Two Memoirists Explore Abuse and Survival

ASSUME NOTHING
A Story of Intimate Violence
By Tanya Selvaratnam

CONSENT
A Memoir
By Vanessa Springora

Even in our chatty, confessional culture, certain subjects are too unwieldly, too difficult, too painful to easily and effectively put into words. These are stories so long kept secret, denied, pushed into recesses, played down and bluffed through, that telling them straightforwardly is nearly impossible. Yet two recent books rather brilliantly accomplish just that.

In “Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence,” Tanya Selvaratnam, a successful film producer and activist, writes about how she fell into an abusive relationship with the former attorney general of New York, Eric Schneiderman. He was a rising political star, high-profile Trump enemy and ally of women’s causes. She writes candidly about how she was drawn to his influence: “I heard the applause when Eric spoke, and I got swept up in it.”

In crisp, unadorned prose, Selvaratnam offers up an accumulation of small details: the slowly building feeling, amid moments of tenderness and excitement, that something is wrong. She can’t eat certain things, has to wear her hair a certain way, can’t sleep in her own apartment, can’t talk on the phone with friends. In the bedroom, he chokes and hits her, calls her his “brown slave.” He slowly chips away at her; she must occupy a smaller and smaller space, even as her life is outwardly glamorous, functional.

In the course of Selvaratnam’s careful, detailed narrative, we see how a story that looks extraordinary isn’t extraordinary. We see how millions of other less sensational, lower profile stories of abuse are contained within this one. How step by step, a strong woman is seduced by the confounding combination of male woundedness and power. (He was, along with being a brilliant prosecutor, a mess, an alcoholic, a depressive who says, “Are you going to take care of me?”)

The difficulty of going public with this account can’t be underestimated — nor can the forces working against Selvaratnam: his influence, the potential for shame, the panic of letting one’s perfectly serviceable public image slip. The sheer effort involved in looking very straightforwardly at this story, allowing it to exist, is palpable on the page.

Somewhere at the core of this narrative is Selvaratnam as a tiny child holding a stuffed bunny, listening to her father, a psychiatrist, hitting her mother. From the outside their life in a big house in Los Angeles looks fine, but surfaces conceal.

Selvaratnam is at her most powerful when she tells her own story rather than rehashing familiar feminist truisms or quoting experts. One wishes at times for more of her: her childhood, her trips to Sri Lanka, her prickly complicated mother, her irrepressible grandmother. The book cycles obsessively over its raison d’être: At least 10 times, Selvaratnam explains that she is going public with her story to save other women. The energy expended on all this justification is wasted; the reader is already on her side. But her defensiveness speaks to the arduousness of this kind of revelation, the fact that it is going against not just entrenched power structures, but some formidable internal dictate of decorum or pride.

In methodically describing how a successful artist and activist can fall into a dark relationship with a controlling man, she is performing a rare and valuable service. It is important to see how frighteningly easy it is to lose power even for extremely confident, professionally accomplished women. As Selvaratnam puts it, “Even fierce women get abused.”

The couple’s liberal credentials, their real political work, their hours spent meditating, are all secondary to the dynamic blazing through their story. Selvaratnam writes to the chasm between who we are publicly and privately, exploring how easily the facade of our politics, our most passionately held conviction dissolves in intimate life.

Vanessa Springora’s “Consent” offers a devastating literary takedown of another powerful man. In her eloquent memoir, which has already triggered a cultural reckoning in France, the prominent French publisher describes an affair she had as a 14-year-old with a 50-year-old celebrated writer, Gabriel Matzneff. (In the book he is “G.,” but Springora has identified him in other accounts.) The story begins with a smart, bookish, overlooked child: “At the grand old age of 5, I am waiting for love.”

Springora’s prose, smoothlytranslated from the French by Natasha Lehrer, is spare and novelistic. She is a graceful stylist, though her story also burns with a sense of purpose, a clarifying force. Her ravishing descriptions of the restlessness and boredom of teenage life rival those of Françoise Sagan. In one scene, her father stands her up in a restaurant as she waits for hours, with waiters taking pity on her. This is just one manifestation of the paternal absence that leaves her vulnerable to a charismatic older man who writes her love letters. Soon she is cutting school, smoking in cafes, rudderless, essentially parentless. She writes, “I persisted in believing that this abnormal situation made me interesting.”

Springora simultaneously shows how Matzneff’s sexual attention feels like love to a child and how far it is from that. We see how the idea of love is dangerous, how it offers cover for violence and domination. Even years later, she struggles with how to look at the situation: “How is it possible to acknowledge having been abused, when it is impossible to deny having consented, having felt desire, for the very adult who was so eager to take advantage of you?”

Matzneff incorporated photographs and letters of the young girls he abused into his own books, which glorified these encounters as adventures. In Springora’s account one sees his effort to define and write over their interactions, his refusal of her experience. One day he even insists on writing her homework for her, an essay on a triumph, despite her protests. In the middle of an early sexual act, she writes, “something of my presence in the world dissolved.”

Her cool, precise account reveals his grand seductions as the brutal, petty, narcissistic fumblings that they were. Springora has said, “My goal actually was to lock him up in a book, to catch him in his own trap.” And in “Consent” the object becomes subject, the described becomes the describer. At one point, Springora calls him an “ogre,” reaching deep into the mythologies of childhood because that is the language she had at 14, in spite of his efforts to get her to read Proust, and her patina of louche teenage sophistication.

She writes of the years after the abuse: “I felt like a doll lacking all desire who had no idea how her own body worked, who had learned only one thing: how to be an instrument for other people’s games.” This tended to complicate her subsequent relationships; as she puts it in one of the saddest lines of the book, “No one wants a broken toy.”

The French publishing world was slow to distance itself from Matzneff, who had even written a book defending sex with children, but it seems that “Consent” brought some late-breaking moral clarity. (Emphasis on “some”: Reading an article on his exile to the south of Italy, one can’t help noticing that he seems to be shunned by society in a luxury hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean. Still, one imagines him sulking over his puttanesca because of Springora’s success.)

Of course both of these books are, among other things, acts of revenge. What makes them so satisfying is that the writer takes over the story, turns the tables, goes from being the fearful to the feared, the controlled to the controlling. The work it takes to get there is daunting. As Selvaratnam notes, these are stories she didn’t tell even her closest friends at first. These are stories that are hard to tell even to ourselves.

Both books wrestle with the difficulty of putting these experiences into words. The mysteries of how it all happened, of how one finds oneself in this situation, remain on important levels mysteries, untellable — and yet the effort to tell them is crucial.

When I finished these two excellent books, I thought of something Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend: “Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favorite form of reading.”

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