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Between the Covers Jeannie Vanasco Interview

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David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is the writer, Jeannie Vanasco. Vanasco has a B.A. in Creative Writing with an emphasis in both Poetry and Fiction from Northwestern University, an MFA in poetry from NYU and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Hunter College. Vanasco is a professor of English teaching, creative nonfiction at Towson University outside of Baltimore. Her writing has appeared everywhere from The Believer and The New York Times to The New Yorker and The Times Literary Supplement. Her debut memoir from Tin House books, The Glass Eye, was praised by The New York Times Book Review as a hypnotic, haunting, exploration of perception, memory, and the complexities of grief. The Glass Eye was an Indie Next pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Pick and was selected by Poets & Writers as one of the five best literary nonfiction debuts of 2017. Jeannie Vanasco joins me today on Between The Covers to talk about her second book, her second memoir, and her second book with Tin House called Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl was not only a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Paris Review Staff Pick and a Rumpus Book Club Pick, it was also named A Best Book of the year by everyone from Time Magazine to Esquire from Book Riot to Amazon from Kirkus to the Feminist Book Club among many others. Adrienne Westenfeld for Esquire says, “In this singular, gutting memoir, perhaps the most important book of the season, Vanasco interviews her own rapist. Fourteen years later, Vanasco and the high school friend who raped her struggle together through the landmines of a harrowing conversation about consent, betrayal, and rehabilitation. This book lives masterfully in the messy, liminal space between punishment and forgiveness, asking us to consider the path forward from the unthinkable.” Kelsey O’Rourke for Literati Bookstore adds, “We are witness as Vanasco thinks through her own internalized misogyny, the ways both minute and large in which rape culture has persuaded and distorted the thinking of both rapist and victim, a conversation between two experiences of an event that adds such a deep level of nuance to this conversation that nearly every page of my copy is dog-eared.” Carmen Maria Machado says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of this gorgeous, harrowing, heartbreaking book.” Melissa Febos adds, “I wish everyone in this country would read it.” Finally, Sophia Shalmiyev calls Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, “A literary feminist miracle.”

Welcome to Between The Covers, Jeannie Vanasco.

Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you for having me, David.

DN: After my last interview with Carmen Maria Machado, I drove her to her hotel. While we were driving, I mentioned some of the people who I had upcoming plans to interview. When I mentioned your name, her eyes lit up. She became very animated and the rest of our drive was Carmen talking about how she felt her book In The Dream House and your book were in conversation, how they were kindred projects. She could have said this because they were both about abuse. She could have said this because they both expand the scope in terms of the conversation. But what she spoke about with me was not the similarities and subject, but rather what they shared formally. The ways you both approach the topic as writers. More specifically, she talked about how, in both books, we are witnessing the mind of the writer as the writer constructs the book. In other words, the construction of the book and the process of its construction, how to put these experiences into language, into words and story is also, in some way, its subject. This also, to me, seems true about your first book, The Glass Eye. I’d be interested in hearing if Carmen’s sentiments ring true for you. If so, if you could talk about why creating a metanarrative and why revealing the book scaffolding was attractive for this project.

JV: That’s great to hear. I’m a huge fan of Carmen’s writing. I’ve actually taught her book and I’ll be teaching it again. It’s interesting to me when writers talk about books because so often, we’re not necessarily interested in the subject matter. I would read a book about anything. I would read a book about the history of [Lin] if it were written by someone who really cares about voice and cares about form. I definitely think of my writing as engaging with metanarratives. One could say all writing is experimental but I don’t think of my writing as being as edgy as some people have said. I like that, that some people think I’m doing something very different, but for me, in creative nonfiction, it seems to me that commenting on the writing of the book doesn’t seem that wild to me because usually in nonfiction, unless we’re doing something really experimental as authors, we’re usually not trying to make the reader forget that we, the writer, exists. So that frame breaking is actually, I think, a form of sincerity. A way of building intimacy between writer and reader. Something I love about In The Dream House is you get the sense that there’s a guiding intelligence, that there’s this shifting, developing, and understanding of the events. It’s almost as if you feel like you’re eavesdropping in on the person’s thinking, and that’s what I love where it’s not so much a dear reader, it’s more of someone talking to themself and saying things that they might otherwise be afraid of telling another person. For me, that’s the writing I love where it just seems like there aren’t any barriers, there’s an openness. But certainly, the form-breaking, I like to think about how much I can fracture a text and have it still make sense. That’s interesting to me.

DN: I like that you say it’s about intimacy because I think the first thing people think of, both with the word experimental but also with meta, is that you’re creating distance, particularly, distance from a character that there’s all these interfering things between the reader and the experience of what they’re reading about because of the meta aspect. But it does feel, strangely, that you, revealing the artifice of creating art, is getting us closer and connecting us more.

JN: Thank you. I know as a writer, I should stay away from Goodreads. But at first, it was hard to resist early on seeing I was curious as to what people would say. I thought that one review was starting out that I was like, “Oh, no. This is someone who’s going to tear apart the book,” but it was about how it wasn’t so much a book as about the writing of a book. But it ended up being a very positive review which was nice. I like to think about how close I can get to the voice that’s in my head. I will say I was really nervous about releasing this book not because of the subject matter so much. Sure, there was nervousness associated with that, but mostly, I was feeling really insecure about the quality of the writing because it is so plain. I kept telling myself as I was working on it, “Okay. I’ll go back and revise.” I’ll eventually go back and fix it. Then part of, I think, the intimacy is in that. It’s not as if it’s not revised. It’s not as if I didn’t take care with the prose but I think in nonfiction, there’s a risk if the prose is so lyrical and so beautiful. Sometimes, there’s the risk of losing the reader’s trust. I think there are some writers who achieve this masterfully. Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, talk about gorgeous prose but never once was I thinking, “Oh, is she just letting the acoustics of a line influence her shaping?” I never had that feeling with her writing. I think that’s because she maintains this beautiful momentum. I think I was nervous about releasing this book because of the subject matter, but more so, I really was afraid that the writing was so plain. I don’t know, I was just preparing myself for that criticism.

DN: Yeah. I suspect I’m going to return to this statement in light of a couple of things that I’m going to bring up later in the conversation. About a whole bunch of different things that I’m going to bring up. I want to take this fear that you have and loop it into this question of metanarratives. Because one of the ways I see your books is kindred books, you’re in Carmen books that relate to both meta structures and also to this anxiety you have about the book coming out. It’s around the question of failure. Carmen and I talked a lot about how her book creates this sense of uncertainty and hesitation at the beginning. It opens with this gauntlet of tons of epigraphs and then this description of why she hates prologues. Then after her talking about why she hates prologues, there’s a prologue. Given that the book is explicitly about writing into the absence of an archive of writing about queer partner abuse, each of the chapters which adopts and then discards another genre or another metaphor can be seen as a failure to capture what is going on for her. She tries on a genre and she tries on a metaphor. Each individual chapter doesn’t, in and of itself, capture in language what she wants. But the book as a whole, I think, is an utter success. Your book engages with failure on many different levels. I hadn’t thought about this question about this anxiety you had about the plainness versus how lyrical or how polished it is, but I think this would fit in. I want to touch on various levels in which your book engages with failure. The first one that comes to mind when I encounter the opening sentence of part one, the opening sentence of part one is, “I already predict failure.” The first place I go with that is the cultural and political level out in the world for survivors of rape. That only 0.7% of rapes or attempted rapes result in felony conviction where it often seems like the woman is on trial more than the accused. When hundreds of thousands of rape kits across the country go untested, the absence of evidence beyond testimony becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Starting with “I already predict failure” seems to me like an imminently reasonable position to start from. But I didn’t know if that’s where you were starting. Is that one of the valences that is informing that opening sentence of the book?

JV: That’s interesting. You ask the best questions. I think with predicting failure, there were a lot of ways in which I thought the book would fail. First, I thought he wouldn’t reply or he would deny what happened. I think that was on my mind when I was thinking about failure. As I was writing the book, I made this rule for myself that I wouldn’t go back and revise what I’d already written, I would just keep moving forward. That did encourage me to work more slowly. Also strangely—this doesn’t quite get at your question but I’ll circle back to it—but strangely, by making this rule of not revising as I go, it made me slow down and look at the sentence I’d just written and then think, “Okay. How am I going to use what’s there and move to the next one and the next one?” Then oddly, I wrote the book a lot. It helped me write the book more quickly because I wrote it in about eight months which was very unusual for me to write that quickly. But failure, initially, was this fear that he would deny everything. It was more so thinking back to that idea of, “Yes, often rape survivors aren’t believed.” You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence in order to write a book to think, “Okay. I can do this.” I definitely was afraid that it would fall apart at any point. Because at any point even when I would think back to predicting failure, even when he said he agreed to talk with me, Mark, he would participate in these recorded interviews and answer my questions to the best of his knowledge. I still thought, “Okay. He could withdraw consent at any time, and then the book falls apart because, would I still honor that?” If he says he no longer wants to do it, then what happens? What would become a different book, I suppose, I would have followed his wishes. I was definitely afraid while working on it that at some point he may decide, “Hey, let’s stop. This could really ruin my life.”

