Jeannie Vanasco in Conversation with Amy Berkowitz
Amy Berkowitz and Jeannie Vanasco
Jeannie Vanasco is the author of two formally experimental memoirs that reflect on her experiences writing them. For her second memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (2019), she interviewed the friend who raped her when they were college sophomores. The book considers the “nice guy” myth, the language surrounding sexual assault, and the possibility of forgiveness. Her first book, The Glass Eye (2017), examines her grief for her late dad, his grief for his late daughter from a previous marriage, whom Jeannie becomes increasingly obsessed with, and whose name she shares. Jeannie now teaches college students how to write about their lives.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points (originally published in 2015 and re-released in 2019), a lyric essay about chronic pain, patriarchy, and the trauma of sexual violence. In part, the essay explores Berkowitz’s sexual assault at the hands of a doctor and the narrative complexities of describing such an act of violence. In doing so, she challenges the expectation that accounts of sexual assault adhere to a straightforward, linear structure. In 2016, she co-organized Sick Fest, a free and accessible event in Oakland, California, featuring performances and readings by sick and disabled artists. Her writing on chronic illness and medical sexism has appeared in Bitch and Wolfman Books’ New Life Quarterly. Amy is currently working on a novel about friendship in the aftermath of sexual assault.
Amy and Jeannie met at a 2019 writing conference in Mendocino, California, where Jeannie was an instructor and Amy was a student (though not Jeannie’s). In fact, they didn’t meet until the last minutes of the conference, when Amy bought a copy of The Glass Eye and told Jeannie she was looking forward to the release of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, after hearing Jeannie read from it the night before. During their brief conversation while Jeannie signed The Glass Eye, they discovered that they both sought to explore the less-written-about facts of sexual violence in their work.
During the few months after the writing conference, Tender Points was reissued by Nightboat Books and Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl was published by Tin House. Jeannie and Amy read each other’s books and started to exchange long emails. In February 2020, they met up in Washington, DC, where they shared a hummus platter at a bar and then discussed their writing at an event hosted by East City Bookshop. This conversation began over email in September 2019 and concluded in a Google Doc in March 2020.
—Jeannie Vanasco and Amy Berkowitz
I. NICE GUYS
AMY BERKOWITZ: I was recently relistening to an episode of the podcast How to Survive the End of the World about the #MeToo movement, and it made me think of your book. In the episode, Autumn Brown says: “One of the things that… we are uncovering inside of this moment is that if you are a man in our society, the most likely scenario is that you have behaved in an assaultive way toward someone.” Her sister and cohost, adrienne maree brown, agrees, observing that men are socialized to act this way from a young age. Together, they emphasize that this tendency toward violence isn’t personal; it’s just a result of patriarchy.
This exchange struck me as really relevant to our conversation, because that’s one of the things that makes your book unique and important: you’re turning the focus onto that man. There’s nothing remarkable about Mark. He seems like a regular guy; he could be anybody. And that’s who’s doing the bulk of the assaulting in our society: unremarkable guys like Mark, guys who are basically nice, guys you may well be friends with. And guys who, as [writer and filmmaker] Virginie Despentes points out, may not think of what they did as rape: “Men condemn rape and despise rapists. What they do is always something else.”
There are a lot of directions we could go from here, but what this calls to mind at the moment is a conversation near the end of the book where Mark brings up the topic of incels. He says he doesn’t understand them at all; he doesn’t understand the contempt they have for women. But then a few pages later he acknowledges that he felt angst about being a virgin and he “[converted this] angst into sexual assault.” And then in the same conversation he gives this very cliché example of toxic masculinity—bikers riding loud motorcycles—and leaves it to you to suggest an example that’s closer to home: the house he assaulted you in, which was full of old Playboys. Mark acknowledges that what he did was rape, but he’s still very much in denial about who he is in these other ways. How do you feel about this lack of self-awareness?
It also makes me wonder about the self-awareness of men who wind up reading this book. Will they be able to see parts of themselves in Mark, or will they need to assert themselves as apart from him because he’s a rapist and they’re not?
