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Zoe Zolbrod

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

Converse-Station: Maggie May Ethridge and Zoe Zolbrod

May 10, 2016
writing

Welcome to The Converse-Station: a dialogue between writers. I read an advanced copy of Zoe Zolbrand’s book, The Telling, and I couldn’t put it down – This writing is fantastic and the book deserves the praise it is receiving. So when Maggie May Ethridge approached us about publishing an interview between her and Zoe, I was over the moon with excitement. Here is their conversation. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff

When Zoe Zolbrod sent me her new memoir, The Telling, I couldn’t help but have the impression I knew what this story would be like; it’s a story of childhood molestation, and there is often a narrative that goes along with the subject. I was wrong. It’s a narrative Zolbrod has done her best to shake free of: you can feel in the writing how she again and again strives to tell the story true, tell it as it really was for her. This isn’t the same as telling something factually, of course-journalism is very different than a creative retelling of a true experience. This isn’t journalism, this is literature.

Zolbrod’s The Telling takes the reader through her experience being molested at age four by an older cousin who comes to live with the family, moving through her teen years, her twenties, and then into her adult married life as the mother of two young children. This timeline is very effective, illuminating the way that something profound yet baffling can seep into a life without overtaking it, so that Zolbrod wondered if she was over or under-emphasizing the effect the molesting had on her. This open curiosity drives many of the best passages in The Telling.

This is the subtext, the subconscious, the present and past and how they blur and move from underneath the pen that tries to press them down, the child as memoirist vs. the adult as memoirist, the way the rest of life that has nothing to do with one specific event still seeps into the picture, because nothing is life stands alone, an island, unaffected by all other choices we make. If that were true, we wouldn’t bother healing.

As I talked with Zolbrod, I reflected that often memoirs on sexual abuse are so difficult to read that I can’t read them twice. I read The Telling twice. The way that Zolbrod puts forth her abuse alongside her young twenties, alongside her adult, mother self, allows the most painful memories to have context and relevancy for her entire, empowered life as a woman, and not feel like a single knife, stabbing again and again through the paragraphs.

Zolbrod’s story is not only emotionally resonant, it surprised me as a reader by also being simply a good story. Zolbrod also happens to write sex exceptionally well, and from an empowered point of view that I don’t see reflected in our culture enough. Zolbrod unabashedly enjoyed sex, and writes with all the gusto, flavor, passion and joy of a great food writer, delightfully extolling the virtues of rolling orgasms and hyperfeminine men. Zolbrod goes after life, and you can feel this urgency in her sentences, including sex, men, female friendships, family relationships, art, literature, travel, food; we are taken along for the ride with an insightful, honest, tender yet definitely straightforward guide.

You can buy The Telling now.

Ethridge: What does your writing history look like?

Zolbrod: I have a novel that came out in 2010 called Currency. I worked on that novel over a decade by the time it came out. I’d also had a few short stories come out, and I have a MA in writing.

Ethridge: What made you decide to move to non-fiction?

Zobrod: I wrote some essays and liked writing in that form, but I really thought of myself as a fiction writer. When I started to promote Currency, I started a blog and wrote a few essays, and I found so much satisfaction in writing about topical issues and writing from my own point of view and connecting with people over my shared experience. I published some essays at The Nervous Breakdown and they had a thriving comments section and that was very satisfying…to be able to sit at your day job and connect with writers. I got more in the habit of writing personal reactions to things, and I found that I was writing often about sex crimes, because I was having such a strong reaction to them. Particularly when the crime of Jerry Sandusky was in the media, that he had abused all these boys and turned a blind eye. I wrote an essay on Jerry Sandusky and revealed in two or three sentences about my own experience…I was shaking and terrified. I don’t know what I expected, but I got incredible support. It felt ultimately liberating to say this out loud and be met with support and not scorn or disbelief.

Ethridge: What made you decide to write about your whole story?

Zolbrod: I was revisiting the material already, mulling it over, particularly some old journals. I wanted to put the energy I felt around it into a novel, and this is also at a time where I wasn’t doing very much writing because I was adjusting to parenthood. It became clear that the essays I was writing had more energy than the fiction. I was trying to code the truth, and I realized that the power was with the personal experience, and I should follow that instinct.

