BY tracy granzyk
Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, was published in May of 2016, and it will undoubtedly remain a “go to” book for both survivors and family members of those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In The Telling, Zolbrod comes to understand and accept the grey her own experiences have equated to within, while at the same time gives readers an example of how trauma and tragedy might be assimilated and used to empower one’s self. Especially poignant and game-changing in the memoir are her experiences as “Mama Bear”; a new parent with an immediate need to protect not only her children, but all kids from suffering the same experience she did. While Zolbrod never takes refuge in the title of victim, her honest pain exposes the depth to which she is still able to feel, never seeming to shut off and others out as a result of what was done to her.
As a writer, Zolbrod’s voice is both authoritative and accessible, and the narrative flows smoothly through different time periods of her life. She serves as both teacher of topic and craft by threading four Research Shows chapters within the story’s framework, allowing her to break off from the narrative, which she described during our conversation as a respite from the emotion inherent in diving back into such a painful experience. As a person, Zolbrod’s warmth and kind soul are what I was first drawn to during the interview that follows.
The Coachella Review: What I thought was so special about this memoir, was that you were able to widen my lens and empathy for the spectrum of experiences and people involved in childhood sexual assault—something society seems more comfortable defining as a one-size-fits-all because it’s so difficult to talk about. You mention finding The Trauma Myth and suddenly feeling connected to Clancy’s definitions of the experience.
Zoe Zolbrod: When I discovered The Trauma Myth it was a revelation to me. After interviewing hundreds of survivors, Clancy found that many children don’t experience it [sexual abuse] as something traumatic when it is occurring. It’s later that they realize how bad it was, and that’s often the source of much of the distress—the realization they went along with something so wrong. Certainly that was true for me. The sense of horror and drama came later as I became aware of the depth of the taboo of sexualizing children and how much I’d been taken advantage of.
TCR: Did that free you to write your story because you were also given a wider lens to start to name your own experience with words you didn’t have before?
ZZ: I was already planning to write it, but finding the book gave me confidence because it made me feel less atypical. One of the things I wrestled with was the fact that at four or five years old I wasn’t as horrified as I later came to feel I should be, or that other people assumed a child would be if this was going on. That made me feel weird. To read all these interviews with other people who said they felt weird for similar reasons and had a delayed reaction like I did made me feel less freakish and lonely. So I was already writing and committed to telling the story, but The Trauma Myth definitely increased my confidence greatly.
TCR: Do you think as writers, especially of memoir, we have to put our stories in the world as building blocks, so that others can benefit from them or does this building happen serendipitously?
ZZ: Benefitting others was part of my goal in writing. It definitely kept me going when I thought I was being self-indulgent. I knew I would have liked to have found a book like this at an earlier point in my life, and I wanted to connect with people who might be carrying a sense of shame or doubt about themselves, thinking that they handled abuse wrong, or they reacted in the wrong way. I hoped they might be comforted by knowing they weren’t the only ones to not have a textbook reaction to being abused.
TCR: Is there a textbook response?
ZZ: The textbook assumption is that every moment of abuse is terrible for the child. According to The Trauma Myth, the psychological community locates the trauma at the time the abuse occurs. However, not all of us remember or experience it that way. When she presented her findings, Clancy met with a lot of resistance to her research from therapists. I met with some resistance too. Child sexual abuse is so taboo and horrific that most adults respond very emotionally to hearing about it. We assume a child must have responded that way too. I think people are worried that if we acknowledge that not all children are traumatized at the moment it occurs—that if some of us enjoyed aspects of the abuse at the time, or were somewhat indifferent to it—we’re making room for it to be condoned. But that does not have to be the natural conclusion.
TCR: It makes sense people would want to keep it tidy and black and white, yet it seems there is so much grey.
ZZ: Yes, I understand that. People have had to fight hard and advocate for child sexual abuse to be taken seriously, because historically it has not always been. So I understand the impulse to tell a clear, simple, emotional story, but I think we’re at the stage now we can introduce more complexity. Not in terms of the morality—to me there is no grey area there— but it terms of how a child experiences abuse and processes it and deals with.
