On “Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl”: A Conversation with Jeannie Vanasco

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault 

I first met Jeannie Vanasco in the fall of 2016, about a year before the #MeToo movement surfaced on social media with the allegations against Harvey Weinstein (although the movement was actually started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006).

Jeannie had just started teaching at my alma mater, Towson University, and I was a senior film major who wanted to change my focus to creative writing. After meeting her that fall, we decided to do an independent study during my final semester. Along with reading my work, Jeannie assigned me books to read and films to watch, like Bough Down by Karen Green, Nox by Anne Carson, and Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell. Jeannie helped introduce me to the literary world beyond college—readings, fellowships, MFA programs, and literary magazines. Of course, her teaching also helped me become a better writer, and taught me how to tackle writing about trauma.

Jeannie Vanasco’s second memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, focuses on a series of conversations with her former friend, Mark, fourteen years after he sexually assaulted her. Jeannie and I met over Zoom to talk about craft, lyricism, voice, and reader expectations.

Stephanie Buckley:

I want to start by talking a little bit about your process and about craft. I heard you say, in your interview with David Naimon maybe, that you were nervous for the book to come out because of the relatively plain, conversational language. I think the conversational tone really works to connect the reader with you and to develop trust. I’m just curious if you could talk about the sentence level decisions that you made when you were writing the book and what went into those decisions?

Jeannie Vanasco:

I felt so insecure about the quality of the prose. I told myself while writing the book that eventually I’d go back and spruce up the sentences. And during revision, I did rework some sentences, ones where I wanted the syntax to deliver emotions crucial to my motivations behind the project. For example, early in the book, I write: “He dropped out shortly after we last spoke, which is not to say I’m the reason, or that what happened between us is the reason. But I hope it’s the reason, or rather: what he did to me—during winter break of our sophomore year—is, I hope, the reason.” Initially, that passage didn’t repeat the words “the reason.” It was very plain, and plain is fine, but I wanted that moment to be memorable without standing too much in relief from the rest of the prose. Meaningful repetition, then, seemed like the obvious answer. Epistrophe—where you end clauses or sentences on the same word or words—can convey obsession through repetition and also can show how hard it is to escape a single conclusion. Because no matter where you start, you land in the same place. Now did I consciously say to myself, “I’ll use epistrophe to communicate my obsession with a lack of closure”? Of course not. But when I was an undergraduate and then graduate student studying poetry, I internalized a lot of syntactical patterns, and that education has helped me revise my prose for style and tone.

I didn’t trust myself, though, to edit strictly syntax. That’s why I reworked only the earlier parts of the book, the parts written before I interviewed Mark. Had I revised the reflective passages about my conversations with Mark, I would have felt tempted to make my character come across as tough or, at the very least, less accommodating. The way I acquiesced to him—“I hope this is helpful for you” and “I hope you know I don’t hate you”—it still mortifies me. I didn’t return to those moments until the copyediting and proofreading stages when I had time to address just surface-level concerns.

SB:

The book has the feeling of being written in real time; you were having the conversations and then reflecting on them in real time. How much of it really was written in real time? Was there anything that was kind of stitched together more, or was it all just that process, where you were writing and interviewing and reflecting?

JV:

It was written mostly in real time, but I did move around some material. Initially, I’d written a bunch of great memories I had of Mark and me. But clumping them all together at the beginning would have made the book feel imbalanced. So I moved some of those memories—which I’d already dramatized in scene—to later in the book to remind the reader why I had a hard time hating Mark. I also had a bunch of scenes that I didn’t know what to do with, that I just had off to the side in my “Scraps” binder, so some of those made sense to bring in later on.

SB:

I’m also curious about your decision to include the reader so much in your process of writing the book. You show yourself struggling with transcribing and reflecting on the conversations. It would be a very different book if you didn’t have that transparency with the reader.

JV:

I am such a people pleaser. The irony: people don’t like people pleasers. So that’s probably why I wish I wasn’t one. To make a lot of people happy, you often have to lie. To tell the truth, to say that I didn’t hate Mark for raping me, that I actually still cared about Mark, that scared me—because, at the time, I was encountering so many feminists I admire saying things like, “We don’t need to hear from the perpetrators.” And I understood that sentiment, but I also really wanted to hear from Mark. I knew my approach to the book would upset a lot of people whose values I shared.

I tried to tell myself, “Don’t think about the reader. Don’t think ahead.” With The Glass Eye, I wasn’t thinking about a readership. I didn’t have a publisher. I didn’t know if a publisher would want the book. This book, though, was under contract almost from the start, after I had the first fifty pages, which I’d written in less than a month. So, I was very much aware that the book would get published if I followed through.

SB:

As I was rereading this, I focused a lot on the last section, where you have the last phone conversation with Mark and you’re wrapping up the project. I really love the last phone conversation, where Mark says, “You get to decide what goes in the book,” and you say, “I do.” And then the conversation ends there. That was a really interesting moment to me, because it seemed like one thing that was very purposefully edited. Then at the end, we go back to your creative writing students, and it gives the book a cyclical feeling, like there’s a purposeful lack of resolution. I wondered if you could talk about why you decided to end the book where you did.