JEANNIE VANASCO: That stuff Mark said about incels really frustrated me—not because I wanted him to pity incels, not because I believed he secretly identified with incels, but because he recoiled from reflecting about rape culture. And I’m witnessing that same distancing play out among some of my male readers. A man recently asked me if I’m arguing that nice guys don’t exist. I said, “No, that’s not what I’m saying.” He said he thinks of himself as a nice guy, and I said, “OK.” I didn’t know him, but even if he’d been my friend for years and years, that doesn’t mean I automatically believe he hasn’t raped someone. It reminds me of this passage from your book: “We don’t want to believe our friends are rapists. But this popular desire to hold on to the comforting SVU [Special Victims Unit]falsehood that a rapist is a stranger in a shadowy alleyway—and only a stranger in a shadowy alleyway—is causing us a lot of trouble.”
I don’t know why this surprises me—it shouldn’t—but so many women tell me they know guys exactly like Mark, and so many men point out how terrible Mark is. These men say that Mark resembles no one they know. Really? No one? The way these men think: the bad guys, they’re always over there, drugging and raping women, dangling job “offers” contingent on sex, typing misogynist screeds on 4chan. These nice guys scoff at them. These nice guys say, “I just don’t get it,” as if Cosby, Weinstein, and incels serve as weather vanes for men’s treatment of women. It reminds me of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings when Lindsey Graham asked Brett Kavanaugh, “Are you a gang rapist?” Kavanaugh flatly replied, “No,” and Graham—railing against the fact that anyone would consider Kavanaugh a rapist—invoked a famous one: “You’re supposed to be Bill Cosby when you’re a junior and senior in high school. And all of a sudden you got over it. It’s been my understanding that if you drug women and rape them for two years in high school, you probably don’t stop.” The week of those hearings—that was when Mark’s obliviousness really crystallized for me. I’d already finished revising the memoir. I hadn’t talked to Mark in a while. There really was no reason to, since the book was basically done. But I wanted his reaction to the hearings, and the reason seemed obvious enough: his crime had existed at the core of our conversations. Mark, in an email, replied that Kavanaugh had clearly perjured himself. Mark wrote that he found Dr. Christine Blasey Ford entirely credible. But Mark never once reflected on the hearings in any meaningful way. His answer seemed performed, like: this is what a good, progressive guy should say. I expected him to ground his answer in the fact that after not being held accountable in any way whatsoever for a rape he’d committed as a teenager, all these years later he was being questioned about it. After I clarified why I wanted his take, he got defensive. He said that he, unlike Kavanaugh, had made every effort to tell the truth. But Mark, unlike Kavanaugh, privately answered questions about the assault. Mark wanted his identity protected. Still wants his identity protected. I’m not arguing that he should post about the rape on social media, but I do believe he should tell his family. I was close with his parents and siblings, and I lost those relationships. I doubt I’d feel closure if he told them. I don’t even know what closure would look like or if it’s even possible or what it even means. But I think I’d feel better.
This seems like a good place to pivot to our culture’s obsession with straightforward narratives and closure. I’m interested in how Tender Points embraces narrative holes. This is important, because so many people expect a sexual assault survivor’s narrative to include every single detail. You write,
I have fragments. I remember it was cold. I remember more or less what the doctor said. I remember the waiting room had a TV. But I don’t have the complete narrative.
And so the black holes in my memory become part of the story. I mean, they are the story.
I’m wondering if you’d like to talk about your process of showing this tension of remembering and not remembering—also, of figuring out how to end a memoir about something that continues to affect you.
AB: Tender Points definitely refuses to offer the reader a straightforward narrative or closure in the traditional sense. I’ll start by talking about my decision to resist closure, because it’s a simpler matter than the nonlinearity. The book ends with an insistently repetitive paragraph about how my pain endures—how I’m still in pain as I work, still in pain as I dance, still in pain as I call my insurance company, still in pain as I ride BART. It was important to me to make it clear that my pain is ongoing, chronic, not resolved by the end of the book. The popular illness narrative has an arc that goes from falling ill to getting better. Our culture and our doctors are generally more comfortable with the idea of illness as something you recover from. Doctors like to diagnose and cure, and people like a happy ending. But if you’re chronically ill, your story doesn’t end with getting better. It may still have a happy ending, but not the sort of ending where the protagonist “beats” their illness.
