*This review contains SPOILERS*
My Dark Vanessa is one of those rare novels that worms its way into your veins and captures hold of your heart. It is painful, frightening, cathartic, and absolutely necessary of a read. I have only read a few novels in my life that have affected me as deeply as My Dark Vanessa has, and while this novel was such a difficult read, it has impacted me for life.
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“It’s enough to make me crazy, seeing these things that no one else ever seems to notice.”My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, in short, is one woman’s experience about grooming, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse at the hands of her high school English teacher. However, Vanessa does not see her relationship with her English teacher in this way. The chapters alternate in time and reveal the relationship between Vanessa and her teacher back when she was in high school while also highlighting Vanessa’s current life. It is in her current life that she is being impacted by another woman who went to her same high school and is now accusing this same English teacher of grooming and sexual harassment and assault. Seeing both sides of Vanessa’s life give the reader an inside look into her fragile emotional state, and her complicated emotional attachment to this man, who is still in her life, and has been since she was in high school. But the story is so much more than just Vanessa’s story, because it begs the bigger question “how does one define sexual abuse, what counts as such, and does the ‘victim’ have to see the acts against them as abuse for it to be considered in that manner?”
“People will risk everything for a little bit of something beautiful.”My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
As a survivor myself, I found My Dark Vanessa to be an incredibly difficult read. However, it allowed me to re-examine my own abuse and empathize with how Vanessa viewed the treatment of herself at such a young age. Russell highlighted well the confusion and mixed feelings that are involved when one is groomed, and how that grooming impacts how the victim experiences any sexual acts that are involved. At times, the reader becomes frustrated with an adolescent Vanessa for how she views her teacher and the relationship they have, and how those feelings grow with her as she ages and stays in contact with her teacher. It is clear to the reader throughout the novel how manipulative Vanessa’s teacher is and how his feelings for her do not mirror her own; but it is important to remember that Vanessa takes what her teacher says to her at face value. She believes whole heartedly that he cares for her and loves her due to the grooming she experiences. Russell highlights the very real concept that survivors often believe what their attackers tell them to try and reason with the abuse at hand, and while that may be frustrating for others to understand, it is entirely personal to the person being abused – and more importantly, it is not our place to judge.
“I don’t say it, but sometimes I feel like that’s exactly what he’s doing to me – breaking me apart, putting my back together as someone new.”My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Dark Vanessa references Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov heavily, and while one can read the book without having ever read Lolita, I found it helpful to read both books back-to-back. I had never read Lolita before picking up My Dark Vanessa, but due to the emphasis put on the novel, it helped me to better understand the teacher’s fascination with Vanessa. Her subsequent obsession with the novel also helped me to see how she saw her relationship with the teacher as a love story, rather than abuse. However, much like My Dark Vanessa, Lolita is sensitive reading material particularly for those impacted by grooming, sexual assault, and sexual abuse, so please proceed with caution.
“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing, he’d said. It sounds like a delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile.”My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
One important aspect to this novel is that the chapters that feature Vanessa’s adult life are set during the height of the “me too” movement. Russell did well to highlight how this movement has empowered victims, while also highlighting how there are still problems with victims not receiving the justice they deserve. Vanessa’s classmate deals with being overshadowed by the power that her teacher possesses, and with Vanessa refusing to share her own story of abuse, one woman’s word isn’t enough. Russell highlights how even though the “me too” movement gave victims a chance to share their story in a safer climate, not everyone feels safe doing so. Rather than choosing to come out with claims of abuse herself, Vanessa instead chooses to side with her teacher.
“‘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.'”My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
The pain of watching Vanessa go through this abuse, and seeing how it begins to define her life, is absolute torment. Russell highlights how it is not easy to move on from abuse that defines your youth, and how if not dealt with, it can define your adulthood.
“Your life is like a movie. She didn’t understand the horror of watching your body star in something your mind didn’t agree to. She meant it as a compliment. Isn’t that what all teenage girls want? Endlessly bored, aching for an audience.”My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
While My Dark Vanessa is fictional, it reads like a memoir. So many readers may find their own stories in the pages of this book, and that is what makes it beautiful. It is raw and painful, yet so beautiful in how it changes the reader with each page. While this novel has become incredibly controversial, it is that controversy that will bring about important conversations. Do not go into reading My Dark Vanessa without great care but do go in with an open mind. You might just find yourself within its pages.