The Rumpus Book Club chats with Zoe Zolbrod about her new book The Telling, pushing against victim narratives, how the conversation surrounding sexual abuse has evolved, and the melding of research with memoir.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So I first heard about this book when we were on a panel together at AWP in Minneapolis last year. How long have you been working on this project?
Zoe Zolbrod: About five years, and more like six since I first started thinking about it.
Frances: I was impressed that you didn’t fall into the victim or the survivor camp but stayed your own person and incorporated it into who you are.
Brian S: Did you always think of it as a book-length project or did it grow into that?
Zoe Zolbrod: I’m glad it seemed like that Frances. I was pretty defensive about it, especially since when I would tell people what I was working on it wasn’t uncommon to get an “oh, a victim narrative” response or attitude.
It was always a book-length project. All the threads of it felt like a big story.
Frances: It takes a while to see that you are not doing that.
Zoe Zolbrod: I’ve gotten better about talking about it in a condescending way, but it was hard for me at first. It seemed like I either could say nothing or get started and not stop talking/thinking.
Brian S: I wonder why people want to dismiss something as a “victim narrative” in the first place? Isn’t there value in reading a victim’s perspective?
Frances: I remember realizing you were not going to go the victim route and sort of waking up to pay more attention.
Zoe Zolbrod: Apparently many people feel like they’ve heard that story before.
When did you realize that, Frances? That’s interesting to me.
Frances: I think it was a little more than halfway through. I saw how you were processing and working through it.
Brian S: I guess. Coming to it as someone who was also sexually abused as a child, I find a kind of comfort in the fact that these stories are being told now in a way that they weren’t even mentioned when I was a kid.
Frances: I saw it was about you as an individual and not just as a member of a group.
Zoe Zolbrod: Some people seem to feel like there are so many of these stories out there, but I hadn’t encountered any—or it seems like that—that reflected my experience. The sort of slow-dawning and shifting understanding of it. I think that’s one of the things that kept me away from therapy—worried that I’d be seen as a type or be fit into a cookie-cutter narrative.
Frances: That’s what I got as a reader. The shifting understanding of it. As I saw the shifting, I realized this was not the usual story about abuse and I did pay more attention. I liked how you appreciated your good family and fortunate circumstances. You mention your good home and comfortable surroundings a few times. I think many stories want to place blame and I liked that you didn’t need to do that.
Zoe Zolbrod: As I studied more about sexual assault/childhood sex abuse, I saw that my experience DID fit into plenty of patterns—and yet it still felt very unique. And I also don’t think the patterns are as recognized in general society as certain myths.
Brian S: That’s interesting. We’re the same age, and I experienced my abuse at about the same age you did, though it wasn’t from a family member and I never saw her again after I turned six, but I only just started therapy recently for depression related to this along with a lot of other stuff.
Zoe Zolbrod: Oh wow. This probably isn’t the forum, but I’m interested to know how that’s going for you. Was it hard to connect back to your past? Did you feel resistance about doing so? (Those can stand as rhetorical questions if you like. They’re just questions I wrestle with myself.)
Brian S: Sure—part of the reason for the therapy is because I find myself depressed by the poems I’m working on—those “Sex Crimes of the Old Testament” poems I mentioned on that panel. They’re triggering because I’m imagining sexual assaults both from the victim’s and the assaulter’s perspective, and that brings up a whole well of stuff I’ve never really dealt with. And writing persona poems gives me a little distance from the subject, which helps and makes it tough at the same time.
Frances: I see great strength in your ability to stand outside the whole thing and observe it. To value what was good and realize that a lot was good.
Zoe Zolbrod: I’m glad it came across that way Frances. I’m so aware of my good fortune in so many ways. As I say in the book, it’s hard to balance that with accepting that the abuse was bad.
I had some of that when working on this book, Brian.
Brian S: So when people talk about victim narrative as a negative, do they mean that there’s a tone of “Oh my life is horrible because of this and I can’t deal” or “I had this and I worked through it heroically and you should be able to also,” or something else?
Zoe Zolbrod: And it ties into Frances’s point. There was some connection for me between recognizing my good fortune in so many ways and not wanting to dwell on this dark spot. And once I let myself think on it, some emotions came up that I had done a good job of repressing all those years.
