JUNE 17, 2016
IT’S AS THOUGH much of Zoe Zolbrod’s previous work had prepared her to write her memoir. First came an award-winning novel, Currency (OV Books, 2010), a story of animal trafficking. More recently, in essays in Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Weeklings, Zolbrod has written about cases of rape and child sexual abuse in the news, offering insight into the scandals involving Woody Allen, Josh Duggar, and Bill Cosby. Now comes The Telling, which follows the development of the author’s sexuality in the shadow of molestation she experienced between ages four and five at the hands of a 16-year-old cousin.
In her prologue, Zolbrod, a grown woman in her 30s, learns that her abuser is facing trial for assaulting another young girl. Up until then, Zolbrod explains, she’d been unsure about whether she qualified as a victim. She felt “that damage should be there,” she writes, “but I still wasn’t quite sure what to look for.” Hearing that her cousin had violated another child was the impetus, she says, for writing the book.
And her strongest message to her readers is a call to action to the psychological community and to society at large: protect children by increasing adult awareness of the actual facts around molestation; acknowledge the confusion children might feel around sexual issues; believe victims even when it’s inconvenient.
The Telling is bravely and beautifully written — I read it cover to cover in a single night. Over email from New York to Evanston, Illinois, where Zolbrod lives with her husband and their two children, she and I discussed the challenges inherent in remembering and writing about trauma.
SARA-KATE ASTROVE: What parts of The Telling were the most difficult for you to write?
ZOE ZOLBROD: The abuse scenes were the most painful to write and edit. I had to put myself back in those moments as if I were reliving them, only now I have the vantage point of an adult who knows what’s going on and wants to protect the little girl. I sometimes write in public or semi-public places, but those scenes I made sure to write at home, alone, because I’d periodically have to curl up on the couch and sob. I’d never really let myself do that before.
Were you afraid your relatives would disapprove of the book?
I was concerned about hurting the people whose stories overlap with mine — family members and relatives as well as friends. I don’t so much mean the person who abused me — he’s a registered sex offender, after all, and that fact about him has been available to the public for years. But I didn’t know what I wanted to happen when I told people about my experience. Did I want them to see me in a certain way? Did I want them to help me somehow? Did I want to rid myself of a secret? Was I trying to get attention? Was I looking for pity? It’s such a big, ugly blob to plunk on the table. Once you say it out loud, there are so many things that can go wrong.
In your early 30s, you learned that your cousin was facing trial for abusing another little girl. How did it feel to hear he’d violated someone else?
It was a shattering piece of news for me. I felt a clash of emotions, including horror and relief. For most of my life I was unsure about “how bad” my abuse had been. Learning that I was part of a larger pattern, and reacting viscerally to the news about this other little girl, proved to me that it was that bad. I don’t have some of the clear, common symptoms of abuse, such as depression, or problems with intimacy or sex. But I was periodically aware of a shadow in the periphery of my internal vision. And it was the strong reaction I had to learning about the other little girl that eventually led me to look toward that shadow instead of turning away.
You show enormous empathy for everyone involved — even your cousin. Could you have written this book earlier in your life, or did this perspective come later?
I never felt overwhelming hate or anger toward my cousin. My feelings were pretty muted and complex — perhaps even to a degree that’s not necessarily healthy. Are the flashes of rage I feel now a sign of emotional progress? I’m not sure. But certainly growing up and becoming a parent added to my perspective. I can see more angles now than I could have 15 or 20 years ago.
Rather than portraying your life as a single-issue case study, you include research. How did investigating the topic influence your understanding of your own story?
Although I’d always had an aversion to being typecast as a victim — of sexual abuse or anything else — and although I’d been suspicious to the point of paranoia that people might try to analyze me based on one aspect of my multifaceted life, it ended up being exciting to find out ways my story actually did match the prototype. I’d gone through most of my life suspecting that I hadn’t reacted or dealt with the abuse correctly, or at least in a normal way. In fact, research shows that this worry is extremely common. Not only that, the worry itself can be part of what causes the depression that many victims of abuse wrestle with later in life. Making my story part of a larger investigation was satisfying for me and gave me even more perspective.
