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Poetic Justice

On the intimate reckonings of Jeannie Vanasco and Attiya Khan

Jeannie Vanasco’s office at Towson University, where she teaches creative writing, is full of gifts from students. A blue vintage typewriter, a hand-knitted scarf. A lot of long letters. The gifts are all from students who have been raped. In the essays they write for class, they entrust Vanasco with the truth of what happened to them. To the young women, this bond with a teacher feels rare enough to explain their extravagant offerings; to Vanasco, it’s unsettling to realize that she has, in fact, formed many such relationships.

When Vanasco talked to her book editor about all the students, all the essays, her editor agreed that most women she knew seemed to be carrying around at least one woman friend’s story of sexual assault. She wondered why that wasn’t true of the men in her life. “Many of us have the same group of friends, yet the women are the only ones walking away, knowing about the rapes that occur,” the editor said. “How’s that possible?”

In the aftermath of the #MeToo moment, this difference in knowledge has come to seem like an insurmountable split in our national sense of reality. Some of us see gendered violence and abuse of power everywhere, and others see only women—and some men—complaining about a problem that doesn’t exist. We debate definitions. What is sexual harassment? What is sexual assault? How big a deal are they, really? Who is suffering more at this juncture in history: The people who are harassed or assaulted, or the ones who say they can barely go to work, go for drinks, lest some innocuous error be misconstrued?

Recent polling suggests that about half of Americans view #MeToo as positive, compared to around a third that see it unfavorably. In the last few months, the rumblings of the latter group have seemed to grow louder. After two years of investigations uncovering abuses of power, some journalists (predictably, Emily Yoffe at Reason; less predictably, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer) have inaugurated a new genre, covering cases in which they deem that #MeToo has gone too far. In other quarters, the backlash is happening more quietly. A recent study of changes in the workplace found that, since 2017, some men have been avoiding hiring women they deem “attractive” or meeting one-on-one with female colleagues. One could say that such men are punishing women for wanting equal treatment; the men would probably say that they are simply protecting themselves. Two years after a moment that seemed, briefly, to rewrite all the rules, we remain stuck at the same stage of action, trying to secure a basic consensus about what it is we’re living through.

Some of us see gendered violence and abuse of power everywhere, and others see only women—and some men—complaining about a problem that doesn’t exist.

Vanasco’s new memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, approaches this problem from a personal angle. The book chronicles its author’s efforts to negotiate a shared sense of reality with the former friend who raped her when she was nineteen. As #MeToo unfolds around her, she decides to contact him after fourteen years of silence. She wants to write about her experience, and she wants to include him, because she wants her story to be read and believed. She worries that, in the absence of corroboration, her audience will doubt her. (On top of the skepticism all survivors contend with, Vanasco weighs the possible reactions to her history of mental illness, which she wrote about in her last book, The Glass Eye.) She also fears that “without him, the book will be: yet another story about yet another sexual assault”—though she berates herself for feeling that such a book wouldn’t matter. She wonders if she’s a bad feminist for wanting to talk to him. But she also wants to know what he will say.

“Sometimes I question whether my feelings are too big for the crime,” Vanasco writes. She wants to hear that he’s haunted by what he did, “because if he does feel terrible, then our friendship mattered to him. Also, I want him to call the assault significant—because if he does, I might stop feeling ashamed about the occasional flashbacks and nightmares.” In part, she’s seeking to correct what the New Yorker writer Doreen St. Félix has called “the epistemological crisis of abuse, in which the burden of knowing and remembering falls on the victim.” If Vanasco has to live with flashbacks and nightmares, then the man who raped her should at least have to know about them. And if she, like so many women, is compelled to spend her professional life making sense of sexual violence, then he should be obligated to help with that effort. His voice is what he has to give, so she claims it. “I don’t want another apology,” she thinks at one point. “I want his consent.”

Vanasco’s project owes an unacknowledged debt to the idea of restorative justice—a term that describes a range of responses to criminal harms in which the wrongdoer must answer to those he has wronged, often in conferences that include family and community members as well as a trained facilitator. Together, the members of this circle decide on the actions that can best repair the damage done.

Restorative justice, or “RJ,” is receiving increased attention as a route to combatting mass incarceration. Some cities have begun diverting youth offenders, in particular, to nonprofit facilitators instead of the traditional criminal justice system. In a New York Times column earlier this year, the legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow and a prominent critic of the criminal justice system, argued that we must be willing to apply restorative techniques to violent offenses if we are to have a hope of reducing rates of imprisonment even to the levels of the early 1980s.