Frances: Perhaps because of the good fortune, the abuse isn’t you. It happened to you and you managed it. You stayed yourself
Zoe Zolbrod: But it felt good, in the end. It was healthy for me, I think. Writing that’s therapeutic gets a bad rap, but writing this book was therapeutic for me, no doubt. But not without emotional cost.
Molly: I really liked the way that you interacted with research, Zoe. As someone who studies psych and worked in academia, I feel that you represented and discusses the research well, and I admire the way that you maintained the same tone during those sections and didn’t revert to “academese.” As someone who hopes to balance personal and academic narratives, I really admired that detail from what I’ve read so far.
Frances: Writing is hugely therapeutic, even if no one ever sees it. Writing by hand is reputed to be the best therapy.
Zoe Zolbrod: As I say in the book, I’m still not sure to what extent the abuse formed my personality. It happened right at the time my consciousness and memories were forming. I think one of the risky things I suggest is that maybe there were lasting effects, but maybe they weren’t all bad. Maybe they contributed to parts of my personality that I like. But don’t get me wrong. The abuse was bad—in some ways I only let myself fully feel that when writing the book.
Frances: Maybe you waited till you were strong enough before you let yourself feel the full impact.
Zoe Zolbrod: It makes me glad to hear you say that, Molly. I felt out of my depth in some of the research for sure, because I’m not trained in those areas. I wish I was!
Frances: You didn’t come across as out of your depth at all.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes, I think so Frances. And something about moving into the role of a parent transpired, too. Brian, I wonder if that’s part of what you’re going through? I know you have little kids. I learned so much through the research. Including how much work there is to be done in this field, still.
Molly: Yes, I think you did a really good job, and I could tell that you read more than just news briefs on the research.
Frances: So for you who have experienced some of the horror, having little kids must be scary at times.
Zoe Zolbrod: For me, it made me feel responsible on a different level. But it also triggered me to some degree—I think that word can be overused, but it really is descriptive of a certain flip being switched.
Brian S: Well, I’ve raised one already—she’s twenty-five now and about to finish her undergraduate degree. But the twins came along and that work, piled on top of the other regular stress, is part of why I sought out a therapist.
Frances: And choosing to work on such disheartening poems!
Zoe Zolbrod: Especially when my daughter got closer to the age I had been—she was so little. It broke my heart to think of that happening to her and then I had to realize it had happened to me at that age. So little!
Frances: Yes, I can imagine how that tore at your heart.
Brian S: Zoe, since you mentioned patterns earlier, I remember when my first child was young that I was afraid, because abusive parents are so often abused themselves, that I was destined to be an abusive parent myself. And it took some work for me to realize that destiny was, well, bullshit.
Frances: But you know, overt abuse is clear. You know you were abused and know it is wrong. Subtle abuse is less clear. Negative parenting and constant criticism and things like that do tend to get repeated.
Brian S: Yeah, and the spectrum of negative and positive parenting is miles wide and has lots of disagreement in it, which doesn’t help.
Frances: So true
Zoe Zolbrod: I’ve heard several stories from people who were abused and whose parents—mothers usually—were unmoved when they found out because they had been abused too and saw it as almost inevitable and not worth getting upset over.
Brian S: When I look back at the way sexual abuse is talked about now as compared to when it was happening to me, the difference is incredible. Ellen Bass, who you mentioned in your book and who we did a profile of a little while ago, had a lot to do with that.
Frances: I have a friend whose mother was always in denial about the father abusing the daughter. When the mother was very old, she began to dream about the father coming out of the daughter’s room late at night.
Zoe Zolbrod: I loved that profile. And yes, I’m really fascinated in the differences in how we talk about it, and what effect that had on my own interpretations. This stuff gets buried so deep, but it doesn’t tend to go away.
Frances: Even the freedom of thinking about it openly now must help.
Brian S: I mean, people make fun of the “very special episode” of Different Strokes where Arnold gets touched by the bicycle man, but as someone who’d never seen that talked about at all, who still hadn’t told his parents, man, that meant the world to me.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes, the broader range of narratives really helps.