As for the book’s fragmented structure, well, I don’t think I could have written this story in any other way. It’s impossible to imagine Tender Points as a straightforward, linear narrative; it would just be an entirely different book. I’m glad I came across Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; that’s the first time I saw a book made up of fragments. I’d been wanting to write about the connection between my assault and my chronic pain for a long time, and when I was ready to sit down and start, my familiarity with that fragmented form gave me permission to write a book that way. I was grappling with these sorts of mysteriously related events: The morning after I first recalled being sexually assaulted as a kid, I woke up with chronic pain that was diagnosed as fibromyalgia. And the fuzzy memories of the assault and my vague memories of doctor visits and my feelings about being a woman with invisible illness—they were all important and I knew they were related, but I wasn’t sure how. And so I wrote down all of them and collaged the pieces and the result was Tender Points.
I suppose I could have started the book with being assaulted at age ten, or with remembering the assault for the first time at age twenty-three. But that’s not how I experienced it. To me, my assault and my sudden recollection of it and the onset of the pain and my flashbacks to the assault—they didn’t happen in that order. As I write in the book, “trauma is nonlinear.” It really is. So writing this book in a straightforward way wouldn’t have represented my experience; it would’ve felt like a lie.
And the fragmented structure also allows for the “black holes in my memory.” There are parts of my story that I don’t remember, that I can’t understand. I ask myself the same question again and again throughout the book: Why were we alone in the exam room? It’s frustrating to be a woman, a woman with invisible illness, and a rape survivor, and not be able to fully remember your assault. In all of those positions, you’re already looked at as such an unreliable narrator. But that’s an authentic part of the experience of recalling a memory of abuse: your memory might not be crystal clear; you might doubt yourself. I wanted to represent that honestly, unreliability be damned.
AB: Something I appreciated about the experience of writing Tender Points is that it gave me the opportunity to take control of my own narrative, which makes me think about how writing Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl was a way for you to take control. Your last conversation with Mark ends like this:
HIM: The nice thing is, you get to decide what goes in the book.
ME: I do.
How did it feel to be in control, deciding what to include and determining how you told your story? How are you feeling now that it’s done? Are there things you’re frustrated about or disappointed with?
JV: Having control felt good, but with that control came a lot of anxiety: Was I being fair to Mark? Not fair enough? According to whose standards? My friends read the interview transcripts and pointed out instances when I’d hand the control back to Mark—like when I actually asked him to “correct me” if my memory of the rape differed from his. When I transcribed that moment, I felt mortified. I didn’t want to share it with anyone—and for that reason, I knew it mattered to the story. As a rape survivor, I of course wanted to take control, but as a writer, I wanted to let the story find its shape, to go where it needed to go. That’s kind of a cliché writer thing to say, but had I controlled the narrative too much, I might not have included the more embarrassing moments. I definitely don’t like that I fact-checked my memory of the rape with my rapist, but that was revealing of character—and I think it contributed to the emotional arc.
As for my frustrations, I really believe Mark came away from this project feeling better about himself. At one point he said the project was helping him. That kind of annoyed me. I’m not saying I want him to hate himself for the rest of his life. But to complete the accountability process, in my opinion, he needs to tell his family about the rape. If he does that difficult work and then feels better, great. I’d be OK with that. And like I said, I’d probably feel better. But I also think it’d serve a larger social good. If a rapist avoids legal accountability, he should face some serious moral accountability. At my readings, people often ask me why I won’t tell his family. I think it’d involve too much emotional work. Also, I’m holding out hope that he’ll do the right thing. This week, though, I dreamed that I told his sister about the rape. I woke up before she could reply.
At the event you and I did in DC, somebody asked us why we wouldn’t name our rapists. In my case, using Mark’s real name would have seemed too sensational, since he’s not famous or powerful. You gave your reason, but you also mentioned that public shaming can sometimes be productive. I’m not disagreeing, but when do you think that’s the case?
AB: I think the decision to name or not name your rapist is intensely personal. I don’t mean to say that I mind talking about it here, but I just want to emphasize that it’s a personal choice: no survivor should have to justify her decision to name or not name her rapist. I chose not to name mine because it would’ve instigated a legal battle, and no one has ever won a case based on recovered memory of assault, and even if I had a hope of winning, reliving the assault would be emotionally exhausting (like confronting Mark’s family would be for you).