DN: Just to spend one more minute on failure as the most likely outcome for someone who’s the victim of sexual assault or rape in terms of getting true accountability or reckoning in the United States, in your conversation with Sophia Shalmiyev, you talk about something that I thought was interesting which is Lord Hale’s Instructions which were instructions given up until the 1980s and sometimes the 1990s depending on states to juries who were juries for people accused of rape. Could you tell us a little bit about what captured you about that and what the Lord Hale’s Instructions were?

JV: Yeah. If I’m remembering correctly, I can’t remember the precise wording, but basically, it was an instruction to juries before a trial. No other criminal trial was a jury told that the individual making an accusation might be lying. But when it came to cases of sexual assault, juries were told that in the cases of rape, it’s a claim that’s easy to make and difficult to prove, so the jury should be very cautious when listening to—almost always it’s a woman—listening to the woman’s testimony. That was just so interesting to me. In this country, we didn’t do that for any other criminal trial to say, “Hey, the person making the allegation could be lying.” That was very interesting to me when I learned about that.

DN: I want to take those instructions, or at least, have those instructions inform the way you employ the phenomenon of unreliability in the book. Because obviously, that is a huge burden that someone who comes forth with having been raped or sexually assaulted has to contend with. Even in the instructions given to the jury to begin the trial, it’s the assumption is enough of a possibility that the testimony is unreliable, that they need to warn the jury. Because much like Carmen’s book converting all these failures into a success, instead of you arguing for why you should be believed to your reader, instead of saying, “These are all the reasons why I should be believed,” you foreground all the ways you won’t be believed or you typically wouldn’t be believed. We learn pretty early in the book that you were drunk, passed out, and that you were half awake. If people have read The Glass Eye, they know you have bipolar disorder. Here in your second book, you foreground that you’ve been hospitalized many times for psychosis. You were also raped at a different time by another man and sexually assaulted by a teacher. Something that is often used against the victim as if they’re doing something to encourage this. I think you even said in one interview that you’ve had an interviewer ask you, “Is that true?”

JV: Yes.

DN: An interviewer who said to you, “What have you been doing in your life?”

JV: Yeah. A woman asked me, “Why do you think you got sexually assaulted as much as you did?” It was one of the first interviews I did. I was not expecting that question.

DN: Yeah. We learn all these things about you. You also have trouble with self-reporting. For instance, you have long-standing nightmares. The nightmares increased when a sexual predator became the President of the United States. When you decided to reach out to Mark after 14 years to see if he’d be in the project, your husband had to remind you that contrary to your own self-narrative that you’ve been actually having nightmares about Mark previous to starting this project and previous to Trump even though you didn’t see it that way initially. But the amazing thing that happens with this to connect this to this accumulation of “failures” or this accumulation of “unreliable factoids” is that you present all of them and it makes you this incredibly reliable narrator to me. It feels this act is what’s building trust and also intimacy. It’s also working on multiple levels because you’re engaging with the political aspect of the impossible position you’re in. I guess I wanted you to talk a little bit about the building of you as a character on the page in this way of taking the liability and making it the way you connect to us.

JV: Yeah. I was thinking through all the reasons why a reader wouldn’t believe me. I think part of the reason for laying that groundwork certainly is building trust between me and the reader, but also, I thought that if I could get Mark on the record—I felt very conflicted about that. I think it was, in some ways, it’s me justifying why I’m going to reach out to him. There are all of these reasons why I won’t be believed—but if I can get the perpetrator on the record and to agree to recorded interviews, then how can anyone dispute what happened to me if he admits it? I think part of it was also thinking about why a reader would be angry that I would give him a voice at all. I know there are some people who I certainly did get some hate mail about this. About giving Mark a voice, giving a perpetrator a voice, but because there were all of these things working against me in terms of my reliability, the fact that anyone who’s read The Glass Eye or I think The New York Times had put—I hated that title of it—but this modern love piece I wrote, My Platonic Romance on the Psych Ward, if somebody Googled me, immediately, also even if they hadn’t read The Glass Eye, they would know about my history with bipolar and psychosis. I think I listed all those things because it’s also a lot of people I know, a lot of women I know haven’t reported their attacks because it’s a common response if you think about all the reasons why someone will think you’re lying. Certainly, laying out all of those reasons was important in terms of building intimacy between me and the reader and building trust but also serving as a justification for why I think I’m going to reach out to him and talk to him because it’s just what made it felt—it wasn’t reaching out to him that scared me actually, I wasn’t that worried about talking to him, it was more so I was worried about how it would be received my talking to him.

DN: Could we hear a section near the beginning called There. Are. Gaps?

JV: Sure.

[Jeannie Vanasco reads from Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl]

DN: We’ve been listening to Jeannie Vanasco read from Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. You mentioned the big fear of failure on the political level which is giving a platform to someone who raped you. Giving him any space on, somewhat, his terms and someone not on his terms. There are also all these small things like you, quickly forgiving him. That cringe-worthy scene with Franny and Zooey. You, not hating him, which none of them fall into the broadest cultural narrative of how to speak about this politically, let’s say. I’m not talking as a writer, an artist, or as an individual human being. But these anxieties around, “Am I being a good feminist? How will feminists, other than me, respond? How big of an anxiety was it? How did you engage with it as you wrote?” I’m guessing you must have been excited, maybe relieved, that Melissa Febos, Elissa Washuta, Sophia Shalmiyev, Carmen Maria Machado, all of these outspoken writers who engage with similar questions are all champions of the book but you couldn’t have known that.

JV: Yeah. I was terrified when I would ask. There were times I chose not to apply for certain things because they require letters of recommendation. I’m not good at asking for things like that. So when I reached out to some writers to ask if they’d be willing to blurb the book, I think I prefaced it with telling them what it was about, no hard feelings if they felt uncomfortable doing so. I was really terrified that everyone would come back and say, “How could you do this? This is a huge betrayal to everything that feminists—or not everything—but this is a huge betrayal to the feminist movement.” It was a relief that, for the most part, people were really supportive and writers whose work I love, admire, and teach. That was exciting for me. But I assumed I would get some pushback. It’s strange, after the pandemic started, I’ve received some hate mail which is like a unique type of person. I was like, “We’re in a global pandemic. There’s so much going on. What even is the thought process there? Hmm. This is a really stressful time for everyone. I know, I’ll reach out to this rape survivor about her book, tell her how terrible I think she is and that she just did this for money.” But for the most part, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. As as a writer, sometimes, the things that get stuck in your head are the negative ones. While I was working on the book, certainly, this question of, “Am I being a good feminist?” which I know is a really reductive question, but it’s interesting that, I think, I even talked with Mark about that question. I talked with a lot of my female friends about it. While I was working on it, my big fear was that I would be betraying a feminist cause or I would be letting down my students in some way. It scared me. It was a huge relief when praise came in from writers whose work I admire.

