1. Tell us a little about your new book.
It’s a memoir that’s structured around the times I told about my childhood sexual assault. When I was four, a teenaged cousin came to live with our family, and he molested me for the year he was there. It wasn’t until I approached puberty that I understood the nature of what had occurred. I told a friend then, and I told a handful of other people as I grew into adulthood, interpreting the events differently according to what was going on in my life and in the culture at the time. But it wasn’t until I had my first baby and learned that my cousin was now in jail awaiting trial for abusing another little girl the same age I had been that I had a visceral reaction of horror that led to me reexamining my experience and the topic of sexual abuse and pedophilia in general.
That said, the book is about more than child sexual abuse, and I’ve been so grateful that readers and reviewers are picking up on that. It’s also very much a coming of age story—sometimes a joyful one—and a parenting story. It weaves together sections from my childhood, from my adolescence and early adulthood, and from my contemporary perspective as a writer and parent. It’s a story about forming an identity and finding a voice.
2. You weave a lot of compelling cultural commentary into your memoir. It’s an expansive and engaging book, not solely a record and synthesis of a difficult time in your past. Describe how The Telling became a memoir that addresses many different aspects of America and its attitudes toward parenting, adolescence, female sexuality, and sexual abuse.
One way I tried to make sense of my experience was by researching child sexual abuse. I learned so much! For example, I learned that I basically came of age with the awareness of the issue in the US. When I was born in the late 1960s, there was hardly any information about identifying or preventing child sexual abuse. In 1974, the year after my abuse ended, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which funded research and prevention initiatives. In 1979, the National Abuse Coalition was created in order to pressure Congress to create more laws specifically around the area of sexual abuse. And then in the 1980s, when I became a teenager and started learning enough about sex and taboos to realize what had happened to me, public awareness of child sexual abuse exploded to the point of mass hysteria. It was in the news all the time, along with talk of victims’ rights and victims’ voices. I wasn’t consciously aware of most of this, but looking back, I can see the way it affected my interpretation of what happened to me.
What I was more consciously aware of, because early on I identified as a feminist, were issues around gender and sexuality. And—probably again because I’ve identified as a feminist for so long—I do believe that not only is the personal political, but that the political is personal. I’ve always had an instinct to connect individual stories to larger systems, which has informed this book.