CW: molestation, incest, child abuse, domestic violence
About a month ago, I took a vacation day from work, checked into a hotel for seven hours, and wrote 6,000 words of truth that I’ve never told anyone before. At least, not in so many words.
I had just started reading Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling, and it was clearly affecting me. I have some stuff to tell. This entire undertaking of reading 100 memoirs is about informing how I will tell it.
But the telling itself is important. It is power reclaimed, transformation, revolution. It is survival.
What I wrote in that hotel room started as a response to the question I am most often asked about my abusive relationship: when did you know? What was your first warning sign that this man was an abuser? I usually say I don’t know, and that’s not a lie so much as an evasion. The answer is complicated, and usually the person asking is not someone I’m prepared to sit down with for a few hours over a bourbon on the rocks and really delve into an accurate analysis.
Sometimes you tell the screen what you can’t (yet) tell anyone else. Zolbrod’s book reminded me of this fact, even though I have lived its philosophy for years.
The Telling is the author’s examination of her childhood molestation by her older cousin. What I love most about the book is its resistance of the typical molestation survivor narrative, through the author’s own realization that there is a typical molestation survivor narrative, and she doesn’t fit in it. Yes, molestation and abuse are horrible and traumatizing. But living through horror and trauma doesn’t look the same for every survivor. Zolbrod holds nothing back as she excavates the emotions of her four- and five-year-old self: confusion, fear of being found out, and even pain and isolation—but also curiosity, the small unnameable thrill of having a secret, of her older cousin’s early suggestion that they were just playing a game, then later, that he was practicing on her so he could please older girls, and so, her feeling that she was being somehow helpful and maybe even a bit grown-up. It’s hard to read those feelings without recoiling and defaulting to Nope, this is wrong wrong wrong wrong, he is a monster, he should be locked up, he’s ruining her for life. To default in this way is to dismiss Zolbrod’s experience, the complexity of it, the way she coped and processed, or didn’t process, what was happening to her.
Because he didn’t ruin her. The default narrative implies that people who do monstrous things—men who do monstrous things to women—are always monsters through and through (they very often aren’t) and have the god-like power to destroy their victims forever (they very often don’t). Molestation shaped Zolbrod’s entire life, it’s true. It led to her telling, to writing a stunning book that blows wide open the dangerous myth that all trauma survivors must be irreparably damaged, lost, inconsolable.
Why is that myth dangerous? In part, because it makes us disbelieve those who don’t cry, scream, and rage. Crying, screaming, and raging are not proof of trauma. The absence of crying, screaming, and raging is not proof that trauma did not occur. Another aspect of the myth’s danger is that it reinforces the idea that there is a typical victim, a prototype of person who is more susceptible to abuse than others. Default narratives let so-called atypical victims slip through the proverbial cracks, reinforce barriers to their un-silencing, and inhibit the evolution of our understanding of abuse dynamics so that it just keeps happening under the radar in our communities and even our own homes.
Zolbrod shines that radar on childhood sexual abuse. She used writing as a way of documenting, even while constantly wondering whether what happened to her mattered. Her child self’s confusion accompanies her into adulthood as she frequently wonders whether she was even abused at all—not whether or not it happened, but whether it qualifies as abuse. After all, she isn’t tortured by nightmares, doesn’t hear phantom footsteps in the hallway outside her grown-up bedroom door, doesn’t have a dysfunctional or stunted sex life—all things the default narrative would have us believe. She tells a therapist that she isn’t sure the molestation has affected her much at all, in fact (though this is before she does most of the processing that led her to want to write her memoir).
…to the very marrow of my bones…I seem to want control of the essential, mysterious heart of my own experience, and turning to either psychology or a court threatened to cede that control. Coming into my own sexual maturity during the years when the battle to define the meaning of child sexual abuse was playing out like a melodrama—a clash of the titans between those who believed that sexual abuse is commonplace, traumatic, and character-shaping or those who see such claims as manipulative fabrications’—I could not find a place for myself. My small, large, strange deck of memories didn’t fit in either hand. I didn’t want to put my cards down to be played.
My small, large, strange deck of memories didn’t fit in either hand. Wow, can I relate.
Not only is this a brilliant explication of why survivors of any form of abuse don’t often come forward in what society might view as a reasonable time frame, but it’s a beautiful and honest justification of writing one’s story of trauma and survival. I want control of my own experience. Police reports, newspaper articles, court orders—if what happened to me is going to be written down, I’m going to be the one to write it, I imagined Zolbrod saying more than once while I read The Telling.