After that, I’d carve out time to write, and sometimes I just couldn’t. There are so many ethical concerns, so many blocks, so I spent a year or so not doing much writing at all. And then what happened, I don’t know- I just decided I’m going to do this, I have the right to do this.

Often ‘writing as therapy’ is used as description for an insult, but I think for me it actually was in some way, powerful, and I think that the writing is good, and it was very meaningful to me to be able to feel some of these emotions that are very hard. I didn’t want to dwell, but ultimately it was really beneficial to me to feel some of those emotions.

Ethridge: How did you work through your ethical and other concerns with writing about your molestation?

Zolbrod: At first I was really defensive, in particular I thought about the cousin who did this to me, and then thought about him going to prison “If you don’t want someone to write about him being a sex offender, don’t molest children” and I thought, “He’s on the sex offender registry, and that is something that anyone can find in google.” But then…it’s iffy. Other people can be implicated…I changed names, I tried not to psychologize anyone else, or assume what they were thinking or feeling, I only included things I thought were core and necessary to the core of my story. I think my biggest asset was that my father is such a generous person, and he gave me his blessing despite the fact that I was talking about some really difficult things. Things he’s not proud of or happy about- he’s a wonderful person.

I gave my father the chance to read it in final manuscript, and I told him I’d consider altering anything he couldn’t live with, and he didn’t take me up on that offer. He didn’t want to effect the editing process, and he’d deal privately with anything that would make him wince.

Ethridge: What was your experience as a reader of memoir before this? What were your influences writing The Telling?

Zolbrod: I hadn’t been a memoir reader before writing The Telling. I was probably contaminated by the view that memoirs are ‘uncool’ or less literary, which I think had effected me without doing my own examination. But as I entered this territory there were a few that I came to love, and I now I do love memoirs. There’s a lot that can be done with the form- Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, was one of my early guiding lights, about her relationship with her mother. Something about it really freed me. It alternates between a more current voice and the past, which is something I do. I love The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, I learned a lot from that, The Adderall Diaries, Another Bullshit Night In Sex City, Claire Bidwell Smith’s Rules of Inheritance, and recently I loved MOT by Sarah Einstein.

Ethridge: Did you have a plan, an outline when you began writing, or were you just writing it as it came out?

Zolbrod: I had a some kind of plan before I began writing the book…Vivian Gornick’s essay ‘The Situation and The Story’ helped me think about how to write my book. I always knew I wanted it to be a braided narrative, with several different timelines, I knew I wanted to structure it around the times I told. I felt fairly confident in the structure, it came to me, I worked hard but I never veered from the basic idea of interweaving these time frames. Trying to get the research in there, I wrestled with it a little bit. Early on I knew I wanted to include the research.

Ethridge: It was very effective, the way you used the varying stages of your life allowed me as a reader to have some kind of breathing room, so that I could read about the molesting and not feel like I had to run from the book. Sometimes books about really hard things are difficult to finish, no matter how good the writing. Your story was absorbing, had a wonderful narrative.

Zolbrod: One of the things I’ve talked about elsewhere… who wants to read about a child being abused, like you’re bringing something toxic into the world. So it really means a lot to me that you felt what I was trying to do. I want people to know that this is an empowering book, an adventure.

Ethridge: Do people reach out to you about being sexually molested after reading your book?

Zolrbod: Yes. One the one hand it makes me sad, but it is something of a comfort that I was less alone that I thought. So many of us have this experience, so few of us talk about it. It’s kind of a conversation stopper, so even if you don’t feel like you’re hiding it, there aren’t many places to discuss it. I feel badly whenever I learn that someone has had an experience like this in their own life, but also I feel a little less alone and I think other people feel less alone too. We can compare experiences, and how common thy are, feeling less isolated. I’d love for people to feel more seen,  hopeful.

 

Ethridge: As you wrote The Telling, did you have an idea of who you were writing to?

Zolbrod: I think I wrote the book for myself, for when I used to read, looking for some reflection of my experience and I didn’t find it. I hope to offer that for someone else who might find it useful. I hoped to dispel some myths about child sexual abuse…everytime there is a case in the news, there’s so much misunderstanding about who is vulnerable, who does these things. I’ve seen in my own community when a child can spot some warning signs and know something is inappropriate and disclose what is happening before…I hope the book can aid in that.