TCR: And that’s what I was referring to. For me, child sexual abuse was a pretty black and white issue but to hear you contemplate the grey of the experience yourself was the brilliance of this memoir to me as a reader. I learned with you to accept this whole topic in a different way as a reader.
ZZ: I’m glad that worked for you. You know, I also came to feel strongly that for all we want to view it in this polarizing lens—child sexual abuse is the worst! Child sexual abusers are monsters, the scum of the earth!—which on the one hand is true, on the other hand we have not done a great job as society of slowing or stopping the occurrence because those storylines prevent us from seeing what’s actually going on. So often the perpetrator is a family member, or someone close to the family who is trusted, someone who seems like a normal nice guy. When we tell the most dire tale of sexual abuse and sexual offenders, I think it makes it harder for people to listen or believe a kid who comes forward, because the adults can’t conceive of nice, normal so-and-so as ever doing something that off-the-charts bad. So they doubt. They also can’t conceive of a kid keeping quiet about something that horrible for so long—although it’s very common for kids to wait to tell anyone, if they ever do. If we understand that when the abuse is occurring, there aren’t necessarily all these big trauma sirens going off at once, it becomes easier to understand why disclosure might be delayed (there are other reasons as well). I think getting to the more complicated truth of these can really help us prevent it.
TCR: You mention culture change in the book—was that an intention? To plant a seed?
ZZ: Yes, definitely. It wasn’t the impetus for the book, but I now feel it has become one. I really do want to spread information that is not commonly held. To fight against some of these myths.
TCR: Did you have ideas you wanted to intentionally put into the world when writing the book, or was it pure self-expression and discovery?
ZZ: It started more as self-expression and discovery and then I developed an advocacy position. Or, hmmmm. Maybe I always had something of an advocacy position. I became more of an expert in the process of writing and research, that’s true, but from the first moment I learned Toshi had done this to another girl, I felt a responsibility to others. I felt like I could have been able to prevent it from happening to someone else if I had spoken up more effectively, and the seed for the book was planted in that immediate sense of guilt or responsibility.
TCR: Responsibility is a tough sentence to put on yourself for something that was done to you.
ZZ: I know. It really is. One explanation I’ve come upon is that maybe guilt is a more comfortable feeling than vulnerability. It’s almost like I’d rather feel guilty, because that would mean I had more choices than I actually did as a very young child. It’s more interesting than being a victim. Although at the same time, when I learned that Toshi had been arrested I’d just become a parent and was post partum. My son was three months old, and it all became combined in my mind—the hormone-driven urge to protect the baby, my new sense of parental responsibility spreading out from him to other children.
TCR: Resilience kept coming to mind for me because of the way you were able to handle this event in your life. Do you think you’re resilient?
ZZ: Well, I don’t know. I suppose, sure. But I continue to think I’ve had a fortunate life. If that was my greatest trial, well, certainly many people have had to get up in the face of much harder blows. It feels like bragging to say “I’m so resilient.” I might feel differently if I had lived through a refuge camp or something like that. Then I might be more willing to claim resilience.
TCR: The book teaches and I learned.
ZZ: I’m glad. It makes me feel happy to hear that.
TCR: What surprises you most about people’s reaction to the book?
ZZ: I was so nervous about this book being published. I got very anxious the closer it came to being released. I had a whole list of people I was worried about coming into conflict with, and I thought there might be others too, who I hadn’t thought to put on the list but who would be upset with me for reasons I couldn’t even imagine yet. So one thing that’s surprised me is the generosity the book has been greeted with. People in my life have been very generous in their reactions to it, when really, they could have taken me to task. People who I don’t know have been very generous and supportive as well, and that’s helped me deal with the few people who have resisted or come at me in any way.
