My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell
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Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: March 10, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Times Read: Once
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.
This book is deeply disturbing from very first page, AND a few days ago Elizabeth Warren was forced to drop out of the presidential race, leaving it in the hands of less qualified, less capable old white men. Bear with me.
If you’ve ever wondered how girls get into relationships with older men, or abusive men, or any man that makes you look at her later and say “why would she ever be with him?”, then consider this book your guide. Vanessa’s “relationship” with Strane is documented every step of the way, detail by agonizing detail. It’s the way he singles her out in class, makes her feel special, makes her feel smarter than the other students. It’s the way he creates scenarios that give Vanessa a reason to stay after class, to stand close to him, to touch him. It’s the way he designs this setup so carefully, to make Vanessa thinks everything was her idea all along, that she was the aggressor. I’m old enough to know better but even I could fall for some of his manipulation.
“If you think I should go to prison, lose all my freedoms, and be branded a monster for the rest of my life just because I had the bad luck of falling in love with a teenager, then please, let me know right now.”
Reading 368 pages of exploitation, of deceit, of a child, is depressing. It’s agonizing. But it’s nothing compared to the thought of all the adults who failed Vanessa. And that’s really what I want to talk about today.
Obviously Strane is the worst. He is a serial pedophile who manipulates, rapes, and abuses the children he ensnares. But Strane also SHOVES a PUPPY until it falls OVER onto it’s BACK and fuck it all if that doesn’t tell you exactly who he is.
He is a trash person who deserves every bad thing in the world.
But. But what about every other adult in Vanessa’s life? What about everyone else who saw this happening and did nothing? What about her boarding school, who was told that this was happening, and took the following action:
“Teachers are human, after all, same as you are,” Mrs. Giles says. “Tell me, you don’t like all your teachers equally, do you, Vanessa?” I shake my head no. “Of course you don’t. Some you prefer more than others. Teachers are the same with students. To a teacher, some students are just special.”
She has Strane and Vanessa sign a paper denying any wrongdoing and wipes her hands of it. But when another student comes forward to say he saw them together, the head headmaster can’t ignore it a second time.
The school KICKS VANESSA OUT and MAKES HER GIVE A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO A GROUP OF STUDENTS BEFORE SHE GOES.
“He’s not saying, We know everything, it’s not your fault. He’s saying that there’s a code of ethics at Bronwick that students are held to, and I violated it by lying about a teacher and damaging his reputation.”
Vanessa sneaks out to see Strane again before leaving school, to tell him she’s getting kicked out. She’s expecting him to panic at the thought, or at least show some regret for the letting the situation reach this point–but homeboy already knows. And he seems pretty chill about it. Vanessa suggests that maybe she should just tell everybody the truth, and Strane gets to work on manipulating her, spinning her head, immediately.
“If you’ve decided you want to ruin me,” Strane says, “I can’t stop you. But I hope you understand what will happen if you do.”
“This will follow you around forever. You’ll be branded for life.”
“I walk around every day feeling permanently marked by him, but maybe that’s unfair. Hasn’t he been trying hard to save me?”
“I’d rather end my life right now than go through that…but maybe you’re stronger than I am.”
But look–how surprised can I be here by the shit that Strane says? We’ve already established that he’s a garbage person who should have only the worst of the worst forever and ever amen.
“That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.”
Vanessa’s parents, though? Her parents are a goddamn piece of work.
Her mom knows exactly what happened to her, exactly what led to her getting expelled from Bronwick. Her dad might pretend he knows nothing by not thinking about it, which is no excuse, but her mother actively knows and does nothing. She doesn’t even say anything. Well. She doesn’t say anything loving, or kind, or supportive. She does say things like “If nothing happened, you need to figure out a way to let it go,” and “You know, sometimes I’m ashamed that you’re my kid.”
To her child. Who has just been abused, and raped, and violated by her teacher. To her kid who doesn’t even understand that that’s what happened to her.
“I want you to stop, I think. But I don’t say it out loud–I can’t. I can’t talk, can’t see. Even if I force my eyes open, they won’t focus. My head is cotton, my mouth gravel. I’m thirsty, I’m sick, I’m nothing. He keeps going, faster now, which means he’s close, only a minute or so left. A thought shoots through me–is this rape? Is he raping me?”
It hit me hard when I realized why I was taking this part so hard–it’s exactly the way my own father and step-mother would has responded. Pretend it didn’t happen, but if we have to talk about it for any reason make sure that all the blame falls squarely on me. Oh, and definitely make sure that there’s no therapy or any kind of treatment afterwards.
To do that, you’d have to admit it happened.
“Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really, though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”