I’m working on a novel about the resilience of friendship in the aftermath of rape, and part of my research has been visiting zine archives and reading a lot of zines by survivors. In these zines, some authors name their rapists because they find it empowering or healing, some do it because they feel it’s their responsibility to warn others, some because they desire accountability, some for other reasons, and some do it without giving a reason (and, of course, some choose not to). I’m leaning away from the term public shaming because it’s quite narrow: it describes only one reason for naming a rapist but doesn’t account for the other motivations I’ve mentioned.
In short, I think naming a rapist is productive when it aligns with the needs and desires of the person who was raped. There’s an illustration I like by the artist Jenn Woodall that says, “Reject the idea that there is a right way to be a survivor.” It’s a sentiment that’s helpful for me to keep in mind, both personally and as I work on my book. And it’s something that I wanted to say to you as I read your book—you’re often preoccupied with this concern that you’re not having the right response, that you’re not as angry as you should be, that you’ll disappoint other feminists with your reaction. Every time those doubts came up, I wanted to say, Hey, it’s OK. I think being kind and gracious to Mark is a natural response, and yes, certainly informed in part by what one of your friends in the book, the sociology professor, would call “performance of gender.” And I think that if you’d expressed anger, you probably would have had a very different conversation, and might not have gotten him to open up as much. I’m here to say there’s no wrong way to be a survivor, no wrong way to be a feminist, no wrong way to feel. But at the same time I do understand feeling frustrated that you’re responding with kindness and reassurance to someone who did immense harm to you.
What has the response from other feminists been? Has anyone criticized your reactions? How do you feel now about the ways you handled talking to Mark?
JV: A lot of women have said that the book reassured them that their thoughts and feelings were valid—which is why I’m glad I didn’t edit out the less flattering material, the parts where I’m being exceptionally deferential to Mark, telling him, “I hope you know that I don’t hate you or anything like that,” “I hope it’s in some way helpful for you to know that I genuinely believe you’re a good guy,” and “I hope this is somewhat helpful for you to talk about.” I regretted those reactions while working on the book, but I don’t regret them anymore. I’m not holding myself up as an example of how a rape survivor should respond. I’m simply offering my experience as an example of how one rape survivor responded. Readers have told me that they believe they would have acted similarly, and that’s made me feel good. Also, it helps when they compliment the writing style, and when they point to the book’s structure as something they loved. As a writer, that’s the validation I want the most. If readers disagree with my ideas, that’s OK. For example, there was this really mean online customer review that critiqued my opinions, but at the end the person said, “But Vanasco can write.” I was like: Great, I’ll take it, thank you.
Some women have called me brave for confronting Mark all these years later. That, though, didn’t feel brave to me. What felt brave was releasing the book, subjecting my thoughts, feelings, and actions to criticism. I knew not all feminists would agree with my decision to give him a voice, and that’s OK. Progress happens because of passionate disputes within a movement. Occasionally I’ll get a cruel email. One woman emailed me shortly before the book came out, arguing that it would harm rape victims. She hadn’t read the book, said she wouldn’t read it, said its summary was enough for her to know that the book was terrible and that I was a terrible person for writing it. She also accused me of trying to make money off of my rape. That hurt. But it also made me laugh—because, yeah, I wrote a formally experimental book layered with meta narratives and sold it to an independent press based in Portland, Oregon, because I was trying to make money.
III. WORKS (AND FRIENDS) CONSULTED
JV: Had I read your book before writing mine, I might have felt more confident pursuing mine. Toward the end of Tender Points, you quote King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes: “So, how shall we explain the fact that you hardly ever hear the other side of the story: ‘I raped so and so, on this day, in these circumstances’?” I read King Kong Theory immediately after reading Tender Points, and both books have meant a lot to me. Can you talk about some of the books that helped you with Tender Points? I love that you included a “Works Consulted” page.
AB: Like I said, Bluets is the book that gave me the formal framework I needed to write Tender Points. A while back, years before I started working on my book, I read Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, a matter-of-fact, vividly described memoir about the author’s experience with autoimmune disease. I don’t think it was consciously an influence, but looking at it now, I’m noticing that it’s also composed of fragments, though the fragments—for example, the nurse who inserts a suppository into her ass and stays late to watch Dirty Dancing with her—are two or three pages long, longer than Nelson’s.
