A Mainer’s breakthrough novel looks at the many facets of sexual abuse and its impact on one young woman resistant to the #metoo movement.
Vanessa is 15 when she falls in love with a 42-year-old teacher and starts a sexual affair with him that lasts for 17 years. She welcomed the sex from the start, and she pursued their relationship after she left the private boarding school.
Was she abused?
“Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute…It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it,” Vanessa says. She is not a “victim,” she says.
Vanessa, now in her 30s, is the titular character of My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s disturbing and provocative debut novel about sexual and emotional abuse and its aftermath. Touted as a groundbreaking novel in the wake of the #metoo wave, it brought in a reported $1 million advance. Russell wrote the book, out this month, based upon her own experiences with adult men when she was a teenager growing up in Maine.
The novel is cringe-inducing from the start as Vanessa looks back on her relationship with her teacher, Strane, from its beginning and along the path of dysfunction it weaves through her adulthood. Vanessa is forced into a reexamining of what she has so long defended when another former student comes forward about a relationship with Strane. This suggests Vanessa was not Strane’s soulmate, as he professed her to be. At first she pooh-poohs the other woman’s allegations, along with the claims of still other former students who soon come forward, and she fends off a reporter who wants her to tell her part in Strane’s past. (No one knows they still hook up all these years later.)
It’s easy for us readers to see Strane’s manipulations throughout Vanessa’s recollections, and that’s where the cringing comes into play. Vanessa can’t see it, but we can and it’s painfully uncomfortable to witness. Still, it’s also easy for us to see how and why even an independent and quick-witted girl like Vanessa perceives this man’s sexual predation so differently.
She reminds herself that Strane from the very start asked her permission before any sexual contact. “And isn’t that what consent is, always being asked what you want?” And why should an “arbitrary” age like 18 make it OK to have sex then, but not at 17? When she reads that Strane is accused of “grooming” female students for sex, she justifies her own experience as being “(s)lowly guided into the fire—why is everyone so scared to admit how good that can feel? To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing,” she says.
The book is about the abuse of power, and in Vanessa’s case, the misinterpretation of it. Vanessa mistakes the power coming into her own sexuality as her power over Strane. She revels in how she makes him weak for her, how he’ll break the rules and his own “morals” just because of who she is. When she realizes, as a teen, that she has the power to get him fired/arrested/ruined, she revels in it. He encourages her to believe she has all this leverage over him. Later, with the other students’ claims and the reporter dogging her, “He reminds me that, in this situation, I have it good. Don’t I realize how much power I have? If the story of him and I came out, no one would blame me for a thing, not one f—-ing thing. It would all fall on him.”
Once a gifted student aspiring to be a writer, Vanessa parties her way through college and her aspirations go unmet. After school she works at a Portland hotel and lives in a cheap apartment. She has no friends, her sporadic attempts at romantic relationships fail. This is the aftermath of sexual abuse. The question for Vanessa is whether she will recognize it and see her way through it.
Frank and chilling, My Dark Vanessa is an uncomfortable but captivating and illuminating story that will pull you in and leave you with a better understanding of sexual abuse and its victims.
Amy Canfield is deputy editor of Maine Women Magazine.