My Dark Vanessa By Kate Elizabeth Russell
Reviewed by Kimberly Cutter
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison spoke at length about the power and limitations of language. She described language’s capacity to oppress and liberate, honor and debase, illuminate and obscure. Most memorably (to me at least) she said that “unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.”
I thought of this statement often while I was reading Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa. The book caused a sensation in the publishing industry when it came up for sale December of 2018, provoking a bidding war and ultimately selling for seven figures to William Morrow. Inspired by Russell’s relationships with older men when she was a teenager, the novel depicts the methodical seduction of fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye by her forty-two-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, and the life-shattering ramifications of their lengthy affair. Narrated by the character of Vanessa herself—now thirty-two and working a dead-end hotel job in Portland, Maine—the book has been described as “Lolita for the #MeToo era.”
The description is understandable, if unhelpful. Though both Lolita and the #MeToo movement play essential roles in My Dark Vanessa, perhaps the most impressive thing about Russell’s novel is how little it resembles either one. By which I mean to say: If Lolita uses language to seduce us into identifying with a pedophile, and the #MeToo movement uses language to demand social justice (and unfortunately tends to flatten us into one-dimensional victims or villains in the process), My Dark Vanessa succeeds—and is a triumph—because its aim is to illuminate one woman’s experience of sexual abuse in all of its emotional nuance and complexity (to come to know the experience, Morrison might say) and because Russell understands that only clear, fearless, unmolested language will get her there.
So. It’s the fall of 2017. The #MeToo movement is in full force. Vanessa works behind the concierge desk at a Portland hotel, smiling politely at guests and obsessively tracking victims’ allegations and conversations on Twitter while nibbling on the stale sandwich that is her life. Creatively stymied and unable to engage in intimate relationships, Vanessa (who was once an aspiring writer) hovers around the edges of society, consumed by memories of the obsessive sexual relationship she had with Strane during her sophomore year at boarding school and clinging desperately to the narrative that Strane was the great, star-crossed love of her life. But when another former student named Taylor Birch comes forward to accuse Strane, Vanessa is forced to re-examine their relationship—a process that threatens to destroy her sense of self and her most fiercely cherished beliefs.
It’s a terrific set-up. Once begun, the novel is almost impossible to put down. Russell began writing an early draft of the book when she was sixteen and continued to work on it for the next sixteen years (earning an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in the process). But she’s said that it was the powerful sense of alienation she experienced during the #MeToo movement that pushed the book into its final form. “I remember a point where I was scrolling through Twitter, seeing friends and strangers putting these stories of violence and abuse out in the world, harrowing, horrible things, and all we could do for each other was reply with heart emojis,” Russell has said. It was her frustration at seeing these experiences sensationalized and oversimplified, lumped together into a kind of shrieking victim stew, that made her realize the #MeToo movement could serve as a potent catalyst for deeper reckoning and reflection in her novel.
When we first meet Vanessa, she’s in grief therapy for the death of her father, who died six months earlier. (Oddly, Vanessa’s father is never discussed in relation to her fascination with older men, and this feels like an omission). During these sessions, almost by accident, Vanessa begins to narrate—and gradually reevaluate— her relationship with Strane. It’s a slow process, made more difficult by the fact that Vanessa refuses to think of herself as Strane’s victim, or of their relationship as abuse. “It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him,” Vanessa insists. “Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had a genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had understood that dark part of him until I came along.”
This, of course, is standard grooming b.s., but like all successful grooming, it speaks to Vanessa’s deepest self—a self that is lonely, smart, curious, romantic, and in desperate need of attention. It’s also enough to keep Vanessa trapped inside the glowing snow globe of her past decades later. Thanks to Strane, all of Vanessa’s notions of herself as special and gifted, potent and brilliant, are hopelessly enmeshed in their illicit relationship— which often felt to Vanessa like true love.
