In Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, Jeannie Vanasco achieves the extraordinary: She explores rape culture by using language to set herself free. Vanasco’s assailant is Mark, a friend she met at the age of thirteen. Years later, at a party, Mark and Vanasco were alone in his basement bedroom where he rapes her. In this book, Vanasco walks us through her desire to talk and interview him about that night. We discover how she forgave him, why he did it, what it meant, and how he feels about that night.
The book doesn’t focus only on Vanesco’s experience of rape: it interrogates the ways in which women are taught to be silent. It is Vanasco’s contention that we can only challenge the culture surrounding rape and misogyny when we stop being silent. We currently don’t have the language to fully express and confront the problem. Only once we do can we better support survivors, comfort them, and reassure those who have suffered the same horrific experiences.
One of the most disheartening sections to read is Vanasco’s interview reflections: While transcribing the audio of our phone conversations, I felt ashamed by how much I thanked and reassured him: “I really appreciate this” and “I hope this is somewhat helpful for you to talk about” and “I hope you know that I don’t hate you.”
Throughout the novel, moments like these made me feel I truly understood Vanasco. I just want to give her a hug. We can easily slip into comforting others when we feel uncomfortable. It’s a testament to the long-lasting psychological impacts of rape.
There are many sections in the book when Vanasco doesn’t push very hard on Mark to answer. She doesn’t question him when she should, and she doesn’t attack him with questions that you can tell she really wants to ask. This reticence, this unwillingness to push gives contour to the painful space between forgiveness and revenge.
As a reader you feel her anxiety, her insecurities. You understand her need to constantly please others. This intimate engagement with the author is amplified by the prose: raw, undrafted thoughts. In reading Vanesco’s words, becoming closer to Vanesco herself, the reader understands why sexual assault is so difficult to put into words and talk about. By making you relive the nightmare with her, she challenges the limits of language and eloquently expresses how living without turning your experience into words enhances the feeling of entrapment.
It’s the kind of book that I wish was required reading for men to understand the complex dialogue around sexual assault, which is never black and white.
Yes, it will be a difficult read. But that’s besides the point.
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