On Writing Damage: Zoe Zolbrod and The Telling
September 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, is a moving account of childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath. Zolbrod describes, not just the abuse, but her subsequent sexual relationships, and she refuses to offer easy answers. The end result is a nuanced and compassionate examination of the ramifications of sexual abuse. Brevity’s outgoing managing editor, Kelly Sundberg, interviewed Zolbrod about the notion of sexual abuse as damage, writing as therapy, and how to craft a good story out of such difficult material.
KS: I’m interested in the ways in which you discuss “damage.” You write that, based on the narratives of sexual abuse that you had been exposed to, you knew that you were supposed to be damaged, but you weren’t really sure what that damage was. It seems like, in a way, you maybe even performed that damage. I wonder if that performative element of “abuse as damage” came into the writing of the book?
ZZ: Yeah, I did experiment with performing the damage, especially in my late teens and early twenties. I implied to certain people that I had some messed-up but interesting depths because of this early experience of mine. I also performed not being damaged to other people—projecting a confidence that the abuse had no effect on me. In both cases, I was aware even at the time that my words and outward attitude weren’t matching what I actually felt, which was more of a muddle.
One reason I wrote was to analyze both the muddle and the performances—where did I get those roles from, what purpose did they serve for me? In the writing, I wanted to work against performing—against giving the expected narrative, speaking the expected lines. I tried to get as close as I could to my actual feelings and motivations. I was nervous about stating them at times, because the last thing I want to do is provide fodder for those who argue that childhood sexual abuse is not that bad, or to undermine others who are wrestling with the legacy of being abused. But it was important to me to untangle my own responses from the narratives about abuse I was absorbing. Of course, writing a book is also a kind of performance, so at times worried that in my effort not to perform damage, or perform lack of damage, I was performing authenticity, and thus not being authentic after all. There’s a rabbit hole!
KS: When I started writing about domestic violence, a man wrote me on Twitter and asked me if I was worried about being labeled a “domestic violence writer,” and I balked at that. It does seem like, too often, women who write about traumatic events get labeled as trauma writers, and this can be dismissive of their craft. Your situation was different than mine, in that you already had a novel published, but were you ever worried about being reduced to your story rather than your craft as a writer? If so, how did you deal with this or fight back?
ZZ: I don’t know if you feel this way about domestic abuse, but even outside the literary sphere, I worried about being pigeon-holed anytime I mentioned that I had been sexually abused as a child—that that would become the most important fact about me in people’s eyes, and that they’d think they knew things about me.
And then, yeah, within the literary sphere there remains a tendency both in the industry and among readers to regard certain subjects as less literary than others, especially in writing by women. Like, if the topic can be found in the recovery aisle, or if it merits advocacy, then it’s not literature. (And vice versa, too. If it’s too literary—nuanced, structurally or linguistically complicated—there’s not going to be a place for it in the recovery aisle.) I encountered this attitude firsthand. Not by everyone. Not even by most people. I have a really supportive writers group. But even a few comments can sting. The way I fought back was by refusing to let it affect my writing, by continuing to believe in my project.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” came out after I had finished work on the book. I recognized the dynamic she was describing, and I recognized my younger self in her accounts of watching boys do stuff, and in sometimes unconsciously trying to fit a mold, or to avoid another one. I thought it was a really smart and accurate piece. But it made me realize that I had grown out of this mindset; I had refused to pander in writing The Telling, and I was willing to write off a certain audience if that was the consequence.
This probably has something to do with my age—I’m 48. I care less about impressing people, especially men or anyone viewing literature through a male-informed perspective. Also, I have a certain luxury. I didn’t achieve the kind of early success that Watkins did, and I make my living outside the literary world, so I can write what I want (if I can find the time) and still support myself and my kids no matter what the market or the guardians at the gate think. And anyone who actually reads my book can see it’s written with care. I’ve been gratified and relieved that the reviews have noted this.
On the flip side, I’m surprised by how willing I am to be seen as an expert on child sexual abuse, and to speak on it outside literary circles. I mean, the word expert can still give me flare-ups of imposter syndrome, but to much less of a degree. I want to raise awareness on this topic among a general audience, and I don’t care how this overlaps or doesn’t with my literary reputation, such as it is.
