“I felt like being silent and stoic wasn’t the best approach. My conviction that it might help other people in some way was something I leaned on.”
Those were some of Zoe Zolbrod’s opening words last Wednesday afternoon as she shared her experience writing her memoir, The Telling, with Professor Amy Monticello and her students in the seminar “In the First-Person: Storytelling in the 21st Century.”
Zolbrod, an acclaimed novelist, is at the frontline publicly, speaking about topics like child sexual abuse and trauma. The Telling, which came out this past May, recalls her long-kept, devastating and disturbing secret: she was repeatedly molested by her teenaged cousin between the ages of four and five.
In the casual discussion setting hosted by Monticello, Zolbrod answered student questions and discussed the complexities of sexual abuse, shame, and the power of storytelling.
“I came to believe these topics weren’t right for everyone to talk about or disclose, but I felt like I was contributing to hopefully mitigating and dispelling some of the myths,” said Zolbrod. “Educating ourselves about child sexual abuse could prevent some of it and alleviate some of the effects when it does happen, and for me, I was able to do this through writing.”
Professor Monticello’s storytelling seminar considers the forms, venues, and impacts of narrative nonfiction in contemporary culture, and how individual lives are shaped by different types of archiving, including heavy subjects like child sexual abuse and trauma.
Zolbrod spoke of how her decision to write something so personal helped to conquer her anxiety.
“I really tried to bring in the current day analysis and my thinking of now, and acknowledging things I may have not remembered. That became my device in writing this book. This book isn’t written as a novel. It’s not trying to present a chronologically clean narrative, and it’s not trying to assert a reality,” said Zolbrod.
Monticello explained to the students how instead, the memoir closely painted an extended analysis of life experience. She alluded to a scene in the book, where Zolbrod recalls finally disclosing the dark secret to her parents.
“That was one of the most powerful scenes,” said Monticello. “We’ve talked about the role of speculation in non-fiction, because so much of our mental activity is shifting between what happened, what we wish had happened, and what we wonder could have happened, or didn’t happen, and that has a place in non-fiction when we’re explicit about it.”
In other words, in fiction, a narrative is being told, and narratives move scenically. But in non-fiction, writers are able to overlay their understanding of what a narrative means, so the ways in which that is created becomes a discovery for both the writer and the reader.
Zolbrod answered questions of how examining the experience at different stages in her life helped to shape her understanding of the situation.
“In [regards] to how puberty affected my mental health and my understanding of the situation, it’s still so hard to untangle to this day,” said Zolbrod. “I can make stories up; that’s how we understand our lives, not that the stories aren’t true, but we frame things in such a way to say this and this is why this and this happened. I talked in the first chapter about how those years were hard for me and I hadn’t fully grasped what had happened to me until later on in adolescence.”
Zolbrod continued the discussion by dispelling a myth of child sexual abuse. “In my research, I found the rates of men and boys who are sexually abused to be much higher than expected. A lot of the discussion tends to be so gender-based, which is important but it masks something else that is going on, which is sexual violence can happen to anyone.”
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), as of 1998, 2.78 million men in the U.S. have been victims of sexual abuse. That means 1 in 20 males are victims of child sexual abuse.
Studies have also shown that males are less likely to report their sexual abuse, largely because of the emphasis on the role that males ‘should’ have, but part of Zolbrod’s mission is to dispel the social taboos that prevent abuse survivors from telling their stories.
Zolbrod stated, “My mission for this book was to provide helpful information, as well as my own individual story. My kids, including my son, know what the book is about, and I told them in a very matter-of-fact way that wasn’t so gloomy. If it were to happen to them, I would want them to tell me, and if they could see me being matter-of-fact and calm about it, it might make them less likely to freak about it and feel shamed.”
The conversation closed with a student asking Zolbrod if she had certain techniques that she used to help her remember everything she wanted to write down.
“I did a lot of solo traveling in my early 20s, in a completely different era, and I would be wandering around by myself in the dark in strange towns,” Zolbrod responded. “A lot of times, I’d be playing my life like a movie and I really think that helped. It was like, ‘I’m going to go watch a video, now.’ I retold my whole life to myself. Just lying in mosquito nets in some guesthouse in Thailand or something. And I attribute that to having really helped my memory.”
Monticello added to Zolbrod’s thought by comparing the act to picture taking.
“You can fill in the narrative gaps of that highlight reel that most wouldn’t guess what was going on…if you can look at pictures and ask yourself what else was going on then, you may be able to access some memories you didn’t even know you had,” said Monticello.
Picture taking has often been used to document and highlight positive experiences, but almost always, when looking at certain pictures in an individual’s life, they are able to see and remember other things that were going on, and not only the part visible in the picture.
As for the freshmen involved in Monticello’s storytelling seminar, they have only begun to explore the construction of storytelling, and the ways in which their lives are being chronicled by the narrations they create everyday.
A report by Connie Ruby Lai, student reporter, class of 2017