Reviewed by Kat Frusha
Imagine reconnecting with a person years after they left a horrible scar in your mind and on your life. Imagine that the person was one of your best friends before they traumatized you. What would you say upon meeting again? What would you do? How would you feel?
For some, this scenario would seem jarring, horrific, and difficult to imagine – let alone live through, and who could blame them? However, for Jeannie Vanasco, author of What We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, this was a tumultuous reality that she created and partook in with desperate hope to find any answers from the former friend who sexually assaulted her. In this creative nonfiction memoir, she wrestles with her feelings about the assailant, Mark, whether his assault of her should be considered rape in light of updated laws considering it as such, and her own conflicting emotions as she writes of the past and present. The reader is placed into Vanasco’s whirlwind world of confusion, anxiety, nostalgia, hope, and everything in between while she attempts to connect with Mark and talk about both their life together and his motives and reasonings – if there were any – for his sexual assault of her. It’s a gripping read that provides many questions and thoughts of rape that I’ve never seen in writing before, and it kept me turning the pages of an already intriguing book in a desire to learn more. It’s capable of keeping readers thinking in a way that few books haven’t recently, with numerous moments and sentences stuck in their brains even days after reading.
Vanasco’s writing style is a unique one, but a highly interesting and approachable one. She refrains from using quotations when writing conversations, instead making them feel more like separate streams of consciousness that connect with each other, if that makes sense. It makes for an initially odd, but ultimately refreshing, read with a steady, unbreaking flow that blends in with the narrative. I am unfamiliar with her previous established works, but can only hope that this method of writing dialogue is consistent, as it’s a technique with a great deal of individuality that is not utilized much. Perhaps it is a divisive mechanism, but it is rather enticing and a unique voice that only adds as a positive to the book.
Another favorable aspect of What We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is the inclusion of other figures – it would seem somewhat rude to call them characters, as this is a memoir and they’re all real people – in Vanasco’s life who provide their own opinions on the act between her and Mark as well as her writing process, the inclusion of the latter also being intriguing. Throughout the book, readers are introduced to many people, past and present, who share their thoughts and help her form her own: her partner Chris, close friends and colleagues who have similar careers or traumas to her, and even voices from the past all offer different perspectives and additions to both the narrative and the thought process around the touchy subject matter. If all readers saw were Vanasco’s own thoughts, and maybe just her reactions to others’ statements, the book would still be insightful, but adding so many different attitudes enhances an already complex conversation into a multifaceted, thought-provoking tale that both ask and answer questions about sexual assault beyond a black and white spectrum. Though a bit uncomfortable, it is a necessary discussion with many gray areas, and each voice is an excellent contribution that’s capable of keeping readers hooked with little effort.
As well as this, a high point of this book is also the elephant in the room – the inclusion, confrontation, and humanization of Mark, the assailant (or perhaps rapist, as his status is wrestled with throughout) of Vanasco in her youth. In many stories I have read, nonfiction or otherwise, the rapist is more of an entity than a person and demonized to the point where they seem pure evil – for good reason, of course, the act is abhorrent in all ways possible and a person who commits them can never be wholly good. However, something that is hardly touched upon is the horrifying fact that rapists are, in fact, human, with individual personalities, good qualities, and often good relationships with those they force themselves upon. It’s much more uncomfortable to see them as nuanced people. Vanasco does this in spades by including positive interactions she had with Mark prior to the assault, as well as even contacting him both to catch up and to discuss his own perspective of the incident. Though it is written in such a casual tone, it all feels so unsettling, in a sense, as readers get to see that Mark was – and is, as he accepts Vanasco’s offer – just an average guy who happened to do something so horrible and traumatic. Almost everyone knows someone like Mark, and that’s what makes this book all the more enticing and chilling. Assailants are not always black and white, obvious as a werewolf on the full moon. More often than not, they’re just the person next door – that is to say, a multifaceted human being you likely already know. It’s a horrifying reality that is surprisingly not explored often, that I’ve seen at least, and Vanasco expressing this and bringing more attention to it by trying to get Mark’s own viewpoint makes for a phenomenal and chilling page-turner.
Ultimately, What We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is an exhilarating and easy read despite its difficult subject matter, and it offers fresh and necessary takes on sexual assault in our current world. Each chapter holds a significance that, despite feeling so casual in the moment reading, will stick with the reader for days, if not longer.