Twenty Questions Outside the Vacuum

Publication Date

April 2017


Lisa Cohen




English (United States)


This work is a memoir of generations of trauma and privilege in Western Massachusetts. I began with the idea of interrogating abuse through the lens of whiteness, and ended up much closer to the edges of my family’s history instead. Throughout the process, I interviewed my mother, uncle, and grandmother extensively. I was influenced by countless works and writers, but most notably by Lauret Savoy’s Trace, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. In this work, I ask how trauma is translated into fault, in the context of my family in a specific place. Western Massachusetts acts as a character in this story, with its own implications in trauma and privilege. I also interrogate the nature of families as breeding grounds for secrets. In doing so, I question the role of the Catholic Church and it’s close ties to my family’s Irish American identity. I intend for our whiteness to be a weighted subject rather than a universal against which everything else is set. An important aspect of this work was de-sensationalizing child sexual abuse. I intentionally avoid graphic depictions of rape, in the hopes of conveying the painful, everyday banality of abuse. Abuse does not happen in a vacuum; it is not a one-time, terrifying event with a clear before and after. Rather, it is messy, and spread out amongst multiple actors with varying levels of implication. One of these actors is my mother, and I aim to begin to unravel the layers of fault and vulnerability in our co-dependence. Ultimately, this memoir tells the story of my girlhood as a competitive swimmer in Western Massachusetts, and my family’s history on that land. In doing so, it asks readers to consider white supremacy as implicated in child sexual abuse, and familial ties as webs of generational trauma. While writing this work was at times painful, it was also an important form of narrative reclamation, and I am lucky to have had the chance to create Twenty Questions Outside the Vacuum.

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