DN: Yeah. I want to return to the blurb that I read in the introduction by Adrienne Westenfeld that says, “Your book lives masterfully in the messy, liminal space.” Because it feels like it is the messiness, or perhaps, not messiness but the instability and volatility that it holds us in where words like rape, consent, victim, and perpetrator suddenly become more unstable. It is that aspect of the book that, for me, gave its power. The reading experience, because of this is both super compelling and also at the same time, it’s holding us in an uneasiness. I wanted to bring up the uneasiness of the reading experience particularly around Mark. For instance, you’re asking consent from your rapist to participate in the project. So that’s one way you take this word consent and make it strange to us and uncomfortable. It feels like you’re very self-aware of the surreality of doing that. I’m also not sure you could have planned for or dreamed up a more effective character profile of a rapist that would hold us more in the messy, liminal space that would create more uneasiness than the way Mark ended up being. It would have been easier if he’d been monstrous when you’d reached out—or super defensive, passive-aggressive, aggressive or if he tried to gaslight you, or if he were in full-on denial or he just said no. Any of those would have confirmed my comfort with the binary victim-perpetrator narrative—but his reactions are of an entirely different sort. Later in the conversation, I want to go into what true accountability would look like and what your thoughts are on restorative justice are and punishment. But I want to just put those questions aside for now and talk about this other aspect of Mark. He not only agrees to participate, he agrees to be recorded. He signs a waiver without needing to read your book. He tells you that you shouldn’t go easy on him because he doesn’t deserve it. He’s willing to use the word rape to describe what happened when you’re still feeling uncertain about whether to use the word. When you meet up with him again after 14 years, it is also clear that your life seems to have a trajectory, whereas, his seems to have stalled out. He’s stuck, rather, self-isolated without a great sense of a future. This puts the reader, at least, it puts this reader in a weird place of sometimes against my own desire feeling sympathy for Mark of experiencing, maybe, as a first response in some of these interactions the way he cares for you or cares about what happened that he did. I wanted you to talk about Mark as a character in this book. Also, whether his responses in this regard presented writer challenges for you on how to write it. Whether something about the encounter and him having all of these qualities, you knew him, but how much of that was anticipated? How much of it was, “Okay. How am I going to adjust my project around what he says to accommodate for this response from Mark?” Which in certain regards is he’s game to participate and own up, at least, in a recording with you and then in this book, that he did what he did and name it with the legal vocabulary that would describe it.

JV: Yeah. It’s interesting. I’ll answer your question but it got me thinking about how some emails I’ve received from readers, a couple of people asking me why I didn’t prioritize writing about the friend who raped me in my 20s. Ultimately, the project comes down to language and that’s why it was actually very strange to say validating when Mark was willing to use the word rape. But because of the situation like the encounter I had with Mark, I felt a lot of insecurity around using that word because he used his fingers. It was a big realization for me, to think about how I had been prioritizing his body and thinking about which part he used and not my body which part he violated. It seems so obvious to me now when I state it. For a long time, I couldn’t conceptualize it in those terms. Mark, telling me when I confronted him with the definition and him saying, “Well, if that’s the word, then that’s what it is.” To answer your question, I wasn’t so surprised by the way he responded. It was hard. We hadn’t talked for 14 years so I still had this concept of him as not so much like what he did that night. I didn’t necessarily think of him as a rapist. I ultimately thought of him as this person who’d been one of my best friends. He was someone who was really there for me after my dad died. We had this incredibly close relationship where we could sit in silence with one another and not be uncomfortable. I really trusted him. That’s why I think—any rape is a betrayal—but this really seemed so out of character for him. The way he reacted in the book, that all seemed within his character or the Mark I knew. It was what he did that night that, to me, was so incredibly out of character. That was hard for me to reconcile and I think for him, he thought it was out of character for him. He told me he never thought that was something he was capable of. It’s partly why I felt important to pursue this book in the way that I did. Because often when we see portrayals of rapists, particularly in film and TV, they do tend to be really monstrous. I think the longer we go on seeing rapists as monsters, the harder it will be to hold “seemingly nice guys” accountable. It seems like—I’m not making the argument that most men are rapists—but most rapists tend to be men. It makes it hard to see the seemingly nice guys as capable of doing something like this or holding them accountable. For me, the way in which Mark reacted and his openness, his willingness to participate, if anything, I did feel guilty as the book progressed because there was a certain point where I think he thought we were becoming friends again. There was a point at which I almost hoped it could happen but it just felt impossible, but I think he really thought we might carry on this relationship, this friendship. I did feel like I was betraying him. I had these conversations with my partner, Chris, about it. He’s like, “No. You were open with him. You were up front that this is what you were doing.” But it was hard for me to stop thinking of Mark as someone who’d been one of my best friends for five years. He seemed to have acted entirely within character when I was interviewing him.

DN: Yeah. There’s a million things that I want to talk about regarding the transcripts of your recorded conversations with Mark. The transcripts are doing a ton of work in this book. One of the things it does is juxtapose two very different aesthetics, tonal and syntactic experiences as a reader as we encounter one transcript after your prose and then after that another transcript. A juxtaposition not only of written words and then spoken words, but also the juxtaposition of sections where you have total control of the words chosen by you with deliberation and sections where you only have partial control over the words because they’re happening in real time and they’re spoken in conversation with a person and you don’t know what they’re going to say. I’d be interested to hear a little bit, especially, since you have a background in poetry, any thoughts, pleasures, or displeasures you have about placing the crafted, uncrafted, written and the oral up against each other. But then also about having and relinquishing control from your own words to words that are in dialogue and how that might echo against questions of power and consent.

JV: It was so interesting for me transcribing the audio of my conversations with Mark. It was mortifying hearing myself be very accommodating right from the beginning like, “Oh, no, no. It’s okay. It’s in the past. I’m okay now. I have enough distance.” I’m immediately trying to put him at ease. I really thought going into my conversations with him I would be tougher. There’s a huge part of me that’s embarrassed for how I responded to him but then I thought, “Well. It’s important to include that because that is how I responded.” Of course, there’s this initial impulse of me being overly accommodating. Maybe I could just delete one more sentence where I’m saying, “I hope you understand. I hope this is helpful to you.” Maybe I could cut it back a little bit but I wanted to include that repetitiveness of my trying to make him feel at ease because I think that it does feel like a particularly gendered behavior, certainly, I know men who do this as well, but I was just so mortified. It was interesting to me then to look at these passages and then reflect on them on the transcripts. As a writer, I liked it from a craft perspective of giving the book some texture and thinking about my background in poetry. I still read poetry regularly. I love it. When I think of something as being poetic, I don’t necessarily think of it being as needing to be poetic on the sentence level, or the level of the line but so much of it has to do with the way a poem or a work moves. I think a lyric structure often operates by these associative leaps or building a metaphor, putting two very unlike things alongside one another and then the energy that emerges from that. Figuring out the structure at first, usually, a project doesn’t feel entirely alive to me until I can see the shape. But as soon as Mark said yes, that he would agree to these conversations, I thought, “Okay. Transcripts, that is probably going to be how I structure the book,” and that was really helpful to me. But having those breaks where I can reflect on what I actually said to him and then talk with my friends about how he reacted and then share the transcripts with them, it was interesting, I thought, to be able to have a little bit of hindsight on something that happened relatively recently.

DN: Also, I think it is  the main engine of tension or suspense in the book because when you’re outside of the transcript, you’re anticipating a conversation or processing a previous conversation. You’re coming up with resolutions on how not to be, and we’re holding our breath to see when you re-enter this other realm, whether you will live up to your best image of yourself, let’s say. Then on the other side, you’re debriefing and coming up with a new hope of how the next one is going to go. It’s paradoxical, I think, a little bit because on the one hand, I feel like what’s so important about you not editing all those parts out that you found mortifying is because it does show these gendered responses or what the person at the beginning called internalized misogyny. But it also was the way you’re getting Mark to speak essentially. I’m not saying you were doing that consciously but you’re establishing rapport. I don’t want to talk on the level of utility, but I do feel if you’d been more directly confrontational, colder, I wonder if you would have arrived at the moment where he said, “Yeah. What I did was rape.”

JV: Right. I think when I was having these conversations with him, I knew I needed something from him and there was a concern, I thought, “Okay. Telling him up front that I’m recording him, is that going to add another layer of performance on his part?” I was very worried about the different levels of performing a conversation. But as soon as I started talking with him, it’s like I forgot everything. It really was this genuine wanting to put him at ease and hearing his voice like suddenly missing him. By the time I interviewed him in person, when I went to Ohio to meet with him, the city where he still lives, I was a little bit more confrontational about what had happened. I needed something from him but I don’t think it was necessarily on my mind where I thought, “Okay. I’m going to have to play dumb.”

DN: I definitely didn’t get the impression you were calculating but I did feel like I wondered if you didn’t naturally have that response, whether it’s gendered or not and it seems like it is gendered. But you talk about how you apologize to worms when you step on worms, I think. You have a character of great concern for the well-being and comfort of others, including non-human. If you didn’t have that, maybe these conversations wouldn’t have gone the places they did go. That was something I was wondering.

JV: Yeah. I think if I had been really confrontational, Mark, he wasn’t sure what position I would be coming from he said, but I think he was expecting me to be a lot or to express anger at him. It was surprising for him that I didn’t hate him or that I didn’t see what had happened in these binary terms, but that I genuinely wanted to attempt to understand why, not that he actually could come up with an answer for it, but why did he think he did what he did.

DN: Right.

JV: Yeah.