Ethridge: Did writing about your molestation change the way you address this subject with your own children?

Zolbrod: The writing and research I did around the book affected the way I talked to my kids. Something I wouldn’t have realized, we can periodically ask our kids as part of a conversation about bodies and privacy, you can ask “Has anyone ever tried to touch you there?” Giving children an opening to say something, an opening that wouldn’t have occurred.

It’s part of our story- it doesn’t have to be the whole story.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling (Curbside Splendor, 2016) and the novel Currency (Other Voices Books, 2010), which was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Her essays have appeared in Salon, zoe-zolbrod-portraits-by-elizabeth-mcquern-oct-2015-1b1Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, The Chicago Reader, and The Rumpus, where she is the Sunday co-editor. She’s had numerous short stories and interviews with authors published, too. As a public speaker, she’s given talks at universities, workshops, and conferences on topics such as narrative voice; the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction; balancing paid work, parenting, and writing; child sexual abuse; and writing about trauma.

Born in western Pennsylvania, Zolbrod graduated from Oberlin College and then moved to Chicago, where she received an M.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Program for Writers. Aside for periods of traveling in Southeast Asia and Central America, she’s almost always worked full time, making her living as an editor of comic books, text books, and other kinds of books and educational materials, despite her difficulties with spelling and proper nouns. She lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children.

Me,eyebrowsup!

 

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of the memoir Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage (Shebooks, 2015), a poetic remembering of her marriage as it was before and after her husband’s diagnosis of bipolar. MME has work in Guernica, The Rumpus, Marie Claire and many others. Her novel Agitate My Heart is in last edits. You can find her at Flux Capacitor.

 

 

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Abuse, Dear Life., Guest Posts

Dear Life: What Do I Do About A Sexual Predator?

February 9, 2015

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Hello from London! Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.

Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter or email dearlife@jenniferpastiloff.com.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by my friend Zoe Zolbrod, who also happens to be the fabulous co-editor for The Rumpus on Sundays.

Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.

Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter. ps, I will see you in Atlanta in a couple weeks followed by NYC! 

 

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Chicago! Join Jen Pastiloff at her first Chicago workshop Aug 22nd! Book early!
” It’s story-letting, like blood-letting but more medically accurate: Bleed out the stories that hold you down, get held in the telling by a roomful of amazing women whose stories gut you, guide you. Move them through your body with poses, music, Jen’s booming voice. Write renewed, truthful. Float-stumble home.” ~ Pema Rocker

Dear Life,

My cousins are twenty-eight and twenty-nine. He’s related to me on my mom’s side and she’s related to me through their marriage. I introduced them as a couple when we were in high school after he asked me to help him find a girlfriend. Of course, there had been a lot of issues with women up until that point, including some awkward comments from him to me (“You should do a wet t-shirt contest”)… but I thought those remarks were just par for the course, given our shared history. I strongly suspect he is a survivor of sexual abuse. His father (my uncle) molested me as a child. I believe he inflicted similar abuse and passed down his gross attitudes toward women onto his children.

Well, at first, everything seemed great. They start dating and hit it off. He snaps out of his depression, goes back to college, gets a driver’s license and travels to Europe with her. They move in together and years later, he proposes. I was a bridesmaid in their wedding. I consider his wife to be one of my oldest and closest friends. But I’m keeping a secret from her.

Over a year ago, at a party we co-hosted in their new home, I went to hug him goodbye and he stuck his hand down my shirt and squeezed my breast. We both had been drinking. I walked out of his house in shock, but I said nothing to my then-boyfriend on the way home. Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only one he groped that night. Two other friends were also subjected to this assault. I’m calling it assault because there’s absolutely no way this touching was invited. It was a hug. He is my cousin and their friend. None of us wanted this to happen. We don’t even want to be alone with him anymore.

The total (that I know of) now stands at four women who have been groped without permission. Each time, he’s drunk and his wife is out of sight. He clearly has issues with alcohol, but the line has been crossed and he’s acting like a sexual predator. The last time he groped me was three weeks ago. He slid into the backseat of his wife’s car while she walked another friend to the door of her house. He hugged me from the side and I went stiff. He touched my chest and I made my voice firm: “You’re touching my tits, stop it.” I pushed him away, but he reached for me again. When I pushed back, he finally pulled away… and called me a tease. When his wife got back to the car, she looked at him strangely. She asked him what he was doing in the backseat.

