I was so disturbed by this book. My Dark Vanessa is incredibly thought-provoking and raises a ton of great questions. I’m glad that I read it. And I’ll never read it again. (Side note: Everything being explored in this review is pretty much referenced in the book’s synopsis, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything. But if you want to go into this book truly blind, you might want to skip this review.)
“To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.”
My Dark Vanessa is the story of a girl who begins having an affair with one of her teachers when she’s only fifteen. Her story weaves between the past, when the affair began, and the present, when the teacher is now being accused of sexual assault in the midst of the unnamed but alluded to #MeToo movement. We see how Vanessa’s entire life has been consumed by this one relationship, and her refusal to believe that she was abused. This incredibly unhealthy relationship is an addiction for them both, and Vanessa loses all sense of herself as an individual because of it.
“Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’m doing every time I reach out—trying to haunt, to drag him back in time, asking him to tell me again what happened. Make me understand it once and for all. Because I’m still stuck here. I can’t move on.”
I honestly am at a loss for words about this book, so what follows is kind all over the place. My Dark Vanessa was both cathartic and traumatic, a relief to read and so uncomfortable that I couldn’t read it for more than thirty minutes at a time without needing a break. I feel like so many women, and I’m sure plenty of men, have experienced something on the shallow end of Vanessa’s story. Maybe we were never in a full-blown sexual relationship with an adult in authority when we were still children. Maybe we were touched inappropriately or coaxed into touching someone else briefly. Maybe it only happened once, or maybe we lived on edge wondering if and when it would happen again. And maybe a thrill of adrenaline masqueraded itself as pleasure, shaming us into not speaking up. Because if some part of us enjoyed it, it wasn’t really abuse. Right? Where is the line between abuse and consent? Women used to be married and having children at fourteen, so can sex with a consenting fifteen-year-old really be considered abuse?
“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 up everything that happened.”
My personal answer to that last question is a resounding YES. What was once adulthood is no longer. Since we as a society have changed our ways of life so drastically that there is now a step between childhood and adulthood, adolescence, we have to reevaluate such questions. A century ago, Vanessa might have been a grown woman at fifteen. In the framework of this book, she is far from adult. Physical maturity doesn’t equal emotional maturity, and in our modern world the latter develops far less quickly than the former. And I think that there’s an inherent wrongness in any relationship begun between an authority figure and someone over whom they currently have authority, but that’s another personal opinion. (Also, if you’re a teenager and a male teacher ever gives you a copy of Lolita on the sly, RUN.)
“I’m not a victim because I never wanted to be, and If I didn’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”
Russell balanced this book so well. It was never sensational. It always felt honest and real without either skimming over or wallowing in details. She was also careful to present both Vanessa and Strane as flawed human beings. The victim isn’t likable. The villain isn’t a monster. Though I was infuriated by his humanity. I had no desire to feel sorry for Strane; I just wanted to hate him. And I did hate him. I loathed him, in fact. But not because he was a monster. And while I definitely feel that he’s wholly responsible for his relationship for Vanessa, she was far from perfect, though I won’t get into why I feel that way. I don’t want to further spoil the book.
“Now when we touch each other, the world doesn’t even notice. I know there should be freedom in that, but to me it only feels like loss.”
As uncomfortable as I was with them, I really appreciated the questions Russell raised. If we’ve been abused but don’t speak up, are when then responsible for anyone else abused by the same person further down the road? Do we have some kind of moral responsibility to lay ourselves bare to the world, to have them cluck and murmur and shake their heads over our wounds? Do we have any right to demand that every victim expose their trauma and relive it over and over again? And if we choose not to label ourselves victims, are we negating any wrong that was done to us? I appreciate her refusal to give any easy answers to this difficult questions just as much as I do her willingness to raise them.
“This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction. Once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about. It defines you whether you want it to or not.”
Russell spent eighteen years penning this book, and that care shows on every page. I think I highlighted roughly half of the book. The writing was exquisite. Every element was handled with such finesse and grace. We see the flaws in our society and the systems that allow such abuse to happen, as well as not given children the tools they need to recognize abuse or the safety they need to feel in order to tell someone about abuse they’ve already suffered. We see how the abused is groomed to one day become the abuser if they aren’t careful, if they refuse to find help and support. We see just how pushy society can be in demanding your story when they did nothing to save you from it.
“The excuses we make for them are outrageous, but they’re nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves.”
There was not a facet of My Dark Vanessa that Russell didn’t polish to a mirror shine, not so we would be dazzled by its beauty but so there was no possible way we could ignore the flaws. It’s definitely a book worth reading, but please be aware that it is hard. If this type of deep peering into abuse is something you can’t handle emotionally, steer clear. But if you want a book that will make you think deeply about one of the most controversial topics of, not just our time, but any time, My Dark Vanessa is the story for you.
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