Many of the allegations of sexual assault and rape that received widespread media coverage in the past few years have involved men in positions of power — producers, high-powered comedians, America's one-time favorite TV dad — accused of coercing, pressuring, or outright assaulting women who were beholden to them in some way.
According to anti-sexual violence organization RAINN, 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. This can include people in romantic relationships, even marriages. But what about victims who were friends with their perpetrators? What about the people who keep in touch with their rapists, because they wish they could pretend nothing happened, or because the social repercussions of cutting off contact would be too devastating, or because they've told themselves that it wasn't a big deal, because they've been taught that it isn't?
This particular form of violence, one where friends become perpetrator-and-victim, is the focus of Jeannie Vanasco's new memoir, Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl. "I already predict failure," reads the first line after the introduction. This meta-commentary about the book itself is all over, making a reader feel like we're going through the process — of writing, of remembering, of approaching a deeply nuanced topic — in real time along with the author. She goes on: "I'm afraid he'll say no, or even worse: ignore me. But why wouldn't he agree to speak with me? He owes me that much."
He is Mark, the pseudonym Vanasco chooses for a man she first met when they were both 13-year-old kids. They became good friends and, years later and still good friends, after a night of drinking with other mutual friends at a party, Mark got the author alone in his basement bedroom where he raped her. When she opened her eyes, he told her, "It's just a dream." And the request Vanasco is afraid he'll say no to is her desire to talk to him, interview him, about the night he raped her, about the way she told him she forgave him afterwards, about why he did it and what it meant and how he could have done this if their friendship was real.
It's not a spoiler to say that Mark says yes, because otherwise the book wouldn't exist. Moving between memories in nonlinear fashion, Vanasco shares the best parts of her friendship with Mark, as well as pieces of other narratives: the friend (though not as close as Mark) who raped her but later saved her life; the adviser who raised her confidence only to shut it down when she wouldn't give way to his advances. Between brief chapters are excerpts of conversations she and Mark have, which Vanasco recorded and transcribed, analyzing the language they used as she goes, trying to figure out why hearing him acknowledge what he did doesn't make her feel better:
"Mark said the assault changed the story he could tell about himself. It changed my personal narrative too — or it confirmed what I'd suspected but was afraid to admit: I cared too much about pleasing men. I didn't stop Mark partly because I didn't want to embarrass him. What sort of feminist acts like that? I asked myself — instead of asking, What sort of friend does what Mark did?
And now, listening to myself reassure him [during the call], I'm again asking myself, What sort of feminist acts like that?"
These self-critical questions aren't really answerable, because trauma and power-differences affect how people act. But Vanasco doesn't have to live alone with these haunting imponderables — long before this book's publication, she discussed its process with her editor, her friends, her partner, her therapist. In fact, part of what the book is about, in a more subtle way, is how important it is to speak about these oft-silenced experiences that cause so many to feel ashamed, scared, and alone.
The title, Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl, doesn't refer only to what Vanasco didn't talk about with Mark, either before or after the rape; it refers also to all the ways in which girls are taught to be silent about experiences that make them uncomfortable, all the ways in which women find realms in which to unlearn those patterns of silence in order to bolster, comfort, and reassure one another. Even though Vanasco worries, in these pages, that some readers will be upset at how much of a voice she gives the rapist, I think all the other voices — hers, especially — overpower Mark. But he, of course, was granted the choice to consent.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.