Donna Freitas is the author of the new book Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention. Her other books include The Happiness Effect and Sex and the Soul, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how difficult was it to write about your experiences of having been stalked?
A: I decided to write this memoir because I realized I had a story to tell related to our current cultural conversations around consent—something that I felt could add to that conversation, because my particular story is so complex.
I am a speaker and researcher on this topic (in my life as an academic and professor), and have long worried that we are making this conversation about consent too simple (consent is yes, nonconsent is no), and I wanted to parse through how my experience of my professor becoming obsessed just went so far beyond such simplicities they are not even in the same universe.
And while my story is unique and rather extreme—I don’t think my experience of struggling with how to get this person to stop is unique. I think it’s far harder than we make it out to be—especially if it’s with someone who has power over us.
As to writing this part of my story—it felt amazing. It was like drawing poison out of my body. It was such a relief to turn something so ugly about my past into a work of literature. And then, this thing I’d kept a secret for so long wasn’t a secret anymore and that felt wonderful, too.
Q: You write, "We have made consent out to be something straightforward, as straightforward as the single word no, but we are lying to ourselves and one another about this." Can you say more about this?
A: I don’t think there is any easy definition of consent, is the thing. I think it’s extraordinarily complex and defies definition. I will say, though: consent—and our relationship to it, our respect and understanding of it—gets to the heart of who we are as people.
I think it’s foundational to our sense of relational ethics and values. I think it’s one of the things that defines us as people—which is also why it defies definition (in my opinion).
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "A potent memoir of stalking with special resonance in the era of #MeToo." What impact has the #MeToo movement had on you personally?
A: I have never claimed #METOO in public—not the way so many women have claimed it.
I think #METOO is extraordinary on so many levels. It’s allowed women to open up, to speak out loud their secrets, to know they are not alone in their experiences and traumas, and to hold perpetrators accountable in different ways. It’s forced our society to pay attention to women’s traumas of assault and harassment—and to take account of how pervasive it is.
But I also feel like it can oversimplify situations and people’s experiences, lumping them together, and that feels uncomfortable to me. What it’s done for women and victims everywhere, though, is so important. It’s part of what allowed me to speak and for this memoir to get published.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: That’s such a big question and difficult to answer. I hope, for victims, that they realize they are not alone, or that it helps them to acknowledge their pasts. I hope, in general, that it makes people think about how complex consent and harassment can be—which is why we need to allow our cultural conversation about it to reflect that complexity.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished a novel that will be out with Pamela Dorman Books/Viking in spring, 2021. It’s called The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano and I’m very excited about it!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Hmmm. That I think without coffee and cake in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to write! And that I’m grateful for any and all readings. Especially those who reach out.
Thank you for having me on your blog!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb