Novelist and editor Zoe Zolbrod first beeped onto my radar when she wrote an article for Salon about Woody Allen, working in inductive reasoning about her own childhood sexual abuse. Strange as it may seem, it’s always a buzz to find such writing – rational and inquisitive, and most importantly, straight from the horse’s mouth. I was just as pleased to read Martin McKenzie-Murray’s Inside the Mind of a Paedophile for the Saturday Paper, in which he segued into his own childhood experiences. Both writers were able to analyse their abuse with the coolness of distance, but with authenticity. I contacted Zoe to discuss the idea of writing about the subject without being bogged down by trigger warnings and intellectual underpinnings. Without, as she says, “immediately sucking all the oxygen out of the room”.
While you won’t find any references to sexual abuse on the back cover of Cherry Bomb, or in any promotional material, it’s mashed up and inserted into the story nonetheless, as cunningly disguised as a Brussels sprout in a kid’s dinner. The idea was to make the subject accessible and remove any stigma (you can read more about that idea in this article I wrote for Junkee), and lastly to avoid giving the reader that weary sinking feeling. In fact, if you feel so inclined, you could probably pretend it’s not even there…
Jenny Valentish: Zoe, you’re writing a memoir about child sex abuse, and in effect you tested the waters – ‘outed’ yourself, even – with your Salon article. What were your thoughts and fears before publishing?
Zoe Zolbrod: It was only at the last minute that I decided to talk about my own experience in that essay. The day before it was due, I ditched the first half of what I’d written and replaced it with the outline of my story, which I’d never stated so explicitly in public. And yeah, I was nervous about it coming out. I had vague worries that someone would claim I was lying, that family members would be upset with me, that friends and acquaintances would view me differently, and that I would be yelled at by internet trolls. I think I was also secretly worried that nothing much at all would happen—that I would find myself dangling far out on a limb and that no one would notice. That is the sensation I had in my twenties when I first told my parents about the molestation, and the memory of dropping a bombshell and not having it go off remained vivid. But you know what? None of that came to pass. And I found I was more comfortable than I realised talking with the many people who approached me to tell me their own stories of abuse or to express support.
Jenny Valentish: You’re currently working on a memoir, What to Tell, that you have said about “growing as a mother while I work through a dark spot in my own childhood”. Presumably you’ve reached the exact right time in your life to tell this story – and I’m guessing you couldn’t have told it earlier. How did you get to this point?
Zoe Zolbrod: Yes, I think you’re right that I couldn’t have told this story earlier – in fact, it never even occurred to me to write about child sex abuse at all. The significance of what had happened to me was a muddle in my mind for many years, for one thing, but also, I considered myself mostly a fiction writer. I didn’t see myself as a memoirist.
Then around the time I turned 40, I found myself writing personal essays to promote my novel, which was inspired by my solo travels. I started getting into the form, and I branched off from writing straight-forward travel narratives to writing more exploratory essays triggered by current events that caught my attention, and very often these related to sex crimes. Something was percolating within me, I guess. Several years back, I had learned that the guy who molested me was being sent to prison for abusing another little girl, and so I had already started reinterpreting what had happened to me through a broader lens. And then simultaneous with my novel promotion, my second child, my daughter, was becoming a preschooler, and I think something about parenting a girl who was approaching the same age I had been when the abuse started opened up a channel in me, in mostly a good way. Emotionally, I was ready to sort through some things, and I felt the weight of responsibility to do what I could to protect other children. For me, this seemed intertwined with speaking out.
Jenny Valentish: How much of a minefield is it turning out to be when it comes to protecting other people?
Zoe Zolbrod: I go back and forth in my attitude toward this. I never admitted to worrying too much about protecting the man who molested me. I’d think: “If you don’t want anyone identifying you as a child molester, how about you don’t molest any children?” But on some level I must have been at least a little bit worried, because I’d also say to myself sort of defensively: “He’s a registered child sex offender. It’s not like I’m saying anything a simple Google search wouldn’t turn up.”
