Warning: The following article includes details which some readers might find upsetting.
"Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl" is a memoir about Jeannie Vanasco’s friendship with the man who sexually assaulted her when they were both 19 years old. As a means of processing her conflicted feelings, she resolves to face her trauma head-on. Here she describes the events that led to her getting in touch with the man who raped her, 14 years later...
There’s nothing original about my story, and that’s the point. My best friend – I’ll call him Mark – and I were at a party with friends. We were 19 years old. We were drinking. I passed out, and the next thing I remember: Mark undressing me in his basement room. He told me I was dreaming. I cried, and he told me not to cry. I became rigid, like an animal who senses it’s impossible to bolt.
"It’s okay," he said, pressing his fingers inside me. "It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay."
He sounded like he was putting a child to sleep. I told myself this was happening to someone else.
There have always been Marks, and I doubt they’ll stop existing. Although these Marks rarely apologise for their crimes. Rarely do they say, "I knew what I was doing was wrong while I was doing it, and I did it anyway."
But after 14 years of silence between us, that’s what this Mark said. I’d called him to say that I was writing a book about us and what the rape did to us.
He agreed to speak on record, saying, "It’s the least I can do."
He told me the rape changed the narrative he could tell about himself: "I thought I was somewhat good, or one of the good guys. That wasn’t a fiction that I felt I could maintain after that."
The rape changed my personal narrative too – or it confirmed what I’d suspected but was afraid to admit: I cared too much about pleasing men. While the rape was happening, 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?
While transcribing the audio of our phone conversations, I felt ashamed by how much I thanked and reassured him: "I really appreciate this" and "I hope this is somewhat helpful for you to talk about" and "I didn’t want to be hurtful" and "I hope you know that I don’t hate you" and "I hope it’s helpful for you to know that I believe you’re a good guy" and "If it helps you to know". I’d like to claim I was manipulating him, putting him at ease so that he would continue answering my questions, yet I slipped so easily into comforting him because his discomfort made me so uncomfortable. I finally understood what Judith Butler meant when she defined 'gender performativity' – how the behaviour may not feel like a performance but is a repetitive act outside of the individual’s control.
If Mark were a meathead, if Mark were a bro-y guy, if Mark hadn’t admitted his guilt and reflected on it, then maybe I could have felt angry at him. Instead, I pitied him. He suffered from scoliosis and severe depression, lacked good health insurance, had never been in a romantic relationship in his life, and was still a virgin.
A few months after we spoke on the phone, I flew from Maryland to Ohio to confront him in person. I told myself I’d be tougher this time. I recorded our conversation, and one passage has stayed with me:
ME: It’s been so long that it’s hard to reconstruct, but the one thing that confuses me –
HIM: Okay –
ME: Why carry me into the basement? That’s the one thing – I don’t really remember the house that well.
HIM: If I’m being totally honest, this is a two-part answer. One, yes, I used to hang out with people in the basement. I had a computer down there and we’d watch movies. Two – [Waiter brings me another cocktail, takes away our plates.]
ME: So you were saying, one, you would go down there –
HIM: But two, the more I think about it, the more I’m certain that some version of what happened was in my head.
ME: You thought that by suggesting –
HIM: That something might happen. I don’t think I thought, If I could just get her downstairs I could do this. I’m sure I thought downstairs was to my advantage.
I could have pushed harder. I wished I’d said, "How could you possibly have thought that anything sexual would be consensual – considering I was fall-down drunk?" Instead, I pivoted back to expressing concern for him.
ME: For so long I muddled the narrative, making excuses for you. How you were drunk and all. But then I think about how manipulative you were that night. You hushed me when I started crying, told me that it was just a dream. I recently went through a period where I felt really pissed off. And now, I don’t know, 14 years later, hearing you say that you betrayed me, I feel grateful. And it’s so messed up – that I feel grateful to you for acknowledging your betrayal of me and agreeing to all this.
HIM: You can be, but you don’t have to be grateful to me.
ME: But that’s why I’m interested in the project. Because I can’t sort out my feelings. For so long I was afraid to contact you because I worried about your feelings. I didn’t want you to get depressed.
A month before the book came out, I asked my publisher to send Mark a finished copy. In an email, I told him that it might be hard for him to read. Again, there I was, checking in on his emotional wellbeing.
"I expect that you’re right," he replied, "it will be difficult reading, but I suppose that’s unavoidable, and beside the point. If it was an easy subject to relive, you’d hardly have bothered to write it. I’m sure you were more than fair and if not… well, I’m hardly in a position to complain, am I?"
I understand why nostalgia, for hundreds of years, was considered a chronic mental illness.
I want to hate him, but I can’t.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco is out now, published by Duckworth.