That quote from King Kong Theory was crucial, because it helped me name a problem I knew I was brushing up against but couldn’t quite articulate. Peter Levine’s books assured me that I wasn’t the first person to experience pain as a result of a traumatic event. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric provided another example of the lyric essay form and confirmed my observation that most women seem to have experienced some kind of assault or harassment (“I think surely some percentage of women hasn’t been raped,” Rankine writes). Dr. Ginevra Liptan’s Figuring Out Fibromyalgia: Current Science and the Most Effective Treatments (the rare book on fibro by a doctor with fibro) helped me understand that there is in fact a connection between PTSD and fibromyalgia pain. David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration showed me exactly how illness is political. And David B. Morris’s The Culture of Pain educated me about the history of hysteria.
I also want to mention Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer, which is a film, not a book, but it was nevertheless an essential text for me. It’s a documentary about punk musician Kathleen Hanna and her experience with late-stage Lyme disease, an illness that (like fibromyalgia) affects mostly women and as such is not taken seriously by many doctors. I’ve become friends with Sini over the past few years and am really inspired by her art and activism. She’s working on a documentary now about late-stage Lyme called So Sick, and it’s exciting to see her progress. It’s so necessary, and it’s going to be an amazing film.
Speaking of friendship, one thing I love about your book is that it’s not just about your rape; it’s also about your friendships with women. Like The Glass Eye, your previous book, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is a book that talks about how it was written, and I think that approach is especially effective here, as you show your readers your process of sharing the transcripts of your conversations with Mark—and your anxieties about the conversations—to various supportive, insightful women in your life, including your editor, other writers, and friends. The chorus of support and insight you receive from women like [your friends] Sarah and Rebekah and your writing group is such an essential part of the book. I remember reading something once about how the minds of older couples can merge together into an interpersonal cognitive system, with each relying on the other to hold certain memories. Similarly, there’s something really beautiful about the interdependence you show us in your relationships with these women, how sometimes you need another woman to interpret an email from Mark, or to point out when he’s being manipulative, or simply to reassure you. You could have chosen not to include this part of your process in your book, but I’m so glad you did. As women, we spend a lot of time doing this kind of labor for one another (making sense of assault and harassment and the aftermath), and I think this labor is largely invisible. I’d love to hear you talk about this aspect of your process and your decision to include it in the book.
My writing group is also very supportive and very necessary to my process. And we also recently had a long conversation about bra fittings; my friend Shawn insisted that everyone go to Nordstrom to get fitted. I realize I have an opportunity to make a joke about support here.
JV: Ha, yes! I’m glad you mention bra fittings. I actually can see those as a metaphor for my conversations with my friends. It’s like I had no idea I was wearing the wrong size for years, and then my friends come along, measure me, and tell me what’s what—without shaming me for getting it wrong.
When it came to evaluating the transcripts between Mark and me, my friends pointed out specific examples of Mark evading responsibility. They could see his false equivalencies. And yet I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. My resistance to some of their analysis shows how hard it can be for survivors to hold some men—especially those they cared about, or still care about—responsible. Readers have told me that when they disagreed with my reactions to Mark, they’d then encounter Jung or Molly or Leigh-Anne or Sarah or Nina or Rebekah stepping in and saying what was also on their minds. I’m grateful to be surrounded by smart and supportive women. I would have been lying by omission had I not included my friends as characters.
Women do so much work for one another—especially when it comes to male violence.
IV. OLD ENGLISH VERSIFICATION
AB: I really relate to the part of your book where you say that it feels rude to tell people what you’re writing about. I was at a friend’s wedding a few years ago and a man asked me about my novel, and as I started to tell him, he actually started backing away from me, walking backward. I don’t know if he was aware that he was doing it. Personally, I’m more concerned about how it will make women feel. I try to give an informal content warning before I get into it. How does it feel to talk about your book?
JV: Your experience reminds me of one I had last fall at a book festival in Kentucky. This guy came to the table where I was sitting and asked me to tell him about my book. Well, first he pointed at it and said, “What is it?” I replied, “My book.” He said, “Yeah, but tell me what it’s about. Give me your pitch.” So I summarized my memoir: fourteen years after a friend raped me, I reached out to him and interviewed him about it, et cetera, et cetera, and as I was describing it, he was backing away from me. Another writer—Jessica [Chiccehitto] Hindman, whose memoir, Sounds Like Titanic, is amazing, by the way—was there with me, and she couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, it was absolutely cartoonish how he responded.
