The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jeannie Vanasco about her new memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (Tin House, October 2019), writing about trauma, the importance of the FBI’s revised definition of rape, how her cats helped her write this book, and more.
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 become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Leigh Camacho Rourks, María Sonia Cristoff, Jenn Shapland, Paul Lisicky, Samantha Irby, Tracy O’Neill, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club chat was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Jeannie Vanasco about her new memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl. Thanks for joining us tonight, Jeannie!
Jeannie Vanasco: Hi! I’m looking forward to it!
Marisa: How is the book tour going?
Jeannie Vanasco: It’s going well. People have been asking great questions. Last night I read at my university, and that was particularly meaningful—since the book was inspired by conversations with students. Tomorrow, I read at one of my fave bookstores, Women & Children First in Chicago.
Marisa: I’ve never been to Chicago, but if/when I do get there, that’s one of my first stops! They do great work.
Jeannie Vanasco: Jamie Thomas there gives the best book recommendations. Getting reading recommendations from booksellers is one of the best parts of the tour.
Marisa: Has it been difficult to select sections to read aloud? I’m also wondering, does touring for a memoir feel easier the second time around, like you’re more prepared, or is it just a whole new animal with a new book?
Jeannie Vanasco: Last night was difficult in terms of figuring out excerpts. Even though I don’t feel ashamed about having been raped, it’s hard to read sections that go into specifics about body parts. Naming body parts in front of students and colleagues felt strange. Like it risks sexualizing my body. So I deliberately picked excerpts that avoided that.
Touring this time has felt easier.
Marisa: That makes a lot of sense, regarding reading in front of students and colleagues.
Can you talk a bit about the structure of the book? When I was reading, I noticed it almost seemed designed to make it easy for me to put down, pause, and just get some distance, and then pick it up again. Was that intentional?
Jeannie Vanasco: I’m glad the structure made it easy to put the book down. That wasn’t intentional. Really, I work best in fragments. I enjoy cutting apart my writing and collaging it.
I think the structure made it easier for me to put it down.
I’ve noticed in reader reviews (even though I told myself I wouldn’t visit Goodreads!) that a lot of readers have taken breaks while reading the book. I’m glad the structure helps with that.
Jeannie Vanasco: Oh my gosh I love that book! I assigned it in two of my memoir classes this fall.
Marisa: I imagine the temptation to read Goodreads reviews is overwhelming!
Jeannie Vanasco: It is overwhelming! I stopped as of this week. I end up fixating on the negative.
Marisa: I have an essay out in Lilly Dancyger’s new anthology, Burn It Down, and have perhaps checked the Goodreads page a few times…
Jeannie Vanasco: I’m buying that anthology tomorrow! I’m so excited to read it. Have you heard from any readers yet? About your essay? I ask because that can be really rewarding. Though after I got hate mail, I nixed my contact info from my personal site and faculty page.
Marisa: Thank you! There are so many writers in it that I admire. I’m still waiting for my contributor copies, so I’ve only read what’s been excerpted. I can’t wait to hold the book in my hands! And yes, I did get two emails thus far about my essay. It’s very powerful to hear from readers, but I am the worst at taking compliments generally, and especially with regard to my writing.
So, I’m trying to get better at that, and allow myself to sit with the kind words.
I get a lot of hate mail from men generally, because of my role at The Rumpus. I think I’ve become immune to that strain of it—the “you’re an angry man-hater” nonsense.
Jeannie Vanasco: That’s terrible!
Marisa: But it’s also less personal than mail about one’s writing, for sure.
Jeannie Vanasco: I mean, it’s great that you can shrug it off. I’d have a hard time doing that. After one piece of hate mail, I was like: I’m out.
Marisa: Were you worried about response to this book before it came out?
Jeannie Vanasco: I was so worried. But I was more worried about disappointing feminists I admire. I was aware that there was a huge risk in giving Mark so much of a voice in the book. But I decided it needed to be there. Because I was trying to shift the attention away from my actions and focus on his actions.
