I feel like adolescent sexuality gets a bad rap, but my adolescent sexual experiences were really good. Now I’m a parent of an adolescent, and we hear so much about the negative aspects of teen sexuality. I admit I’m a little skeptical of this—are things as bad as the adult experts say they are?
If you’re a devoted nonfiction reader, you may well know Zoe Zolbrod from the Sunday series of interviews and essays she co-edits on The Rumpus – but after you read her newly-released memoir The Telling (Curbside Splendor), you’ll be more likely to remember her unique, nuanced writing on childhood sex abuse.
Her novel Currency (Other Voices Books, 2010) was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Zolbrod’s essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and DAME. She graduated from Oberlin College and received an M.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Program for Writers. Born in Western Pennsylvania, she now lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two kids.
I recently spoke with Zolbrod on writing, motherhood and recovery from trauma.
Allison: You were in the midst of giving a reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City for your first novel, Currency, when you came across The Trauma Myth, a book that inspired you to explore what you called “the gap between my experience of sexual abuse and the cultural reading of it.” How did that night unfold and eventually lead to The Telling?
Zoe: I was already wrestling with the material for The Telling, and as I sat listening to one of my fellow readers that night, the title The Trauma Myth caught my eye on the display of books behind them. Right away, it spoke to the confusing disconnect I had felt for many years—forever, really—between the sexual abuse narratives I was aware of and my own experience. I came of age at the time (the 1980s) when society was starting to focus on sexual abuse, but from some very dramatic angles. There were accusations of Satanic abuse and of some big, widespread child sex abuse rings. I was just figuring out I had been molested when I was younger, but what I experienced didn’t fit in with the elaborate horror shows being covered in magazines. Also, some of the literature and the conversations around it focused on the extreme psychological consequences to the victims, and since I didn’t recognize myself as experiencing those symptoms, I wondered if what had happened to me counted as abuse after all or if, you know, it wasn’t “that bad.”
I bought the book and read it in a gulp. The author, Susan A. Clancy, collected narratives from victims who sought her out after she placed an ad in the paper, and it’s hard to describe the excited relief I felt at reading so many accounts that rang true for me. It turns out that kind of delayed understanding I had is very common, although nothing I had read until I found The Trauma Myth indicated that was so. Instead, the understanding was that if you were sexually abused, the trauma would be immediate or so great that you would block it out. But I had never blocked it out—I had always known it had happened, just not what it was exactly. When I eventually came to understand how gross and taboo child sexual abuse is, I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. If there was something dirty about me because I didn’t act as if this were a big trauma at the time it was occurring. What The Trauma Myth showed me was that I wasn’t alone in my reactions after all. What it meant to me to discover that became a big part of my motivation to go ahead and write the book.
Allison: In contrast to books like The Courage to Heal, you write about how your experiences with abuse and recovery stand outside of that book’s framework for abuse victims— “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.” What struck me in reading this is not only your immediate sense of being outside this particular narrative, but also how much of your story describes the perspective of being an outsider. In writing The Telling, were you conscious of that outsider status as an emerging theme?
Zoe: Definitely, yes. I suggest in the book that in my mind, sometimes I would draw a correlation between the two things—between being abused and seeking experiences outside the norm. And I’m really glad I’ve had those experiences. If there is a correlation between me having this sort of dark thing happen to me at a young age, right when my memories and consciousness were forming, and me being interested in secrets or the underbelly, well… — I’m not happy the abuse happened, but I am happy that I pursued those alternative experiences and didn’t feel the need to fit in.
Allison: The book isn’t just about abuse and recovery—it’s also about passionate sexual experimentation, non-monogamy, and traveling across the country. Did you include those experiences to counter the idea that survivors are inhibited, non-sexual beings?
In part, yes. It’s one expectation of abuse survivors that totally didn’t square with my experience. And I still don’t know for sure what the connection is between childhood sexual abuse and sexuality. It’s just a mystery, I think—how much of our personalities are formed by our experiences and how much is innate. My avid interest in sex in my youth and up through my early adulthood might very well be connected to sex being kind of thrust upon me at a too-young age. But in my case, I had a lot of joy and pleasure with sex and I’m glad to have had it. This feels like a risky statement to make, but if that was an effect, it wasn’t an ill effect. I feel like adolescent sexuality gets a bad rap, but my adolescent sexual experiences were really good. Now I’m a parent of an adolescent, and we hear so much about the negative aspects of teen sexuality. I admit I’m a little skeptical of this—are things as bad as the adult experts say they are?
I think we’re creeped out about kids and sex. The taboo around pedophilia and so forth is important, but it also makes it hard for us to acknowledge the kind of positive sexuality that does exist among kids, including teenagers.
Your parents had these very contrasting reactions to your sharing the story of pre-kindergarten sexual abuse from a male teenage cousin. Your father is immediately apologetic and grateful that you confided in him, but your mom seemed to react with a kind of shocked disbelief—she claims that “you wouldn’t have even been that attractive.” How did their responses change over time and after your cousin was convicted in 2001 for sexual abuse against another child?