As it relates to sexual assault, RJ remains somewhat controversial, in part because cases are often adjudicated by self-serving institutions, such as workplaces or schools. Many survivors have advocated for an RJ option on college campuses, but some fear that administrators could protect their own interests by pressuring students into choosing dialogue over traditional disciplinary measures. RJ is effective to the extent that it empowers survivors to help determine what justice should look like. Mandated mediation—like the policy that until last year required staffers making complaints against members of Congress to sit down with their harasser before they could file—can as easily have the opposite outcome. Some feminist organizations, frustrated by the application of the term “restorative justice” to situations in which they see victims being pressured to offer forgiveness, instead use language like “transformative justice” or “community accountability” to indicate that these alternative models are only desirable if they hold perpetrators responsible and ensure that victims are safe.

Still, approached correctly, Alexander argues that RJ offers both victim and perpetrator the chance that prison denies them to “honor their own humanity.” In the criminal justice system, the wrongdoer has every incentive to minimize the wrong, or deny it altogether, in an effort to escape a penalty. In an essay for Vox, facilitator and director of the Restorative Justice project sujatha baliga explains what the comparative honesty elicited by restorative justice can mean to survivors of sexual assault in particular. “My work begins with asking what survivors want from meeting with the person who harmed them,” she writes. Most “want to hear the person who assaulted them say, ‘You’re telling the truth. I did that to you. It’s my fault, not yours.’ They often want this admission to happen in the presence of both of their families and friends.” In other words, they want to start by establishing the facts, on the record.

RJ can only succeed if wrongdoers take responsibility for their actions, and that in and of itself remains rare enough to be worth documenting. Vanasco isn’t the first to make art from this kind of encounter. In the first weeks of #MeToo, in October 2017, a writer tracked down the man who sexually assaulted her when she was seventeen and published the interview anonymously at Splinter. Some six months earlier, the Canadian filmmaker Attiya Khan released the harrowing documentary A Better Man, in which she sits down with the former boyfriend who violently abused her when they lived together as teenagers. Watching Khan seek some form of understanding with her ex—she publicizes only his first name, Steve—is almost unendurable, like watching a person scale a cliff with no rope.

Hearing Steve agree—yes, he hit her; yes, he strangled her; yes, he dragged her over broken glass—settles an old argument she’d been trapped in with herself.

Unlike Vanasco and the anonymous writer, Khan brought in a counselor to work with Steve one-on-one, and with them as a pair. A trained counselor for victims of domestic violence herself, she saw that they would need help after their first interview, in which Steve sits hunched over a coffee cup, his shoulders rigid, saying he can’t remember the specifics of the abuse, only “that it wasn’t good, and I don’t even know why.” In the ensuing sessions, the painful precision of Khan’s memories brings Steve’s actions back to him, though he often speaks of the violence he inflicted on her in the second person, or in passive voice—“These things only take place where you can get away with it, where it isn’t seen. . . . These things come unprovoked most of the time”—as if instinctively flinching under the weight of its load.

The film is careful not to celebrate Steve or overstate his transformation. “I feel like he at least owes you this,” Khan’s husband says at one point. But it matters to Khan that Steve affirms her memories. When the abuse was happening, “I was never believed,” Khan says. Teachers and neighbors saw her bruises but didn’t intervene. “Sometimes, I would question myself. ‘Did that happen?’ ‘Was it that bad?’” Hearing Steve agree—yes, he hit her; yes, he strangled her; yes, he dragged her over broken glass—settles an old argument she’d been trapped in with herself. “Now that we’re acknowledging this and talking about it, I can move past that,” she says.

But healing never happens in a straight line, as Vanasco’s book shows. Her memoir is divided into four sections, each anchored by a communication with the man to whom she gives the pseudonym “Mark” (a word she chooses because its definitions include the indication of a boundary). There is an initial email, two phone calls, and finally a meeting in Ohio, near where they grew up. Over and over, Vanasco promises herself that she will not go easy on Mark. “If he says yes, I won’t thank him,” she vows before she sends the first message. “I won’t tell him that everything is okay between us. I won’t comfort him.” In the pages that follow, Vanasco shares long stretches of interview transcripts, interspersed with reflections reproving herself for what the transcripts show: that every time they talk, thank yous pour out of her like an unstoppable tic, as do words of forgiveness, and praise for the kindness and intelligence of the friend she remembers. “I’m too embarrassed to share this transcript with anyone, which is why I should share it,” she writes.