DN: You’ve talked before about how, in your first book, you felt stuck for a long time because you didn’t yet have your narrator, which many people who aren’t writers might think sounds strange given that you’re writing a memoir, what is this about finding a narrator when you’re the person you’re writing about. But you talked about not being able to find your “narrative” present. The “I now” and the “I then” that Virginia Woolf talks about in her unfinished memoir. You didn’t know your “I now” or when your “I now” turned into an “I then.” It almost feels like in this book, the “I then” is not only or mainly you when you and Matt were friends 14 years ago. But that the “I then” is more you during the encounters with Mark in the transcripts. The “I now” as you sorting through how they went and how they might go next time. I don’t know if you feel that’s true, but either way, I was interested in your thoughts about the narrator in this book. Because your first book took 10 years to write, this book took, I think, eight months, is that right? Eight months?

JV: Yeah.

DN: Considerably less, so I suspect you didn’t have the same issues finding the “I now” and the “I then” this time. But do you feel the fact that you are writing it with far less time elapsing as you did, that played a role in the sense, also of the book being created and lived through in real time.

JV: Absolutely. That’s so insightful. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. Thank you. That might actually help me with something I’m working on right now. I think writing memoirs is very difficult because if we look at constructing characters, each of us is an accumulation of past selves, I like to believe that people change or are capable of change, so you’re often dealing with a lot of different “I thens.” If you’re writing about others, you’re also thinking about them in the context of their past selves. With this book, I think it was a lot easier because Mark said yes, I could confine part of the plot, part of the making meaning of events. It was almost like making meaning of a conversation about the past events. It actually allowed me to do that extra work of reconstructing a past-self talking within a past which is the frame of the conversation, the transcripts. The first book took me a long time to write, partly,  I was 18 years old. It was this deathbed promise to my dad which I don’t even think he heard me say, “I promise, I’ll write a book for you.” At 18, I didn’t know how to write a book so it did take me a long time. I never thought I would write a memoir. I thought of that as a genre back then like, “Oh. Politicians write memoirs or celebrities.” I didn’t think of that as a genre that was open to me. I think The Glass Eye, I still really struggled with because I was working on it over such a long period of time, working out like, “What genre is it? What is it even really about? What are the questions I’m exploring?” It took me a long time because I think that I’d have the narrator, the voice. I’d get the stark tonal shift. So with the second book, it, being confined to a period of eight months, it did make it easier to manage the voice. Also, I think the second book, it’s closer to—I don’t want to say that the first book is inauthentic to how I was in any way—but I feel I got closer to showing my personality on the page with the second book where I was more open to shifting tones and bringing in more humor. I didn’t want it to be just sad. I wanted moments of lightness. I think doing it over a shorter time period was really helpful. If I were to write the book, if I were to return to the story in 10 years, it would just be a very different book. It might take me much longer to sort through. I think having the conversations and having there be a set time period—partly, I ended it when I did for practical reasons. The school semester was starting and I thought, “Oh. I don’t think I can manage this and teach,” but that was really helpful to me.

DN: Before we leave the topic of transcripts, I want to talk about my favorite effect that they were having. It’s something you’ve already touched on a tiny bit. It’s the way that I feel the transcripts become a node for making meaning in the book. Because we get your own analysis of yourself and of your previous encounters with Mark prior to a given transcript and then the meaning making that happens after an encounter. But it’s particularly engaging and interesting because you involve a whole bunch of other people in the act of making meaning. For one, your editor is the character in the book so questions of how to make the book are part of the book, but also, your editor is chiming in around a given encounter or anticipated encounter or the aftermath of an encounter. But also, other people involved are your husband, friends, a friend who you met in the psych ward, and other writers. These people, they point out things that you didn’t notice about how you acted or Mark acted, or differences in how they interpret something that was said versus you. Sometimes, that’s on the level of examination of language where they will point out something that, to you, sounded fine or even great. The more you press into the language that Mark used aided by blank, your editor, husband, friend, writer, and colleague, becomes part of the book and part of your own analysis. I guess I was just hoping you could talk about this way that you’ve invited the world really into the book as the book is being written. It’s really great how you do this.

JV: Thank you. It’s helpful. I think it’s something that can happen when you’re deep in a project, at least, it does for me, where suddenly you look around and everything has potential. I love writing. It’s work but also it gives me so much pleasure. Sometimes, it could be hard for me to leave my desk or my bed where I’m writing. My partner, Chris, will suggest, “Maybe we should go see people.” I was able to talk myself into going out and having fun thinking, “Hmm. Maybe there will be something there that I can use.” I did remain open to daily encounters. When my hairdresser asked me what I was writing about and suddenly I thought, “Oh. Is it rude to tell her? Is that going to make her uncomfortable?” I think it’s something I probably got from Sheila Heti. It’s just when I read her fiction or auto-fiction, when I read her books, there’s an openness to life as it unfolds. I love that. I absolutely love that. I think that was a great influence on me. Certainly, if we think about the definition of plot being the meaning of events, then, for me, in memoir, reflection is the plot. The thinking is the plot because that’s how you’re making sense of the events. I liked the idea of this being a collective reflection where I could talk with my friends, Chris, my editor, Maisie, and my therapist, and think through what the truth of this situation was. Because when I would read the transcripts, initially, I thought, “Oh. How nice of Mark. He agreed to talk to me.” Meanwhile, my friends were a lot tougher reading the transcripts. When Mark took photographs of an abandoned factory, he sent them to me because he thought they would be useful to my writing. I don’t know. They showed his interior state and I thought, “Oh. Thank you for the metaphors. That’s so nice.” Then my friends, Jung and Molly, see that on the transcripts and they’re like, “What? He sent you photographs to share his feelings?” They were so annoyed. I think it’s hard because as my friend, Jung, who’s a writer—and Molly’s a writer—Jung had told me, “I care for you so much so it’s hard for me not to be angry at him.” For me, it was hard to hold on to anger at times because I was thinking back to the friend that he had been. He seemed so remorseful. I don’t know. There’s a way in which I was very nostalgic for that friendship. I was willing to look past a lot. Also, as a writer, I’m thinking about what’s useful, what’s material, what can be transformed. There is a way in which all of that is useful. I appreciate it. I think if I didn’t have the book, if I hadn’t been writing the book, if I had just didn’t reach out to Mark to talk about what had happened, there could be a way in which that would be really annoying to me him sending me photographs. But as a writer, I think, “Oh, that’s interesting. Now I have some visual imagery because having these conversations, it’s hard to include a lot of scenes.” I was grateful. But I think I was grateful as a writer not as someone who’s living this experience. There was a way in which the book got in the way of my processing the experience and how I thought and felt about it.

DN: Oh, that’s interesting. I love something you said in an interview that this phenomenon around analyzing the transcripts with others was also a way to bring the reader in as a character, which is really how it felt to me. I felt like one of the many people who were invited on my own terms to make meaning from the transcripts, because partly, the fact that no one is agreeing, no one is standing in the place, this is the correct way to look at the transcript. You’re presenting a variety of sometimes opposing and sometimes agreeing opinions on various aspects of the transcript. So I feel welcome to stay in rapport with you as my guide and narrator, and disagree with you or worry along with one of your friends for how things have gone or things that have been missed. I feel like it’s very roomy for me to move around in my position in relationship to you, and your various friends, and the transcript, and Mark because of this.

JV: That’s great. Yeah, I wanted that effect. I can’t remember who was telling me that there were moments she was so frustrated with me. But then pretty soon, Jung or Molly or Leanne or Rebecca or Sarah or Nina would come along and say something that she, he, or they, the reader was thinking and were thinking. I’m glad that that did serve that purpose. I think that was something and I hadn’t really been at the time wasn’t thinking hyper strategically about, but then it became clear to me like, “Oh, a reader probably would be thinking this, so maybe it would be good to include the scene of a conversation with Jung and Molly,” because I had a wealth of material because while I wrote the book quickly, it was constantly on my mind in those eight months. I think that can be the big challenge in writing nonfiction because you’re not making stuff up. You’re pulling from reality and if you’re paying attention and you’re being hyper-observant, then there’s a lot to choose from. So I would have to think strategically of what would be useful to include, what might the reader be thinking at this moment, and that was something I started to think about more closely as the book progressed. I tried not to think too much about the reader, it was hard not to. But every time I thought about the book being published, if I thought too much about it, it would freeze me because if you don’t have control over it anymore, you can’t defend it.

DN: Were you recording your conversations? I was just thinking of Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” where she recorded conversations with her friends. Were you recording those conversations too, or just with Mark?

