Author Jeannie Vanasco is up for having difficult conversations

Andy Downing
Jeannie Vanasco

In the past, Jeannie Vanasco has approached writing much like an artist constructing a collage, penning scenes piecemeal as they arrive in notebooks and on sheets of scrap paper and then assembling these vignettes puzzle-like into a larger narrative. But for her second memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, Vanasco took a slightly more linear tack, detailing her process in largely chronological order as the book unfolded.

As a result, readers experience many of Vanasco’s struggles in real time as she engages in conversation with “Mark,” a pseudonym bestowed on a high school friend who raped her at a house party 14 years prior. Throughout, the author, who was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, wrestles with her portrayal of her rapist, worrying it could be viewed as overly sympathetic. She questions whether Mark’s actions could be considered rape (eventually landing on yes in one of the book’s pivotal moments). And she expresses concern that she’ll be viewed in a negative light by fellow feminists for actions past (her immediate response to the attack) and present (her desire to engage with her assailant).

"Mark said the assault changed the story he could tell about himself. It changed my personal narrative too — or it confirmed what I'd suspected but was afraid to admit: I cared too much about pleasing men,” Vanasco writes in one passage. “I didn't stop Mark partly because I didn't want to embarrass him. What sort of feminist acts like that? I asked myself — instead of asking, What sort of friend does what Mark did?

Vanasco’s approach was both bolstered and complicated by the rise of the #MeToo movement. In the book she writes, “I don’t know if I would have decided to pursue this if not for #MeToo,” and in conversation she noted that the public discussions helped reduce the level of shame once associated with the subject of sexual assault. At the same time, the movement introduced parameters by which these conversations often took place, and from which Things We Didn’t Talk About strays.

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“I started writing in January 2018, and … the dominant narrative at that time was, ‘We don’t need to hear from these guys,’” said Vanasco, who will read at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters on Wednesday, Nov. 13, alongside authors Elissa Washuta and Eliza Smith. “I understood where that sentiment was coming from, and even when I mentioned the idea to some of my friends they were like, ‘Do you really have to talk to him? I don’t care about his point of view.’ … But I think that my fear of upsetting feminists I admire was useful for me, because it caused me to think more critically.”

While #MeToo largely focused on instances of sexual assault among men in positions of power in the fields of media and entertainment, eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, according to anti-sexual violence organization RAINN — a number that also includes people in romantic relationships and even marriages. Vanasco’s book delves into the numerous questions and complications that arise when the person in question is a close friend, including: Is it possible for a good person to commit a terrible act? What are the lingering effects for both parties? And what does accountability look like, if it’s even attainable?

There are no easy answers, either, which Vanasco said has caused consternation among some in her audience.

“What I’ve heard is that some readers get frustrated because I don’t come down with a conclusive argument or decision about whether Mark is a good person or not,” said Vanasco, whose first memoir, The Glass Eye, explored the death of her father and her struggles with mental illness. “Because of the [#MeToo] movement, there are more people interested in a book like this, which is great, but there also ends up being an expectation of, ‘Here’s an argument.’ And this is not a manifesto. It’s just one person’s experience and how I responded. By no means am I holding myself up as a model or saying, ‘This is how you go about achieving restorative justice.’”

While questions linger for readers, completing the book did bring Vanasco a degree of resolution. Though she no longer communicates with Mark, she said she’s finally stopped having nightmares about the assault, and she now has a better understanding of what true accountability might look like, at least in this instance, acknowledging that “there’s no perfect model that works in every situation.”

“I thought a lot about what makes a good apology,” said Vanasco, who went on to discuss her Catholic upbringing, where an adolescent confession of sin often required prayers recited in penance rather than directly approaching the person wronged. “The priest could say, ‘Say 10 “Our Fathers” and five “Hail Marys” and you’re fine,’ and you never have to apologize.”

“After finishing this book, I started thinking about how important it is for accountability to apologize directly to the person harmed, but then also how important it is to make known what happened with the people in your community,” she continued. “With Mark, he apologized to me … and him affirming that what he did was wrong did mean a lot, but the fact that he kept it from his parents, that made me feel like, ‘OK, accountability hasn’t really been met here,’ because he’s still keeping it private and there’s still this idea I need to protect him. … I think that’s a big part of the accountability process — finding a way to take away that shame a victim feels — and part of that is making your actions known.”

Though undoubtedly a heavy read, there are passages in Things We Didn’t Talk About where Vanasco’s natural humor shows through, such as a sudden realization that an early boyfriend might have been a Libertarian. Within the book she also jokes that her third memoir should center on her cats rather than the ultra-personal revelations that have shaped her earliest entries into the form.

“I write these books where it’s really hard to make small talk. My Lyft driver will be like, ‘Oh, you’re a writer? What’s your book about?’” Vanasco said, and laughed. “It can put you in a weird position if someone is just trying to make small talk. … It’s hard to talk about these subjects, but then again that’s why I wrote about them. So, yeah, maybe the next thing will be lighter. I don’t know. Probably not. But I hope so.”

Two Dollar Radio Headquarters

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13

1124 Parsons Ave., South Side

Jeannie Vanasco