Things We Didn’t Talk About When I was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

A review of the non-fiction memoir Things We Didn’t Talk About When I was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco.

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Things We Didn’t Talk About When I was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco is a memoir detailing the author’s rape as a teenager at the hands of her close friend. Now, years later, Vanasco decides to talk to that friend to explore the question: Can a good person do a bad thing?

I was expecting this book to be a very hard read because of the subject matter, and in a way it was, but Vanasco takes such a different angle and talked about so much more than the assault that it was less harrowing than I anticipated. This isn’t like Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, which includes a very graphic, very disturbing rape scene. Vanasco describes the event, but in a very distant way. It is emotional, but also intellectual, and that tone does make it more accessible than an account driven solely by detail and emotion.

Suddenly I realise: all along I judged the assault’s severity based on Mark’s body—which part he used. I never judged the severity based on my body—which part he violated.

This tonal subversion is a part of why I found this book so interesting, as the majority of it is actually Vanasco writing about writing. It’s not just a memoir about sexual assault, but also a memoir about writing about sexual assault. How do you write about something so personal? How do you talk about your own singular experience in a way that has meaning and value to a wide audience? Is it exploitative to use your pain in a particular political climate to make a larger point? A good deal of the tension comes from Vanasco’s struggle to sort her feelings into an account that she knows will make sense in a traditional narrative, which is an odd fourth-wall dilemma in a book about such a serious topic. One expects the focus to be solely on the event, not on how the victim will talk about the event afterwards.

A large part of the narrative is given over to transcripts of the phone and in-person conversations between Vanasco and her rapist. It’s fascinating—and disturbing—to read their discussions with Vanasco’s commentary. She recognises how quickly she falls back into the dynamic that existed between them before where she is desperately careful of his feelings. She constantly reassures him, she checks in for his emotional reaction, she does everything she can to try and make the process as smooth and comfortable for him as possible. Because, she realises, “it’s so hard not to slip into thinking of him as a friend.” And that’s the point. He was her friend. This heightens the betrayal of his actions, but it also shows why Vanasco’s feelings are so complicated. Her rapist appeared to be a good guy, a good friend, a normal decent human being. So is he still a good guy who did a bad thing? Or was he a bad person all along?

I wrote a deeply autobiographical novel as part of my Masters degree. It dealt with some heavy subject matter, and a lot of Vanasco’s thought processes rang very true to me, and I think will resonate with many writers. It’s a common adage to write what you know, but we rarely talk about what that actually means, what the effect of doing so has on the writer and on the people around them. This book is important in more ways than one, not just for its incredibly nuanced look at sexual assault and sexual offenders, but also for the questions it asks about our culture and the way we view certain narratives. It’s a book for writers and readers, men and women. It’s a book for humans in general.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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