JV: Just with Mark. I think there might have been, but I asked one of my friends. I think I said, “Hey, is it okay if I record this?” It was a friend who called to see how one of the conversations with Mark went, and she’s also a writer, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course.” But for the most part, no. I just took notes or wrote quickly after a conversation. I did share the manuscript with them before it came out to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong, or if I presented them in a way that they felt was unfair. But all of them being writers, they just signed the form, and I was like, “No, no, no. Please, here are the pages where you appear. Could you just look? I care about our friendship.” But everyone was very open.

DN: [laughs] You’re all still friends?

JV: Yes. We’re all still friends. [laughs]

DN: I was hoping maybe here we could hear the chapter called Finding Equivalences.

JV: Yes, okay.

[Jeannie Vanasco reads from her memoir Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl]

JV: Sarah was so helpful. In fact, when I shared the manuscript with her, afterwards she’s like, “Oh my God, was I really that bossy?” [laughter] I was like, “No, you weren’t bossy at all. You’re so helpful.”

DN: In case you just tuned in, we’re talking today to Jeannie Vanasco about her memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl. I want to switch to talking about you as a teacher of creative nonfiction which, in most cases, would mean putting aside the book as a topic for a while. But in this case, that’s not true because you’re a teacher in the book. In the book, you aren’t just contending with how to write the book and how to edit it, but you’re also editing the work of your students in the book as well. But before we talk about writing and teaching creative nonfiction, I just want to say that it is in these scenes with your students where I fully understand in a way that feels much more tangible than a series of statistics just how prevalent rape and sexual abuse is. We see how your office hours often become de facto counseling sessions, the gifts that you’ve collected in your office from grateful students. But all this is the result of what happens in the classroom with these students, where when you provide an environment for students to write about difficult things in their lives, it produces an innumerable and seemingly never-ending number of essays about their experiences of being raped or assaulted. I guess I’d be interested in hearing about this in relation to writing the book because one of the things you discover is that your students often wonder, like you did, whether what happened to them was rape and they often make excuses for their rapists like you do. In a way, as you edit them and you guide them, you are editing and guiding yourself, it seems to me. That there’s this—I don’t know if it’s meta or not—we’re still in the narrative but it becomes interestingly self-reflexive. But also somehow embodies the statistic or the phenomenon, in a way, in a story that feels extremely powerful.

JV: Thank you. Yeah. It’s always challenging in thinking about writing about a student because you have to be very aware of the power of relationships. So I would never write negatively about a student or give enough details that someone could identify them. But the one student who I do that with is Hannah, and I had reached out to Hannah’s parents to get permission and make sure they were okay with my mentioning Hannah in the manuscript because she is a student. It was so important. She was on my mind. She’s still on my mind, especially with the semester starting next week. But she was on my mind while I was writing this book because she was one of my students. I was working with her, the fall semester of 2017 before I started writing this book. She was writing about her rape and her first suicide attempt which happened shortly after that rape. But she was assuring me while writing the work that she was okay, and that she was fine, and I believed her. I was in office hours with her at least two or three times a week, every week. I really developed this close relationship with her. Then over winter break after that semester, I received news that she had killed herself. It was interesting. In thinking about Hannah, where I could access anger at Mark suddenly, where I often wonder, “Does Hannah’s rapist know she’s dead?” Because she had transferred school after she was raped. She transferred out of her small liberal arts college to Towson where I teach, so she could be closer to family. I really thought that she was okay, and then I felt so dumb for thinking that I thought she was okay. It’s hard because every semester, I’ll have between 60 and 80 students in classes, and they’re all writing—I’m teaching creative nonfiction primarily and a lot of them choose to write about really difficult subjects—so I get to know them very quickly. I’m so appreciative that they trust me with their stories. But I end up entering into these really difficult moral quandaries of—technically, I’m a mandatory reporter. If a student so much as mentions they’ve been sexually assaulted at any point in time, apparently even if it’s before they came to the university, I am supposed to report it, whether the student wants me to or not. I feel I have a lot of complicated feelings surrounding mandatory reporting, and so it gets to be very difficult because students want to write about some of these subjects, but they also don’t want to report them. They want to write about them in an artful way. Some universities separate creative writing from needing to report cases to Title IX, some don’t. But with my students, it’s just heartbreaking how many rape essays I get every semester. Then since the book came out in fall 2019 then spring 2020, I had some students who came to me in office hours saying they enrolled in my class because they wanted to write about their rapes, and they read my book, and, “Is that okay?” It does get to be a lot because I want to both be empathetic and understanding and respect that they’re putting themselves out there. I want to also help them become better writers. It’s why I just don’t grade drafts, I don’t grade anything in-progress, and I tell the students, “If you want to know what the hypothetical grade would be were you to turn this in for your final essay, I will tell you.” But I don’t like attaching grades. I wish I didn’t have to attach grades to anything, that I could just provide feedback. But it just gets to be really devastating because I get so close with these students, and it’s hard because they’re at that age I was when Mark raped me, and they’re having the same questions I was having like, “Is this rape? Is it sexual assault?” They’re saying the same things I said. They’re like, “Well, I was drinking, he was drunk. He, otherwise, is like this really great person. I don’t want my parents to find out.” It’s so complicated. It is difficult to take in so many stories of trauma, and it’s not that I don’t want my students to write about these subjects. It’s just I often need a breather and it’s the work that I think a lot of faculty, who are either women and of color, they end up doing this tremendous amount of emotional labor because I was talking with a colleague about just how it was the 12th rape essay I had got in one semester, and he had said, “I’ve never had a student write about rape for one of my nonfiction classes.” But he was self-aware enough to say, “I think they just don’t feel comfortable, understandably, writing about that subject.” I think that becomes challenging, too, because I think there are a lot of male faculty out there, maybe, who would be understanding and who could be helpful to students. But understandably, some students might not want to turn in that material to a male instructor, and so then the work does fall on the other faculty. I’m preparing myself now with classes starting next week. I have a couple of nonfiction classes and it’s really depressing how prevalent it all is.

DN: I want to ask you about teaching and failure because, on the one hand, you’ve said in interviews that you would never tell a student to ask consent of a perpetrator to include them in one of their essays. We get a dissonance between your book and your advice. But also, maybe this isn’t really about failure, but this is just very fascinating to me also, is just being self-aware of your own things that are necessary guideposts for you, but not necessarily guideposts out in the world that you want to expose your students to ways of writing that you yourself wouldn’t feel comfortable with. For instance, you’re not comfortable employing or you prefer to be a stickler to the facts, you prefer to use facts as a constraint, you don’t want to bend chronology, you don’t want to use composite characters, but composite characters are not that uncommon in creative nonfiction, bending chronology certainly isn’t. So I would love to hear both sides of this in terms of why those are your constraints. But then also, maybe you could point to some works that you teach that are outside your comfort zone in terms of, not that you’re uncomfortable necessarily with those books, but you’re uncomfortable with using those techniques in your books.

JV: That’s a really good question. Every semester, I tend to change the readings up to some extent. But there are some books that are permanently parked on my nonfiction syllabi. I like to assign books where I know the authors are using techniques that I myself wouldn’t use because I don’t want to end up teaching students where they all end up writing hyper, meta memoir works at the end of the semester. I want them to be able to find their own voice and style and be exposed to the range of ways that one can approach creative nonfiction. But I do like to assign works that use composite characters, that acknowledge bending chronology, and bring the authors to the class. Usually, they’ll visit remotely and talk with students so that students can find their own place in the discussion. A work that I think does it really beautifully is Jessica Hindman’s, Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir, but she prefaces it by saying that she uses composite characters. She’s upfront in saying all the stuff that she does and it is a book that is getting that and considering this idea of truth and facts.

DN: Could you talk about—it sounds weird to say—why is something being factual a constraint? But that implies that there must be works of nonfiction where it isn’t as much of a constraint as it is for you.

JV: Yeah. For me, I like to think of facts as formal constraints partly because of my background and studying journalism, but also because of the subject matter I explore. With the first book, writing mental illness and psychosis, there is this question of what is real and what is not. Sorry, with the first book writing about my dad, I just didn’t want to fictionalize any aspect of his character. It seemed so important to me to be as close to the truth as I remembered it. But then with this book, I think we’re so used to women not being believed when they come forward with their stories. I didn’t want anyone to be able to poke holes in my narrative. So it was really important to try and stay as closely, keep as much fidelity to facts as possible. But I’m trying to think of works that aren’t as close to the truth. I think Jessica Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir, where she prefaces it with this notice that she’s using composite characters, there’s an honesty in that, and so I think it’s interesting. Some students don’t even think of some nonfiction as using composite characters because sometimes in books, I think it might have happened with—I could be wrong but—I think This Boy’s Life, I haven’t read it in so long by—oh God, what’s his name?