JV:

When Mark said, “You get to decide what goes in the book,” I thought, Oh, this is perfect. I can just end the conversation here. I mean, we did talk for a little bit after that. It reminds me of phone conversations in movies—how people always hang up at weird times. There’s never an, “Okay, bye, talk soon.” They end in a dramatic moment. And that move often really annoys me, and yet that’s precisely what I did in my book. What came after, though, would have been extraordinarily boring to read, and the transcripts were already long enough. Ending the last conversation on him saying that I have agency takes the reader back to the beginning, where I’m doing all this handwringing about wanting his permission to pursue the project as I want to pursue it, and so there isn’t any real resolution. I don’t think my character dramatically changes in the ways that some readers might have expected or wanted. I aspired, though, to make an artful book, and a lot of art—the art that I love—refuses easy resolution. Also, as I approached the end of the manuscript, I wanted to relinquish even more freedom to the reader to reflect on a transcript without anyone else—my friends or me—expressing their thoughts.

It’s nice to hear you liked the ending. I wasn’t totally sure about it. Mark said some things that really surprised me in that section, where he said his parents would be happy to hear from me. There was a question of, “How much is he not getting this?” in the last conversation. I’m curious, what was your read of Mark? I often change my mind about him. I’m interested to hear how people read him.

SB:

I think it is interesting, at certain times I wondered if he was not getting it. I think the most frustrating thing for me was his refusal to get therapy. As a reader, I was like, just get therapy!

JV:

Absolutely. His refusal annoys me because if you’re in therapy, you’ll likely become a more reflective individual, and that means you’ll likely treat others with more empathy. Plus, there are so many sliding scale options near where he lives.

SB:

Yeah, and I think that I’m kind of like you in that at the beginning, I didn’t think much about some of the things he said. Like when you’re having conversations with your friends and they’re pointing out things he does that are self-absorbed—I didn’t notice those things at first. I started to notice them more as the book went on. Sometimes I was surprised by how much he seemed to own up to what he’d done, but at the same time, he’s not really fully owning up to it. So, it’s really complicated.

JV:

So often in these narratives, we want a clear villain. That’s what really made me feel driven to see it through, because my feelings changed a lot. I would find myself defending him to my friends. It’s hard when the perpetrator is somebody you once cared about.

Men have been a lot harder on Mark than women who’ve read the book. Men have called him a monster and talked about how terrible he is. Meanwhile, I’ve talked to a lot of women and they comment on the remorse he feels. That doesn’t mean they’re not still frustrated by him or angry at what he did, but they talk about the complexity of the story. I can only generalize, though, based on the readers I’ve heard from.

SB:

Yeah, that’s interesting to hear because it seems like men don’t want to catch themselves identifying with Mark, even though that’s kind of the point, that he’s just a regular guy.

JV:

Yeah. I do think it’s tough for a man to say he sympathizes with Mark, because there is that fear that they are seen as rape apologists.

Some men who have read the book really wanted me to out Mark, to say, for example, where he lives. I do know some people figured out who he was, people I went to high school with who emailed me. So, I do wonder what’s going on with him now.

SB:

I was curious what your contact level with Mark was after you finished writing the book. I know you sent him a copy of the book. At the end, you say that it’s almost like he expected that you would just pick up and be friends again.

JV:

I emailed him when the Kavanaugh hearings were happening. I wondered about his take. And he said all the right things, that Christine Blasey-Ford was entirely credible, and he didn’t agree with the confirmation being rushed through. But when I pressed him to reflect on the hearings as somebody who committed rape as a teenager, he became very defensive and said that he was unlike Kavanaugh because he tried very hard to be honest. But Mark never went through real public scrutiny.

I do feel bad with where we left things because he had gotten the impression that everything was going to be okay between us. I mean, I was up front with him from the start, told him I was writing a book, told him why I was talking to him. I think part of me hoped we could be friends again, even though I knew it wouldn’t work. At the end, when he said his parents would be happy to hear from me, that’s when I felt really angry. He clearly would have expected me to pretend he had never raped me. He framed my silence as being for the benefit of his parents. He said he didn’t see what good it would do for them to know about the rape.

SB:

You wrote a little bit about how you were nervous to tell your mom what the book was about. Then at the end, it’s left kind of open ended how you tell her. I couldn’t help but wonder, as another writer writing about personal subjects, what her reaction was and how you ended up telling her.

JV:

While I was writing it, she didn’t know what the book was about. I think she sensed that I didn’t want to talk about it, so she didn’t press me. I told her during the Kavanaugh hearings, and initially, understandably, she was furious at Mark. She wanted to send the book to his parents. And I said, “Please, I would rather you not do that, because I told Mark that I wouldn’t tell his family.” It was hard for her to get so much information at once. But, you know, we talked it out and then it was fine. It can’t be easy, having a kid who writes memoirs.

What’s interesting is after she read the manuscript, she told me she wouldn’t send it to his parents, that doing so wouldn’t be right. Then I got worried. I was like, oh no, did I cast him as too much of a sympathetic character?

SB:

Do you have any advice for writers in similar situations, writing about traumatic experiences and having to talk about it with family?