Marisa: You talk about that within the book. Which is interesting, because I think that the act of writing this book was such an inherently feminist act.
There is an idea that writing about trauma will offer catharsis. Do you believe that? Did writing this book offer you any kind of relief or freedom from the rape?
Jeannie Vanasco: It did offer catharsis. I don’t have nightmares about Mark anymore. I think writing about trauma can be very cathartic.
Marisa: I was actually going to ask that, specifically—whether you still have nightmares—but wasn’t sure if it was an invasive question.
Jeannie Vanasco: Not at all invasive. Please feel free to ask me anything. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Jeannie Vanasco: Melissa Febos has this great essay in Poets & Writers about writing the personal, and she cites this study by James Pennebaker. In his study, he found that writing about just the events or just the feelings wasn’t cathartic. It’s all about tying feelings to events.
Marisa: Melissa and I will be on a panel at AWP together in San Antonio about trauma writing; I’m very honored to be moderating that conversation.
Jeannie Vanasco: She’s amazing. I love her work. I hope I get to meet her someday.
Marisa: She’s the best. And I really mean that. She’s been… as I tell her often, I can’t thank her enough for all she’s done for me. And I know that so many others feel the same way. I feel lucky to know her.
And, Abandon Me is a memoir that was a life-altering force for me much like this book was (and, also a Book Club pick!). It made me rethink some parts of my life in ways I hadn’t let myself before, and so did Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl.
Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you. When you told me way back that you picked my book for the Rumpus Book Club—I can’t easily indicate how important that was. It gave me some much needed encouragement.
Marisa: I’m also going to give a quick shout out here to Carmen Machado’s forthcoming In the Dream House, which is another memoir that blew my mind open around parts of my past.
Jeannie Vanasco: Her memoir is remarkable! I love the formally inventive structure. I’m doing an event with her at Politics and Prose in November. I’m so excited for that. She’s one of my favorite writers.
Jeannie Vanasco: As an editor, do you find it hard to edit work about trauma?
Marisa: I don’t always find it hard to edit work about trauma. We run a series called ENOUGH that I manage directly; I do most of the reading submissions and editing myself. Sometimes, if I have to do a lot at once, it is hard.
Jeannie Vanasco: You’ll be publishing my friend Anita’s essay in ENOUGH. She’s really looking forward to that. It’s her first major publication. She was a huge help with my book—I couldn’t have written this book without the support of my friends.
Marisa: I grew up in an abusive household, and so I do find writing around child abuse and incest especially hard to edit. (I’ve written a lot about my own experiences with my father, who thankfully died a few years back.)
But the thanks I get from writers who publish in the ENOUGH series makes it worth any difficulty, for sure. And for me, that series is a cornerstone of what I wanted to do at The Rumpus when I took over. Having it exist ongoing is very meaningful in that way.
Jeannie Vanasco: I’m so sorry to hear that. Just last night—after my reading—I was talking with a student whose uncle attempted to rape her several times.
As a teacher, I sometimes find it hard to help students with those essays. Just because some of the students are so young. The trauma is really recent.
Marisa: It’s clear from the book, and from your comments tonight, that you’re an exceptionally dedicated teacher. I wanted to ask you talk about what being a teacher means to you, and how it might affect your own work?
Jeannie Vanasco: I’m lucky. I find teaching to be incredibly rewarding. But I think it’s important that I acknowledge I have a tenure track job, which offers stability. Having that stability has helped me with my mental health. Also, I feel like I’m always learning. I change up the readings almost every semester. It’s exciting to listen to students make observations that I didn’t make.
Teaching, though, sometimes wears on me. It’s hard to take in so many stories of trauma. A male colleague told me that he’s never received an essay about rape.
Marisa: Really?! I mean, maybe my surprise here is naive.
