Q and A with Zoe Zolbrod, THE TELLING
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.
3. What were some of the texts that inspired and helped you write this book?
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick was my main teaching text. It gave me confidence to go with my braided structure, and the quality of the writing is just so fine. Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Half a Life by Darin Strauss, Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot, and Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith were all memoirs that expanded my idea of the form. The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children and its Aftermath, by Susan A. Clancy, a psychologist who interviewed many adults who’d been sexually abused as children, was a profound book for me, because it challenges some of the narratives about sexual abuse victims that I never was able to see myself in; it turns out, I’m not as strange as I thought. Finding this book was so important to me that there’s a whole chapter about it in The Telling.
4. How have your friends and family responded to The Telling?
On the whole, they’ve been very supportive. Amazingly so. But it’s hard to be written about, and the book has caused people I care about pain and discomfort. There have been some difficult conversations and correspondences, but the people in the book that I’ve spoken with have mostly protected me, I think, from the brunt of their feelings. They’re able to recognize my need to tell this story.
I’m especially fortunate to have the father I do. There’s a lot about him in the book. It took me years to even be forthright with him about what I was working on, but since then he’s been nothing but supportive every step of the way. It’s an incredible generosity, and I’m keenly aware that many writers don’t have that from their parents.
5. You’ve written a well-regarded novel, Currency. What were the initial stylistic challenges when you decided next to write a book-length work of nonfiction?
The voice for the book came relatively easily to me, and though I worked hard to get the structure just right, the basic idea for it came early on and I stuck with it. What I went back and forth about was how to integrate the information I was gathering. I wanted the facts to provide some contrast with the intensity and deep subjectivity of the scenes, but to still be integrated into the storyline and the voice. Not to disrupt the flow. I’d never encountered that challenge while writing fiction, and I was tinkering with the informational sections until the very last minute.
6. If you don’t mind disclosing it, what are you working on now?
A novel set in the near-future, where the environmental problems we’re facing now are turned up a few notches, where income inequality has become just a bit more intense, and where Renaissance Fairs have become sites of resistance. I’ve had to set it aside, but I’m looking forward to getting back to pure fancy.