You know how TV often gives a warning beforehand about disturbing content? This book should come with a warning! Every once in awhile a book comes along that makes you gasp as though you’ve been hit in the gut. My Dark Vanessa is one such book.
I’d put off reading it, because I knew what it was about and I was afraid of dredging up memories. Not that I was abused or in the same situation as the narrator, but there were other parallels I didn’t want to think about. While I slept, the book crept into my dreams. Disturbing, intense, sexual. I woke up sweaty, unable to go back to sleep and yet, I know this is a book I will reread. It’s complicated and brilliant and another reading will reveal more layers to be untangled.
The book moves between Vanessa, the narrator, as a high school student at age 15, and her older self at 32.
Vanessa is a self-conscious, precocious teenager when she leaves her isolated home for a private boarding school in upstate Maine. Ambitious for adulthood and startling bright, she has trouble fitting in and making friends. Vanessa is enamoured with the attentions shown by Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher, and the two soon begin a sexual relationship.
After the affair begins - if you can call it that - Vanessa confesses how happy it makes her to hear no one had ever made him want to take such a risk before her. “That beautiful blissful feeling... there’s nothing stopping him from reaching in and grabbing whatever he wants. I’m special. I’m special. I’m special.”
At once so grown up in seeing what Strane needs emotionally from her, we are never let to forget that she is still just a child with childish jealousies and fits of pique.
At 32, Vanessa is thrust into the wave of reckoning against abusive men as allegations pile up against Strane and the MeToo movement gains momentum. Consumed with guilt and anger, she turns it inward, punishing herself with alcohol, drugs and a dead end job. It takes her a long time to even tell her therapist about it, worrying what she will think of her. “She thinks I’m pathetic, a bad girl deserving of punishment”. Adamant not to be seen as a victim, she sleepwalks through adulthood, “battered and bruised, but it seemed like penance, a deserved humiliation.”
She clings to the illusion that their affair, at its heart, was a love story. Even as she gets older, and her life is governed by what happened as a teenager, Vanessa need to be adored, to feel special to Strane. Without that, the illusion will crumble and the truth will be revealed - a situation is wholly unequipped to deal with.
It would be easy to see the characters as black and white - Strane, the evil abuser, and Vanessa, the naive young victim. But Russell never makes anything easy. As Vanessa says, “he was never so simple; neither was I.”
And of course, none of us are. But despite all the justification, the desire, and the emotional complexity so brilliantly brought to the page, in the end Strane manipulated a teenage girl to sleep with him. After all, as Taylor, another victim tells Vanessa, “we were just girls”.
Vanessa broke my heart. I wept for all the young girls desperate to be seen as special, to be so easily led, and in their rush to womanhood, grateful for what they think is love. I wept for their lost innocence and their misplaced trust in those who should be protecting them, who should cherish the blush of their youth, instead of seeing it as something they can take and use and carelessly toss aside.
I wept for those women, now grown up, who must deal with the trauma of abuse and rape and harassment for the rest of their lives, who are afraid to speak up and who aren’t believed when they do.
If you’re interested in reading this book, and I recommend you do, I also suggest listening to Russell’s online interview for Wordfest. The content is so difficult but Russell brilliantly captures the emotional nuances in this masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence. Consider this your warning.
Wear a mask in public spaces and keep washing your hands!!
Until next time, happy reading.