Here’s the hard part: she’s pregnant.

I am at a total loss as to how to proceed. I want to protect her, but it’s hard to imagine that she’s not catching on to his drinking problem and his boundary issues with women and the sexual predator side of his personality. What do I do? Silence isn’t protecting me or my friends. I feel responsible for introducing them as a couple, knowing he had issues — but he never tried anything like this when we were teenagers. And it’s not even just happening with only me. I want to protect myself and my friends, but I don’t want to hurt someone who has a lot at stake. Please help.

Signed, Protective

Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, loss

Under the Snow this Winter. By Zoe Zolbrod.

March 14, 2014

By Zoe Zolbrod.

I woke up this March morning to another four or five inches of snow. It was still coming down when I peered through the frost-free porthole in the center of my bedroom window. There was no question it had to be shoveled promptly, from the sidewalk and front steps at least. It was a heavy snow, and I had to heave it high to get it atop the piles we’ve been building since December.

We live in the Chicago area and as in much of the Midwest and Northeast, the winter has been brutal—a record number of inches of precipitation, a slew of record-breaking low-temperature days. In early January we were hit with a blizzard and then immediately after the temperature plunged to under ten degrees below zero.  Work and school were cancelled. On the second day at home I took my daughter a couple doors down to stave off her cabin fever with a visit to a neighbor boy, bundling us both up in layer upon layer until all that was exposed were our eyes. After I dropped her off I decided to take the long way home in order to experience this unprecedented environment. My boots crunched on snow frozen so hard the texture was that of crushed seashells. Cocooned as I was, the sound was as much an internal vibration as it was an external noise, as if I were listening through a stethoscope. I didn’t feel cold, exactly. I didn’t even feel gravity in the same way I was accustomed to. I felt like an astronaut—tethered to civilization by technology, but a speck in an uncharted vastness. It’s a sensation I’m going to carry with me. As I trotted that day, I recalled the time someone asked me to picture outer space and then told me that was how I felt about death. Walking around my neighborhood post-blizzard with the wind chill at minus thirty degrees seemed to me to be a closer approximation of what I imagine might wait for us when our hearts stop beating, when our bodies are burnt or buried to await decay. I had never experienced anything quite like it. And yet this winter has made me nostalgic for all of the winters that have come before, for all the ways I’ve kept warm in them, or haven’t. For all they’ve taught me about patience, and stasis, and change.

I grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and the winter of 2013-2014 has brought me back to those of my youth, the memories of which used to make the Chicago season look unimpressive, if still tedious and ugly. The icicles that poured down from the gutter above the kitchen window in the home in which I was raised could grow thick as tree limbs, stab the entire height of the window so that we looked out through their bars. We had a long skinny driveway that my father had to shovel incessantly to keep passable, scraping away rhythmically in the dark of early morning, or the gloom of late afternoon, or the black of night with the snowflakes glittering in the glow from our light post. The piles quickly grew above my head and then, as the thawless weeks went by, up to my dad’s, the snow spilling over into the yard where the blanket of it was already deep enough for my brother and me to make tunnels through. The door to our house opened right into our small kitchen, no foyer, where we’d stand stomping and huffing like horses when we came in. There were four of us who lived there plus a dog to be walked, and we didn’t slow down for the fact of life that was winter, we were constantly in and out, letting in cold bursts and chunks of snow that would melt messily. The house was always chilly—a combination of thrifty parents and old windows and not helped by the frequent door openings—and my corner room especially so, with its two exterior walls. I shivered near the heat vent while I dressed. I slept under a featherbed that seemed almost as round as it was long. My fingers and toes were always cold, often painfully so. I hated the winter.