On a related note, I’m wondering how you feel when you’re asked whether writing your book is therapeutic, or told that it must be therapeutic.
KS: I actually wrote about the idea of therapeutic writing in a Brevity blog post here, where I ascertained that there should be a difference between therapeutic writing and literary writing (although I don’t think there is anything wrong with therapeutic writing). I’m further along in my own memoir writing process, and the truth is that the writing has been therapeutic. I’m delving deep into why, on a cultural and personal level, the domestic violence in my life occurred, and in the process, I’m learning some hard-earned lessons. How could that not be therapeutic?
I’m not writing the book for the purpose of my own therapy. I have therapy for that. And who would be interested in my own therapy anyway? But yes, I’m finding that writing the book is having the side effect of being therapeutic.
When it comes to this subject, it seems like there are two responses: strangers who say, “Oh, your writing must be therapeutic!” as though that’s a good thing. And writers, such as Jessa Crispin (who wrote about this subject in her essay “Wounded Women” at the Boston Review) who seem to think that therapeutic writing can’t be literary.
What are your thoughts on the subject of therapeutic writing? How have those thoughts affected or constrained your process?
ZZ: Oh, I remember when that Jessica Crispin piece came out. I was like: welp, guess there’s another prominent critic who will never like my book.
In some ways, I’m having a similar experience to what you describe. I certainly didn’t start out writing a memoir as therapy, and would have been insulted at the suggestion. Especially since, as I mention in the book, I’ve been reluctant to go to actual therapy all my life. I have some hang-ups around it and about the self-help aisle in general. But now that The Telling is out in the world and I’m out in the world too, talking about it, I can see that the whole process of writing and publishing has been enormously therapeutic.
Five years ago, just describing what I was working on when someone asked was difficult for me. The first time I wrote about being sexually abused as a child—just a few sentences as part of a larger piece—I felt sick to my stomach in the hours before the essay went live. I was shaking. I had so many fears and so much defensiveness. Now, I can talk about the subject comfortably and confidently with anyone. And I feel lighter, just generally freer—both more in control but also OK with not being in total control of, for example, how people see me. These days, I sort of want to shout from the rooftops: It’s OK if your writing is helping you! It doesn’t mean your writing is not good or smart or complex!
Part of the stigma against therapeutic writing seems to be the assumption that if you’re writing for personal discovery, you’re not concerned with craft. You’re just blurting things out. But I think for those of us who are writers, the choice of a word, the form of a sentence, the rhythm of the prose, the juxtaposition of images, these are part and parcel of making meaning. I had done a lot of journal writing over the years. But it was writing with the intention of publishing a literary book that really led me to a breakthrough.
KS: I think that the intention is what matters. We aren’t in control of what happens while we’re writing the book (whether therapeutic or not), but we are in control of our goals for the book, and how we plan to achieve those goals. One of your goals in the book was to portray a more nuanced view of what can happen post-childhood sexual abuse, and I don’t believe that you ever use the terms “victim” or “survivor.” Was that a deliberate decision? If so, what was your reasoning there?
ZZ: It was deliberate. For one thing, I wanted to be thoughtful in my use of language. The terms victim and especially survivor were coined with intention, and have had helped shape the public conversation around this topic in important ways, but at this point they get thrown around reflexively—almost the way we refer to tissue as Kleenex, or a bandage as a Band-Aid, we refer to someone who experienced sexual abuse as a victim or survivor, and we drag along the connotations without examining them.
But I’m also uncomfortable with the connotations themselves. The words imply that someone is either continually undone by the abuse (victim) or over it, beyond it (survivor). They don’t allow for nuance. Can’t we discard these black and white terms and still acknowledge that sexual violence is wrong? Right when my book came out, I read this amazing essay, “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’” by Parul Sehgal. I thought: hey, she encapsulates my whole book in two pages. But instead of feeling scooped, I felt admiration and relief. Here’s a choice quote, though there’s so much more:
“Those who have faced sexual violence are so commonly sentimentalized or stigmatized, cast as uniquely heroic or uniquely broken. Everything can be projected upon them, it seems — everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.”