DN: Tobias Wolff.

JV: Tobias Wolff. I think it’s on the copyright page, if I’m remembering correctly, where it mentions composite characters. It’s not like a large notice that that’s what he is doing as prefacing the book.

DN: The notorious one is John D’Agata. I don’t remember what the name of the book he wrote with his fact-checker was, but it was based on the controversy that he was changing details of—I think of a suicide—but not of someone he knew. He was writing nonfiction but changing the color of what they wore or the day of the week for reasons that were aesthetic to him, where he would be like, “Oh, that sounds better in the sentence to have it be a Thursday with a purple jacket,” which was very problematic for a lot of people including the family of the person who killed themselves.

JV: Well, right because I think also with that book, I think I’ve read the beginning of it, and I found it irritating. I was interested in this argument he was putting forward, but I found that his deliberate changing of facts was offensive where he was saying that it was the only suicide that happened that day, if I’m remembering correctly, so that you’re erasing the lives of other people. I can’t remember how many other people killed themselves that day in Las Vegas. But just changing things for the sake of aesthetics, it’s like, “Why not just write in a different genre?” I understand he was doing that he was trying to be provocative to get these questions out there and to get people talking. But I just think if you’re going to do something like that and you’re going to potentially hurt others, why would you do that? That is so hurtful. I find that really irritating but I have shared that story with students years ago. I included in a coursepack, an excerpt from that book, and we had discussions about it.

DN: That gets into a level of portraying someone else’s life, but just the foregrounding of the imaginative within one’s own life. When I think of Knausgård’s My Struggle, which because it’s so obsessively self-referential and verbose, 7 or 8 volumes of 1000 pages in super minute detail, you buy into the illusion that all of that stuff that he remembered. But in interviews, he’s like, “I don’t know if my mom was cutting a potato on that day or what the light looked like on that day.” A whole bunch of stuff, they’re not lies, they’re these imagined things that fit with his own sense of self about the past that he can’t really place in time, or be sure that they’re connected to each other in the same day.

JV: I find it really irritating when the point of a work, where the whole point of it is to question truth. Like what is truth? What is a fact? I find that’s fine if you’re 20 years old and you’re going to get stoned and talk with your friends about it at 2:00 AM. But to have to shape an entire book around that where you risk hurting actual people, that frustrates me. I haven’t read all of Knausgård’s My Struggle. I think I read the first volume some years ago. But it’s interesting, what is his wife’s name? She’s a writer and she has a book coming out and she writes in a very different way. But I think of her because—and I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember her name—but she asked him like, “Please stop writing about me.” He didn’t. I just can’t fathom doing something like that. At some point had Mark told me, “You can’t use the transcripts.” I don’t know what I would have done. It’s hard to say.

DN: But you would have struggled over that.

JV: Yeah.

DN: I wanted to ask you about facts versus specificity because you have this article at Lit Hub called Five Great Nonfiction Books with Metanarratives. One of those books you choose is called Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, and you include the following quote from it that you loved, “And yet, despite claims, no writer hopes for ideas to take a complete shape. Approximation is the mark. Many times, writing that clinches lacks incandescence—the embers have cooled. A need for completeness can, off and on, squander cadence. Isn’t it fun to read a sentence that races ahead of itself? That has the effect of stopping short of dirt and cutaway rocks tumbling down the edge of a cliff, alerting you to the drop?” It makes me think if you love this, that perhaps, there’s a difference for you between a constraint of facts and an allegiance to specificity. Maybe specificity is not even the right word but of things taking complete shape.

JV: That’s interesting. I think in terms of completion, it’s partly why writing this book was very frustrating to me. It was frustrating to me what I couldn’t remember, and that I was checking my memories against Mark like, “What did the basement where you carried me look like? Were the steps steep?” Because as a writer I want stuff—I sound like such a capitalist—I want things in my writing. I want to be able to deepen a scene with a lot of objects and sensory descriptions. But if I can’t remember it, I don’t want to include it. It can feel so incomplete. It would be much easier if I could say, “What color the walls were?” or “What the door looked like?” But I don’t want to include those things if I can’t remember. Then as a writer, specifically a nonfiction writer, it becomes extremely challenging. I tend to be pretty trusting of others, and so if a writer tells me they remember something in a certain way, I will believe them if they say that. Whereas I think I hold myself to a pretty high standard of not wanting to inadvertently lie. I automatically assume that others are in that same position and that’s why I get so frustrated with the arguments put forth by John D’Agata or other writers that it’s okay to mess with the facts. The lyricism matters more. I think that’s why I get so frustrated that facts, supposedly, don’t matter, or that it’s supposedly a simplistic way of looking at nonfiction. It’s an art and sometimes you have to add things for the sake of deepening a scene.

DN: Right. I want to return to the question that hovers over the book which is the question of, what true accountability would look like? What a true reckoning with one’s past actions would entail, both in a general sense and with regards to you and Mark? I was thinking of an essay in The New Yorker by Jia Tolentino called Jian Ghomeshi, John Hockenberry, and the Laws of Patriarchal Physics, which is about celebrity sexual assaulters, not just Ghomeshi and Hockenberry but also Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. In it, she talks about how these men, particularly ones who are eager to make their comebacks who, in their attempted comeback essays about their situations, continue to frame themselves as victims, whose lives have been ruined, or if not victims, certainly continuing to uphold the notion that the frame for the story is still that of the hero’s journey for the man and his comeback. She says, “The laws of patriarchal physics dictate that for every act of sexual assault or harassment a man deserves an equal and opposite second chance.” But what she says at the end seems more relevant to Mark. “In all of the cases that I heard about, it seemed to me essential, as a bare first step, for the man in question to understand that his experience is not inherently more important than the experiences of women, to acknowledge what he did, and that it was wrong. This is the minimum precondition for the better world we’re struggling toward. It is amazing, if not surprising, how many of the men in question are incapable of it.” On the one hand, Mark clearly leaps this “threshold”, but on the other hand, as Jia acknowledges, “This is absurdly low.” This bar is absurdly low even if none of these men that she’s talking about are not even in the conversation of clearing the bar. So I’m guessing a bare first step is not the same as true and just accountability. I wanted to hear what your thoughts were on what that would look like for you and Mark’s case, and your thoughts more generally about restorative justice versus having him arrested which is something your editor in the book wonders why you haven’t done.

JV: I think that’s such an insightful piece by her, and it’s interesting because while I was working on the book, I thought, “Oh, how nice of him to agree to all of these conversations and to be as honest as possible.” But the thing that I often held on to was he was still keeping it. It’s odd. There was this tension of he’s keeping it a secret. His identity is not getting out there, and yet I didn’t change any details, and I’m just recently starting to hear from people I went to highschool with. They don’t mention Mark’s name in their emails to me but have said, “I know who you’re talking about so I don’t know if this has yet reached his parents or not.” But his big concern was he didn’t want his family to know because I told him, I’m not going to change details because for me, so often those details were very important. The fact that his parents were both teachers and the fact that he had scoliosis. It seemed somewhat revealing, that it gave some depth to his character and to the situation. I told him I wasn’t going to change details but that I would change his name and he said that was fine. At one point, I said, anyone who went to school with us though who knew us then would probably be able to figure it out, and he said that was okay. But I don’t think he fully thought it through, or maybe he was trying to appease me at that moment, because I haven’t heard from him really since the book came out. I sent him a copy. We texted about something related to publicity dealing with the book. It’s so odd that part of me wants to be like, “But did you like the writing?” [laughter] That’s such a weird thing to actually want him to validate the writing. That was on my mind but it’s not like he would necessarily have the greatest distance to be able to talk about the book in that way. I do think he did the bare minimum because at a certain point, he said this was actually helping him, and that annoyed me. I think a true accountability in this situation would be for him to tell his family because he knows that’s important to me. This is not me asking him to post on social media or to tell complete strangers, or to tell the people he works with. It’s just that immediate group for me, his family. That would be meaningful and would help toward actual change because as my mom had pointed out after I told her what the book was about, she wanted revenge in a way that I didn’t necessarily. She wanted to send the book to his parents and in a true Midwestern passive-aggressive fashion. [laughs] She’s like, “I’ll just send the book and say, look what Jeannie wrote. I thought you would find it interesting. You were always curious about her writing.” I was like, “Mom, please don’t. You can’t do what you want.”

DN: She didn’t do that?

