This fall my daughter will begin fourth grade, a new beginning for her and a haunting memory for me, as I recall my own desperate nine-year-old wish to be placed in Mr. A’s homeroom. In 1980, Mr. A was a well-known and beloved public school teacher who would be later accused of, and plead guilty to, child molestation. In hindsight, big red warning signs were everywhere: leather couches and wild, hanging plants decorated the classroom, a popcorn machine and regular rock music breaks were standard fare, as were the spontaneous tickle tortures and weekend field trips. These days, most adults can identify a sexual predator’s habits, and parents warn their children of traps and catch phrases (“don’t tell anyone” and “it’s a secret”). Adults will believe a child when they tell of funny feelings or abuse. But in those days, talking about child molestation was taboo, and the sprawling tributary conversations about lost trust and shame were nil. I wish someone had asked me then, what does it feel like to spend a year in a predator’s orbit? How are you handling the aftermath of simultaneously crushing on and looking up to a serial perpetrator? Does it still hurt to have been carried along by his charisma and its false promise even years later?
When I learned Mr. A had assaulted at least one of my classmates, I began an expunging process, getting rid of my affections for him through a series of attitudes that were both self-preserving (he was dangerous) and forgiving (he was sick). These internal conflicts raised in me questions about trust and boundaries, and lasted long after his trial and conviction. In fact, I hadn’t realized I still carried them until reading Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, out earlier this summer, and felt an uneasy, internal click.
Zolbrod tells two stories: one of her childhood years when she was regularly molested by her older cousin, Toshi, the other, more dominant thread of her emerging sexuality from pre-teen years through adulthood, separate but entangled with her cousin’s abuse. Together, the two stories form a complex narrative about what it means to grow into the living, thriving force of sexuality after being hurt; and how assault doesn’t reduce one’s life to being tricked and used. Somehow, I had always believed my classmate’s abuse doomed him to a stunted life. Zolbrod’s tale, on the contrary, is one of awakening into the complex role of a sexual being determined to find her footing after an imperfect beginning.
I was struck by how Zolbrod orbits around her own witness-account of her cousin’s crimes, both from a distance and uncomfortably close proximity, with a steady point of view that straddles child and adult selves. She writes in a clear, unwavering voice, questioning memory while claiming her past in a way that validates any survivor struggling to retell their story. “I grew to expect Toshi’s entry if my parents were out. He’d slip in shortly after my brother and I went to bed. If my parents were home, as they usually were, he might come and he might not, and if he did, it’d be later, his increased furtiveness obvious to me even back then, the door cracking open just far enough for a body to fit through sideways, the almost inaudible click as he slowly released the knob.”
The adult Zolbrod recalls the child Zolbrod viewing each incident of assault as having two meanings. Toshi’s visits to her room weren’t only attacks (although they were), but part of a game. His actions weren’t only unwelcome hands/mouth/penis on her body (although they were), but framed within family arrangement of busy relatives helping one another, blurred boundaries, and a child’s uncertainty about how to blow the whistle in a way that wouldn’t tear lives apart. There’s a tension between the narrator’s wanting to control the situation, and free herself from it. There’s a tension between her wanting the assault to not happen at all and feeling a certain helpless inevitability. The tension is not in the events themselves, but in Zolbrod’s struggle to find herself amid each assault.
“One night I finally said, “No. Only over the underpants.” I said it loud enough that he shushed me. I could feel his muscles jump at my raised voice. I could feel his fear.”
Zolbrod is deeply truthful about the way in which the specter of assault haunts her. Not through any type of paralysis or failure to move ahead in career, marriage and family. Rather, in a frustrating parallel quest to piece together a recognizable recovery story. “I did not feel powerless, I did not feel like if people knew me they’d leave me. I did not feel unable to protect myself in dangerous situations, I didn’t feel conflicted about enjoying sex, or have trouble saying no to sex I didn’t want, or engage in sex that repeated aspects of my abuse. I was fine. Was that another piece of evidence suggesting that what I experienced didn’t rate? I didn’t quite believe that, but I wasn’t eager to be associated with a victim’s movement, either.”
This was my favorite truth of the book: how to square one’s unique experience with the dominant, overly simplified victim narrative in national conversation. Zolbrod finds, despite the textbooks, there is no way to do so. An individual story is not a set of behaviors and characteristics, but a uniquely lived life. If there’s a liberating finale to The Telling, it is not that Zolbrod finds closure by finally telling her parents about the abuse (their response is, not surprisingly, unsatisfactory). It’s that she tells the rest of her life—as a feminist, sexual being, and mother– in detail sharp enough to deflate every stereotype of a sex abuse survivor.
Zolbrod offers no neatly, bow-tied resolutions. But an author’s attempt at closure is often enough for a reader. After what seems like a lifetime of bracing and bottling, I’ve gotten closer to settling my fourth- grade trauma. I was lucky compared to my classmate, but no less duped. Having been tricked, along with an entire class, and an entire town, sharpened my ability to judge character. My protective maternal instincts, though informed by my past, aren’t entirely determined by it. Because of The Telling, I can look at my own fourth grader with empathetic eyes, and know she is not only vulnerable but powerful.