Talking to men about rape is exhausting when they get really defensive or seem plainly uninterested or tell me how I could have handled the conversations with Mark differently. One guy, without having read the book, said, “Your book is a good start. But you should have considered—” and right there I tuned him out. Why would I take criticism from somebody who hadn’t read the book? And, I swear, if another man says to me, “Tell me what men should do,” I’ll scream. Some of them act as if no educational resources exist on this topic. Read a book about sexual assault. Doesn’t have to be my book. Or watch a documentary. Just do some research. I once tried turning the question around after a guy asked me what men should do. I asked him what he thought men should do. He then said, “But you’re the expert.” So let’s say somebody mugged you. Are you now an expert on how to stop muggings? Or if somebody held you at gunpoint, are you now an expert on gun violence? This guy, by the way, had scheduled an interview with me—weeks in advance—and then started the interview with “So I haven’t read your book.” I get it. We’re all busy. But I have zero patience for men who don’t prepare.
It is hard, though, to talk about the book in everyday settings, like when a stranger wants to make small talk. I know I could lie, say, I wrote a book about Old English versification, or something like that—and then the conversation is over without me taking it to a dark place. But I also think talking about sexual assault is important. So now I just say it’s a book about sexual assault, and if they ask me to say more, then I do. I’ve found that some people really want to talk about this subject. It’s been pretty amazing.
And having conversations like these, with feminists whose writing I admire, has been a privilege. This I enjoy. I think the #MeToo movement has helped open the discussion.
AB: I’d love to know more about your thoughts on the #MeToo movement and how it relates to your book. You say at one point that the book was sort of inspired by #MeToo, and you also talk about how it’s different. Rebekah points out that your book has more nuance than #MeToo. It’s not black-and-white; it’s a story where there’s room for complexity. I had a sort of funny nightmare a while ago that my book was acquired by an editor who wanted to change it so that it takes place during #MeToo, and I was so angry. I think there is a tendency among some people to understand #MeToo as the first time this kind of thing has ever happened, and that does make me angry because it erases all the efforts women have been making since, I don’t know, the beginning of time, to speak up and demand accountability. That said, I do think #MeToo is good and important.
JV: #MeToo was about exposing the systemic problems that normalize sexual harassment and assault. It wasn’t primarily about holding powerful men accountable. But our media culture, when reporting on #MeToo, tends to focus on the most viscerally repellent cases involving men protected by wealth and fame, which are sure to cause outrage. And outrage is good. But a lot of people then associate #MeToo with attacks on men who are easy to hate, such as Weinstein. And it simplifies #MeToo in these ludicrous ways, foregrounding questions like “Is the movement going too far? Not far enough?”
The #MeToo movement unfortunately gets talked about as if it’s this singular thing, but it’s big enough and strong enough to hold differing points of view about issues important to it. And I absolutely agree with you. The story of feminism involves a long history of starting social movements to change laws and customs. #MeToo is great, but I’d like to see the intellectual history of feminism taught to teenagers, giving them context for what’s happening. How did you come to feminism? Do you remember when you first started to consider its role in your life?
AB: My mom is a proud second-wave feminist. She went to consciousness-raising meetings in the ’70s, she has pink hand towels embroidered with ms. that a less ardently feminist friend gave her as a joke. So I grew up cocooned in the empowering warmth of her feminism, drying my hands on those ms. hand towels. As an adult, I can appreciate how the feminism I was raised with continues to serve me: my generally positive feelings about my body and my impulse to call out sexism when I see it are absolutely gifts of all the work she did to undo the body shaming and sexism she grew up with. Of course, second-wave feminism has its limitations; my mom gave me that foundation, and from there I discovered intersectional feminism from books and essays and conversations with friends.