And yet there are warm memories—the family deciding despite the weather to drive to a basketball game at the college where my father worked, wondering if the car would make it up the hill, cheering when it did so, the steam from the hot breath of the players and crowd fogging the windows of the gymnasium. And I have warm memories of the snow itself, how the igloos we made could be really snug. And we lived in a place that could highlight the beauty of winter, with a woods across the street from our house that offered up its bare black branches to catch the snow and make a Narnia-like fairyland. Do we ever describe memories of summer as warm? Perhaps that’s why despite my antipathy to the season I never entertained the thought of choosing a college located somewhere it could be avoided.

I was always studying college possibilities, though. From the time I was about twelve I was actively plotting to get out of my hometown. I had good friends there, a solid family, but even as I made-out and partied and learned, part of me believed my real life wouldn’t start until I left, that the real me couldn’t emerge where I was. But here’s a winter memory that proves me wrong. One evening as a teenager on my way to meet friends at a basketball game already underway, I parked my car in the student lot and started walking across the snow-covered field that separated it from the high school, believing I was taking a short cut. My boots sank in the heavy snow, making each step difficult, and I was bitterly cold in the trendy thin coat I refused to button. It soon became clear I’d have been better off walking on the sidewalk. I paused for a moment and looked at the smooth, white expanse separating me from my destination. I ran cross-country in high school, and in the fall the field was part of our course. “It’s the same field,” I thought to myself. And I had the sensation of seeing—of being— at once both the green grass beneath my swift-moving feet and the moon-lit swath of unbroken snow that lay before me. I knew with a surety that made me less cold that spring would come, that it was coming even in the deadest part of winter, that—although I wouldn’t have used this imagery at the time— the very frozen stillness was the pause at the bottom of the exhale that makes the full inhale possible. I knew that in some way spring was as good as here.

It’s a clichéd insight, really—by that point in my life I’m sure I’d already been passed a roach clip with a ying-yang symbol dangling from it—but finding that ancient knowledge within myself felt huge. It’s a moment I’ve held close all the years since—only one of which was spent anywhere warm, and a few of which passed in an apartment without central heat where I’d sometimes wake up to see frost furring my bedroom wall. But no matter the quality of my outerwear or furnace, every winter there’s that month or so when the world is crusted with a layer of gray salt, and the snow banks are black and not going anywhere, and everyone’s puffy coat is deflated and filthy, and it only warms long enough to make a more miserable soup, and when I think: I can’t stand this! Why do I live here! Why does anyone! And then I’ll be visited by my self standing on that field outside the high school, the same self who emerges occasionally during moments of travel, or in a great yoga class, or on a walk, the one lodged most deeply within me but also who sees furthest outside myself, and I feel joyful, and calm, and sure. I picture the real me as a copper wire of energy that’s been pulsing through my core since the dawn of my consciousness, maybe even before that. Maybe it will even go on afterward.

A couple weeks ago a colleague died from the cancer that ravaged her within eight months of her diagnosis. She’s the fourth friend roughly my age who has died in the last three years. How early this inevitable falling off begins is not something that’s been encompassed by the worldview of my dawn-of-consciousness core self.  In my life, the proximity of death has come as a mid-life shock. Living as I have always in places with four distinct seasons, the markers of winter, spring, summer, and fall have been reliable signposts for me, symbols of continuity amidst change, but there is a different quality to their coming now. They’re also beads on an abacus, ways to count years without these other people in them, ways to count off my own.

We’ve had a thaw already this March, and we’re due for another later this week before the temperatures plunge again. My weather app shows more snowflakes in the near future. But even in this fearsome and dramatic winter, one of these days the last snow of the season will come. And then will come spring, for those of us here. I think often of my friends who have died, turning over their absence like a stone in my mind. How can they be gone when I sense them so firmly? It brings me up short. The first flowers that come up in my yard are the crocuses. After the morning snowfall the sky cleared today, and the sun’s staying up longer. Green shoots might be visible even before the full melt.

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Zoe Zolbrod’s first novel, Currency, received a Nobbie Award and was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Her writing can be found online at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Weeklings. She lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children, where she works as a senior editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and recently finished a memoir that explores how child sexual abuse reverberates throughout generations of a family.

Poster by Bryant Mcgill SimpleReminders.com. Pre-order their book (which I am in!) http://www.SimpleReminders.info

Poster by Bryant Mcgill SimpleReminders.com.
Pre-order their book (which I am in!) http://www.SimpleReminders.info

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day/New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. 

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