This is going to be a really difficult review for me to write. I didn’t realise that I needed this book as much as I did, and I am so grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to read it and experience some catharsis.
Trigger warnings: graphic descriptions of rape, sexual assault of a minor, parental death. I will also be discussing my own experiences with emotional abuse/abuse of a minor.
Jeannie Vanasco has had the same nightmare since she was a teenager. She startles awake, saying his name. It is always about him: one of her closest high school friends, a boy named Mark. A boy who raped her.
When her nightmares worsen, Jeannie decides—after fourteen years of silence—to reach out to Mark. He agrees to talk on the record and meet in person. “It’s the least I can do,” he says.
Jeannie details her friendship with Mark before and after the assault, asking the brave and urgent question: Is it possible for a good person to commit a terrible act? Jeannie interviews Mark, exploring how rape has impacted his life as well as her own. She examines the language surrounding sexual assault and pushes against its confines, contributing to and deepening the #MeToo discussion.
Exacting and courageous, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is part memoir, part true crime record, and part testament to the strength of female friendships—a recounting and reckoning that will inspire us to ask harder questions and interrogate our biases. Jeannie Vanasco examines and dismantles long-held myths of victimhood, discovering grace and power in this genre-bending investigation into the trauma of sexual violence.
This was a book unlike any other. I’ve read a fair amount of nonfiction that examines rape and sexual violence, and this book took the topic in a completely different direction.
Much of the book is about Jeannie writing the book. She examines in minute detail why she wants to write about her experiences of rape, and why she wants to include direct conversations between herself and her rapist, Mark. In a couple of very interesting passages, she acknowledges that this is a unique selling point of her book – but that she thinks that books about sexual assault shouldn’t need a unique selling point, as they’re important in their own right. She also talks to many of her female friends about the book, and includes passages of them analysing her and Mark’s conversations, drawing parallels and conclusions that she still, 14 years later, cannot have the emotional distance to do.
Jeannie reflects a lot about the ethics of including Mark’s voice in the book. She worries that other feminists and other women will be angry with her for including him, and potentially making his narrative more important or more interesting than hers. But she feels like she needs his side of the story. She needs to know whether he still thinks about her, and if his actions have affected his life. This was the point where the book took a huge turn for me, and probably made it one of the most cathartic reading experiences I’ve ever had. It’s not quite the same, but I have always wondered whether my abuser still thinks about what she did to me. Especially since I became an adult – and I’m now one year off being her age when she emotionally abused me – I want to understand why she preyed on me. Why me? What did I say or do to so clearly hint that I was vulnerable? Through this book I was able to capture just a hint of the answers to my questions.
There are so many nuances in this book, but what struck me the most was the way that Jeannie examines her own feelings. She thinks about why she wasn’t angry with him in the immediate aftermath of his betrayal. She wonders why she (still) wants to look after Mark’s feelings, and continuously thanks him for his willingness to talk to her. She thinks about how she knows that there is no ‘correct’ way to feel, but she still feels like what she’s feeling is wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever read something that delves so deeply into inner emotional experiences like this before.
I think that this book will be able to open up discussions that need to be had. There are so many different avenues of thought that I haven’t even mentioned in this review. I’m sure that nearly everyone who reads this will get something different out of it – hopefully it being exactly what they need at this point in time, just like I did.