You know, they have very different personalities. My mom’s personality is to be skeptical. She’s just one of those people who is going to say, “Really?” to anything you claim.
It’s a difficult thing to talk about and remains so, but I think my mom—over time, I think she could let herself feel the hurt in a way that was harder for my dad to do. She had less at stake, in a way, because she had no real emotional connection to my cousin. (My parents were divorced by the time that I told them what had happened to me, and long-divorced by the time we learned my cousin was in prison for abusing someone else.) My cousin was always more my dad’s concern: it was his nephew, and my dad had been close to him. He was pulled emotionally in a lot of different directions when it came to my cousin and our extended family and me.
But with both of my parents, we didn’t talk about it much. After I told them it happened, we might have mentioned it maybe two more times over the next five years. It just kind of went underground until my cousin ended up in jail. It was my mom who told me he was charged—I don’t know if my dad would’ve ever told me if I hadn’t asked him about it.
How did you approach sharing the experiences of abuse and recovery with your two children? What advice would you give to parents who are struggling to share their experiences of child abuse?
When my son was in early elementary school, one of his chess coaches was kicked out of the school—no actual abuse that we know of took place, but there were pretty clear signs that it could have gone that way. And so we had to have some conversations about that. In the process, I told my son about how I was groped by a man who was later arrested in our town for a really serious charge of child sexual abuse, a man who was a stranger to me. I’ve only recently told him I was abused by my cousin, as part of a conversation about the book coming out. My daughter’s seven years younger than him, and I haven’t mentioned my own abuse to her at all.
But I have talked with both of the kids, multiple times, in what I hope is a light, matter-of-fact tone, about the facts: no one is supposed to touch them in certain places or ask to be touched there, no one should show them pictures of genitalia, and they should tell us if anyone tries or if any adult makes them feel uncomfortable or asks them to keep secrets. My son never really wanted to hear these things, even when he was little, even when I tried to make it light. But my daughter is more interested. She’s kind of prepared for That Guy—I don’t think she’s walking around thinking that a bad guy is going to be molesting her, but she seems to feel an empowering sense of defensiveness. She’s ready to kick a bad man in the crotch. And I can talk more frankly with her about the privacy of her genitalia and her body and so forth.
We also have to give kids the words for their genitals. I don’t think I even knew the words “vagina” or “vulva” when mine was being screwed with; I was only aware of a region called “down there.” Another thing that I think is good—and that I’ve done with my kids—is to directly ask, in a calm, curious tone, “Has anyone tried to do this to you?” To not assume that it hasn’t already happened. And we have to repeat the questions and conversations at different stages of a kids’ development.
Allison: In shifting from fiction to nonfiction writing, did your writing routines shift as well?
That’s an interesting question. For both of my books, I did a lot of research and also relied on old journals. (My novel is set in Thailand and has Thai characters, so I referred to the writing I did while traveling there.) The research for the memoir stretched my abilities, because it involved disciplines I’m less familiar with and studies and statistics and such. I wish I had done a better job of documenting it as I went.
In general, I think my writing process with the memoir was more efficient—there were far fewer pages left on the cutting room floor— but the emotional piece was much harder. I had to work through a lot personally—really good and important work, but difficult—and the writing was definitely less of an escape. Also, with two kids and a full-time job, I was busier while I was writing it. For the novel, I had at least one full day a week I could devote, but with the memoir, I had to approach writing time guerilla-style, and create opportunities where there were none. Getting up at 5:00 in the morning every day like a lot of people suggest doesn’t really work for me, so I did a lot of binge-writing, where I would hole up and write like crazy for three or four days. I would steal time where I could—use days off work, slip away Sunday mornings, stuff like that.
Another thing I found harder with the memoir, at least on an emotional level, was the editing process. I felt much more neurotic responding to editor comments because they felt so personal—they were directed at me and my responses and interpretations, rather than that of a character.
What projects are you currently working on?
When I was looking for a publisher for the memoir, I was able to take the good advice to start a new project while I waited to hear back, which I wasn’t able to do with my novel. So I started something that’s a sort of fantasy dystopia set in the near-future, and it’s been super fun to free myself from the constraints of fact and reality after hewing so closely to them while writing nonfiction. But once I found a publisher and started the editing process with them, I had to put the novel-in-progress away for the time being.
Another thing I’m doing right now is working as the co-editor of the Sunday page of The Rumpus, with Martha Bayne. It’s been great to have something to do with writing that isn’t about “Me! Publish me! Give me attention!” We like being able to give a home to lyrical, longer essays that don’t resolve neatly and can be hard to place. In writing and in life, it feels good to champion the complex and slightly weird.
Keep up with Allison McCarthy at http://www.allisonmccarthy.net