Her frustration leads her to consider the way women are trained from birth to take care of men’s feelings—even the feelings of men who are hurting them. On the night when Mark raped her, Vanasco cried quietly, feeling “strangely afraid of embarrassing him.” Mark says the rape changed the story he could tell about himself, making it impossible to identify as a good person. For Vanasco, it did the opposite, confirming what she’d already feared: “I cared too much about pleasing men.” There’s a welcome complexity, though, in the reality that Vanasco’s socialization works to her advantage in these delicate interviews. The unruly empathy that draws Mark out is tactically useful, even as it expresses a partial truth.

Vanasco has chosen an oddly meta form for this memoir, writing as if she’s recording the process of working on a book that turns out to be this one. The sense of access to an unmediated first draft is intriguing in the early chapters, but by the latter half, the reader begins to feel at loose ends. Vanasco never stops trying on possible takeaways. Maybe she’s writing this book because she wants to show that men like Mark are everywhere, not just in the halls of power where the attention of #MeToo has been focused. Maybe she’s writing it “because I doubt I’m the only woman sexually assaulted by a friend and confused about her feelings.”

Some of the less compelling reasons she offers are the ones that respond most directly to #MeToo. “I’m worried that a strain of conservative thinking is entering modern feminism,” she tells Mark at one point. “This zero-tolerance policy: No matter what, he’s banished. . . . I don’t think that’s always productive for society.” Reading this, I wondered whether Vanasco had read the reams of feminist writing on the question of what redemption for the men of #MeToo might look like. Most recently, the literary critic Lidija Haas, writing in The New Republic, raised the possibility of “a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission” to reach some resolution on how to move forward:

Set up grassroots commissions and invite [those disgraced] to appear on panels, to answer questions not devised to reestablish their malign actions and intent, but rather seeking to make them shed more light on how exactly our employers and institutions work. . . . To the extent that the perpetrators succeeded in navigating the customs of the workplace to their personal benefit, let them trace for us the particular weaknesses in those rules and systems, which might be used for better ends. Those harmed could help formulate the questions but should not be under pressure to share their horror stories again unless they wish to or feel it necessary, since the hope would be to move from the individual to the collective, from the particular to the pervasive. Let those who have done wrong testify against the higher-ups, say who enabled what, and who knew what when.

Haas’s tone is half-sarcastic, at points defensive about the criticism that such a radical idea is likely to provoke. But she’s not really joking. “What’s wild about it,” she asks, “aside from the idea that someone could actually make it happen?” She envisions the commissions as a way to extend the principles of restorative justice from individual cases to our collective quandary, directly invoking the work of women of color-led organizations that seek community accountability-based solutions to violence, like Creative Interventions and Incite! “On the panels, [the accused] would receive an opportunity to answer back or to make amends, and in return they’d offer some partial form of what might be called informational or strategic reparations,” she writes.

As we’ve all learned since 2017, it’s too much to expect a reckoning to change everything.

Of course, it isn’t the absence of these panels that’s stopping the men of #MeToo from speaking honestly. Rather, in their hedged apologies, many have sought to hold doors open for their future returns to positions of influence, while the victims who come forward do so in the knowledge that they risk their careers. It’s taken for granted that it will be primarily women who feel a need to understand the contours of this collective problem, even at considerable cost to themselves. Barring the institution of Haas’s imagined commissions, we’re unlikely to hear much of value from men who haven’t yet perceived the gross injustice of that assumption. 

In Vanasco’s memoir, at least, Mark takes part in a commission of one. “I felt like if you wanted to talk to me, I owed you that much,” he says in the first phone call. His most important reparation is agreeing to be portrayed as Vanasco sees fit. This doesn’t fix their friendship, or heal the trauma he caused her. At the end of the book, she is still having nightmares. As we’ve all learned since 2017, it’s too much to expect a reckoning to change everything.

But it’s worth something that Mark knows about the nightmares now, because Vanasco described them, and he listened. (“Jesus,” is all he could say in reply.) This moment in the memoir reminded me of an unforgettable scene in A Better Man, in which Khan and Steve visit the apartment where he abused her, and the flood of memories nauseates her almost to the point of vomiting. Steve stands, looking helpless, as Khan crosses the street, clutching her mouth. Then he follows, asking if it’s okay to stand next to her, and slowly puts his hand on her back. It’s a small gesture, and in some ways a pathetic one. It doesn’t make up for anything. But at least he seems likely to remember this moment. By agreeing to the documentary, putting the person he victimized in charge of their shared story, he has in some way earned the privilege of seeing the long lingering of trauma—knowing the awful truth of what he has done.