I have heard from a small number of people on Twitter or through email or anecdotally who take issue with the non-trauma centered portrayal of my own abuse, and it seems to bother some people that I included the story of my positive sexual development in a story of abuse. They’re offended by that, and feel like I’m using child sexual abuse as a platform for my own sexual showing off. I guess I’m not terribly surprised by that, though, and there’s been less of it then I thought there might be. But maybe that’s because the book’s not been read widely.
I guess I’ve surprised myself, in that I haven’t taken the bait when it’s been offered. I’ve handled the criticism better than I’ve expected. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to have all this personal information out in the world, and I’ve been better able to deal with it than I knew I would be.
TCR: Talk about empowering!
ZZ: That has been empowering. When you’re afraid of something and you do it anyway and it’s not as bad as you think. And now I no longer have this feeling of carrying around a secret. Woo! It’s a relief. Yeah, it is empowering.
TCR: How did you get to be so even keeled, and even measured about all of this? Is that years of therapy?
ZZ: No, I’ve never been in therapy. I barely tried it. I don’t know. About some things I’m even keeled, and others I’m not. I can be off-putting socially if I have a bee in my bonnet about whatever political issue. But, writing the book really helped me. It brought me to a place I can be calmer about this issue most of the time, and certainly give space to people. The last thing I want to do is get in an argument with other survivors of child sexual assault. They’re entitled to whatever, however they’re working things out for themselves.
TCR: Your intention was to show people there’s another avenue, not to shut people down especially if they’re still working through it.
ZZ: Yes. I guess, too, I have a lot of information now, but I don’t feel like I have all the answers. I don’t want to be attacked by people, but I’m interested in other people’s experiences. I have room to hear about a variety of things without being threatened.
TCR: I thought one of the most beautiful aspects of your story was the intimacy of all your relationships given what did happen to you. You could have decided not to trust anyone, yet it seemed you were so present in the relationships mentioned in the book—Tom, Carl and Monique—that scene in the bathtub was so touching. I feel almost funny saying this book is also such a positive expression of your sexuality, given the topic at hand. You did such a good job of honestly presenting all your experiences.
ZZ: Thank you! Thanks very much.
TCR: Was sex an easy topic in your family of origin?
ZZ: No, it wasn’t. I wish I’d had an earlier and better sexual education from my parents, including about my own body and anatomy. I didn’t have that at all, and I think it could have helped me recognize I was being abused. That is one thing I feel a little preachy on, that we should talk to kids more frankly—though I’ve also found as a parent that it’s not always easy to practice what I preach. In my case, eventually, I overcompensated for my initial lack of information. I had to figure sex out for myself, and as I say in the book, around twelve years old I gave myself an education by stealing books from the public library, mostly, and whispering with my girlfriends, and obsessing about all things sex.
TCR: You mention having read Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (author Peggy Ornstein). What is “the complicated new landscape?”
ZZ: Porn is the really big thing she’s talking about, but also to some degree maybe selfie culture, hook up culture, and how the landscape is different for teenagers and women in their early twenties than it was for us. She says boys’ and men’s expectations are changing as well as girls’. They’re looking at these pornified bodies all the time. They’re seeing a lot more sex on screen. Reciprocity seems to be something she thinks is missing—a sense of reciprocity.
ZZ: Peggy Ornstein takes issue with the fact that it’s become really common for girls to give boys blowjobs and that the favor is not being returned.
TCR: That’s age old isn’t it? Why would it change now?
ZZ: Yeah, I thought so too. I really like the book. I think Orstein’s a really good writer and researcher, but I took issue with some of the things… Just to be graphic about it, part of my sexual abuse involved oral sex on both sides—it was the worst, it makes it me uncomfortable to talk about, I hated it. And I didn’t want to have anything to do with oral sex in the early years of my sexual development. I hated it when my high school boyfriend tried to go down on me. I thought this stemmed from having been abused, but in talking to my friends, I’ve learned that many teenaged girls don’t get much out of an inexperienced high school boy twittling around down there. It feels gross if it doesn’t feel good.