Frances: When the world is talking about it, it isn’t your shameful secret that you alone endured.
Zoe Zolbrod: I wasn’t even aware of that episode!
Zoe Zolbrod: I’ll have to seek it out.
Frances: One important thing for the abused child to know is that it was 100% not his/her fault. The child is totally innocent.
Brian S: I just looked it up—Season 5. You can see clips on YouTube if nothing else. And I will always love Gordon Jump for being willing to take on that role, because it could have ruined him.
Zoe Zolbrod: As I write about in the book, I did have a “stranger danger” incident when I was in elementary school, and I had no trouble talking about that. And I knew what to do, instinctively. Push the guy away and run to a populated area calling for me friend, and then telling her dad right away when he came to get us. But the sneaky weird secret feeling of having something happen in my home in an ongoing way that by some appearances could look more consensual (was not in reality, of course) was entirely different. I didn’t know what to do with that or even how to connect the two things.
Frances: Sometimes abusers suggest the child was seductive or inviting and it is so important for the kids to know they are in no way responsible for what happened.
Frances: Sometimes an adult will wonder why she didn’t tell anyone at the time—and will feel guilty about that. The complexity and intrigue that you speak of is too much for a child to wade through.
Brian S: I have to say, no matter what other issues I had with my parents (and they were legion), they never doubted me when I finally told them. And that mattered.
Frances: That does matter.
Zoe Zolbrod: I’m so glad to hear that. It’s so common not to be believed, and I can see how that could drive people around the bend.
Frances: Sometimes the abused child gets “MY brother would never do that to you.”
Zoe Zolbrod: Brian, were they in a position to take any action when you did tell them? Was anyone still in touch with this person?
Brian S: We were in another state, and years had passed, and at the time, I felt I had done enough just by getting it off my chest. Looking back thirty years later, I probably should have pursued it, but at the time I wanted some kind of closure.
Frances: That’s interesting that both of you told someone to prove your experience and it backfired.
Zoe Zolbrod: One thing I wrestle with is the knowledge about just how difficult it can be to take action, especially when many years have passed. But in my case—as in many, I believe—the person can still be a risk to other kids even many years later.
Frances: And was. Did he go to jail?
Zoe Zolbrod: My cousin was sent to prison, but I had nothing to do with that.
Frances: I know but he was still dangerous and he’s off the streets.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes, it was a strange comfort to me to read about how typical it is for kids not to tell, and for what reasons they don’t, and to learn that the way I eventually disclosed (to a peer, when puberty was about to hit) was very common as well.
Brian S: I had a similar experience to that! It hit me when I was reading the book how many parallels there were. I told a friend in junior high because I wanted to brag, and I had nothing else. And it did not work the way I planned.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes, Brian, it’s uncanny that you had such a similar experience with a peer. It breaks my heart now, that we thought that was sexual experience, almost to be bragged about. (Bragged about isn’t quite the right word, but there was an element of that, at that age when what I wanted to do was prove my maturity.)
Frances: And your friend, who was way too sexually active at that young age, knew immediately it was something you should tell your parents.
Zoe Zolbrod: I have such deep respect for anyone who presses charges, confronts the person, can take any of those steps. It’s so excruciatingly hard to do—which I say only by inference, since I didn’t do it!
Yes, Frances. She had that maturity.
Brian S: I was in 7th or 8th grade, and my friend was spouting this line that I soon discovered was from a teen movie (which I hadn’t seen because my parents, strict Jehovah’s Witnesses, thought was too racy for me) and I wanted to beat his story. And I did, just not in the way either expected.
I still remember the story he told me—he’d met a girl in camp, she was from Canada, much more mature, etc. I think it was from Weird Science. 🙂
Zoe Zolbrod: It’s such a tender age—that mix where you’re still a little child but also becoming this sexual person, this rage of hormones. I also started drinking around that age—way too young and too heavily, and against my type as a good-girl/good-student.
Frances: I wonder if confronting the abuser years later is effective. I imagine an empty feeling after the confrontation. You tell them off, get them arrested or not—and then what?
Frances: You still have to handle it by yourself for yourself.
