Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl

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Member Reviews

Did I enjoy the book? Not at all. 
Is it a necessary read? Completely (but do expect the author to continue to remind you how necessary this book is).
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Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco is a memoir about sexual assault perpetrated by a friend.
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This is a book that needs to be read. It isn't like any memoir on sexual assault I've read. The author interviews the man, who used to be her friend, that assaulted her. She gets his feelings and tells hers as well. I think the author was very brave to write this memoir. Highly recommend. 

I would like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy free of charge. This is my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
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This book should be mandatory reading. These conversations are necessary and important and while I may not ever have the desire to talk to those that assaulted me about the assault, I gained some catharsis and understanding from this.
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This is a powerful and unflinching memoir dealing with the author’s experience of being raped by one of her closest high school friends. It is unusually and bravely written, because Vanasco writes the novel at the same time as she begins to untangle the story of what happened, so there are passages where the reader feels they are discovering things alongside her. When she began writing the book, Vanasco took the bold step of reaching out to the man who had raped her and asking him to be interviewed about what happened from his point of view. A lot of the book is taken up with lengthy transcripts of their conversations as she attempts to unpack his understanding of what happened that night and since, to explore the dynamics of the friendship they once had, and to better understand her own need to behave in a certain way around him.
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This was brilliant, everyone needs to read this book, especially women, but then again, especially men. The style was different to what I expected but it thoroughly suited the memoir. The book alternates between Jeannie's discussions with her friends and family about writing the book and her feelings and thoughts that she's going through and her transcribing the phone calls she has with Mark, her rapist. The chapters are titled based on a phrase from the upcoming chapter, often in relation to contents from the previous chapter.

*Disclaimer: The book, and I, have no intention to diminish the fact that men can be assaulted by women - that anyone of any gender can be assaulted by a person of any gender - we are just using these pronouns and generalisations because those are the ones relevant to the story.*

We learn more about Jeannie as the memoir progresses, and about her numerous sexual assaults. She is unflinching in her tellings of these stories, her experiences with mania and depression, and all the women that she knows that have been assaulted.

The reason I think all women should read this is because it really challenged a number of notions I held. Not only the idea that 'the rapist is a bad guy', although to be fair my own experience is certainly more nuanced than that. But it also challenges my internalised misogyny and 'performance of gender'. I had many of the same reactions as Jeannie 'oh that was nice of him', 'of course she would be grateful to him', until her friends called her out on it. Then she, and I, realised how accommodating she was being, how she was giving him the power, trying to keep the men in her life happy or help them. 

I appreciated her growth to being able to take more control of the situation; of their conversations. I hope I also grew, at least to be more aware of when I'm being unnecessarily accommodating, through reading this book. I can see why she was concerned that many women reading this might have been angered by her giving her rapist a voice but I certainly didn't feel that way. Because in the end, it was still Jeannie's story, maybe not the story she anticipated writing, but one worth reading.

I think all men should read this because they need to know just how many women have been assaulted. Even I was surprised just how many women Jeannie knew who had been assaulted. They also need to know the definition of assault and rape and know how it affects women in so many different ways. I think all men, from those who have assaulted women, those who might, and those who would never can stand to be better informed. 

We need more stories from 'regular' women. As was vaguely discussed near the beginning, it's one thing when it's directors assaulting models - it's not that it's not terrible, but it's harder to process because it's not necessarily a woman who you could know. But Jeannie is a woman you could know, she was a woman Mark did know - and assaulted anyway. And Mark is a man you could know - I don't want to say you should always be afraid of all men, but be cautious.
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This is going to be a really difficult review for me to write. I didn't realise that I needed this book as much as I did, and I am so grateful that I've been given the opportunity to read it and experience some catharsis.

Trigger warnings: graphic descriptions of rape, sexual assault of a minor, parental death

This was a book unlike any other. I've read a fair amount of nonfiction that examines rape and sexual violence, and this book took the topic in a completely different direction. 