You discussed the phenomenon of “blocked” memories. I was wondering whether certain memories surfaced as you were writing?
I always knew what had happened to me, even if it wasn’t in the front of my mind. But details came back to me as I wrote, yes. I tried when I could to verify these, because memory can’t always be trusted, but usually that wasn’t possible. Which doesn’t mean I have any question that the abuse itself took place. I don’t. But the emotions I was feeling at the time — the colors of the ceiling in the room, the kind of plant in the window — those are the kinds of details that returned to me. They’re true to the best of my knowledge, but memory can play tricks.
Do you think your positive experiences with sex as a young adult informed your ability to form healthy relationships later on?
It may be that I view my own romantic and sexual history with rose-colored glasses. Yes, I had two main boyfriends in high school who were good guys, but I’ve encountered my share of assholes, and not only in single encounters or brief flings. For some reason I didn’t let them inform my zeitgeist. In those cases, what bolstered my confidence was that I could get away from them when I wanted to. At this point I’ve been in a monogamous marriage for so long — I don’t want to confirm the stereotype of middle-aged parenthood as sexless and dull. Yet I would say that the focus on sexual exploration that I had in my teens and 20s seems separate from the qualities that make a long-term relationship work. I don’t mean to say sexual compatibility and attraction aren’t important — absolutely they are, but they’re not the linchpin when you’re dealing with children’s needs and the ups and downs of adult life.
In The Telling you imply that your early initiation to the world of sex actually benefited you as a teenager — you describe your self-protective instinct and your confidence around men. But so often victims of childhood abuse feel the opposite — and they’re vulnerable to rape and assault later on. How did you develop such resilience?
I remain fascinated by the nature-nurture debate, and about the great variety of physiological factors that influence how any of us respond to what life throws our way. My belief that my abuse somehow made me smarter or stronger was a story I told myself because I liked it better than the alternatives. It was an empowering interpretation. In truth, suspicion — which can sometimes help and sometimes hinder — is probably the main quality of mine that’s directly related to my early abuse. But I had other things going for me that helped with self-esteem. Probably biggest among them in terms of my relationship with men is the solid bond I had with my generous, open-minded, involved father. He made me feel capable and loved for who I was.
You discuss self-help, and therapy, and the “clash between those who believed that sexual abuse is commonplace, traumatic and character-shaping or those who see such claims as manipulative fabrications.” How important was it for you to come to terms with your trauma independent from psychological interpretation?
Sometimes I wonder if working with a good therapist might have provided me with a shortcut to the place of understanding I’ve finally arrived at in mid-life. But maybe I would have been too resistant, resentful, and worried about the financial cost. Either way, I don’t think I would have written this book. And I’m glad that I have. Now there’s the chance that others can benefit from my experience, instead of my having left it on the therapist’s couch.
How has this experience and working through it affected your parenting?
It’s made me feel both closer and further from my children, sometimes a better parent and sometimes a worse one. I tend to their emotional lives pretty closely. And I’ve made conscious efforts to talk to them frankly not only about their bodies and sex — which I probably would have done anyway — but also about the existence of people who might want to touch them inappropriately. The research I’ve done has provided strategies for doing this that I wouldn’t otherwise have. But — to be brutally honest — sometimes focusing on my own childhood injury has made me almost jealous of my kids, and leaves me thinking they’re spoiled. I kept a lot in as a child, whereas my husband and I encourage our kids to speak out — sometimes my impatience with their greater expressiveness, their frequent whining and complaining, feels more complex than mere irritation.
Are there any memoirs or novels about incest or abuse that helped you?
The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns, Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Although, I don’t necessarily classify them as books about sexual abuse. It’s my hope that The Telling won’t be labeled that way either. Of course it is about that, and I hope it can dispel some misinformation and help others feel less alone. But, like the books I’ve listed, I think it’s also about family, community, individuality, and coming of age. It’s about the way the past is open to constant reinterpretation, and the ways it both does and does not define us.
Sara-Kate Astrove recently completed her MFA at The New School and is currently working on her memoir, Sugar Baby. Her work, published under “anonymous,” has appeared in Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmo, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, and Yahoo.