Jeannie Vanasco teaches at Towson University and is the author of the memoir The Glass Eye (2017). Her writing has appeared in The Believer, the New York Times, and the NewYorker.com.
In her new memoir Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl—released by Tin House in October, 2019—Jeannie recounts being raped by a former friend. She tracks him down and interviews him years later about his actions. She expresses hope the book will reach not only victims of rape, but also perpetrators and enablers.
I met with Jeannie at a bar in Baltimore. She was my teacher, so it was natural when she showed up with papers to grade. Still willing to give her time, Jeannie spoke at length about the book and her past and future projects. I was, as always, charmed by her wit, generosity, and empathy.
In a different interview, you said you wouldn’t feel any better if
Mark was in prison. But you wanted him to make a public apology,
especially to his parents because you were close to them. Can you
explain more about what would constitute a public apology and why it’s
It doesn’t have to be public as in going
on social media and telling all of your followers what you did or
anything like that. I think of a public apology as making amends by
telling the people who were immediately affected within that
community—making it known to them. This project is interesting to me
because it’s sort of a public apology. It’s a book that’s for public
consumption, but his identity is still disguised. I didn’t want it to
stay between us. I wanted him to be able to tell. If we keep it private,
we’re stigmatizing it more, and then we go on believing that certain
people aren’t capable of committing these acts.
Do you think all guys are capable of things like this?
I think some people don’t think they’re capable of it. I hesitate to
make absolute claims, but Mark didn’t think he was capable of doing
something like that.
The portrayals we tend to see in TV and film come across as guys who
would commit assault. Very caricatured figures.
I think all of us have the potential to do terrible things. Some of it
is people acting on impulse.
“Had he been a stranger … it would have been easier for me to be upset.”
There’s a funny part in the book where your partner suggests
surprising the reader by stating, ‘Reader, I had him arrested.’ But if
you did bring legal action against him, it would become public. His
parents would know about it. Is that something you ever seriously
No, I didn’t consider it. I’m just speaking for my situation—not saying
what anyone else should do. I didn’t see how reporting him would do much
good. It’s more a comment on how our legal system works. Let’s say Mark
were held accountable and went to jail. There’s no formalized system in
place to help someone with rehabilitation. Also—I don’t know maybe I’m
gullible—but I did get the impression that he felt bad and that this is
something he wouldn’t do again, and he genuinely regretted it. I did get
that sense from him—
Can I push back against that a bit?
So let’s say I go outside this bar and punch that guy
standing over there. Later, I’ll say to the cops, ‘Oh I felt really bad
about that, and I wouldn’t do it again.’ I would still get charged with
[Laughs] Right. Well, so much time has passed. If he were to be held
legally accountable for what he did, what system would be in place if he
gets locked up? How is that going to prevent him from doing it again
except by keeping him behind bars for however long?
I guess someone might say … if they were to critique that—
You can. My opinion about a lot of stuff changes every day.
It might be about deterrence. About other guys. The theory is that if
he goes to jail, a potential criminal will see that and not want to do
the actions that might lead to jail.
In an ideal world, people wouldn’t be deterred for that reason. They’d
be deterred because they wouldn’t want to cause someone harm. It’s a
very complicated issue. I just know, for me, the idea of him going away,
it just feels so inadequate.
I look at his life, and it’s sad. He was once a friend—I think that’s
part of it. Had he been a stranger … it would have been easier for me to
be upset. He’s not a friend anymore, but part of me still remembers the
person he had been. I don’t know.
So because of your complicated feelings—
Yeah, we need to alleviate the responsibility from victims to have to
take revenge, so that we’re not in some Shakespearean drama where there
are warring families, and it continues on and on and on.
On the subject of anger, I’ll read a quote to you from the feminist
Carol Tarvis. “The individual who forgives for psychological or
spiritual reasons ‘lets go’ of useful anger and has less psychic energy
to put toward obtaining justice. Although anger can be self-destructive
and paralyzing, it also can motivate and engage victims in struggles for
justice.”In the book, we see you going back and forth on anger.
What are your feelings now that the book is over?
For whatever reason—I don’t mean this as a compliment to myself because
I think it’s a flaw—I have trouble being angry.