Russell has a remarkable gift for articulating the subtleties and fine-shadings of Vanessa’s emotions, and one of the novel’s great achievements is her depiction of the strange quicksand landscape of trauma (in which desire often shifts to pain or shame and back again in the blink of an eye) and the relentlessness with which that trauma continues to dominate Vanessa’s present. This is a landscape I’ve never seen fully rendered in literature before—an essential, still largely misunderstood aspect of human experience that comes to blazing life in Russell’s hands and, frankly, serves as a potent singlehanded response to anyone who questions the relevance of fiction in today’s reality-obsessed society.
The book is narrated almost entirely in the present tense, and this has the effect of creating a remarkable double-consciousness in the reader, plunging us deeply into Vanessa’s teenaged psyche whenever she remembers the past (so we experience her affair with Strane with the same thrill and exhiliration she does) while at the same time we, as conscious adults, cannot help but recognize and be sickened by the horror of Strane’s manipulation and depravity. We go from watching the fifteen-year-old Vanessa devour the copies of Lolita and Plath poems Strane gives her, delighting in the idea of herself as an incandescent demon nymphet with the power to destroy a man’s life—to realizing, with growing horror, that Vanessa has constructed her entire identity around this idea, and is still trapped inside it. At thirty-two, she still gazes longingly at the topless photos Strane took of her when she was fifteen, still gets lost in phone sex with the now sixty-nine-year-old Strane (who can no longer get an erection for her adult body) as he recounts their early encounters: Vanessa, you were young and dripping with beauty. You were teenage and erotic and so alive, it scared the hell out of me. Her entire film collection consists of May-December films like Pretty Baby and Lolita and Lost in Translation. Strane’s face super-imposes itself on strangers wherever Vanessa goes.
My Dark Vanessa is not a fun read. The sex scenes between Vanessa and Strane are nauseating, and so powerful that, at times, I had to put the book down. But the book is, at all times, utterly fascinating because Russell has ensnared us so deeply inside Vanessa’s psyche. We’re fully in the grips of her obsession; we understand precisely why this relationship matters so much to her, and we have to keep reading—in part to find out what happens to Vanessa, and in part because we need to be released from it as badly as she does.
Russell, of course, is fully aware of the narrative arc she’s crafting, and thanks to the combination of the #MeToo movement and Vanessa’s excellent therapist, Vanessa eventually begins to see her relationship with Strane for the manipulation that it is, and to recognize what her denial has cost her. At one point, she says, “Can you imagine the horror of your body signing up to star in something your mind couldn’t possibly consent to?” Increasingly, we can imagine. We feel how the airtight narrative dome Vanessa’s built around herself keeps her captive and stunted, cut off from her ability to fully feel and pursue dreams and desires of her own. As Vanessa says to her therapist, in perhaps the book’s most heartbreaking scene: “I just feel … I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know? I just really need it to be a love story… Because if it isn’t a love story then what is it? It’s my life. This has been my whole life.”
It has been her whole life—and in a very real sense, the affair also threatens to consume her future. Thanks to the presence of the #MeToo movement, Vanessa isn’t just forced to reckon with her past—she must also decide whether to out herself publicly as Strane’s victim in order to help fellow victim Taylor Birch in her quest for justice. Here too Russell refuses to provide easy answers. Vanessa understandably fears the oversimplification and potentially life-defining “branding” that would come with telling her story in a public forum like Twitter or a magazine article. The reward for speaking out may be justice (or at least support for Birch), but for the individual, the cost can be devastating. For Vanessa, release will only come from the full and fearless articulation of her experience— in seeing it clearly, soberly, and truthfully, with all its shadows and light intact.
Towards the end of the novel, Vanessa remembers a conversation with Strane:
“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, driven 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. But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.
Russell’s done something new here. She’s taken the nymphet—a one-dimensional character who’s lived in the shadows for so long, worshipped and unknowable, pitied and demonic—and replaced her with a real flesh and blood human. One who is all too relatable, all too familiar, all too much like us: hungry and heartbroken, hurt and healing. Thankfully, by the end of My Dark Vanessa, she is also, finally, Here.
Kimberly Cutter is a journalist and author of The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc.