The Jagged Fragmentation of Abuse: A Review of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa
Vanessa Wye was fifteen when she first had sex with her English teacher, Jacob Strane. At thirty-two, some of Strane’s students come forward to accuse him of abuse, something that horrifies Vanessa. She doesn’t remember him abusing her. What she remembers is love. The story echoes Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita but through a modern lens, replacing Nabokov’s dark humour with something more eerie, dark, and urgent.
In My Dark Vanessa, Russell presents us with two perspectives, two Vanessas, her past and present selves. The older Vanessa works as a concierge in a hotel, sees a counsellor, and is being consumed by the emerging Strane controversy. She feels the pressure to come forward while at the same time still loving Strane. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, Russell’s Vanessa is written from a perspective I’d never contemplated, a woman who wants to protect her abuser.
Neither the past nor present Vanessa are entirely likeable characters. While working as a concierge, a young receptionist in her hotel is sexually harassed by an older man, but instead of helping the receptionist Vanessa turns a cold eye to her, thinking she should just toughen up. As a student, she writes ‘BITCH’ on the door of her dorm supervisor who she fears is romantically involved with Strane. But even when she’s angry and aggressive towards people, it is impossible to completely disparage her, as we see how abuse steered her in this direction.
It is clear in the novel that Strane groomed Vanessa as a child, lulled her into a relationship she was unprepared for physically or mentally. ‘He touched me first, said he wanted to kiss me, told me he loved me. Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.’ Strane romanticized the relationship by appealing to Vanessa’s love of poetry. He shows her the works of Sylvia Plath, and he used this as a foothold to give her a copy of Lolita, framing the book’s story as forbidden love as opposed to repugnant sexual deviation.
When Vanessa is lonely, after her and her closest friend fall out, Strane makes her feel special, and she is at once compelled and disgusted by him. He wants her to feel powerful, tells her how dark she is, that she could destroy him, and how she was the one who pursued him. He tells her that he can’t help but be in love with her. As a reader, you understand why she pities him despite his cruelty: Vanessa’s reality becomes distorted, “I don’t say it, but sometimes I feel like that’s exactly what he’s doing to me—breaking me apart, putting me back together as someone new.”
Frequently she describes how disgusting he is: his hairy heavy body; the weight holding her down when they have sex. She copes by separating her mind, imagining herself somewhere else. She flies over a woodland and lake or sits in her kitchen with a newly adopted kitten. Just like in Nabokov’s writing, the beautiful images juxtapose the horror, but Russell’s descriptions can at times feel overwrought and dramatic. I cringed when Vanessa described a pain in her throat as a burning coal, but I also acknowledge that this is her voice, one going through something I will never understand, and maybe extreme emotions can only be painted with extreme language.
When Vanessa remembers her relationship with Strane, blanks spaces poke her memories as she constantly reconstructs the past. We see the mark of abuse, as Strane influences her even when he’s out of her life. She uses his mental heuristics to convince herself that her relationship with Strane was romantic because if it weren’t then she would be forced to confront the abuse. Russell captures the fluidity of memory in an extreme circumstance, how we consciously and unconsciously build our past and present to protect ourselves.
It’s this deep yet fragmented memory of love that directs Vanessa’s reaction to Strane’s reckoning. As more girls come out saying that they were abused by him, she feels increasingly pressured to come forward, and at first, I wanted her to. I wanted Strane to suffer. I wanted Vanessa to stand side-by-side with the other victims. And I was naïve. On her website, Russell says the decision to come forward should always come down to personal choice. Vanessa talks through what her abuse with her counsellor, confronting her emotions, and it is ultimately up to Vanessa if she comes forward.
When I first read My Dark Vanessa, I thought of it as Lolita through the lens of the #MeToo movement. It is much more than that. Kate Elizabeth Russell worked on this, her debut novel, for twenty years, based on her own experiences as a teenager, and the hard work and real-life experience is evident in the polish and raw emotion of her writing. Russell examines sexual abuse and the power dynamics of these relationships concisely and poignantly. I read My Dark Vanessa relentlessly, constantly hoping that for Vanessa there was an eventual end to her darkness or at least some light for her to aim towards.
My Dark Vanessa was written by Kate Elizabeth Russell and published by Fourth Estate (March 2020).