By J.Z. Manley
“I am a girl, a female, always in danger of assault,” writes Zoe Zolbrod, quoting Sylvia Plath in her memoir, The Telling, a raw examination of the author’s emotional ambiguity in the aftermath of her sexual abuse. Zoe is four when her cousin, Toshi, first enters her room in the middle of the night and presses his fingers against her crotch. The abuse continues over the next year, but Zoe doesn’t tell anyone until she’s twelve, and even then, she’s not sure whether she’s been traumatized by it or not, whether she’s a victim or not. She uses the word molested, “Because it’s a big deal, right? The happening of it? The naming it? Or is it not?” Can trauma affect her life without completely defining it? Is she strange for thinking this way?
In The Telling, Zolbrod aims to find out. Through research and experience, the author brilliantly weaves together a better understanding of the complexity of her emotions. And unlike the archetypal abuse story, Zolbrod doesn’t heal herself through traditional modes of therapy, but by unpacking the psychology further, considering Toshi as a fellow human and former child, considering whether the abuse was wholly traumatizing when it occurred or whether the trauma developed later, as a sort of “retroactive empathy,” and even whether, on some level, the experience was beneficial, “showing me at a young age what was out there, that I might have to suit up, and that I could.”
The Telling is divided into three parts, but each chapter is its own excavation into her past — as a quiet child, a strong-willed adolescent, a mother and writer — delivered with beautiful prose that unflinchingly describes womanhood. When she first touches her boyfriend’s penis, Zolbrod writes, “It felt nice! A skein of silk dusted in powder. My fingers sparked when they touched it, relayed a yes.” This isn’t just a memoir about abuse. The abuse is part of it, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a young woman finding independence and strength amidst the patriarchy she’s surrounded by, about embracing her desires and defining herself without the cultural narratives ascribed to her.
Zolbrod writes about a topic—sometimes regarded as overdone—with an authenticity that reveals the individual nature of abuse. She does not feel powerless, she does not feel like a victim, and yet the experience has changed her. “Though I didn’t necessarily view the molestation as a dramatic or totalizing experience, it’s never sat right with me, it’s never fully come into focus through any of the various lenses through which I’ve tried to view it. I want to make sense of it.” And maybe that’s a better way to approach trauma—not as something to try to solve or forget, but something to understand.
Jenny Manley is a writer and vegan chef. She recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside Palm Desert Low–Residency Program. She is a business owner, horseback rider, and lover of all things unicorn. She just completed her first novel.