about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Telling
A Review of The Telling
by Zoe Zolbrod

Spencer Dew

A memoir can meander or a memoir can have themes, the unity that comes from hindsight, organizing experience according to lines of investigation, even argument. This book is very much of the latter sort, emerging from not so much the experience of abuse as the cognitive process, the life trajectory, that came in the wake of that abuse, that tried to make sense of it, evaluate it, fit it into larger narratives of character and identity and behavior. Part of the what makes this book so fascinating, so simultaneously intimate and intelligent, is that we, as readers, are brought along on this process. Memoir, God knows, can be cheap; the form also allows for great complexity, depth of question. Again, Zolbrod gives us the latter.

There are the facts of abuse, by a live-in cousin, starting at age four. Then there is the telling of the title, which begins internally, a vivid play of memories as well as various explanatory stories. Zolbrod writes, “What happened to me at night when I was so young gave me reason to inspect, to speculate.... I learned to suspect secrets everywhere, to pray until they were revealed. In my story of myself, my assault helped me to orient me on the path to becoming the Beat-reading adventurer that I aspired to be, that I actually was, for awhile.” Later sexual experimentation and adventures—and a sensibility defined by a rejection of shame, an identification of prudishness as demeaning—were thus linked, in this first form of telling, to these horrific encounters. There is a nuance here where awful experiences can be “appreciated . . . in a way,” even if only for preparing her for future realities, a clear-sightedness which is implicitly contrast to the shame and prudishness she dislikes in others. As she says at one point in this book, discussing the memoir project with her father, abuse “tends to be looked at only one way, as this horror show,” but there is much more to Zolbrod’s experience, including empathy, a recognition (at least in memories) of the reversed power dynamic wherein she, as abused child, held some power over the fearful abuser, and this sense that, looking back, these events acted as preparation and formation for the self that was to come.

Zolbrod knows the research, too, and offers it to us at certain points, in certain chapters—not just statistics, but scholarly takes on the dynamics involved, the reasons children recant accusations, theories about memory and on the reluctance of those who were abused to tell their story. Zolbrod’s own reactions to later tellings range from instant regret to a kind of disappointment. The telling comes across as, itself, a kind of violent shock or, worse, a kind of anticlimax. Reactions also define her relationships to people; a boyfriend from early in the book is so important to her precisely because of his ability to not to “see me as damaged—if indeed that’s what I was” but to, “being so familiar, point it out to me, press his fingers into the bruise, help me find its exact dimensions.”

Her parents’ reaction was not what she wanted. It was, ultimately, more like her own: “muddled, uneasy, sullied with doubt—rather than a reaction I wanted to believe real sexual abuse demanded: outrage, action.” Her father, among whose impulses is the need to find some “silver lining” to any bad situation, gets the almost-apologetic addendum from his daughter that the abuse wasn’t exactly “rape . . . There was nothing violent.” Yet while this book takes issue even with that easy categorization (Zolbrod notes that in the FBI’s taxonomy “forcible rape” is only “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”) at the same time this book, throughout, expresses profound gratitude for her parents. Her love for them is palpable, as is an—albeit slant—understanding between her and them.

Her own reflections on parenting, on discussing rape with her son, on her hopes for her daughter “to be able to explore and play with sexuality,” offer their own silver lining to this narrative. One way of reading this book is as a triumph of decent parenting leading to even better parenting, as Zolbrod’s parents’ best qualities are echoed, accentuated, in her role as mother.

But this memoir offers much more than this, reflecting on the long process of narration, of commentary, that is our telling of our world and ourselves.

Official Zoe Zolbrod Web Site
Official Curbside Splendor Publishing Web Site

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