But there were other people I was very concerned about involving. Early on, especially, I’d spend hours just staring at the screen, wondering if my story was too closely aligned with theirs and whether I could tell a story that felt honest to me while not dragging innocent people too far into it. At some point, I set a few parameters and just started plowing forward, telling myself I’d deal with reactions later. That later hasn’t quite come yet.
Luckily for me, my father has been very supportive. There’s a lot of do with him in the story, and although my writing about the past has forced him to revisit some difficult chapters in his own life, he’s been willing to do that. He’s been very generous and trusting, which has made the task much easier for me.
Jenny Valentish: Are there any ‘difficult’ memoirs out there that you enjoy? We’re both an admirer of Lisa Carver’s untitled book.
Zoe Zolbrod: Lisa Carver is one of my favourite writers. I was profoundly moved by her untitled book and I especially love it in thecontext of her other writing. Lidia Yuknavitch’s book The Chronology of Water came out early in my writing process, and it electrified me. I also read Stephen Elliot’s Adderall Diaries around that time and was inspired by it as well.
Jenny Valentish: In our correspondence we’ve touched on the pop stars who are starting to write about sexual abuse, including Sky Ferreira and Beth Ditto. I dropped the subject into a centre of a novel about pop music because I feel it needs to be normalised. Mentions of sexual abuse in the media and books tends to be either very po-faced with “trigger warnings” or in the vein of misery lit. Yet, depending on which stats you read, it affects one in three girls and one in six boys, and so should be acknowledged in all sorts of formats: books, magazines, TV… That’s my feeling anyway – how do you feel about how it should be handled?
Zoe Zolbrod: I agree with you completely. One of the things that has made writing or talking about or even, early on, fulling acknowledging my sexual abuse difficult for me was the fear that the fact of it was going to alter and dominate how others view me, because it’s viewed through this totalising lens. There’s this sense that it can only be spoken of in grave, hushed tones, that it’s this almost literally unspeakable horror. There’s not a lot of room for nuance or, yeah, the acknowledgement of its commonplace nature. And of course I’m not saying that there’s nuance regarding whether child sexual abuse is wrong – absolutely it’s wrong. But there are so many of us who have this experience and who do not see our reality or response reflected in the representations that exist. It can magnify the loneliness and confusion that sexual abuse tends to sow anyhow. I’d like to see more room made for the acknowledgement of sexual abuse in a variety of formats, and for it to be able to be spoken of without immediately sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
Jenny Valentish: I think books are the ideal way to talk about difficult topics, so that people can either absorb them privately or discuss them. Were any books particularly helpful to you, growing up?
Zoe Zolbrod: I don’t recall any books that I read as a kid that helped me understand my own abuse, but from the time I was twelve years old, I read every dirty book I could get my hands on. I definitely had a huge thirst for information about sex in general. My friends and I all passed around underlined copies of the Flowers in the Attic books, but most of my reading was secret. I’d steal books from the library because I was too embarrassed to check them out, or because they wouldn’t let me, and I kept them hidden around my bed, mine alone.
Jenny Valentish: Incidentally, I loved your description of sexual abuse memories lurking “like the sea cucumbers I spied on the sea floor the first time I went scuba diving—mysterious and disgusting things I didn’t want my skin to come in contact with, something to hold my breath and paddle away from.” It reminds me of Jerry Stahl’s description of his own childhood in Permanent Midnight:
“It’s as if there’s a landscape — we’ll call it childhood — which exists in our mind. It’s completely familiar. Unspeakably familiar. Until in the middle of the night, when the sky is blackest, lightning cracks through the firmament. And in that crush of sound, amid the madness and the blinding flash, you see your world: home, trees, rooftops, your own hand, in an entirely new way. Illumined by fire. Flashed for half a second and then gone. And it’s that image, that savage, rip-through-the-curtain vision, that lingers. Not the reality you see every day. Not the world you walk around in. No, it’s that spookhouse glimpse, the scorching peek through the blackness, that stays in the brain.”
Zoe Zolbrod: That’s a great quote. I’d never read Permanent Midnight, and now I want to.