I’d like The Telling to be part of a larger movement toward asserting the personhood of any of us who’ve experienced violation, which means we have to leave room for a variety of responses to it, that can change over time.
KS: Wow, I love that sentence: “Everything can be projected upon them, it seems—everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.” That really resonates with me, and I very much sensed that vulnerability of “ordinary personhood” coming out in your book. Part of that vulnerability was also in the way that you described other people in your book with such nuance. You were kind to your characters, but you didn’t shy away from honesty. How was it writing about people with whom you are still so close? Did you have a way of dealing with the psychology of that? What was your process? For example, did you show your parents the book ahead of time? Or let them wait until it came out? (Personally, I’m not going to show anyone in my memoir the book until it’s ready for publication because I don’t want to be influenced by their thoughts).
ZZ: The first year or so I was writing this book, I didn’t get much done. I’d carve out a precious writing day and end up spending most of it with my hands suspended over the keyboard, stock still as I worked through the emotions and ethics about being public with this material. It’s my story, but it involves so many others. I ended up setting a few rules for myself: to include only what I absolutely needed to about others even when there were additional compelling details; to avoid recounting or implying others’ thoughts and feelings as I’d do when writing fiction; and to offer what privacy I could, especially in the case of people who had their own histories of sexual violence.
I also made a list of three people that I planned to let read the manuscript before it was published, and one person I planned to contact just to let her know the book was coming. My situation was different from yours in that I didn’t have a publisher while I was writing it, so I told myself that until publication was guaranteed, I was just going to follow my rules and write freely within them.
Framing things that way really helped me, and at some point, I was able to set my concerns aside and write relatively quickly. I did get my dad’s explicit permission to reveal a couple things, but he was on my short list of pre-publication readers, and he declined, saying he didn’t want his reaction to influence my editing. That was generous. Another friend on the list read and had some issues, which was hard for both of us. I tried to address them. I went through the book one last time before it was typeset to make sure I was being as fair and judicious as I was able to be, I changed all the names and a few identifying details, and then I held my breath and let it go.
The book’s been out for several months now, and I’ve heard from a number of people from my past and extended family members. It’s not all been frictionless, but overall, the reaction so far has been better than I’d hoped. On some level I’ve been holding my breath for years about this, and now I can exhale.
KS: What are you reading right now? Who are the writers you can’t put down?
ZZ: I’m reading Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting. I got to know Gina when we were in graduate school together in the 1990s, and she’s been my great friend, colleague, editor, and writing group co-member since. I’ve read the manuscript for this novel at least twice already, but her characters have so much depth there’s always something to discover. When she was finalizing the book, she kept lavishing praise on the skills of her editor Dan Smetanka, so he must deserve some credit for what a taunt, page-turning read this emotionally dense (but also funny) book has become.
Before that, I read José Orduña’s memoir The Weight of Shadows—which I highly recommend to any memoirist who’s combining research and personal narrative— and Chloe Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You in Person. I’ve loved her writing since I read the first essay of hers in The Rumpus so it’s pure pleasure to have more. Melissa Febos is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I feel super grateful and fancy to have an advanced copy of her essay collection Abandon Me to read next. I just picked up The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison at the library. I’ve been dipping my toe into fantasy and science fiction lately, for the first time in decades. I still can’t get into William Gibson, but I really liked The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.
KS: Finally, what’s next for you? In your writing life? Your editing life? Your life-life? How do you plan to move on from this massive undertaking?
I’m restarting work on a novel I put down during the process of publishing and promoting The Telling. (It’s set in the near future, thus my new interest in science fiction.) To free up some time and mental space for that, I’m stepping down as co-editor of the Sunday Rumpus. I work a full-time day job in educational publishing and am raising two kids, and sometimes I’m not sure how I’m going to write another novel on top of all that. It takes a level of compulsion, and it’s hard to balance compulsion with my desire to be present in my family life and also just to get enough sleep and relax sometimes. Those things are important too! But having done it before makes me more confident that somehow I can do it again. I feel so much more engaged in the world when I’m writing. And also when I’m talking about writing. Thanks for asking me these questions, Kelly
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is currently the Sunday co-editor.
Kelly Sundberg is a doctoral candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir based upon that essay is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2018.