I first heard Zoe Zolbrod read in a coffee shop in Logan Square a couple months ago. She was skinny, 40s-ish, and had arm tattoos and a mane of silver streaked dark hair. I remember her wearing knee high red leather boots, but I wonder if that’s my imagination filling in character details in memory’s blind spots. Regardless, I was surprised to find out she’s a mother to young children, happily married, and a resident of Evanston.
Months later, after finishing her memoir, I realize there’s nothing more Zoe Zolbrod than defying expectations. Of course she’s a suburban mom, why the hell wouldn’t she be? Zolbrod’s “The Telling” presents as a memoir about experiencing sex abuse, but it’s really a story about motherhood, childhood, and being yourself without regard for social expectation.
Zolbrod weaves an overview of her life ordering and layering her narrative in a swirling, not always chronological way. Some moments, a summer in Philadelphia, conversations with her parents, her first few dates with her now husband, are detailed closely while others are more broadly referred to in retrospect. She opens the book describing a visit to her parents shortly after her first child was born. She places herself as daughter and mother, calling attention to her physicality and even the latent Freudian sexuality tied to motherhood and feeding a young child. Zolbrod moves seamlessly between sections that discuss different periods in her life. So many memoirs about abuse fail to share the whole person. We don’t get to see who they were, we just see what happened to them. Zoe Zolbrod has hitchhiked across the country, fucked the guys we’re all too scared to fuck, been a punk when there were still punks in Chicago, had two children, and lived with her abuse as a secret for most of her life. The burden of her abuse never held her back, but after becoming a mother, she seems finally ready to shed the weight of her secret. The memoir is an intricate web of perspectives, she sees herself as a child and victim, relates to her parents, and even seems to empathize her cousin, the attacker.
The memoir shows a really round and whole Zoe, despite her experience of abuse. She talks about feminine sexuality and perversity which is a bold choice in an abuse narrative. Women writers too often approach sexual appetite timidly. In a story about childhood abuse, any discussion of what might normally seem like healthy teenage and young adult sexuality becomes complicated. Did her premature experience color how she views sex? If she hadn’t been abused would she be more careful? Is her sexuality entirely her own, or will it always be tainted by her abuse?
In one of my favorite subplots, Zolbrod writes about her first child’s acid reflux, the months of his constant crying and screaming, how it rocked her confidence as a mother, and how she thinks his ability to cry easily has become a permanent character trait. To me this was wonderful for many reasons, firstly thank you for talking about acid reflux in infants, or any under publicized medical issue with an infant that can make you feel like a total fuck up of a parent. Secondly, I love that Zolbrod thinks her son is a cry baby. She doesn’t say those words, but it reads like she thinks he’s going to be an easy crier forever and it’s really funny to hear a mother say that about her son.
Another one of my favorite bits of the memoir concerns her relationship with an artist/anti-circumcision activist. It’s just so strange and funny. She talks about how to him her abuse seemed almost comparable to the abuse he suffered when he was circumcised as a newborn.
Both the acid reflux experience and the circumcision activist stories were seemingly unnecessary, but they did serve some purpose. The story about her son’s acid reflux seemed to suggest that a condition, illness or experience can permanently affect us. His experience with reflux made him prone to crying and tearful emotions. However, she’s presented her abuse as something that didn’t shape her. So perhaps the acid reflux story is shared as a rebuttal or counterargument. The exception proves the rule, or in this case that there is no rule, and everybody’s different, every case of abuse is different, and there’s no one size fits all way to react to, deal with or treat experiences of sex abuse.
The circumcision activist plotline adds color to her larger discussion of how society teaches us what is appropriate to think about abuse. Social code seems to determine what constitutes abuse. Shouldn’t our personal experience and reaction to that experience be what determines if it’s abuse?
All these little subplots and anecdotes, the bits and pieces of her life Zolbrod shares in The Telling made me question the way we talk about and deal with child molestation. Is the way we treat victims, as victims first and people second, dehumanizing?
The Telling is a thought provoking and worthwhile read that will leave you with more questions than it answers. It will be released in May by local publisher, Curbside Splendor. Purchase it on their website or at local book stores throughout the city.