Part of it also, to be perfectly honest, I’m bored. I’m bored by it
because I’ve spent so much time thinking about him. I don’t
find him …
You don’t find the subject of your book interesting?
[Laughs] I don’t have nightmares about him anymore. I don’t really think
about him anymore. I spent so much time trying to craft a book that it
just completely exhausted me. I do get angry on behalf of my students
who tell me about their sexual assault. I can get angry on behalf of
others, but for whatever reason, I feel bad getting angry …
I know I’m capable of anger because I’m angry at my high school
newspaper advisor. I do hope that he reads the book and that people in
that situation read the book. I’m angry that he still teaches. [The book also recounts her experience with this creepy teacher]
But for particular anger at Mark … I think he made—feel free to push
back on this—an earnest effort at being honest with me when I asked him
questions. He tried to make amends, and when I emailed him after the
book was done, I checked in to see if he’d read it—again doing the whole
caretaking thing—and I said, ‘Look, I know it’s going to be a hard book
for you to read…’
‘For you?’ What the … okay sorry, go ahead.
[Laughs] ‘… and I just wanted to let you know in case you want to tell
your parents ahead of time.’ People will be able to figure out who he
is—anyone from our social network at that time. He did write back. I’ll
read you the email.
[Jeannie reads an email from Mark about his family possibly reading the book.
He wishes Jeannie well, and says that if his parents
find out, so be it.]
That was what I had been looking for. To be open to the possibility of
his parents finding out. It helps alleviate some anger that I had
started to feel at the end of the project.
I was thinking in such a methodical way of how to piece it together that
I was intellectualizing the whole thing, and it was hard to have an
accurate sense of my emotions.
I think that quote is absolutely right. I don’t want to forgive someone
because I think that will make me feel better. I don’t think that’s
legitimate forgiveness. I think that’s fine, but it’s not forgiveness,
It’s more about what they do. If they ask for forgiveness.
Exactly. It’s something else and that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s
forgiveness unless the person who caused you harm not only asks for
forgiveness, but also demonstrates self-awareness and acknowledges that
what they did caused harm. They genuinely feel bad and go about
demonstrating that in some way. Mark going along with all this, agreeing
to all of these interviews, meeting with me, and answering some really
intrusive questions—he was demonstrating he felt bad.
I can understand why people would be frustrated with me [laughs]. This
is the problem when it’s sexual assault and it’s someone you once cared
about. It’s hard to forget the good times—at least for me. He was one of
my first best friends, so it’s complicated.
My opinion on a lot of it changes. There might be a day when I’m just
completely full of rage and then another day where I think I’m over it.
The book might be very different if I returned to it in 10 years.
“I don’t think it would be ideal for me to ever stop ... I can’t imagine not teaching to some extent.”
You write about the experiences of students in your classes that
mirror your own. And this book is dedicated to a former student, Hannah. How does teaching students change the process of writing for
I love teaching, but of course there are times when I think all I want
to do is write. I think teaching helps me with writing
because I easily could sequester myself, and it wouldn’t be good or
healthy. I would write all the time and not have a whole lot of social
interaction, and there’s something intellectually energizing about being
around other people who are writers and trying to figure out their own
projects. When a student cares about writing and wants to make their
work better, I find that inspiring.
And it’s exciting to read books for the first time with students and see
their reactions. They notice things that I wouldn’t necessarily notice.
For the most part, it does help my writing. I don’t think it would be
ideal for me to ever stop. I can’t imagine not teaching to some extent.
I’ve heard you mention that you want men to read the book as well. How
has the reaction been from them so far? Any interesting stories in
So, I’ve gotten letters from prisoners sent to my Towson mailing
address. The latest letter I got was from a man who raped more than one
woman over the years. He was reflecting on how his behavior worsened and
how he never thought of some of these encounters as rape. He was a
graduate student who lorded his position over undergrads. As a TA he
would make it clear to them that sleeping with him might help them get
But he didn’t consider that bad at the time. He says prison has given
him time to reflect, and he sees how terrible all of that was. But he
was someone who never thought he was capable of that.
And someone else emailed my agent, wanting to get in touch with me. He
was someone who committed rape and has apologized to the person he
harmed, and he’s made it known to future partners of his that he’s done
this before, and he’s very open. I didn’t want to open up that
correspondence. So I haven’t replied to any of the men who reached out
to me with their stories.
I thought one of the bravest things in the book was sharing the full
transcripts of conversations with Mark. Often we like to edit how we
sound. Is that something you planned early in the writing
I think it occurred naturally. Rarely when I’m writing am I planning
anything. It’s why doing interviews is hard. Whenever I’m asked
questions about craft, there is the impulse to sound smart and to
isolate some techniques and intellectualize them. But ultimately when
I’m writing, I’m operating by gut, not by brain. I’m just writing.
I figured I would use the transcripts after that first phone call, and
then it made sense to break them apart into chunks.
I agree with you. For me, it’s good to look at technique at a
If I try to think about how I’m going to use this … it doesn’t work.
It was so mechanical for me when I was an undergrad. I read these
writing handbooks like Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and Mary
Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry—both great books, but I would freeze
while trying to write because I would think about breaking things up
technically, and then the prose would turn blue and die. It was
technical, but it didn’t produce an emotion because I was thinking too
much about craft.
I try to be very self-aware about the feedback I give students. I might
fixate on a lack of reflection that I’m seeing in multiple pieces. If I
give the same feedback to multiple students, I start thinking, ‘Oh,
that’s an issue in my own work.’
It’s like a fiction writer whose characters keep saying things like,
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what’s going on here.” It’s
really the writer who doesn’t know.
Right. That’s useful for my writing.
Do you think about readers when you’re writing, about how they will
Definitely when I’m revising. One of my main concerns is if I’m being
boring. I don’t want someone to put the book down out of boredom. If
they put it down, I want it to be because it’s emotionally draining in a
I read it in two days, so it’s definitely not boring.
[Laughs] Thanks. With this book, I was thinking about readers a lot. I
was just thinking, ‘Oh my god, people are gonna be so mad at me.’
Have you gotten hate mail?
Yeah, that’s why I removed my contact info. I got a really mean piece of
hate mail, and it said that what I was doing was going to harm rape
survivors. I laughed though because she said, ‘I hope you
make a lot of money from this book.’
Well, that’s nice of her.
[Laughs] I wrote a formally inventive memoir layered with a
meta-narrative and sold it to an independent publisher based in
Portland, Oregon because I was trying to make money from the book.
It could happen.
But in terms of readers … I was afraid of people being angry, and I’m
not good at dealing with people who are angry at me. I just feel
Yeah, I want everyone to like me. [Laughs] Of course.
And you don’t get angry often either?
I definitely get angry. I’m capable of anger.
I’ve never seen you angry, have I?
Maybe. No wait, why would I have gotten angry at your class? You all did
the reading! I did get angry at an undergrad who said that women have
different brains than men and that’s why we don’t make sense and why we
jump from topic to topic. I got mad at him for that … going on about
it class, but generally … I’m sorry what was the question?
[Laughs] It was … do you think about readers?
I have to resist sometimes. I made the mistake of checking some online
reviews recently, and I got so down. When people are mean they can be
really mean online. And that’s hard. I feel like it’s fair for someone
to not like it—that’s okay. I don’t expect everyone to like it, but it’s
just the level of nastiness to some reviews …
That seems weird to me. As you said, it’s an indie book. How are they
even getting the book to get outraged about it? I spent 30 bucks …
[Laughs] You can’t control how someone reads it, but a reviewer wrote
… I don’t even want to think about it.
On Goodreads or Amazon?
Both [laughs]. The downside with having removed my email address is not
getting the responses from readers. After The Glass Eye came out, it
was amazing getting these responses from readers, and now I’m not on
social media, and I don’t have my email, so I miss that.
That’s what’s fun about going to readings: having people come up to me
and talk to me.
So you said you got angry at Mark?
Yes, I did.
So I’m interested, by the end of the book, what were your thoughts?
My assessment of Mark?
You said something about him stealing things, that it was a precursor …
Yeah, he said he stole things, little things, to see what he could get
That would explain why he thought he might get away with it. It
doesn’t explain why he would do it. The only way you could is if he
viewed you as an object and not as his friend, however briefly. I think
he resented you in some way because he was attracted to you and you
weren’t with him. It is sexual though. He could have stolen money from
your purse instead.