JV: No. She did not do that. What’s interesting is after she read the book, I asked her. I said, “Are you going to send the book to his parents?” I said, “You know, I would rather you not. But I’m not going to tell you what you can and cannot do.” She said, “No, no, I think I would feel bad.” When she told me that, I started to worry—it was before the book came out—and I thought, “Oh, did I make him too sympathetic that my mom would have second thoughts?” But she was concerned—and it was the same sort of concern I had—we’re not wanting to upset his parents because we think of it as like, “Well, they weren’t involved in this.” But my mom made the point, while his dad is a principal, this might influence how he teaches these young boys. I think true accountability in this instance, Mark acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He said he knew what he was doing was wrong while he was doing it and he did it anyway. He seemed pretty open to me, but it’s still private. Yet at the same time though, it gets complicated because it is public. It is a book that is out there that anyone could conceivably get a hold of, including his parents. I think he assumed maybe his parents wouldn’t hear about it. He said something that really annoyed me. He’s like, “Just stay off the bestseller list in the book clubs.”

DN: [laughs] Oh, my God.

JV: That really bothered me. Suddenly I thought, “Now I do want it to sell a lot of copies.” But his big concern was he didn’t want his parents to find out. He felt a lot of shame surrounding it. That’s why it annoyed me when he sent me a photograph of him and his mom in a hot air balloon just to show me, he mentioned, “Oh, it’s on my mom’s bucket list. She’s always wanted to go on a hot air balloon.” It came out of nowhere. That bothered me because at that point, I was still preparing to tell my own mom what the book was about. It was at that moment I felt something like, “Oh, I want revenge.” But however short-lived actually that feeling was though because I think his participation can lead to some restorative justice because of what I’ve heard from readers. I think that’s why it’s so complicated because this is both public and private. Mark’s identity will be known to anyone who we knew who reads it. But for everyone else, he’s just Mark. It’s complicated. I think for me, he would have to talk with his family about what happened for it to really see this through.

DN: I don’t want to fail to engage with a really amazing conversation you sent me between you and Amy Berkowitz in the Believer. I don’t know if it’s out yet or not.

JV: It comes out, I think, in October.

DN: Okay. But one of the things she raises that seems really important is about how every day a normal Mark is. She says, “There’s nothing remarkable about Mark. He seems like a regular guy. He could be anybody and that’s who’s doing the bulk of the assaulting in our society, unremarkable guys like Mark. Guys who are basically nice, guys who you may well be friends with, and guys who, as writer and filmmaker of [1:47:32] Dupont points out, may not think of what they did as rape.” She says, “Men condemn rape and despise rapists. What they do is always something else.” Amy doesn’t let Mark off the hook in this regard, even though he accepts the term rape. She talks about how, late in the book, Mark brings up the topic of incels and how he doesn’t understand them at all or their contempt for women. But a few pages later, Mark says that he felt angst about being a virgin and converted this angst into his sexual assault with you. So Amy thinks Mark continues to be in denial about what toxic masculinity actually looks like, what sort of guy really is an example of toxic masculinity, and she wonders about the self-awareness of men who read your book in general. If they will see parts of themselves in Mark, or will they need to assert themselves as apart from him because he is a rapist and they aren’t. Much like Mark continues to assert his distance from incels, or his cliched view of toxic men being men who are bikers on loud motorcycles. I guess I wanted you to talk a little bit about this because you said, “Many women who know men just like Mark, but many men point out just how terrible Mark is, and that he resembles nobody they know.”

JV: Yeah. That was so strange for me when I started doing interviews about the book or would start to engage in conversations about it where a lot of men would tell me that Mark seemed unrecognizable to them. Meanwhile, pretty much every woman I talked with about the book would tell me that they knew someone just like Mark. I think there was this distancing that happened. It even happened after I finished writing the book, it was around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings, I contacted Mark because I was interested in what his take was on them. I didn’t say why I was interested in his take. I assumed that would be obvious. He wrote back and he sent me an email where he said all of the right progressive things. When I pushed back and said, “Why I’m interested is given our situation, our history, the fact that you sexually assaulted me and faced no repercussions for it for years and years and years,” it was clear in his email he got angry where he’s like, “I made every effort to be honest with you unlike Kavanaugh who is clearly—” and then proceeded to criticize Kavanaugh. I was like, “But you’re not publicly testifying. This is still private.” I was so mad and I remember calling my friend Sarah and she’s like, “What did you expect?” I said, “I don’t know. I thought maybe he would have learned from after doing all of this, that he would be more insightful about it.” That frustrated me that he was distancing himself. Suddenly, he wasn’t as bad as Kavanaugh. The fact that even Mark would engage in that, I got so upset about. But a lot of guys, I noticed, wanted, in talking about Mark, it was very much like, “He’s so pathetic, just putting him down and turning him into a caricature,” which is not what I wanted.

DN: This brings us to a variant of a phenomenon that seems true, but also illogical at the same time. That almost all women, if they haven’t been assaulted themselves, know other women who have been. But almost no men know of a man who has assaulted someone. Also, maybe that’s connected to when you were touched by a teacher in highschool, girls lined up to vouch for your reliability, but no boys did. Something about this, untangling this feels somehow it’s a key to a meaningful reckoning for men. I wonder if that’s partly what you’re doing in showing us all the ways Mark is a nice guy. If you make Mark into a nice guy, and as Amy says that it’s the nice guys, in this regard, it’s normal guys that are the rapists, not the guy in the alleyway, but more often than not, someone you know. I’m also thinking about a discussion I had with your book with Sophia Shalmiyev where she said that—I’m going to paraphrase and I might even get this wrongbut she said something like, “You’re doing the work men should be doing, but you’re doing it on behalf of women.” The absence of the fact that the men aren’t even putting themselves in the conversation, if we can’t recognize people in our lives doing things or recognize the ways people like Mark are—there are iterations or reiterations of that just because of the way we’ve been raised in this society—I don’t know how we’re going to have anything like restorative justice. I don’t even know if this is a question. [laughs] But I guess I wonder about that, or even the way you have the male teachers, they’re not going to get the rape essays probably for good reasons. Also, you don’t want to take the risk. But not getting the essays, the teacher is also not going to know the prevalence of sexual assault in the same way that you do.

JV: It’s interesting, that question. My editor, Masie, had posed to me early on, what was that idea like. She was talking about talking to her female friends, and pretty much all of her friends had either been sexually assaulted or knew someone, and yet talking to men, they don’t know anyone. It is odd, the math does not compute and I don’t know. I don’t understand how it could be. I guess it makes me think of—this isn’t really an answer so much as just an observation—it makes me think of this guy I talked to. I quote him in the book and he talks about when he was in college, seeing a friend of his go up to a girl who was passed out and naked, and his friend just started fingering her and he went over. He was like, “Cut it out.” But he didn’t talk about that guy. He was mad about what had happened but it wasn’t acknowledging it as rape. It was really interesting because this guy though, he was open to me and telling me about how his brother had raped someone. It was really refreshing to hear a man talk about witnessing sexual assault, of having a family member who’d committed sexual assault, and being in that uncomfortable position of, “He’s my brother. I still love him. But it’s hard to think that he could do something like that.” When I was talking with him, he was saying that the woman his brother raped forgave him. Then they all went out golfing. I think it’s all very complicated because there isn’t a standard way in which all rape victims or survivors respond or perpetrators act. But so often, we are fed these images of how a traditional rape narrative goes. It’s unusual to see a rape narrative or read about one where the perpetrator is apologetic and reflective to a degree. I do wonder if guys in our friend’s circle will read the book, I’m not sure. But they knew that that happened that night, but none of us ever talked about it. Mark even said, “Yeah, I feel like we all entered into this unspoken agreement of let’s just not talk about it, and it’ll go away.” We were all 19-years-old and not all of us were the most emotionally intelligent individuals. I think my one friend—I’m trying to think of what I call him in the book. I can’t remember. I changed his name—but one of my friends, the immediate reaction upon finding out that something had happened was like, “I’m going to go kick his ass. I’m going to go use violence to fix this.” There was never an “I’m so sorry. How are you doing? Are you okay?” The reaction was immediately revenge, and then it was going to be violent. I had to stop this friend from going and beating up Mark. It was a very weird position to be in. I don’t understand. I was talking with Chris about this. I was like, “Do you know any guys who raped someone? Do you guys ever talk about it?” I don’t understand how it could be that pretty much all of my female friends have either been raped or know someone who’s been raped. My guy friends, most of them have told me that they don’t know anyone who’s committed rape.