Jeannie Vanasco: No, I’m with you. That was my thought exactly. But I can understand why a student wouldn’t want to open up to an older male professor. Though it’s not that he doesn’t care about students.
Marisa: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking back now to my own undergrad and graduate experiences, and it’s very likely I wrote differently for male professors. It’s a different power dynamic.
Jeannie Vanasco: Absolutely. I had trouble accepting compliments from straight male instructors. I didn’t know how genuine they were. But that’s largely because of my experience with my high school newspaper advisor.
Marisa: I wonder what would need to happen to change that… if it would even be possible to level that field?
That makes a lot of sense. Throughout the book, you focus on the rape with Mark but you also take readers through other experiences of assault and harassment you’ve experienced (like your experience with the high school newspaper advisor). Had you realized before this project that they’d all end up in the same story?
Jeannie Vanasco: I hadn’t realized that those experiences would all land in one book. And after I finished the book, I realized there were experiences I’d left out. An interviewer recently asked me: “Why do you think you’ve been sexually assaulted so many times?”
Marisa: Um, because you are a woman in the world?
Jeannie Vanasco: It put the focus on me, as if it’s my fault. Instead of, “Why do you think men keep sexually assaulting women?”
Marisa: Exactly. You were careful in the book to keep coming back to this—to remind yourself, I think maybe, as much as the readers, that a victim of assault is not responsible for their assault.
Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you. I’m glad that came through.
Marisa: I shared with you in an email that reading the FBI’s definition of rape was eye-opening for me, and made it clear to me that an experience I wasn’t certain was rape from my past was. There was something so validating about seeing the words in print, and knowing it was just a fact. “Comforting” isn’t the right word, but something similar to that.
I was also surprised that I didn’t know the legal definition! I mean, I do a fair amount of editing and writing around the topic of sexual assault. But I’d never seen that before.
Jeannie Vanasco: Learning the FBI’s revised definition of rape was life changing. It reminded me of how important language is. I mean, I’m a writer. So I know language is important. But in this instance, it really affected my understanding of how I’d been thinking about Mark’s body—which part he used—instead of thinking about my body, the part that he violated.
What was strange for me: when Mark told me that way back then, immediately after it happened, I whispered to no one: “He raped me.” I could access the word then, in the moment. But for years and years after, I couldn’t call it rape.
Marisa: That was a big moment for me as a reader. I thought, wow, so he always knew it was rape. Even when you doubted that it was.
Jeannie Vanasco: I don’t remember whispering, “He raped me.” But Mark said he can still hear me saying it. I made the mistake of reading the comments section (I know!) of my interview with The Cut.
Marisa: Comments sections are the worst.
Jeannie Vanasco: And somebody dismissed my response, saying that I was being unreasonable because Mark “only” used his fingers. Luckily some other readers piled on, saying, Dude. You just proved her point. It’s as if the victim’s body doesn’t matter at all.
Marisa: Internet trolls are the worst of humanity, truly. But this is why reading the FBI’s revised definition mattered so much for me. I’d been telling myself “but it was an object, not a body part, and so not rape.”
Jeannie Vanasco: I didn’t know that definition until I started writing this book.
Marisa: And for some reason a government agency’s validation mattered very much. Because patriarchy, I suppose.
Jeannie Vanasco: The problem is that states don’t have to abide by that definition.
Marisa: How long did the writing for this take, from conception to finish? And how did you keep yourself healthy and sane through it? It feels like sometimes as writers we are experimenting on our own lives, and I think you fully undertake that kind of risk here.
Jeannie Vanasco: It took eight months. January 2018 through August 2018. I swam a lot. Screamed underwater. Pet my cats. I taught throughout those months. I had a summer teaching gig. So it was good to have that as a distraction. It forced me to leave the house. Otherwise, I would have sequestered myself in my home office during the summer. And that wouldn’t have been healthy.
Marisa: God bless cats. (I don’t believe in god. But I totally believe in cats.)