I think that’s fair. I am interested if people disagree with me or my
tactics. It’s a memoir, so it’s not an authoritative guide. It’s just my
reaction to an event.
Also, I don’t know him at all.
Yeah but that’s okay. It’s fascinating when people have different
reactions. I’m not saying that my reaction is the right one, it’s just
how I think—how I thought and feel. How I think and feel may change.
I wanted the book to be participatory by including the transcripts and
including my friends’ thoughts about all of it. I wanted the reader to
feel like they were a character, that they’re also hearing about the
transcripts, and that they can have the conversations too.
Interesting. I think he’s very passive. Like even that email, ‘so be
it.’ In the transcripts, he’s constantly shadowing, repeating you.
Give me an opinion of yours, just as an example.
Uh … I hope Trump gets impeached.
I totally feel the same way, and I’m glad you said that.That’s
how he sounds all the time. Constant, approval-seeking. I don’t know if
he really agrees with you. He might be saying whatever he thinks you
want to hear.
Even agreeing to the interview … what else has he got going on?
Being the subject of a book … even the anxiety from that might be more
exciting than the banality of his life.
I do wonder if he’s worried about his parents reading it. I was at a
student event in Madison, Wisconsin, and someone involved with getting
books in the libraries said that she had received requests from the
Sandusky Library for copies of the book. His dad does go to that library
a lot, so I wonder if they’ve read it. I usually assume people aren’t
reading it [laughs].
Did you read it as—I realize I’m turning the interview around—did you
read it as a revenge book? I made the mistake of going online and
checking reviews, and someone said they wouldn’t have read it had they
known it was revenge book.
No, it’s not, I was just thinking of his worst nightmare
“If you set up the context, you can produce emotion without having empty sentiments.”
In the book you wrote, “At the risk of sounding sentimental, here’s
what I’m learning. This book isn’t just about my friendship with Mark.
It’s about my friendships with other women.” Do you see a connection
between what is derided as sentimental and the masculine curriculum that
people have to go through as an undergraduate on their way up? In other
words, are these lines actually sentimental?
That’s a good question. I’m all about risking sentimentality. People
write for different reasons—some to produce an intellectual effect. When
I’m writing, I want to produce an emotional and an intellectual
effect. An important part of doing that is taking risks, letting
yourself write badly. I acknowledge the potential for sentimentality as
a defensive technique. If a reader thinks I’m being sentimental, I can
say that I was aware of that.
A lot of sentimentality has to do with unearned emotion, an emotion that
hasn’t been set up with enough context so that the reader will feel it.
If you set up the context, you can produce emotion without having empty
Have you changed the way that you critique things over time?
Because I teach nonfiction, if a student writes a scene of rape, I would
never say they need more scene-setting in a blunt way. A lot of my
students are writing about sensitive and traumatic material, and so I
tend to just ask questions.
I might ask, why did you put this here? I try to find a way to ask a
question that will get them to a new place.
You’re aware of what they need to fix it, but you do it in a way so
that they realize it themselves?
Yeah, I try to do it so that it’s leading them there rather than telling
them what to do. That’s what a good editor will do. They won’t say, do
this and don’t do this. Good questions are the best form of
Now that you’ve published two books, do
you think of each book as standing on its own or do you want them to be seen as
I think they could definitely be read together. In the first book, this
is all in one page, a single scene. From a craft point of view, writers
don’t have to put everything into their first book. You could open up
something within that first book into its own story.
But I would love for people who liked this to read The Glass Eye.
Recently, I was talking to a writer friend about this. Someone had
mentioned that they liked my first book, but this book really outdid it.
I’m grateful for that, but the first book was a deathbed promise to my
dad. I said if I write that book, I’ll be happy. I arranged my life so
that I could finish a book for my dad.
There are things I probably would change about that book—I haven’t gone
back and looked at it, but it was the best I could do at the time. It’s
not that The Glass Eye is the book I think is better. But I cared so
much about it, and I have trouble imagining caring about another book as
much as I cared about that one.
Now you hate when people say this new one is better.
[Laughs] No, I was feeling really down about this book.