Zoe Zolbrod: That’s what I could easily imagine—that empty feeling. But then he did it again to someone else (and maybe more than that) in the years after I would have had the confrontation, and so I can’t help but wonder if I could have prevented it from happening.
Brian S: I haven’t gotten to that point in my therapy yet, Frances. I’ll let you know what he says. 🙂
Frances: But no guilt, Zoe. It is not your fault he kept doing it. You were a small child.
Zoe Zolbrod: What’s the use of thinking that, I know. But I do think the principle of telling is a good one to hold on to, even when (because it’s often) the immediate outcome is not clearly a benefit to the tell-er. That said, I would never put that on someone, knowing that personal health and safety has to come first.
Brian S: Or he could have retaliated against you because he was afraid. No way of knowing.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes, you’re right. And it’s not like a pedophile is just awaiting the one magic word before he can heal.
Frances: Exposing a bad guy is a good thing—if you have the strength and maturity and courage.
Zoe Zolbrod: The near-hopelessness of pedophilia is depressing, but I also became interested in reading about it—about how people who have never acted on their urges but have them are trying to stay clean, to not hurt anyone.
Frances; That’s why Woody Allen saying the heart wants what the heart wants is infuriating.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yeah, that makes my skin crawl.
Frances: If the heart wants something bad, the brain has to take charge. It’s all so sad. Sad that little children are hurt and confused.
Zoe Zolbrod: It’s so 70s, right? It reminds me of the complicated conversation that took place around the Bowie/Lori Mattix thing—the sex he had with this fourteen-year-old who was a virgin, and the climate in which stuff like that was common.
Frances: And defended. NAMBLA for example.
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes. That said, I’m also interested in how the fears around child sex abuse have led some teenagers to get placed on the sex offender registry for normal teenage sexual behavior, ruining their lives. Our hysteria doesn’t help us.
Brian S: Are you working on anything new yet? Or were you working on anything else while you wrote this?
Zoe Zolbrod: When I had this book out on submission, I started something completely different—a quasi-fantasy dystopia set in the near future. I put it down to edit this and now to promote it, but I can’t wait to get back to a completely made-up world where I can have anything happen that I want to!
Brian S: That sounds like a fun book in some ways. 🙂
Frances: Maybe it will feel less like an albatross around your neck and freer and more fun.
Frances: Was it hard to talk to people at book signings? Did they want to tell you what you SHOULD have done?
Zoe Zolbrod: I haven’t had any signings yet, but I’ve started having some interviews and have given a short presentation. So far, it hasn’t been hard to talk about—and I wasn’t sure if that’d be the case, so it’s a relief. No one has said anything that offends me, and no one has accused me of anything—although I’m braced for it to happen. It does feel a little strange to hear people’s takes, to hear myself described as wild, or a risk-taker, etc. That’s not inaccurate, I suppose, but…
Frances; Good luck with the readings and signings. Stay strong.
Brian S; Yeah. I’ve also thought a lot about the way we as a society refuse to allow convicted sex offenders to reintegrate into society. If we want to punish them for life, let’s do that, rather than telling them they can’t live anywhere. In Miami, at one point, literally the only place that sex offenders on parole could live was under a bridge.
Zoe Zolbrod: It’s a dilemma we haven’t worked out. I hope we can move in the right direction, to protect more kids more effectively and find some way for these people to rehabilitate.
Frances: Interesting to talk to you. Thank you for your time.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
Zoe Zolbrod: I just got back from Southern California, where I was making a point to read books about that region. I read Eve Babwitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, which is reissued, and Golden Days by Carolyn See. I also just read Black Dove, a series of personal essays that have the effect of a memoir by Ana Castillo. She writes towards a moment when her beloved son who she raised so conscientiously is sent to prison for robbery. It does some of the kind of on-the-age wrestling and soul-searching that I meant to do in my book.
Brian S: Oh, I bet that would be a great pair with Reginald Dwayne Betts‘s work, both his poetry and his memoir! Hard to believe that the hour is up already. Thanks for the book and for joining us tonight.
Zoe Zolbrod: Thanks Brian and Frances! Nice chatting with you.