In 2003, the writer Jeannie Vanasco was raped by one of her closest high-school friends, Mark. At the time, they were sophomores in college, attending a house party where Mark (not his real name) lived. Vanasco was passed-out, drunk, and Mark and a friend carried her downstairs to his room in the basement. When she came to, Mark was standing over her. He had taken off her clothes and proceeded to finger her and masturbate over her while she cried, telling her it was just a dream.
Mark called Vanasco a few days later and apologized, saying he had been drunk. After that, they mostly fell out of touch. But 14 years later, Vanasco was still haunted by nightmares about the assault, and she wanted to know if Mark still thought about it, too. She told him she was writing a book about what had happened between them, and asked if he’d been willing to talk with her about it. He agreed, and they discussed their friendship and the assault at length — at first over the phone, and later in person.
In the resulting memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, out October 1, Vanasco weaves transcripts of their conversation with an exploration of trauma, betrayal, and accountability. It’s a remarkably nuanced account of the complicated and confusing emotions that surface when your rapist is someone you knew and trusted. She spoke to the Cut about what it was like to interview the man who raped her more than a decade after the fact.
How did you decide to interview Mark?
After Me Too took off, I was used to seeing stories about sexual assault and powerful men. I was interested in reading more stories about the supposed “nice guys” — the guy you trust, the guy your parents trust. I was thinking about Mark, and why I didn’t hold him accountable. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that he’d been a friend. He’d been someone I once cared about.
But in writing about the assault, I didn’t want all the attention to be on me. If we only hear from the survivor, some people immediately think about what they would have done differently — oh, well, I wouldn’t have been drinking, or, I would have fought back. I thought, if I can get Mark on the record talking about what he did, and if I can get him to explain himself and his actions, then no one can dispute what happened. And then we can focus on his actions, and what he did wrong — and take the focus off me and my actions.
What was it that you most wanted to ask him? What did you want to know?
I wanted to know if he still felt remorse. That was a big thing for me. And I wanted to know if while he was doing it, he knew what he was doing was wrong. I remember when he first apologized way back after it happened, he mentioned that he drank a lot that night. He offered that as an excuse. I thought, a lot of people get drunk and don’t sexually assault their friend, or anyone. So I wanted to know what was going through his mind that night.
In the book, you mention other experiences of sexual assault in your life. What made you want to focus on this one?
He’d been one of my best friends for five years. I was at his house at least three days a week — we would eat lunch together at school every day, joke around, play video games, study. He was also very sensitive. He was really there for me when my dad died. He was someone who said and did all the right things — but look at what he was still capable of. It interested me that someone’s thoughts and actions could be so much in conflict with one another.
It was also interesting to me how the definition of rape has changed. In 2003, when the rape happened, it wasn’t considered rape, according to the FBI — and then as of 2013, it was. [Editor’s note: In 2003, the FBI’s definition of rape was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” In 2013, the FBI updated its definition of rape: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”] As a writer, I’m interested in language and how we define things, so that fascinated me. At the time, I didn’t know what to call what Mark did to me, which made it hard for me to treat it as serious. I was thinking so much about his body and what part of his body he used. I wasn’t thinking about my body, and which part he violated.
What happened to your friendship after the rape?
He called me two or three days later and apologized. And I very quickly said, “oh, it’s fine, everybody makes mistakes.” I tried to push it aside. I didn’t let myself feel anything about it. In my head, I made excuses for him. I thought, well, he’d been drinking, I’d been drinking. We hung out in a group a couple of times after that, but it just made me sad to see him. I had been so close to his family, and then I kind of disappeared.
When you finally did talk to Mark, 14 years later, how did it feel?
It was odd. I immediately felt happy to hear from him, and hear his voice. One piece of this that’s uncomfortable is that I sort of missed him. There was a part of me that was nostalgic for who he’d been. But later, listening back to the audio from our phone conversations, I was embarrassed by how quickly I’d slipped into trying to comfort him. He said, “I’m sorry,” and immediately I was saying, “oh no, it’s okay, we talked about it, I’m fine.” I immediately tried to be accommodating. It felt genuine at the time — like, I genuinely feel bad for this person, my former friend. That’s one reason why I wanted to include the full transcripts of our conversations in the book. As much as it embarrassed me, I thought it was important to show myself comforting him, and diminishing what he did.