Jeannie Vanasco: This tour has been hard because Flannery got really sick. We actually thought she was going to die on publication day. It’s been tough. Right before this chat, I was feeding her through a tube in her neck for about two hours.
Marisa: Oh, no. I’m very sorry, Jeannie. That’s really, really hard.
Jeannie Vanasco: But she’s getting better. She’s starting to eat a little bit on her own. I have to get another book under contract to cover these vet bills! Oh: pet insurance. I highly recommend Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. (I swear they’re not paying me to promote them.)
Marisa: I lost my first cat, the cat I adopted when I was nineteen who kind of saved my life, in a sudden way when she was quite young. So I have a lot of feelings about cats and their health. I’m glad she’s doing better!
Jeannie Vanasco: I’m so sorry about your cat. Not everybody understands the bond that someone has with their pet. Flannery and Bishop really helped me write this book. Though Flannery did eat some of my sentences!
Marisa: It was a different relationship than I have with my cat now, or with the cat I grew up with. It was a very specific time in my life, you know? I think we can connect with animals as strongly as people. Why not?
We are almost out of time! I have so many more questions. I do hope we get to connect offline at some point.
Jeannie Vanasco: Yes! I hope so, too.
Marisa: Can I ask, did you stay in touch with Mark?
Jeannie Vanasco: I didn’t. I sent him the book. I haven’t heard back. I checked in with him, and he hadn’t read it yet. That’s the last I heard from him.
Marisa: It seems like you had very clear boundaries for yourself around how you’d communicate with him, and so much support from your partner and therapist and friends.
Jeannie Vanasco: Absolutely. I feel lucky to be surrounded by so many kind people. I got to introduce two of my characters to one another at my book launch at Greenlight. My friends “Nina” and “Sarah.” Not many authors get to do that.
Marisa: What were you reading, listening to, watching, etc. during the writing of this book? Are there writers you felt you were in conversation with? And, I always end these chats by asking: What are you reading right now? Or excited for that’s forthcoming?
Jeannie Vanasco: I was watching The Good Place. Also: The Americans. I was listening to a lot of music. Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s were a help. I love their song “Broadripple Is Burning.” I was reading a lot of academic studies about rape.
There are so many writers I felt I was in conversation with. Melissa Febos’s work means a lot to me. I’m excited for Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir. I’m rereading Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter right now. I LOVE Mother Winter. It’s permanently parked on my nonfiction syllabi.
Marisa: Yes, I love it, too. Sophia is a force! (Melissa Febos actually connected us.)
Jeannie Vanasco: I’m really excited for Amy Jo Burns’s novel Shiner. That comes out next year. Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side meant a lot to me. That book is one of the reasons I wanted to work with Tin House.
Marisa: Whew, yes. Lacy gave a craft talk when I was a student at Tin House Summer Workshop that was A-MAY-ZING. And left me sobbing.
Jeannie Vanasco: The one on likability?
Marisa: Yes, that’s the one!
Jeannie Vanasco: I read that online. It’s so good! I share it with my students.
Jeannie Vanasco: Also: I need to say that I couldn’t have written this book without my editor, Masie Cochran. She’s a genius.
Marisa: I was going to ask about Masie’s role! It was very clear you two have a unique and really wonderful editor-writer relationship.
Jeannie Vanasco: She’s amazing. I can’t imagine working with anyone else. I feel like she gets what I’m trying to do. She was instrumental in helping me finish The Glass Eye. I’d still be working on that book if not for her.
Marisa: Thank you so much for your time tonight, Jeannie, but moreover thank you for writing this book. I know will mean so much to so many women. And, I look forward to asking you the rest of my questions when we finally get to meet IRL!
Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you for having me! It makes me happy to know that the book is helping people.
Marisa: Safe travels to/from Chicago, and have a restful night!
Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you!
Photograph of Jeannie Vanasco by Dennis Drenner.