I think the idea of healthy reciprocity is a little more complicated than ‘I give you a blowjob, you go down on me.’ Maybe counting orgasms isn’t the best way to measure equality, especially in adolescence. It can take awhile for girls to get the hang of that, and there’s lots of pleasure to be had without having orgasms. I think Orstein kind of negates some of that pleasure, even as some of the girls she quoted talked about it.
TCR: Today’s kids have instant access to sexual content and even porn via YouTube at a really young age. That’s sexualizing kids or hurting them too if they’re not prepared to understand it or receive it.
ZZ: That seems to be an issue of our age, and it’s hard.
TCR: How are you teaching your kids about sex?
ZZ: I can say I’m just trying to talk to them. I have to force myself sometimes. My son is 15, and he doesn’t want to hear about pornography from his mom. I try anyway. It’s awkward. My husband has broached the subject. I don’t know whether the man-to-man thing helps or makes it more complicated. I also talk about consent. I did call the high school and talk to them about how they’re teaching consent. In some ways I’m more concerned about that than about pornography. I just feel like there’s more chance to have impact, I guess.
TCR: Rightfully so. One of the things I really liked about your story is that later on you knew how to say no. You didn’t put up with it. So many young girls are pleasers—it would be really nice to have someone in a health class in 5th, 6th, 7th grade teaching that conversation–how to say, “No”. Krakauer’s Missoula, the date rate culture—seems to be so prevalent right now. As you point out in your book it’s not just girls that are abused either. How are young people learning to be advocates for themselves?
ZZ: Yes, that’s huge to me. So with my daughter I’ve talked a lot about that from the beginning. She has a little bit of toughness to her that I love to see. Like right now she’s really into this tweeny pop song called “Take A Hint.” The singer is dissing a guy who won’t leave her alone, and is touching her, and she punches him in the lips. And I like to think I’m a nonviolent person, but maybe I’m not because I’m really into that song! I told her, yeah, if someone is touching your body and you tell them not to and they keep doing it you can hit them. You don’t have to take it when people are like that. You don’t have to be polite. The song is all about that. I think those are important messages for girls, and there’s room for boys and girls to get a lot more education on this starting young and continuing all through high school, into college.
I did know how to say no, and once again, who can say for sure, but my sense is that when I figured out I had been tricked as a child, I became more wary and less willing to be tricked again, and less willing to go along with things that didn’t feel good or seem right to me. I was able to assert myself.
TCR: You mention in the book a couple times that you’re not crediting your experience at four or five years old to your openness to discover sexually later, but you kind of hint that might have had something to do with it.
ZZ: Yeah, and that’s the thing that can make people uncomfortable. I can’t know for sure what the connection is. Some studies have shown there is evidence that people who are sexually abused young may develop a premature interest in sex. But to me, twelve or thirteen isn’t premature. Our hormones are kicking in, we’re entering puberty and sex becomes interesting. I think that’s okay. It’s okay to be a curious and lusty young woman.
TCR: It seems too, that our culture in general has a hard time talking about sex in a way that makes it seem healthy and all the good things that are supposed to be attached to it, because so many people don’t know how to talk about it. Just having sex period is taboo to them.
ZZ: Yeah. I got that sense sometimes while reading Peggy Ornstein’s book, and in so many of the conversations that go on about teenage girls and sexuality. Not every sexual encounter is awesome and great, but experience is how we learn. I’m not talking about rape. I’m talking about, if you consensually give someone a blowjob and don’t feel great about it later—that can be okay. Hopefully you can learn something from that experience—something about what you do and don’t like to do, what feels good and not so good, why you do things and how to make different choices. There’s some trial and error getting to the good sex, and not every encounter that’s not cue-the-orchestra “making love” needs to be considered a mistake.
Tracy Granzyk is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, and healthcare change agent. She has two yellow labs that run her residence in Chicago. Currently, she’s looking for a place to live that has more than five days of sunshine between November and April. She is in her final quarter at the UCR Low Residency MFA program with a focus on screenwriting and creative nonfiction.