TW: This post talks about abusive relationships, sexual abuse and grooming.
Book #20! A title I found, again, through rave reviews on many bookstagram accounts. It has also drawn its fair share of controversy, as I noticed last year when a series of headlines found their way to my attention (I purposely turned away as I was trying to avoid getting sucked in to yet another expensive book haul). I try to avoid looking into the synopsis of new reads, simply because I like starting books with a blank slate. This approach generally means that the impact of a good book is made greater by the fact I have no pre-existing ideas or expectations. However, in this context, I do want to make it clear to readers that this book and my review will touch upon really triggering themes for survivors of abusive relationships, sexual abuse and grooming. So, with this in mind, if you consider yourself to be a survivor who might not be ready to read about these kinds of topics, maybe this review and book isn’t for you right now.
My Dark Vanessa by Katie Elizabeth Russell. A debut that was voraciously consumed in a matter of days, which is impressive given the fact I work a full-time job now.
The story begins as so: at the tender age of 15, Vanessa strikes up a sordid relationship with her considerably older English teacher, Mr Strane. As a young girl at a prestigious boarding school with no friends, she’s ripe for plucking by a sinister predator with a knack for young, vulnerable girls. He lures her in through a collective love of poetry and literature, and the pair conduct their affair under the radar for a number of years before it’s brought to the attention of the superiors at the school and the consequences of their transgression are felt.
This novel was highly triggering, as a survivor of abuse. However, I’m so grateful it was written as I feel it really brings to light the reality of living with trauma and also raises very powerful, astute questions about how we, as society need to change in order to deal with the pandemic of misogyny that continues to run rampant.
Russell is a fantastic writer. The novel made me squirm. It was a deeply uncomfortable read from the perspective of a young woman entrenched in trauma, and it didn’t feel gratuitous, disingenuous or exploitative. I didn’t once get the feeling that Russell wrote this story merely as a means of selling copies and also wondered whether it was on-the-nose because she has stood in these shoes herself, but of her own volition, Russell has refused to clarify whether this is the case (too right, it’s nobody’s business unless she wants it to be!). It’s personal, gritty and cuts to the bone. Russell builds a devastating and authentic picture of what trauma does to a person: Vanessa is a really troubled young woman who has failed to move on and live her life as a result of what she has gone through. Unstuck in time, Vanessa’s world revolves around Strane and reliving the past, obsessing over the details of her youthhood. She’s entangled in a web of her own self-loathing and coasting through her life with a low-end job, no friends and no notable romantic relationships. Her days are spent fantasising and enviously casting glances at young girls, living in their prime of their lives as she continues to stagnate with no considerable prospects. Every day, she contends with powerful, all-encompassing emotions such as shame, jealousy, regret and anger. She abuses her body with recreational drugs and seeks out self-destructive relationships, believing herself incapable and undeserving of a healthy partner.
Russell really honours the voices of survivors, both those who have spoken out about their ordeals and those who feel unable to. There are graphic scenes of sexual abuse depicted, which describe in agonising detail the extent to Vanessa’s dissociation and fear. Though she looks back in retrospect with desire, it’s clear from the chapters about her early-teen experiences that the nature of the events as they were happening were considerably more ominous and dangerous than she describes in later life.
A lot of Vanessa’s memory of what happened is the product of Strane’s recollections and forced narrative. Whilst others are quick to classify Vanessa’s experience as abusive, brandishing words like paedophile to describe Mr Strane and rape to best-describe their physical intimacy, Vanessa herself looks back fondly on her time with the enigmatic teacher. At the heart of her story, Vanessa is broken and as much responsible, if not more-so, for the relationship she shared with Mr Strane than he himself.
Russell breaks down society’s toxic obsession with the glorification and romanticisation of relationships between children and grown men. From Vanessa’s perspective, we see the impact firsthand of unhealthy relationships and the lifelong impacts they have. It’s not a harmless fling, it’s not an innocent foray into romance, it’s not a noble way to enter adulthood. It’s abuse and it’s indefensible, which only makes it so much worse when society normalises these relationships by encouraging the premature sexualisation of young girls and pardons those in power who abuse their positions, time and time again.
In addition, Russell excellently pinpoints the shifting behaviours of a strategic predator who deploys gaslighting techniques from the outset in order to lure Vanessa into an awful downward spiral of self-doubt. Mr Strane evades all blame and instead assigns it to Vanessa, romanticising her power over him as though she really is a living nubile Lolita-esque nymphet, unaware of her fatal grip over older men. It’s a really intimate look at what gaslighting is truly like when you’re inside the bubble and unable to hear the pleas of the outside world, begging you to get out while you can.
Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement with pressure mounting to “call out” oppressors, Vanessa is forced to reconcile with her memories of her first love and to deal with the problematic questions that arise when she compares her memories with the accounts of other bystanders and victims. Through Vanessa’s messy outlook on the relationship, both from a younger and older perspective, Russell does a brilliant job of raising important questions with this story:
For instance, is a victim obligated to share their experience, potentially unearthing years of repressed trauma, in order to help others come forward? And what does coming forward with these stories achieve, especially years after the incident? Are predators capable of realising their role in past abuse and can they be rehabilitated? What’s the point and how can we expect there to be a societal change when we’re living in an era that excuses the likes of Bill Crosby and sentences Britney Spears to more years living under the thumb of a court-mandated conservatorship?
There are no categorically black and white answers to these questions. There are a lot of emotions, a lot of them ugly, and a lot of very traumatised people walking around wearing masks because they know they don’t have overnight solutions to the source of their pain, and they know they never will. All we can do is ruminate on how we can be stronger allies to survivors of assault and how we can help to confront misogyny, in whatever way is safe, in our daily lives.