My mom believes that feminism has made a big difference, that the world is so much less sexist than it was when she was young. And it has, and it is—and yet there’s still so much work to be done; sexism and misogyny are baked into our culture. I’m reading Chavisa Woods’s book 100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism, which is a collection of one hundred of her memories of assault, harassment, and discrimination, everything from being assaulted as a teen by the lighting tech at her community theater to being stalked by an ex to being harassed on the street, in bars, in parks, in delis. I read an online review that complains that it’s not believable that all of those things could happen to one person, and I’m reminded of the criticism you got in grad school that one bad teacher was good but two bad teachers was too hard to believe (which makes me so angry on your behalf, by the way). I am really happy that you haven’t let that kind of criticism stop you from including other incidents in Things We Didn’t Talk About. In addition to Mark, there’s the abusive ex, both aforementioned teachers, the physics teacher, the magazine editor, the guy on the street, the Italian restaurant guy, the motel guy. It’s like adrienne maree brown says: It’s no wonder this kind of behavior is everywhere. Men are socialized to do this from the start. But we don’t always talk about it, so I appreciate you situating Mark’s assaulting you among these other events and not as an isolated incident; I appreciate you not worrying that doing so would make you an unreliable narrator. Tell me more about your concerns about being an unreliable narrator. Were you concerned that writing about bipolar disorder would make you an unreliable narrator? And/or that other factors would make you an unreliable narrator? At one point you write, “This all seems too distracting to include,” but what made you decide to include it anyway?
JV: I’d already published The Glass Eye, and so my experiences with mania and psychosis were out there. Plus, I wrote a Modern Love essay for The New York Times about having bipolar disorder. So there was no avoiding it. The diagnosis was a big reason why I felt pressured to include Mark’s voice. That, and the fact that I was drunk on the night of the rape. If I could get Mark on record, I doubted any reader would dispute my memory of that night. Plus, by making Mark explain himself, it’d focus the reader’s attention on his actions. I needed him to say—and I’m glad he did say—that he knew what he was doing was wrong while he was doing it, but he did it anyway.
This is really annoying to acknowledge, but Mark’s voice gave me, as a narrator, more authority. It gave me the confidence to include my bad experiences with other men. I didn’t want Mark to be the only man in the book who committed a terrible act. Because he wasn’t the only man to hurt me, and to isolate him would have misrepresented the problem. Some readers have asked me why I didn’t interview the friend who raped me in my twenties. Or why I didn’t interview my high school boyfriend. I usually answer, “Look, my mood stabilizer works great, but I don’t know if it works that great.” But really, unlike the rape in my twenties, Mark’s rape of me was, at its core, a question of language. I didn’t think of it as rape, because I was so focused on his body, which part he used, that I wasn’t thinking of my body, which part he violated. The FBI’s definition of rape—between 1927 and 2012—was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” Then, in 2013, the FBI revised the definition to “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” What Mark did in 2003 would not have been considered rape, according to the FBI, because he used his fingers. But now it would be rape. And I thought about how the new definition helped me process what had happened. That’s why the other men weren’t prioritized. They were in the book simply as context for how pervasive this problem is. And its pervasiveness is largely why I excused, or tried to forget, a lot of their behavior. Unfortunately, the online review of 100 Times doesn’t surprise me. I wish it did. People judge women who’ve been sexually assaulted more than once, instead of looking at the larger cultural messages we’re sending boys and men. An interviewer—this was before the book came out—asked me, “Why do you think you’ve been sexually assaulted as much as you have?” I thought, Oh no. Am I going to get more of this? Maybe other readers have the same question, but so far no one else has asked me that. And you know, I don’t always mind the rude questions. It probably sounds like I do, but I’d rather have the conversation than no conversation. And I’m hopeful that things are getting better—despite Rhymes with Dump. What do you think? What makes you hopeful?
AB: I just finished reading Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather, and there’s a character who talks about struggling to add the “obligatory note of hope” to her articles about climate change. So I feel a bit like her now. But I am hopeful! People will always doubt and judge survivors, but more and more of us are writing our truths. Your book makes me hopeful. Chanel Miller’s book Know My Name makes me hopeful. Alexandra Naughton’s a place a feeling something he said to you (a second-person portrait of an abusive relationship) makes me feel hopeful. So does Catalina Ouyang’s collaborative project Conclusion and Findings, which invited poetic translations of the Title IX report that found her ex-partner “not responsible” for raping her. And Heather Clark’s Scorched Cunt and all the other zines I’ve read make me hopeful too. It’s inspiring to see people finding new ways to write about rape and writing about aspects of rape that haven’t been explored enough. Reading zines and books like yours is what gives me hope.