It’s also what I tell myself, including when I decided to spend $94 on a quiet room to write in for seven hours on a random Friday afternoon in November. I can do just about any work in a coffee house except for generative writing, which requires, for me, utter solitude. This is even more true now that I’m writing explicitly, not lyrically or behind the mask of poetic voice, and at length about my own life. But even my home felt like the wrong venue for this unburdening. I needed anonymity, even the seediness that a midday check-in at a Comfort Inn insinuates.
This kind of telling isn’t ever only telling. It’s telling on. It’s telling what someone has told you not to tell. Threatened your body against your release of the truth. Done things to you that make the truth blurry, messy, convoluted, split into dozens of jagged sub-truths.
Because it’s a big deal, right? The happening of it? The naming it? Or is it not?
The author’s adolescent self, after first using the word molestation to describe to a friend her own sexual experiences to date, grew to profess that “for many years after that first telling, I was unsure, confused by cultural messages and my own shifting responses, the different ways my memories could be made to fit with the identities I was trying to form.” In the arena of first-sex stories shared between teenaged friends, the author remembers struggling to find common ground: “None of this had happened to me yet, but something had. It had. It had.”
Of course it had. From burgeoning to mature sexuality, from high school through college, to marriage and motherhood, Zolbrod’s “it” colors and shapes her existence in ways she wasn’t always able to name. As hard as it was, as a reader, to resist the default narrative about molestation and incest, it was even harder not to yell out while reading, “Of course you can’t sleep, he used to sneak into your room late at night!” Zolbrod’s isn’t a book of answers, though, but of the journey toward answers. No passage is more, ahem, telling of how elusive the manifestations of trauma in our lives can be until we understand our triggers than the chapter where Zolbrod visits her father’s cousin and is pressed for details about the time her abuser spent in her childhood home. Did her relatives know? Did they suspect? However insistent, their seemingly innocuous questions break Zolbrod open, flooding her with memory and angst. So she tells, but not on her own terms.
More years go by and she eventually finds the book The Trauma Myth, which debunks “the dominant view that child sex abuse is traumatic for the child at the time of the occurrence…in reality, most children do not experience trauma when the abuse occurs but come to it later as they realize what happened to them…that victims come to feel guilt and shame because they didn’t recognize the revolting nature of what they participated in, that they didn’t try to stop it and may have enjoyed some aspects of it.”
(When did you know he was an abuser? they always ask me.)
Zolbrod learns from Susan Clancy’s book that “the worse you feel at the time someone asks you about a previous event in your life, the worse you remember the past event to be,” which gives her some insight into her breakdown after being grilled by her father’s cousin years before. She learns about dissociation. She learns about victim-blaming. And she accepts that her experience doesn’t fit into any schema except the schema of not fitting into schemas.
To have empathy for your abuser, which Zolbrod expresses more than once throughout her book, is not the tall order you might think it to be. She recognizes his troubled childhood and even the role her own beloved father played in exacerbating a teenaged boy’s isolation and pain. But the empathy Zolbrod develops for herself, and all the selves she’s been as she’s grappled with the fact of what happened to her, is admirable. The writing is also admirable—descriptive, smart, compelling, without artifice, and forgiving of adolescent melodrama and angst in a way that heals my 15-year-old self’s soul—but the hard-won and redemptive calm after the telling? Exquisite. This is (part of) why we tell, you see.
Sarah Gailey tells us, in a Dec. 4 post on Tor.com, that “For millennia, Western society has insisted that female voices—just that, our voices—are a threat.” From Homer’s Sirens to feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, society seems to view the woman who speaks up as at best a shrill nuisance, at worst a mortal danger. “The historic and contemporary demand for female silence stems directly from fear of what women’s voices can do,” Gailey concludes. Think three million more votes against than for a self-proclaimed pussy-grabber and the current climate of intolerance regarding sexual harassment. Think more than five million women marching in 673 marches around the world on inauguration day. Think grassroots activism, community organization, and social justice movements helmed by women of color, women who are differently abled, people who are nonbinary or transgender, i.e., the most marginalized and silenced among us.
To change the world—that lofty, even hackneyed aspiration the cynical, probably-male realist would dissuade us from, sans awareness of the misogyny of such advice—women need only speak. Make noise. Name names.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” – Muriel Rukeyser
I’m one big step and 6,000 words closer after reading Zolbrod.