I Was Good Friends With My Rapist. After 14 Years, I Confronted Him.
Jeannie Vanasco was raped at a party by a man she considered a friend. Fourteen years later, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she decided to interview him.
Jeannie Vanasco's complicated dialogue with the man who raped her is the subject of her memoir, Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was A Girl, available now from Tin House. The following is an excerpt, adapted from the book.
It's In The Zeitgeist
I’ll say: I emailed, but I didn’t know if I had the right address.
Mark gets ten days. After that, I’m calling. I don’t know his cell number. I suppose I could call him at work.
While I wait for Mark’s reply, my attention gravitates toward any news story about sexual assault. The stories mostly concern politicians and Hollywood directors and actors. What about guys like Mark?
I tell a friend about this project.
It’s in the zeitgeist, she says.
I want to say: That’s not why I’m writing it.
But of course that’s why I’m writing it. Ever since Trump’s election, I’ve had nightmares about Mark.
I hadn’t had nightmares about him for a few years.
Chris: That’s not true. I’ve been with you when you’ve woken up crying. Years before Trump was elected. Every few months it happened. When I’d ask you what you were dreaming about, you’d say Mark.
But not all that often, I tell him.
Not as much as lately, he says.
I think of the Access Hollywood tape. Trump: When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.
Mark texts me: Hi Jeannie, it’s Mark. I was in a bit of a self-editing loop trying to figure out what I wanted to say, and I thought maybe this would be easier. It’s wonderful to hear from you again, I hope you’re well.
I want to feel angry, but I’m grateful. Angry and grateful?
I don’t want my reaction to Mark to disappoint other feminists. I’m supposed to be angry.
In ancient Greece and Rome, men were considered rational beings capable of rising above their anger. Women, however, were perceived as too weak, too childish to restrain their anger.
I text back: It’s so good to hear from you! Thank you for getting back to me. Do you have time to talk this week?
Memories are built to fade, or maybe the brain is built to forget. But the memory of that night still belongs to me. I wonder how his memory is different.
We arrange to talk on the phone in two days.
Chris asks: What if Mark doesn’t think about it anymore? What if it didn’t really impact him?
If it meant nothing to him, then I meant nothing to him—and I’ll lose all interest in this project.
I know how messed up this is: that my exploration of the assault matters to me only if the assault mattered to Mark. It should matter to me regardless.
I resist the word rape. I don’t want to offend women, such as my friend Nina, whose rapes were more severe than my experience with Mark. Is that it? Partly. Resisting the word rape, I resist labeling him a rapist. Rapist interferes with my memories of him as my friend. And I want to remember us playing video games and quoting lines from The Simpsons. I want to hold on to those small, soft memories.
Rape forces me to confront a difficult question: What was this friendship to Mark?
Is That Possible?
In January of 2018, two weeks after I started writing this book, Hannah, one of my creative nonfiction students, killed herself.
Raped two years ago at her small liberal arts college, Hannah swallowed hundreds of Benadryl tablets shortly after and was hospitalized. Embarrassed that her classmates knew of her suicide attempt, she transferred to a university closer to family, which is the university where I teach. Last fall, in our nonfiction workshop, she wrote an essay about what had happened—but before submitting the first draft, she told me: I don’t know about your experiences, but this essay could be triggering for victims of sexual assault.
Never before had a student warned me about difficult subject matter.
In the essay, she described how the suicide attempt had changed her relationship with Judaism: On Yom Kippur I wished it wasn’t Yom Kippur. I also wished that I didn’t wish that. I wished I could be a better Jew, the kind of Jew that listened to the shofar and read from the Torah. I used to be like that.
In five pages, she spent only one sentence on the rape—and even then: the chronology remained unclear. In my office, we discussed how she could approach revision.
If you need to take a break from this, I said, you can.
I’m over it, she said of the rape. Really. It’s not a big deal.
Promise me you’ll tell me if it gets too hard? Not just on a craft level but on an emotional one?
Definitely, she said.
