"Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl: A Memoir" by Jeannie Vanasco are the shared memories of the author of the time when she was in her late teens and was raped by her best friend. She never confronted him, never reported him to the authorities, fell out of touch with him and her close friends at the time, and sixteen years later decides to open a dialogue with him, first by e-mail, and finally in person, to discuss what this assault has meant to her, and to him.
I am ambivalent about this book, and ultimately cannot recommend it. Vanasco takes the opportunity of this project to simply meander through her thoughts, her conversations with friends, and her dedication to her own point of view. There's no larger context here. She doesn't wrestle with any huge metaphysical questions, she doesn't bring in any ethical or moral arguments; she remains comfortably plumped up in her self-absorbed world-view. Never does she converse with anyone who may ask harder questions, who may challenge her own perceptions.
The book has different sections, and each one relies on a tiny moment of time. We have narratives from her childhood and young-adulthood. We have conversations with "Mark", her rapist. She includes conversations with her therapist, her friends, and her partner, especially those that occur immediately after her interactions with Mark. It's those conversations that I have the most problem with--they sound like conversations from a high-school lunch table. Vanasco will discuss/complain about her conversations, and her friends will rush to her defense, each one coming from his/her own point of view, which will handily bear out Vanasco's world view, as well (I mean, they are all friends, right? But the problem here is that no one ever challenges her; everyone's point of view articulated comes from a feminist, gendered, extremely nuanced point of view. Most of them believe that Mark is trying to control the narrative--is he? Maybe he's merely giving her his perspective with absolutely NO AGENDA--why is this so hard to believe?).
The whole book is circular. Vanasco doesn't seem to be doing more than aimlessly conversing and e-mailing with Mark, and trying to ping feelings of--what? I couldn't actually ever REALLY make out what this memoir was trying to accomplish. Vanasco was all over the map. Was she actually trying to figure out if good guys can do something awful? Let me answer that question for her: yes, and yes. People can do all sorts of terrible things, especially when they are drunk. Both she and Mark were drunk during this terrible episode, and Vanasco and all of her friends seem incapable of realizing that drunk people are stupid, young people are stupid, and young, drunk people are really, REALLY stupid.
Does this mean that this experience doesn't count as rape? Jeez, Louise, of course not. But it also means that Vanasco's innate desire to question Mark over and over again, to try to make HIS narrative fit HER narrative, is futile at best, and fits a specific agenda, at worst. She questions his decision to take her down to his room to watch her while she is drunk, as a pre-meditated desire to assault her. That seems to be the crux of the book. During one part of the book, she even discusses this particular part of the saga with one of her friends, Leigh-Anne, a sociologist. Leigh-Anne tells Vanasco that Vanasco may get answers she "doesn't agree with" and may have to "play along" to get further. I mean, if you get answers you don't agree with, then...someone else has a different point of view about an event. That's it. Experiences are subjective. A memoirist should KNOW this.
I realize that other readers may not fully want to explore this, but Vanasco also spends a great deal of time on her relationship with her first boyfriend. He psychologically abused her, and--although this is my opinion--raped her, as well. He held down her head and forced her to perform oral sex, at least from her description. Now why is Vanasco not chasing her first boyfriend down and questioning him? Her relationship with him lasted YEARS. Yet she seems to make a bigger deal out of Mark (now maybe it's because Mark was her best friend, and she trusted him, and she never seems to have trusted her boyfriend...but still. It's a glaring omission that couldn't help but notice).
Okay: so my overall impression of this memoir is that it could have been edited down to a personal essay without losing very much. Vanasco seems more interested in pushing her own agenda than ever investigating why people make rancid choices in the moment, or even if people can genuinely make a transcendental change if they weren't the sterling character we thought they were once.
Because that's yet another bone of contention that I have with this book: power structure in the world notwithstanding, I know plenty of stellar men. And some of them weren't even wonderful boys, or fabulous young men. But they were willing to change the way they saw the world, and examine how their own behavior impacted other people--not just women, but young people, and people with less power. And they changed. And the world IS better for it--they are part of hiring structures, and they teach young people, and mentor groups of children. Anyone who can't observe that all people have the power to grow up and change is really missing something.
Vanasco can write well, with a personal, conversational tone, but I hope that she chooses her next project more carefully. Perhaps if she allows herself to be challenged, or digs deeper into her subject matter, she could write something with more power.