Were there other things that surprised you in the course of your conversations?
Something that really surprised me was that he said, “I knew what I was doing was wrong while I was doing it, but I did it anyway.” For me that was so important, because for so long, I had thought, okay, fine, he was incredibly drunk, so he didn’t know what he was doing. But for him to say, “No, I knew what I was doing” — I didn’t expect him to say that.
A big question you wrestle with throughout the book is whether the rape was premeditated: if, when Mark carried you down the stairs, some part of him was planning to do what he did. Why do you think that detail felt so important to you?
That part of the story never made sense to me: why carry someone who’s passed out down a bunch of steps into a basement? In my mind, I could hear him suggesting that they carry me down into the basement, into his room. But I wanted him to confirm my memory. I had this fear that if I got one piece wrong, the whole story would fall apart. He told me that he knew if he could get me down to the basement, that would work in his favor. He knew what he was doing — he created the perfect conditions to rape me. It wasn’t this impulsive thing.
After having these conversations with him, do you feel like you have a different understanding of why he did what he did?
I think he was someone who was used to getting away with things. In high school, he stole a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue from a drugstore just to see if he could get away with it. I think it’s the same thing: he didn’t think he would get in trouble. In fact, at one point he told me that he hoped that I was so drunk that I wouldn’t remember. In some ways, I appreciated him being so open and admitting to having had this terrible thought. But I still have trouble understanding why anyone would do this to someone else.
Were the conversations that you had with Mark satisfying?
Some days yes and some days no. It was satisfying to me that he confirmed what he did was wrong, and that he knew it was wrong at the time. I do think he feels remorse. But I don’t think he’s fully atoned for what he did.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what is a sufficient apology, and I think the missing piece for me is that I really wanted him to tell his parents. Partly because I was so close to them, but also, I don’t like the idea of apologies remaining private. Especially in this context. I think it’s part of the reason so many of us have trouble seeing our loved ones as potential rapists. It’s complicated, because his apology to me is sort of public. He’s anonymous in the book — so his identity is still protected from strangers.
He did recently send me an email. We’re not really in touch, but the publisher sent him a copy of the book (which he hadn’t read as of the last time he emailed me). But he did say, “If my family reads it, so be it.” His family would immediately be able to figure out it was him. But I really wanted him to take the extra step and tell them and apologize to them.
You said that you don’t think he’s fully atoned for what he did. What do you think that would look like, in this case? Is it even possible?
I think it depends. I don’t think I would feel any better if he was in prison. But for me, moral accountability would be him telling his family. Because part of the betrayal is that I lost those relationships, which were very important to me. My mom read the book, and she was understandably very upset. She felt immediate rage — like, “I’ll just send his parents a copy of the book.” And I was like, please don’t. But she made an interesting point. She said, “Why do I have to know, and they don’t?” At the time I was mad at her for saying that, but with some distance, I understand her point. Why does she have to carry this, and they don’t?
As the book progresses, we get a lot of sad details about Marks’ life now. He’s socially isolated, lonely, and has never dated or had sex. Did those things surprise you?
It surprised me that he told me that he was still a virgin. And that he doesn’t have any friends, and that he’s never been in a romantic relationship. How isolated he is — it made me feel bad for him. It’s weird. There’s a part of me that’s like, I want you to be happy. Thinking about the version of Mark that was my friend, it just made me sad that his life is what it is.
I think the book handles that tension really well. There’s a lot of nuance: you can feel empathy for Mark, and you can also think that he did something terrible, and maybe unforgivable.
That was scary — giving him a voice felt like a big risk. I almost felt like a criminal for giving him an opportunity to talk about how the rape affected him. A lot of my friends didn’t want me to do that, and I understood where they were coming from. It was a tough decision to make.
I got some hate mail from someone who hadn’t read the book, but was furious about the premise. She said I was going to harm rape survivors. I understand why someone would shut down upon hearing the premise and think, well, we don’t need to hear from perpetrators. But I hope people read the book and think about it before having a reaction.
It’s an uncomfortable point of view to have, but I think it’s important to listen to the perpetrators, and to put the focus on their actions. What leads them to make these decisions? Provided they’re going to be honest and thoughtful, I think we need perpetrators to talk about this, too.