Three months later, she was dead.
I should have referred her to campus counseling. I make excuses. Last semester I taught seventy students, went on a book tour, and helped my mom move into the house in Baltimore that Chris and I had recently bought. Chris and I had driven twice to Ohio to move her: the first time to move her two cats, and the next time for her and her two dogs.
And Hannah really did seem okay.
She planned to take my course about literary magazines. She planned to apply to graduate school for creative nonfiction. She planned to meet me for coffee over winter break. She started sentences with After graduation.
And really: Who am I to think I could have stopped her? That I mattered at all?
But then, at lunch with her mom, I discover that Hannah left me a suicide note.
She wrote letters to you and to her therapist, her mom tells me.
As if reading my mind, she adds: Not even her therapist suspected anything was wrong.
Her mom still has the letter.
I’ll give it to you, she says. I just can’t bring myself to go back in her room right now.
Last semester I referred two other students to campus counseling. One’s boyfriend raped her.
Is that possible? she asked me.
Did you tell him you didn’t want to have sex?
I told him, she said. I mean, I pushed him away. But he told me this was how things work. That we were in a relationship.
Were you scared? I asked her.
I was scared, she said.
She reported the rape to the university.
The other student’s internship boss tried to rape her several times. After learning she was homeless, he insisted she stay with him.
I had nowhere else to go, she told me.
Her family refused to speak with her after they’d snooped through her diary and discovered she was gay.
I don’t really have many friends, she said.
We reported the attempted rapes to campus authorities, but she decided against using her boss’s name. She agreed to stay with acquaintances.
The student whose boyfriend raped her attended campus therapy sessions. But the other student stopped answering the counselors’ phone calls. She was busy studying for finals, she told them. After finals, she ignored their calls. During winter break, she called me: I can’t go through with filing charges. I worked so hard at my internship. I need his letter of recommendation.
I’ll write you a letter, I told her.
He has kids, she said. He’s going through a divorce. He could lose custody.
That would be his fault, I said. Not yours.
You don’t have to pursue this, I said. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.
My student did not file charges, and I understood why. Her word against his. In high school, I tried to hold a teacher accountable, and I failed—no, I was failed. The detectives didn’t interview me. They investigated me, searched for evidence of lying.
I remember this teacher, my high school newspaper advisor, telling me after I’d rejected another invitation to his apartment: I’ll write you recommendation letters, but I can’t guarantee they’ll be positive.
I want to tell Hannah what I already told her: You’ll write a beautiful book someday.
I Wish This Had Existed When I Was A Girl
This morning my mom asked me, Can you buy books on Amazon?
She rarely uses the internet. This book could come out and she’d never know. Though how embarrassed would she feel if she spotted it at the local library, which she visits every week, or—even worse—if one of her friends in Sandusky heard about the book and then called her? The thing is, I don’t know how to talk about this project with my mom, even though she and I are close. Chris and I bought our house last year, and we specifically chose this one because we knew the basement could be turned into an apartment for her. It’s nothing like Mark’s basement room. She has a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, separate entrance. There are several windows. Mark’s basement room was airless and dark. Then again, I tried not to open my eyes while he assaulted me.
The basement scene with Mark appears in my first book, and my mom read that. But I never name him. I’m not really naming him now, but she could easily figure out, based on a few details, Mark’s real identity. And I don’t want her to know that it was him—because what if, angry on my behalf, she calls his parents? If I tell her, yes, she guessed correctly, but that she cannot, under any circumstances, call his parents, I think she’d listen. But I’m not sure she’d listen. And if she did tell his parents? Then they’d understand why I disappeared from their lives. But I want Mark to tell them, nobody else. If I told them about the assault, I’d probably reassure them that, other than that one night, their son was a good friend.