I don’t know. I wrote it pretty quickly. I didn’t have a whole lot of
confidence in this book. I didn’t think I could spend—emotionally—any
more time with it. And if I had waited, my feelings would have changed.
Okay so … next book?
[Laughs] Oh god. You’re a writer, you know that’s cruel.
Whaddya mean? I remember you saying it was going to be essays or
I thought that. My editor and I, we’re talking … I don’t know. I had
an idea for something. It still feels like homework to me. I think it’s
What is it? Tell us. We need to know.
I’m probably not gonna do it. The working title is … well. Don’t
include this, but I’ll tell you …
… but what I’m actually interested in doing—you can include this—is
taking a topic that someone would hear and think, that’s a terrible
idea; no one would want to read about that; that sounds so boring. And
to make it interesting. I would love to take a seemingly boring topic,
and have that trigger new ideas and see where it goes to find the true
Like what would be an example?
Writing about my cat, Flannery. The one who is sick.
Oh yeah, right. But that’s not boring.
A lot of people might think so if I were to say my third book is going
to be about my cat [laughs]. But I’m just sitting with her every day for
at least six hours, feeding her through this tube in her neck, and I
have a stopwatch going, and I’m contemplating time, and my mind is
She has pet insurance, which has been a huge help. It’s better than most
human insurance. A $500 deductible, and then they cover 70% of
everything else. I pay like 20 bucks a month for it. So, I’m thinking
about health insurance, our mortality, and self-awareness. And there’s
no way of knowing what she is thinking and feeling. How do we determine
a life is worth living? Some people get angry finding out that my cat is
getting better medical care than most people, and I understand that.
I use a credit card for it—it’s not real money. I tell myself that
capitalism is a performance art project until someone comes to take away
I took her to the animal hospital yesterday because a vet had
recommended it. So we drove her to Columbia, Maryland. But I also don’t
want to put her through needless amounts of pain. I don’t want to be
So, I’m having all of these thoughts that can branch out into bigger
things. I don’t know if I’m going to be writing about my cat. Nothing
may come of it, but I do feel drawn to that right now.
“If you keep trying to make something perfect before moving on, it won’t work.”
Any last words or advice you could give to aspiring writers?
So, you were my student, what would you say from having been in that
class? What were the most useful… was there anything useful [laughs]?
And if so, what would that be?
Your comments were very useful and inspiring. And sometimes other
students’ comments were useful. Try different structures and play around
with arrangement. And you don’t have to agree with the feedback.
I try to spin it and make it useful. If someone tells you that something
doesn’t work, but then you think it does work, doesn’t that also feel
good? Not everyone is going to like what you do. That’s impossible.
It gives you more confidence.
Yeah, because then you have to think about why it works.
As long as you can articulate a reason why, I think you’re doing okay,
but you also shouldn’t keep everything in your own world.
I think it’s so important to let yourself write badly. It’s something I
wish I had done with The Glass Eye. If you keep trying to make something perfect before moving on, it won’t work. There are
some changes you can’t see as necessary until you have the full piece.
Everybody works differently, but for me, it’s helpful to just plow
forward and tell myself I can fix this later.
The Glass Eye was tough because I worked on it for so long that the
voice changed, the tone and the style shifted. I had new thoughts and
feelings, so it was tough to find my narrative voice. Not to say everyone
should speed write a book. But move forward with the understanding that
you can go back and revise. It’s basic advice, but it’s advice that’s
hard to take.
Do you set a specific word count per day or anything like that?
No. And I haven’t written in … it’s been months. While promoting the
book, I wished I had another project in mind.
But you do … the cat.
That was just the other day. I said fuck it, I’m writing about my cat. I
tend not to do a word count. When I get stuck I read. I read as much as
I can, and I read literary magazines all the time.
I think that’s about it …
Those were good questions, thank you. So you’ll transcribe it?
That’s the theory. Let me see … do you—
I like that the audio ends mid-sentence. Our conversation continued for another hour, touching too many topics beyond the book, but the transcript shows, reflects within itself, there is always more to say.
... Collaborations are good training for instinct and humility, and I can relate to those of a different style because what unites us is the same thing that propelled humanity into and through its many conundrums ...