DN: My one fear about the title, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, is I think you had one blurb of a man bookseller who says, “This should be a required reading for men.” I know that with the movie Little Women, that men were not going to the movie. I don’t know if it’s because of the title. But I know your title’s one provisional title was If He Says No. I just wondered if Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl was going to signal to lesser involved men, that this isn’t a book for them when they’re really, in a weird way, I feel like, obviously, not exclusively for men.

JV: Yeah. Something I also meant to say before, too, is actually I have heard from male readers who’ve told me they’ve committed rape. I received a lot of letters from prisoners convicted of rape. The administrative assistant was probably very confused like, “Why is Jeannie getting all of these letters stamped from a correctional facility?” Because they were mailing these letters to my work address, and like really long letters. I was not necessarily expecting that. But I have heard from men, both who’ve committed rape, some men who said they’ve apologized to their victim, that she doesn’t want to talk to them, what should they do, but also men who have been sexually assaulted themselves. I’ve also heard from men who have female partners who’ve been sexually assaulted and the impact that trauma has had on their relationship and asking for advice like, “What are the right things to say?” It’s interesting. I’ve been hearing from male readers. I would like to hear from more male readers because I want men to read the book. I found it was really nice when a prisoner wrote to me saying that he’d been passing the book along to other men in his—I don’t know if they called a dorm or what—but in the other cells, and they had been talking about it. I was telling a friend about it, and she’s like, “Oh, that’s so annoying.” I was like, “No, I think that’s nice.” I want them to talk about it because the one had told me, he had never really considered the lasting harm that he had caused this person, this woman, and he mentioned that he started committing sexual assault in the way that Mark did, and it accelerated from there.

DN: That must be really gratifying to have that reflection where the person sees themselves in the early stage and also the possibility that there will be people reading the book who are doing what Mark’s doing or contemplating doing what was Mark’s doing and will end up doing what this prisoner was doing.

JV: Yeah, I am hopeful. The one reaction I had when the prisoner told me that—because he’d committed multiple rapes and when he told me that he got started by doing what Mark did, by using his fingers, and he told himself that wasn’t rape when he did that—I couldn’t help but then I think it was me looking for another way to blame myself and thinking because I was getting asked the question, “How do you know Mark won’t do it again or hasn’t done it again?” I don’t, and then there is this expectation that’s put upon rape victims or survivors that it’s their job to hold the rapist accountable so that it doesn’t happen to someone else. The implication being if you don’t, then you’re to blame for further rapes, which is a very messed up amount of work to put on someone. I don’t know if Mark has sexually assaulted anyone else. He told me he hasn’t. That’s not to say he’s not lying. Getting the letters from prisoners was very meaningful, but I think it was also hard because I couldn’t help but start thinking like, “Is Mark a repeat offender, as most offenders, it seems, statistically are?”

DN: Before we finish, I want to ask a question on behalf of nonfiction writers. I’ve had a lot of memoirists on who have written about their abusers from Lacy M. Johnson, Melissa Febos, Carmen Maria Machado, and you. Everyone’s had a different strategy on how much or how little to disguise identities, and yours, you’re very upfront as the piece you read at the very beginning shows us. You walk us through, actually, the process of coming up with a name for Mark. But surely, there’s a legal discussion happening behind the scenes that is informing some of these decisions. What was gratifying about my conversation with Sophia Shalmiyev is that she was totally forthcoming about how that all looked for her, and the toll it took on her when her publisher made her call the book, a memoir with all of its legal ramifications versus a book of auto-fiction which is what she wanted to call it. Other writers I’ve had on couldn’t be that candid or wouldn’t be that candid as Sophia was. She was very candid. [laughs]

JV: I love that conversation.

DN: I don’t know if you can be, but I was wondering if you had anything you could share for other writers who want to write nonfiction that may involve abuse or other things involving another person because I know Mark gave you a lot of freedom legally. That wouldn’t be the case for others, but nevertheless, I think any thoughts that you had about it, conversations you had with Tin House, or otherwise, that shaped the book not because of art necessarily, but because of fear of liability or other legal questions.

JV:  It’s so funny. Earlier today, I was actually just emailing with a writer friend who has a memoir that’s going to be coming out and she is very frustrated with legal. She needs to go get documents to prove something and I actually referred her to your conversation with Sophia. Mark, in signing that waiver, I was told by Tin House then that we were basically in the clear legally speaking. I was worried and I was surprised that no one followed up with me about the highschool teacher. I have the police documents showing what was reported and it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to figure out his identity, and I was a little bit concerned if there’s a chance he could sue. But the legal situation with this book was actually so—there was nothing, and I don’t know if had I gone with a really big corporate publisher that has a big legal team, would I have had to go through more of a legal mess? I have no idea, but I was telling Chris actually the other day, I wonder if my highschool—because I’m all of a sudden hearing from people from high school who I haven’t talked to in more than a decade—I wonder if it could get back to him. He’s not at the same school but still. Chris had said, “I highly doubt he would come forward because think about how bad that would look and how that could absolutely destroy his family.” This former teacher of mine has two daughters.

DN: Did you hear from any of the boys who could have vouched for your reliability like your friends who were women did?

JV: No. I haven’t heard from any guys I knew. Most of my friends in high school were guys. I haven’t heard from any of them.

DN: Interesting.

JV: Yeah. I’ve heard from the women I went to school with. I did hear from one woman who, I’m now remembering, I think her husband was at the party that night. He and I weren’t super close friends, but I don’t know if he has read the book or not. But I haven’t heard from any of the guys. Legally speaking, it was pretty easy. Mark, in signing that waiver, he didn’t ask to see the manuscript. He sent it back to me within minutes. So it wasn’t too bad.

DN: I’m interested to hear what you do next or what you’re doing next. You wrote your first book for over a decade. You wrote your second book in eight months. So I’m assuming your third book is coming out in six weeks [laughter] because you’re getting quicker and quicker. Can you tell us what you’re working on now, or unless you have a thing about not talking about works in-progress?

JV: No, no. I don’t mind being asked. I guess the risk is in talking about it, I can maybe make it sound interesting. What I’m working on, intellectually, I’m interested in it. I haven’t yet figured out my way in. But usually, I have to have a metaphor or an image pattern or the shape has to be somewhat clear to me. I’m interested in how storytelling influences mental health treatment and I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking about it, but I haven’t generated a whole lot of writing about it. I say that though, and then I look back at notebooks that are full with fragments where I’m jotting out thoughts, but it hasn’t come alive to me quite yet. But that’s what I’m interested in, in the nature of language. I’ve been reading a lot of books on narratology, which I never thought I would read all of these rhetoric books. But in terms of thinking about how people with mental illness tell their stories and how those stories are perceived by physicians and people on the other side. Then also the slippage that happens. There’s somebody I knew, we were friendly in the psych ward. She reached out to me not too long ago and she’s now a mental health professional. She works on the other side. So I’m interested in it. I was going to say it still feels like homework but I was someone who always loved homework. It’s like, “Can you give us more homework?” But it doesn’t yet feel alive to me. It still feels very theoretical, and part of that though is if it’s any reassurance to people out there working on their first books, I think the writing process is very much a process of sitting around and thinking a lot. For me, when I feel really stuck, I just open the refrigerator and I stare into it as if the answer is there. So much of the writing process is just sitting and thinking and reading and it’s not like you see in the movies, or like Philip Glass music is playing in the background and somebody’s writing furiously. It’s like going and getting a snack every 20 minutes, at least for me, that’s what the writing process looks like. [laughter]

DN: So the refrigerator is key.

JV: The refrigerator is key. But my experience is always like after writing this book, it was very odd where I was like, “Oh, I finished writing a book.” It just didn’t feel like I was writing while I was working on it. At times, sure. But for the most part, I just felt so immersed in the process, that it was almost like I was surprised when I was done that I had generated anything at all.

DN: That sounds magically amazing, actually.

JV: I’m lucky. I have a very encouraging editor, and I will say it for also anyone who’s listening. My editor is Masie Cochran and she did The Glass Eye, and then also the second book, and hopefully, whatever I do next. I’ll say a sign of a good editor is someone who asks the right questions. They’re questions that get you as a writer to think about it in a way that the editor has in mind, where you answer the question and suddenly you think you came up with the answer. But actually, all along, the editor was guiding you. I think Masie sometimes asks these really—always her questions are amazing—but she’ll ask these questions that really help me see something come alive. I’m hopeful, if I start talking with her a little bit about the next project, that it’ll come together.

DN: That’s great. Thank you for being on Between the Covers today, Jeannie.

JV: Thank you so much for having me.

DN: We’re talking today to Jeannie Vanasco, the author of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.