not surprising that he does not rush to say that he had planned ahead, and one might wonder to what extent his emotions and thoughts formed a coherent pattern. It does seem that the very fact that they were best friends was part of what made him think he could take advantage of her. He would not have done the same with a girl he hardly knew. Presumably, his social awkwardness with girls and his sense that this was the only way he was going to get to have a sexual experience with Vanasco was a factor too.
Reading Vanasco's memoir provokes many different reactions, and these may vary a lot depending on the extent to which one identifies with her or sympathizes with Mark. She gets frustrated with herself, and her tendency even now to want to care for Mark, and reader is likely to feel both alarm at what she went through as a girl and how she sets about her project. But there is an internal tension in her project: if she only wanted to meet with Mark to berate him or to prosecute him, then he would probably not cooperate. Her assurances that she will not take any legal action and her goal of understanding are want make the whole interview process possible. Mark presents a somewhat sad figure, though of course one has a sense that since he did a terrible thing, one can't feel too bad for him. Maybe this mixture of reactions is inevitable, and by the end of the book one does get some overall sense of a process that enabled these two people to meet and discuss what happened, coming to some sort of shared understanding.
Mark does say that he is agreeing to the interviews as a way of making up for what he did, and to that extent we see some sort of moral restoration. But it is not a lot, and one wonders whether more could be achieved. Vanasco never mentions the project of restorative justice, and it is not as if either of them are looking to recreate the friendship that they used to have, so there is not much restoration possible. Nevertheless, both are intensely aware that it wasn't just the sexual assault that was bad, but also the throwing away of the friendship they had had, and the questioning of whether it really was a friendship if Mark was prepared to treat her that way. There is no discussion of forgiveness, and Vanasco shows no interest in engaging in any such act, although she also seems to take the act of writing this memoir as her opportunity to process her experience and give up any remaining anger. Readers might be tempted to see the project as a massive intellectual project that is basically a form of rationalizing her anger.
Many readers will find the book a hard and troubling read for all sorts of reasons. The variety of reviews on Amazon show this. But this memoir is a notable achievement in trying out an experiment in communication, and those who are looking to understand sexual assault should find it illustrating many familiar themes that have been identified by feminists and psychologists.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by Amy McFadden with Andrew Karst taking the part of Mark, and that works well.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.