Much of the book is about Jeannie writing the book. She examines in minute detail why she wants to write about her experiences of rape, and why she wants to include direct conversations between herself and her rapist, Mark. In a couple of very interesting passages, she acknowledges that this is a unique selling point of her book - but that she thinks that books about sexual assault shouldn't need a unique selling point, as they're important in their own right. She also talks to many of her female friends about the book, and includes passages of them analysing her and Mark's conversations, drawing parallels and conclusions that she still, 14 years later, cannot have the emotional distance to do. 

Jeannie reflects a lot about the ethics of including Mark's voice in the book. She worries that other feminists and other women will be angry with her for including him, and potentially making his narrative more important or more interesting than hers. But she feels like she needs his side of the story. She needs to know whether he still thinks about her, and if his actions have affected his life. This was the point where the book took a huge turn for me, and probably made it one of the most cathartic reading experiences I've ever had. It's not quite the same, but I have always wondered whether my abuser still thinks about what she did to me. Especially since I became an adult - and I'm now one year off being her age when she emotionally abused me - I want to understand why she preyed on me. Why me? What did I say or do to so clearly hint that I was vulnerable?  Through this book I was able to capture just a hint of the answers to my questions.

There are so many nuances in this book, but what struck me the most was the way that Jeannie examines her own feelings. She thinks about why she wasn't angry with him in the immediate aftermath of his betrayal. She wonders why she (still) wants to look after Mark's feelings, and continuously thanks him for his willingness to talk to her. She thinks about how she knows that there is no 'correct' way to feel, but she still feels like what she's feeling is wrong. I don't think I've ever read something that delves so deeply into inner emotional experiences like this before. 

I think that this book will be able to open up discussions that need to be had. There are so many different avenues of thought that I haven't even mentioned in this review. I'm sure that nearly everyone who reads this will get something different out of it - hopefully it being exactly what they need at this point in time, just like I did.
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Not so much a book about a sexual attack, as a book about the author writing about getting back in touch with her attacker and the conversations they have as she considers how best to approach this memoir. So, a book about, writing a book about, how she feels about the way the attack impacted on their friendship; her interaction with others; her feelings of self-worth; how she has (or is) gradually come to terms with the attack.

As a university teacher of memoir writing, it is not only astonishing how many of the people she comes into contact with have shared similar experiences, but also how apologetic and 'careful' many victims feel when communicating their abuse. 

Vanasco's astonishing honesty about other unhealthy relationships she has experienced over the course of her life forced me to confront my own judgements: (shamefully) I found my initial responses questioned her part in events...how come these things kept happening to her, why did she allow men to treat her in this way, was her neediness an invitation for abuse? But, OF COURSE, this is the story that "THEY" will have us believe. That it's the woman who did something wrong; who looked the wrong way; who wore the wrong outfit etc. NO! NO! NO!

Perhaps, at times, the transcribed recorded conversations, feel a little laborious, but the upfront, bare-faced pride, bravery and determination with which Vanasco approaches this book, make it a must read for ALL OF US.

My sincere gratitude to netgalley and the publisher for sharing an advance copy with me in return for my honest opinion.
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Oof. I suspected this would be great but it packs more of a punch than I even expected - Vanasco, a woman in her early 30s and teacher of memoir writing at a university, decides to get back in touch with her rapist, a guy she was close friends with as a teenager until he assaulted her at a party when she was 19. The book then chronicles the process of getting back in touch with this guy ("Mark"), first through a series of phone calls and how the process of revisiting the rape and her friendship with him - while also trying to write about it - impacts upon her, building up to when she decides to travel to meet him and interview him face to face.

Jeannie decides to record the phone calls, allowing for a level of self-analysis/reflection as well as being able to go over and really think about what Mark says during these conversations. She quickly realises that she is trying to reassure and comfort Mark through the language she uses to make sure she isn't making him feel uncomfortable. The level of introspection is, I guess, expected from someone who teaching memoir writing, but I found it added so much to the narrative. Why do (some) women find it so hard to put their own feelings above those of (almost invariably) men around them? Jeannie also discusses the writing process with a number of writer friends throughout the period spanning her conversations with Mark, helping her to further pick apart and analyse her own reaction to events, as well as how Mark responds to her getting back in touch. 

I found this impossible to put down and a thought-provoking read on a number of levels.

Highly recommended.
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