This then raises the question, Why expend all this energy to protect Mark from his parents’ judgment? If Mark murdered somebody and I laboriously worked to protect his identity, I’d be an accessory to a crime. Because Mark sexually assaulted me, I’m in the clear, legally speaking. Which is not to say we should punish sexual assault victims for not coming forward. My distorted rationale in the days after the assault: Because I didn’t report what Mark did, does that make it consensual? Really, that’s more of a commentary on our justice system, which puts too much onus on sexual assault victims.
I call my friend Leigh-Anne, a gender studies professor at a small private college in the Midwest. I taught creative writing there for a year and rented an apartment below hers.
There are even more Trump signs here now, she says.
I keep looking for job openings for you in Baltimore, I tell her.
Baltimore would be amazing.
She tells me about the latest hate crimes on campus: racial slurs and swastikas written on the walls of dorm hallways. A blonde white girl wore blackface to a sorority party, and now some students and faculty are defending her, alleging that she didn’t know she was being racist. Leigh-Anne explains their thinking: the student dressed up as a friend (also white) whose nickname is Blackie because she blacks out so much from drinking—hence the blackface and the nametag that said Blackie. Plus, she used glitter. And blackface isn’t blackface if it involves glitter.
Oh, and someone spelled out the N-word, she says, with rocks in the nature park. So it’d be nice to move where there are more black people. Some of the racist white people in town really glare at me now. Trump has made it okay for them to be openly racist. What’s new with you?
I tell her about my project, and she says she can’t wait to read it.
I imagine Leigh-Anne’s margin comments: Performance of gender, performance of gender, performance of gender. And she’d probably be right.
Remember when we watched the Republican debates with Deepa? I ask her. I forget our drinking rules.
We could have gotten alcohol poisoning, she says, and we both laugh.
Deepa also taught at the college and lived in the same apartment building as Leigh-Anne and me. The night of the first Republican debate, back in August of 2015, I asked them: Is it messed up that I’m judging these men based on whether or not I think they’d sexually assault someone?
Conversation ensued about how these men would behave around drunk women at a party.
Jeb wouldn’t even be invited to the party, I said.
Poor Jeb, Deepa said, and we all laughed.
None of the other men, we decided, could be trusted.
I rewatch the Access Hollywood tape.
Then I find a clip of Trump shouting: And now they’re making Ghostbusters with only women! What’s going on?
I remember crying during the closing credits for the Ghostbusters remake. Chris asked, What’s wrong? And I said, I wish this had existed when I was a girl.
Chris and I are eating dinner in our living room, watching a TV series about a married couple who are Russian spies. The wife is choking a Pakistani intelligence agent in a pool. I pause it and tell Chris that I sometimes have trouble seeing the severity of what Mark did.
Chris spits out his broccoli.
I know, I say. It’s messed up.
No, the broccoli is frozen, he says. Is yours okay?
Chris looks at mine, which is drenched in sriracha and almost gone.
I didn’t really notice, I tell him. I heated it in the wok. Maybe I should have thawed it?
It’s okay, he says. Not all of it is frozen. Sorry, you were saying—
Even though I know what Mark did was wrong, I sometimes have trouble seeing it as severe.
Think about how you would feel, Chris says, if someone did that to your mom. Or to one of your friends. Unfortunately, you tend not to care about yourself. So think: What if someone had done this to Sarah? Or Leigh-Anne?
I’d be furious.
I don’t know if this is true or not, Chris says, but the Harvey Weinstein thing might have started small. These men, they’re trying to see what they can get away with.
I Know It's A Shallow Morality Trope
Mark texted two days ago. We arranged to talk on Friday.
Today is Friday.
All morning I research the behaviors of men who sexually assault women. Often, these men make what researchers call a series of seemingly irrelevant decisions—not necessarily sexual in nature—that provide the men with opportunities to commit the assault.
When I speak with Mark, he may allege that he never consciously planned the assault; however, he made a series of decisions that led to the opportunity to commit the assault.
At the party, Mark listened to me talk about how much I missed my dad. He refilled my glass more than once. Garrett told me, I think you should probably stop there. But Jake cheered me on. And I became drunk for the first time.
