Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (2020)

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

This isn’t a love story.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexual harassment, rape, pedophilia, child abuse, drug use, and suicide.)

Fiona Apple was raped when she was twelve years old. I remember her talking about it in interviews back when I was twelve years old. She spoke about it so openly, the r-word coming out of her as though it were the same as any other. It happened outside her apartment; the whole time the man did what he did, she could hear her dog barking through the door. I remember crying over that detail while hugging our old shepherd dog, hot tears that I buried into his fur. I had no reason to care about rape then—I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved—but that story hit me hard. 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.

“I tortured him,” I say. “I don’t think you understand how much I contributed to everything. His whole life descended into hell because of me.”

“He was a grown man and you were fifteen,” she says. “What could you have possibly done to torture him?”

For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.

“I just feel . . .” I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”

At the height of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault shitstorm, I was living in a rural area in the midwest: a swath of deep blood red in an already overwhelmingly red state. Guns, God, and (when it suits them) small government. The kind of place where everyone just assumes that everyone else agrees with them, on all the things, all the time. (Spoiler alert: I never did. A year out, I’ve found that I miss the weather; the politics, not so much.)

Anyway, I was visiting with a neighbor and the television just happened to be on, and the reporter just happened to be talking about Weinstein. The neighbor, an older conservative lady, could have chosen to ignore the news; she didn’t. Instead, she reacted with what was, to me at least, unexpected vehemence – directed not at Weinstein, but his accusers. (I guess Weinstein’s white male privilege trumped his liberal Hollywood elite status in her calculations.) Cue the rape apologism: Why did the women wait so long to come forward? If he was so bad, why did everyone continue to work with him? If true, how could this behavior continue for so long, unchecked? Etc., etc., etc.

Naturally, I disagreed, and the conversion quickly morphed into a larger discussion of sexual harassment and abuse. Come to find out, when she was a teenager – back in, oh, the 50s or 60s – she worked stocking shelves at a small, family-owned grocery store. Her boss was a creepy ass motherfucker who used to sexually harass his female employees. Among other things, he’d insist on stuffing her wages into her jeans pocket himself. If she wanted to get paid what she was owed, she had to acquiesce to being groped and fondled (read: sexually assaulted) by a man who was likely twice her age or older. Nice.

Yet even as she acknowledged that this behavior was unacceptable, she denied that she was a victim (or survivor, or what have you; the issue was not terminology), or that sexual harassment, assault, and rape are widespread problems. It was infuriating, but I also saw a disturbing logic in it: no one wants to be a victim; to be a victim is to be weak, vulnerable, and exposed. Why identify with the prey when you can side with the predator – and, in so doing, perhaps absorb some of his strength and power, make it your own? Of course THOSE WOMEN are lying; the alternative means that they are victims, and if they are victims, perhaps that makes me one too?

This is what played through my mind, on an endless loop, as I devoured My Dark Vanessa. Yes, devoured: though it is an impossibly difficult book to read, Russell’s writing – compassionate, insightful, shrewd AF – makes it go down just a bit easier. This might just be one of the “best” (read: most observant) fictional books on rape that I’ve ever read. (Sadly, I have read quite a few.)

Vanessa Wye is just fifteen when she meets her longtime abuser, Jacob Strane. At the beginning, he is simply her English teacher: a bespectacled middle-aged (forty-two, to be exact) employee at the private Browick School in Norumbega, Maine. She’s a sophomore who’s interested in poetry; he’s a pedophile who quickly confesses that he’s going to “ruin” her. Thus begins a seventeen-year “relationship” (scare quotes because it’s more accurately described as long-term abuse, even if the narrator resists seeing it this way) between the two.

The story is told by Vanessa, in two timelines: now, which is 2017, as Strane stands accused of sexual assault by multiple former students; and then, at the beginning of the school year in 2000. The story slowly progresses from both points, exploring the sexual abuse and its fallout, eventually converging in the here and now. (Interestingly, in the Acknowledgements, Russell says that the book took her eighteen years to write, which is roughly the timeline of My Dark Vanessa.)

Strane’s selection of Vanessa is hardly random: she’s shy, unsure of herself, a bit of a loner. She had a falling out with her best (and only) friend and roommate, Jenny, near the end of last semester, and she hasn’t yet recovered from the loss. She isn’t particularly close to her parents, and they live a few hours away from the school anyway. Strane doesn’t need to separate her from the herd, as she already stands apart (though he does excel at driving wedges too).

Though she has, through necessity, romanticized the abuse – both in real time, as it was happening, as well as retrospectively – it’s pretty easy for an outsider to see what’s going on. Strane grooms Vanessa, pushes an ever-expanding series of boundaries, and gaslights, stalks, threatens, and otherwise manipulates her. When he’s on the precipice of exposure, Strane has no qualms about throwing Vanessa under the bus – a move that smacks of premeditation.

Yet he has made Vanessa so utterly dependent on him – for attention, approval, and affection – that she cannot move on: not when she leaves Browick for home and public school; not when she reaches legal adulthood and goes off to college; and not as an adult. Strane has, as he promised, “ruined” her. (Though, thankfully, not beyond repair.) As Vanessa so desperately admits to her therapist, she needs for this to be a love story, because the alternative is too horrible to imagine.

Despite her protestations that she is not a victim, that what Strane did to her was not rape, we can see the toll the abuse has taken on Vanessa: again, both then and now. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of abuse will see the signs; for example, how Vanessa freezes up and dissociates from herself during the assaults. As a young adult and adult, she acts out sexually, engages in risky behaviors, and uses alcohol and drugs to cope. She very clearly suffers from PTSD. All of which belies her insistence that she was an equal and willing partner.

(In fact, statutory rape is not the only instance of assault Vanessa is subjected to by Strane; there are multiple scenes in which she either does not voice her consent, actively says no, cries in fear and pain, and/or is inebriated to the point that she loses consciousness.)

Russell does an excellent job of exposing Strane – and, by extension, all rapists – for what they are: misogynists who get off on subjugating women and girls. Rather than existing in a vacuum, they are symptom of a larger problem: a culture that makes excuses for powerful men (or any man), that dismisses and trivializes and denies sexual harassment and assault, and that hates women. Strane is but one in a long line of weak, pathetic men who are deserving of nothing but our scorn. His ultimate fate proves more than he deserves (and isn’t that always the way in this world?).

As for Vanessa, she can admittedly be frustrating at times. And, while it can be tempting to blame her for her obstinance (particularly when she attacks Strane’s other victims), mostly I just felt sorry for her: how do you even begin to heal when you cannot admit that you were even wronged? Russell gets mad points for portraying what could be, in the wrong hands, an unrelateable or even unlikable character, and infusing her with depth and nuance to further understanding and foster compassion. As far as psychological studies go, Vanessa Wye is a tour de force.

I also really enjoyed how the early-aughts setting grounded the story in my own childhood; the bits about Fiona Apple really connected with me, and I outright snorted when Vanessa (in her inner monologue only, natch) derided Strane for being the stupid one for not knowing who Britney Spears is (rather than Vanessa, for deigning to listen to that pop culture garbage). This all brought me back to my own teen years, and not always in a good way. We all have stories: “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.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)