(Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexual assault, Pedophilia, Violence)
Set in 2017, My Dark Vanessa on its surface is about the #MeToo movement, the patterns of abusive men in power display, and how Vanessa Wye (the protagonist) feels about her past. In 2000, she was fifteen when Jacob Strane, forty-two, her English Professor embarked on a relationship with her.
When a junior, Taylor Birch, comes ahead and accuses Jacob Strane of sexual assault in 2017, Vanessa’s concern is for him. Anger for the girl, who according to Vanessa’s mind is exaggerating. ‘You barely touched her‘ Vanessa snaps when Strane suggests that Taylor may not be lying. My Dark Vanessa is about a victim (whether Vanessa likes it or not) so psychologically merged with her abuser that for 17 years, she sees it as a relationship, an affair, a love story. Between overwhelming fear and the harsh reality that he did groom her, Vanessa tries to believe she was willing. She was ready and he did love her. It’s the only way to reclaim some power and semblance over her life.
The book goes into explicit details about what it means to watch your life be overtaken by something you have no control of. As a woman, as a victim, and as a human, it is disturbing to digest what Vanessa goes through. When she defends Strane, part of me wants to reach through the pages and shake her. A part of me, one that recoiled page after page, understood.
Vanessa is a teenager shaped by no adversities. Her parents are decent if middle class and aloof. Her life was ordinary till she sees an advertisement for a private boarding school, Browick. Getting a scholarship, convincing her parents to let her move out at fourteen, a recent fall-out with former roommate Jenny, have been some of the most interesting things to happen to her. An ordinary teenager, her striking red hair form the start of an attraction to Strane. The textbook predator, Strane grooms her before she even understands the implications of his behavior. It is so predictable you want to tell her to snap out of it. He compliments her, he notices her work, he compares her hair to a maple leaf, he gives her books and poems to read. He gives her Lolita and emphatically informs her that she is not supposed to tell anybody she received the book from him. They have secrets. She feels special, noticed, and beautiful. In a poem she writes, Strane asks her if she meant to sound, ‘sexy’. He is so innocent, so gentle, that she feels in power, she feels in charge.
‘He was so in love with me, he used to sit in my chair after I left the classroom. He’d put his face down on the table and try to breathe me’ explains Vanessa to Ruby, her therapist as a symbol of her relationship with Strane. She likes being loved and adored by a man, what girl wouldn’t? Not for her dumb boys her own age but a man who has lived his entire life. This teenager, painfully aware of her self, and Strane’s ordinariness, distances herself from the narrative once Strane becomes physical with her. Russell leaves no detail to the imagination, the first time Strane forces himself on Vanessa, she feels repulsed. ‘Slimy’ and ‘raw’ she believes, one that is denial about having been violated. Strane like the expert manipulator he is, starts with consent, ‘Can I do this?’ but even Vanessa notices that he asks for permission after having done the thing. Strane wants Vanessa to be the child, his disdain evident as he deftly continues to assault other younger girls while using Vanessa and projecting his monstrosity on her. ‘A black cloud‘ is what he calls Vanessa when she has to withdraw from Browick, after allegations about their affair surface. He paints a picture of jail, scandal, court cases, notoriety following both of them. The teen, afraid for his safety, takes the blame on herself and confesses to spreading rumors. The school, unforgiving and eager to get rid of a scandalous girl, ask her to withdraw, but not before confessing in front of her entire class that she lied.
Strane watches in the shadows, eager to get rid of her as Vanessa is forced to leave the school, her chances at a good education. He asks her to stay away. Vanessa’s life has been marked, her trajectory changed, and one that she feels she is no longer in control of. Her eventual choices, her return to Strane at sixteen and continuing a relationship on his terms till she is twenty-one, marred by his dominance, abuse, and gaslighting all set the tone for a life doomed for something dangerous. In college, Vanessa attracts the attention of another English Professor, Henry Plough. They begin flirting, harmless flirting, he offers her an anchor, a job, a future, and she is consumed by him. In her anonymous blog, she pours her desire out. Henry is kind, he is sweet, and he is younger than Strane. On a trip to visit Strane, she learns that Henry is married to a counselor at Browick. Vanessa feels cheated, yet excited, that Henry married a former student. She is desperate for his body, she tells herself. When she tells Henry she was raped by Strane, she sets in motion a chain of events she tries to take back. ‘I wasn’t raped raped‘ she justifies her faux pas.
Russell has tried to convey a love story, a sweet tender building of relationships, yet all women can see is a man grooming a teenager while the authorities turn a blind eye. Vanessa keeps returning to Strane, even after learning he forced her out of school, he assaulted other girls, he labeled her as a troublemaker, she keeps coming back. She looks out for him. The threads with Henry are so frayed due to what happened with Strane that she decides to not apply to grad school. ‘I can see that too-another classroom, another man at the head of the seminar table reading my name off the roster, his eyes drinking me in. The thought makes me so tired all I can think is I’d rather be dead than go through this again’ thinks Vanessa when imagining grad school, another tryst with a Professor.
In the final moments of the book, Vanessa gets some clarity, some distance, and understanding. She is not a perfect victim, you find her unbelievable, I personally found myself so angry I had to stop reading. But you empathize. Trauma hits people differently and Vanessa who is stubborn, an attention seeker, inconsistent, and a liar finds it difficult to separate reality from fantasy. Is the story worth the journey? I am unable to decide. Should you read it? Again, I am not sure. The searing assaults, the ways in which Strane manipulated a teenage girl and destroyed other girls made me uncomfortable. It is a journey you should only take if you are mentally prepared and interested in it.