Someone suggested (possibly Mark) that I sleep in Mark’s room in the basement. Mark and Jake carried me down there, and Mark said that he’d stay with me, make sure I was okay.
One question really bothers me: Why would anyone carry a drunk person down a lot of steps instead of carrying her into a nearby room? If Mark suggested his basement room, that could mean—given what happened—that he planned the assault.
I don’t want to believe that Jake knowingly collaborated.
When Mark apologized, he said he’d been drinking, then admitted that there was no excuse for what he did, then reminded me again that he’d been drinking.
In book 3 of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that a man may be responsible for committing an unjust act while drunk—if the man was capable of foreseeing that he would act badly while drunk.
Another question now bothers me: Why did I emphasize that this was the first time I was drunk? Is it because my drunkenness disqualifies me from being The Good Victim? Even though I know it’s a shallow morality trope designed to fit flat narratives, and even though I know I can’t please everybody, I still crave the approval, the absolution—because some insecure part of me wants to preempt any reader’s claim that I should have done such and such (smashed his mouth, kicked his groin, bit his hand) instead of remaining very still and crying as quietly as I could—because, yes, I regret my stillness and my tears. And so what if I was drunk? So what if I’d been drunk a hundred times before?
I think of Mark and me at the perfectly straight stop sign.
I can still hear him say, I just get so lonely.
No, I Won't Ask Him
Chris says I should record my conversation with Mark.
But isn’t that against the law? I ask him.
I don’t know what the law is in Maryland, he says.
It’s against Maryland law.
I call Sarah, ask her what she thinks.
Guys are good at gaslighting, she says. Do it for your own sake. Also, you’re a writer. It will make taking notes so much easier.
I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you this, but have you ever been sexually assaulted? You’re an actor, so I’m guessing—
I haven’t, she says.
I’ve been propositioned. I’ve lost jobs because I’ve said no.
Do I assume that actors experience sexual assault at a higher-than-average rate? I must—otherwise, why did I tell Sarah: You’re an actor, so I’m guessing—
I can’t verify my assumption. It’s probably derived from the news, all the #MeToo stories surrounding celebrities.
This is why I want to interview Mark. We need to hear stories about guys who aren’t very powerful.
But if he denies the assault, then I become just another woman with an allegation impossible to prove.
Sarah agrees with you, I tell Chris. She thinks I should record the conversation.
If he agrees to help you with this project, Chris says, then I don’t see the problem with recording the call. It’s not like he’d go to authorities.
Excuse me, Officer, I say. I sexually assaulted this woman, was never held accountable, and now she’s taped me without my knowledge where I’m admitting to the crime.
Exactly, Chris says.
But I’m not worried about breaking the law. I don’t like being dishonest.
Which is why, Chris says, recording the phone call is a good idea. You won’t risk misquoting him.
Chris finds a recording app for my phone.
Mark is smart. Surely, he suspects that I’m writing about him, about what he did to me, about what it did to us.
I wonder if Mark sees a therapist. What if he kills himself after I remind him of the assault? I’d never forgive myself.
And I forgave him, or told him I forgave him, or implied I forgave him.
Maybe I never really forgave him.
I suppose that’s grandiose—to think that the assault mattered so much that he’d consider suicide.
I can’t stop thinking about Hannah.
Chris tells me, If you want to do this project, don’t abandon it because you’re worried about his feelings.
It’s hard not to think about his feelings, I reply. He was my friend.
I don’t care about the guy, Chris says, and so I’m only saying this because it might help you feel better about the project: maybe this will help him get some closure. Not that it’s your responsibility to make him feel better.
I’ll tell Mark from the beginning that I’m writing about our friendship. But I won’t mention that I’m recording the conversation. I worry that if I ask for his permission to record, he’ll self-censor. And anyway, if I say that I’m writing about us, then that implies I’m taking notes. Recording a conversation is simply a more time-effective and accurate way of note-taking.
I’ll record the call and then later ask him if that’s okay. No, I won’t ask him. I’ll tell him.