The controversial debut delivers a hard-to-read story you can’t put down
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel My Dark Vanessa has been controversial for months, even though it only officially publishes today.
The author came under fire earlier this year, when writer Wendy C. Ortiz pointed out the similarities between My Dark Vanessa and her memoir Excavation, and the inherent favoritism in the publishing industry. The ensuing controversy called into question whether the author had been abused herself. In response, Oprah’s Book Club, already infamous for its January pick American Dirt, announced its decision last week to drop My Dark Vanessa. Well, Oprah’s Book Club may have made a mistake, because this emotionally-challenging, beautifully-written book deserves to be included among its titles.
Pursued By A Teacher
Russell’s debut tells the story of nearly two decades of power, abuse and control between the titular protagonist and her high school American literature teacher.
Readers meet Vanessa in 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, when her former teacher-sometimes boyfriend-probable abuser Jacob Strane is accused of sexual misconduct with a student. This narrative alternates these chapters with looks backward, starting in 2000: at age 15, when Strane first pursues Vanessa and grooms her into having an abusive sexual relationship; her eventual expulsion from her prestigious boarding school in order to save his reputation; their continued relationship throughout Vanessa’s high school and college years; and the myriad ways that the abuse negatively affects her life. All the while, she maintains that their relationship was not abusive, claims that she is just as dark as he is, and reminds herself that she wanted it.
“I sometimes try to imagine another girl doing what I did — sink into the pleasures of [the abuse], crave it, build her life around it — but I can’t…I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing, he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to throw herself into the path of a pedophile. But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.”
In an echo of some of the justifications Vanessa gives in the novel, Russell tells Vulture of her past relationships with older men, saying, “If I start categorizing a relationship, if I say, ‘That was abusive,’ that swallows up everything. I just don’t want to relinquish everything.”
Throughout the novel, Russell self-referentially brings moments from Lolita into her story. Strane recommends it to Vanessa as a way of grooming her, and Vanessa in turn reflects back on it throughout her life, often using the novel as a tool for sorting through her own trauma. There’s a beautiful little moment when she discusses the novel with a college professor that sums up a lot of my feelings about My Dark Vanessa:
“‘You know,’ he says, ‘my favorite line in Lolita is about the dandelions’…‘Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons’…It seems strange that his favorite line in the whole sordid novel is something so chaste. Not any of the descriptions of Lolita’s supple little body or Humbert’s attempts at self-justification, but an unexpectedly lovely image of a weed.”
Unexpected Lovely Moments
For all the heartache it caused me as a reader, there are so many unexpected lovely moments through Russell’s debut. Her writing is exquisite, equally beautiful in rendering complex emotions or establishing a sense of place. Russell has set the novel in Maine, where she’s from, and she writes the landscape changing throughout the seasons like an insider. Readers hear the crunch of the leaves, feel the softness of a worn flannel shirt, hear the clouds shift overhead after a storm.
But the prose that struck me the most comes toward the story’s end, in 2017, when Vanessa has a breakthrough in therapy. Realizations cascade down the page like an unrelenting waterfall, rushing at Vanessa whether she’s ready to hear them or not. Her therapist, Ruby, takes her back to her first moments with Strane, asks whether he initiated the relationship or she did. The answer—that he pursued her, that she didn’t ask for it—leaves Vanessa feeling unglued. Russell describes a sorrow that many have experienced, the kind where your words are too small to contain all that you’re feeling:
“‘I just feel…’ I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. ‘I can’t lose the thing I’ve held onto for so long. You know?’ My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. ‘I really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that…Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?’
“I look into her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy.
“‘It’s my life,’ I say. ‘This has been my whole life.’
“She stands over me as I say I’m sad, I’m so sad, small simple words, the only ones that make sense as I clutch my chest like a child and point to where it hurts.”
Equally Beautiful and Horrifying
Like the dichotomies that Russell loves to unravel in the novel—predation and victimhood, power and weakness—My Dark Vanessa is equally beautiful and horrifying. I’m not going to lie: this is a hard book to read. Russell delivers scene after scene of graphic sexual violence, which sometimes felt like overkill. I often had to stop mid-scene and take a break before returning to Vanessa with fresh resolve, and more than once, it ruined my night completely. But considering the protagonist’s years-long abuse, I imagine the author was making a point. If you’re having a hard time reading this, consider what it was like to endure.
With that in mind, if you’re looking to better understand the perspectives of folks who have survived trauma, My Dark Vanessa is the book for you. Russell clearly did her homework; excellent examples of trauma responses, like dissociation, flashbacks and triggers, abound. She renders them with incredible empathy and tenderness. Whether or not you’ve experienced any kind of trauma or violence, you can’t help but understand Vanessa’s conflicted feelings and the distance between her thoughts and actions.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the novel is for everyone. As I pondered its conclusion, which left me surprisingly hopeful, I wondered how to recommend My Dark Vanessa in good faith. Russell asks tough questions about power, mental health, victimhood and the #MeToo movement, and does a hell of a job trying to answer them. But it is a tough journey as Vanessa takes readers closer and closer to understanding her sexual abuse, and what it means for her sense of self and the rest of her life. Reading it made me feel overwhelmingly sad.
Parts of Vanessa’s story will validate anyone who’s experienced trauma. Other parts of the story will trigger them. I don’t know that the feeling of satisfaction I got from Russell’s incredible storytelling outweighs the moments where the abuse deeply upset me. But I can say for certain that I’m a more thoughtful survivor, ally, and supporter for having read it.