At multiple points in Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, Jeannie Vanasco says that the goal of her project — contacting the man who raped her after years of close friendship when they were both teenagers — is to “show what seemingly nice guys are capable of.” “Mark” (she gives the rapist a pseudonym) speaks with her openly about the assault which does, I suppose, seem like something a nice guy would do. His reflections on his own actions in their conversations reveal apparent remorse and indicate that the rape, 14 years in the past at that point, has had a major impact on his life. At the very least, he’s thoughtful about it. The text, however, does not actually function as the banality-of-evil accounting that her statement of intent promises. Instead, it’s an exploration of the messiness of confrontation and the possibility of forgiveness.
The book includes transcripts of both phone and in-person conversations with Mark, along with glimpses of discussions Vanasco has about the project with her partner, friends, editor, and therapist. Vanasco writes in the present tense and we see her making decisions about the book itself on the page: What happens if Mark doesn’t agree to participate? What should the title of this chapter be? Is this language showing off too much? In this way, we are reading an account of the book’s creation, but the book is not just a book. It’s also, or primarily, a document of Vanasco’s effort to confront her rape, not simply as a story she can shape and tell, but as an ongoing process with multiple players, including the man who raped her and who was once her best friend. Vanasco makes decisions about her interactions with Mark based on what would be best for the book and it’s hard to tell if the process is engendering any healing for anyone. As Vanasco writes, “Processing my feelings is hard to do authentically — because the project, the thing I intended to get at the truth, is getting in my way of understanding my feelings. And writing about this material, I feel compelled to turn off my emotions so as to remain focused.” We’re presented with the contradictions and confusion inherent in an attempt to play out a situation for which there is no script beyond, as Vanasco puts it, “boy rapes girl, girl never talks to boy again.”
This engagement with scriptlessness is, for me, the power of Vanasco’s book. For those of us who have been raped or assaulted without explicit violence, maybe by people we called friends, it is easy to compare our experiences to more stereotypical ones, to imagine that in cases of violent rape or rape by strangers, the path forward is clear. We might imagine the victim’s pain or anger as more justified; we may even desire the coherence of criminal proceedings, of a retributive response determined by an outside power. Of course, it’s likely that this kind of clarity is a fiction for everyone. In real life, things aren’t often as easily defined. We pick up the phone when our rapists call in the days after our assaults, tell them we forgive them, ask if they’ve read Franny and Zooey (as Vanasco did). The transcripts of the conversations between Vanasco and Mark demonstrate how fraught confrontation is. It can be impossible to sustain anger in the face of intense socialization to be polite, to resist the pressure to offer forgiveness as a response to an apology, to avoid feeling pity for a man who says that the fact that he raped Vanasco is the “biggest regret of his life,” or even to define the goals of such a confrontation.
So, I wondered as I read, what can we hope for? What is the point of talking to Mark about what he did to her? What does Vanasco want out of this? Just the book itself? She ends the work by suggesting that we must live on or, to take on the parlance of our times (as she does), we must “survive.” To me, the logic of Vanasco’s project implies a belief that efforts toward understanding are worthwhile in and of themselves, even when neither resolution nor restoration are possible.