JV:

I think it’s often best to write the book that you want to write and then share it with family, because otherwise, if you share with people too early on, sometimes they want to take control. But again, each project is different. As is each family. Almost every memoirist I know has told me about going through periods of time when their family stops talking to them. But then usually everybody gets over it. I knew that if I told my mom about my book while I was working it, it’d complicate an already emotionally complicated situation.

SB:

I’m really interested in the idea of the book being “in the zeitgeist.” In the book you say, “That’s not why I’m writing it. But of course that’s why I’m writing it.” I’m interested in how your book fits in with the #MeToo movement, but also adds a layer of complexity to the movement. You wrote that your story is interesting because you’re exploring new territory and you’re interviewing the perpetrator. It’s unique in that way, and you worried that without Mark’s participation, the story would become uninteresting, that you would just be another victim with an allegation that was impossible to prove. So, this touches on kind of an open-ended question I have about writing about sexual assault. In the last few years, I’ve heard writers, readers, and editors say that they’re tired of reading about sexual assault after #MeToo. Or people will say that in order to write about it, you have to do something that’s new, innovative, or different.

Could you talk about that a little bit, or what you think about people who say that they’re tired of reading about sexual assault?

JV:

Some people are tired of reading about sexual assault for different reasons. Some readers are tired of it because they’ve been sexually assaulted and don’t want to revisit that subject, which makes sense. If a man who has not been sexually assaulted says, “I am so sick of #MeToo stories,” that would upset me in a way that it wouldn’t if someone has, regardless of gender identity, been sexually assaulted. Also, I understand why most people might be tired of reading about heavy subjects, especially right now, when everything feels so heavy.

For me, so much of the plot of memoir is the thinking that happens, the way that the author makes meaning out of the events. People might write about very similar topics or events, but what separates books of similar subject matter is how each author reflects on the events. But I definitely did feel pressure to do something a little bit different. For me, the difference involved form and voice more than it involved story. I love formally inventive and voice-driven work. Usually it’s those two elements that separate one work from another.

But so many readers evaluate books in terms of aboutness. Or when books get reviewed, they get lumped together based on subject matter. When I hear writers talk about books, though, they usually talk about them in terms of form and voice, rarely subject matter.

SB:

What books, and other media (podcasts, movies, essays) were you reading while you were working on this book, or helped you write the book?

JV:

Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. I went back to that novel again and again. I’ve read it so many times I own two hard copies. The first one is falling apart. The binding is broken and so the pages slip out. I also bought the eBook so I could run global searches to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently stolen anything. That book was really helpful to me. Totally different content-wise, but voice-wise and style-wise, Miriam Toews was really, really important to me. The ways she brings humor to depressing subjects. Also, I like when books written in the first-person avoid using quotation marks around dialogue.

To unwind, I was watching The Good Place a lot. I think that was a huge help, just as a means of needing to step away from the manuscript. But also, its reflections on what it means to be a good person.

SB:

Since you were talking about your decision not to use quotation marks around dialogue, I’m also curious about your decision to use the chapter headings.

JV:

Another influence was Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever. It features these really great headings around some of the fragments. I liked the idea of having short chapters clearly defined by headings. I understood the book might be difficult for some readers to consume in a single sitting. I thought chapter headings would provide clearer breaks than white space would. I could have used numbers, but I thought headings would contribute to the conversational tone, and potentially bring in some humor. I’m thinking of the chapters, “The Whole Banality of Evil Thing” and “You Apologize to Bugs.”

SB:

I was wondering how your writing process, and even your reading process, has been going during the pandemic, because it’s changed everything.

JV:

I’m working on two different manuscripts that I think are actually one book, but the writing is not going well—and when that happens, I read. Which means I’m reading a lot. At the risk of sounding insane, I’m on my seventh reading of Madeleine Watts’s debut novel, The Inland Sea, which Catapult releases in January and is an absolute masterpiece. I admire how she dramatizes one woman’s interior world all while focusing on climate change. This past month, I also revisited some other contemporary favorites: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh, and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. And now I’m revisiting pretty much everything in translation by Annie Ernaux. I love making a bunch of popcorn and reading Annie Ernaux books. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read A Woman’s Story, A Man’s Place, and Shame. Also, I plan to revisit some gorgeous books I read well before their publication: Gina Nutt’s debut essay collection, Night Rooms, which Two Dollar Radio releases in March, and J. Nicole Jones’s debut memoir, Low Country, which Catapult releases in April. Books are pitched like tents all over my house. Things are terrible, but at least there are books.

Read an excerpt of  Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl here. 

 

Jeannie Vanasco is the author of the memoirs Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (2019) and The Glass Eye (2017). Her writing has appeared in The AtlanticThe BelieverLit HubThe New York Times​, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore and is an assistant professor of English at Towson University. Her website is www.jeannievanasco.com

Stephanie Buckley is originally from Slower Lower Delaware. She is the 2020-2021 nonfiction MFA thesis fellow at George Mason University, and is working on her first essay collection. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Ligeia and Grub Street, and she is the nonfiction editor of So to Speak journal.

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