Zoe Zolbrod, The Telling, Curbside Splendor, 2016

Reviewed by Maggie May Ethridge

[Review Guidelines]

In The Beginning

Zoe Zolbrod is five. Zoe, we'll call her for now, because the person that fills these early pages is not the author, grown, full, safe, but the child that the author immediately connects to an anxious adult self, "that I will make a wrong decision, that my character will be found wanting, that some consequences are irrevocable, and the life-long well-being of my child is on the line." These words jolt sadly from room to room of this memoir: childhood, teenage years, twenties, adulthood, as if Toshi, the cast-out cousin who molests Zoe, has written these words on the early pages of her life, and she cannot erase them. But she can write them. And in writing, the words are seen, acknowledged, and painfully illuminated. Zoe the child is awake, but very quiet. She observes and reports back with precocious details: the shine of hair combs, rain-slicker yellow sheets, adult faces clouded with concern. Zoe shines light brightly into the dark, sleeping room of her childhood, where her cousin leans over her bed, wanting to play a game. Wake up, he whispers, wake up. She wakes up.


In The Middle

Zolbrod is a young woman. She is alight with intelligence, coltish spirit, and a deepening sense of her own powers. Here, her sentences, her story, become body. In the beginning, we sense the morphous nature of childhood, especially a childhood impacted by abuse. The child's world becomes suspect, and even as she narrows her eyes and peers harder into the darkness, the exact shape and meaning of what is happening eludes her. The teenager, the young woman, she begins to experiment with no and yes, my body and your body, my ideas and your ideas, my desires and your desire; she begins to take shape and solidify. As a strong young woman, she looks back at her molestation and wonders if she is making more of it than it was. Meanwhile, there is sex: and Zolbrod writes sex with straightforward desire and enjoyment of the body and pleasure, unafraid of words, any word that is the right word for that moment in time, that now, fucking a man both 'hypermasculine and campily feminine,' and then a man who draws her suddenly into remembering the first penis she had ever seen. Zolbrod does not look away when spooked; she looks harder.

In a foot-stomping serenade to youth, Zolbrod recounts her road trips, deep diving into literature, art, the punk scene, a strip club, college, and then, once far enough away, looking back, back over her shoulder, turning round, and walking home, opening the door, and asking Did you know I was molested? She is brave. She asks more than once, more than one person. She is making room for what happened to her in every area of her life: the opposite of compartmentalizing.


At The Beginning Again

Zolbrod is an adult, getting married. She has one child, then two. Her children cry, they weep tears of Alice in Wonderland proportions, tears from nails scraping on skin, or bad test grades, or spilled milk, or hurt feelings. They weep so much that Zolbrod wonders, "What would have happened if I had cried?" No, she decides, it is not crying she would wish for them, but to "let loose a howl that shakes floorboards and windows... breathe fire that would burn away any confusion." And the author must know that she has done this, that this book is her howl, her fire, her testament, her therapy. Although nothing past can be redone, everything past can be retold, and it is in the telling of our own stories that we can gather our whole self, and name it, and claim ourselves. This is The Telling.