HITTING SHELVES #32: The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod

The Telling

The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod comes out today!

It’s the story of how the author stayed silent about her early childhood molestation, and the many kaleidoscopic ways she has come forward and told the story since then. This history of sexual abuse colors Zolbrod’s sexuality, her relationships with men, and her life as a mother and a feminist.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of The Telling?

This evening I’m giving a reading at Evanston Public Library as part of the Evanston Literary Festival. My publisher and I didn’t set this up purposefully—we’d already scheduled a launch party for May 20 at Women and Children First bookstore when I received the invitation. But I felt honored to be asked by what seems to me like a prestigious venue, so I agreed without hesitation.

I love EPL, and wrote parts of my book in their quiet room on the third floor. Hauling myself in there on weekend afternoons to sweat out a few more pages, I’d pause in front of the posters advertising author events. Someone was so sure people would care about what these writers had to say that they’d reserved the community room for them and set about spreading the word, which amazed me. Whether I believed the same might ever be done for me depended on how the work was going—how much writing time I’d eked out that month; how confident I was in my ability to capture the layers in what I wanted to say; how worried I was that my story might hurt or repel people.

And now here I am. It’s a meaningful finish line, but in itself it’s not a celebration, because that, in my view, involves lifting a glass of liquor, not sweating from nerves.

My daughter, who’s eight, wants to come tonight, because she too loves the Evanston Public Library (which she always refers to by its full name). On the one hand, this desire is sweet. How nice that she’s interested, and shouldn’t I want both my children to be part of this moment, to see their mother in a public capacity, to witness some tangible fruit borne by my absences from them, the many times I’ve begged off with an I’ve got to go write? But the subject of my book complicates this. The Telling is structured around the times I told of my childhood sexual abuse, and major through lines include the development of my sexuality and the challenges of parenthood. My kids know the rudiments, because part of my gig is that I think there’s been too much silence around the issue of sexual abuse and I want to shake off the shroud of secrecy, but I also believe that children shouldn’t have to contemplate their parents’ messiness or any aspect of their sex lives. As Gina Frangello says in Kim Brooks’ essay “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” “The point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” There’s a natural tension between my role as this book’s writer and as a mom.

Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod

Perhaps I could have chosen to read a passage in The Telling that’s almost appropriate for the eight-year-old set, but it wouldn’t be emblematic of the book as a whole, and the conversation afterwards would be compromised. To be honest, I’d be worried not only about what my daughter might be hearing but also about how others were judging me for her presence, because my idea of what’s almost appropriate for children is probably left of center in terms of community standards around here. In fact, my whole book, even for an audience of adults, is probably left of center of many communities’ standards, and it’s taken me some time to be able to stand openly beside it, let alone doing so while advertising my role as mother, The One We Should Judge.

Anyway, another core value of mine is that parents and children deserve some privacy from each other. “It’s an adult book,” I’ve told my daughter repeatedly. “It’s not appropriate for you to be there.”

She suggested a compromise. She can come to the library with me for the event, but her older brother will stay with her in the children’s room during the actual reading and conversation. It felt overly dramatic to me to say no, so that’s the plan.

My husband could take them both home at the end of the program and leave me to do what a big part of me would like to at that point—head to a bar with some fellow writerly types and order a stiff drink, accept a toast, linger within the fleeting feeling of being an author first and foremost. But, especially because the kids won’t be coming to any of the other events I have planned, I don’t have the heart to ditch them. Instead, the four of us will probably go to the frozen custard place, where I’ll be in mom mode, monitoring portion sizes, swapping cones with whoever gets sick of theirs, worrying about the blown bedtimes. When we get home, my husband will likely zonk out with my daughter. I’ll feel exhausted by the time I’m finished with the ritual of sitting by my son in bed and listening to him talk about his day. But when I finally get downstairs, all alone, the quiet house will restore me somewhat. I hope the weather will be nice enough to let me take a glass of wine out on the porch. It should be. It’s well into spring now.

I love that The Telling is coming out in May. There are a couple important scenes in the book set during this month. One describes the endless walks I took when my son was a newborn, the way they made me feel attuned to the earth in a new way. The other is the final scene, which takes place three years ago almost to this very day, as our family prepared to leave for my daughter’s first dance recital and saw a baby bird fly away from its nest in the porch’s eaves. Already that seems like so long ago.

I’ll raise a glass to my own lips and celebrate life’s full circles.

Get the book here.

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