The Controversial Novel That Immerses Readers in Teen Abuse

The difficulty of My Dark Vanessa lies in its adult narrator, who refuses to acknowledge her childhood trauma even as she recounts it.

martin-dm / Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

“What kind of monster,” a Facebook commenter asks on the first page of My Dark Vanessa, “could do that to a child?” It’s an instantly provocative question, which Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel—one of the splashier literary debuts of the year—immediately begins to complicate: The gulf between the person telling the story and the reader receiving it may feel as unconquerable as the Mariana Trench. Vanessa, who is 15 when she first meets the English teacher Jacob Strane and 32 when Strane is implicated in a string of abuse allegations, is a fiendishly difficult, almost willfully blinkered narrator. Her account of what happened between her and Strane flips disconcertingly between the rote patter of a cult victim and flashes of acute insight.

“I was the first student who put the thought in his head,” is how she characterizes the “teacher-student romance” between them, as glassy and automated as a Manson family member. It’s easy to see that she’s parroting Strane’s words. “There was something about me that made it worth the risk. I had an allure that drew him in.”

I, me, I. Vanessa’s solipsism can be overwhelming, more so because Russell allows the reader to see what Vanessa can’t: This story is about damage, not love. Strane is a pedophile, and Vanessa is his victim. I can’t, despite Vanessa’s insistence, bring myself to describe what happens in the novel between Strane and Vanessa the way she does, as a “relationship,” or a “romance,” or “destiny.” But Vanessa refuses to categorize it as abuse. “In someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute,” she argues. “It swallows up everything that happened.” My Dark Vanessa is a minefield in which language itself has been weaponized. Vanessa is both a smothering presence and a troubling void, a narrator who often feels disassociated from her own story.

I’ve been thrown by the book since I read an advance copy a few months ago, before it was swept up in the drama surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s border-set immigration novel, American Dirt, and the prickly issue of whether publishers favor trauma narratives by white writers over writers of color. (My Dark Vanessa, like American Dirt, was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, and then quickly dropped, with Winfrey seeming to tire of picking books that inflamed debate.) On the face of things, Russell’s book is about an adult woman coming to terms with events that have shaped both the contours of her life and the structure of her mind. Set in part in 2017, as the first wave of #MeToo accusations against abusive men broke out, the story shows Vanessa reckoning not only with Strane but also with herself—in particular, with the ways she has defended and justified his treatment of her over the past 17 years. My Dark Vanessa is about a victim so psychologically shaped by her abuser that she needs to see herself as his accomplice, fully complicit in the things he did. It’s the only source of power she has left.

To spend substantial time—roughly 350 pages—in the mind of a person defending the assault of an underage girl isn’t particularly pleasant. The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile.

The answer may depend on the reader’s tolerance for a character so intent on defending her own damage. Part of what makes My Dark Vanessa difficult to read is the novel’s own mutation even before it was published. Russell gave a number of high-profile interviews talking about the book’s origins, defending it as a work of fiction while heavily implying that it also draws on real experiences. (One of the many cultural veins the novel has exposed is whether authors should be forced to testify about genuine experiences of past trauma in order to prove their bona fides as arbiters of pain.) In an interview with Vulture, Russell said that for many of the years she worked on it (while a graduate student) she considered her book a twisted love story. One of her favorite novels as a teenager was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which she similarly interpreted at the time as a chronicle of forbidden love, one that allowed young girls more power and more romantic possibility than propriety (not to mention the law) gave them. Only when Russell had the breakthrough of understanding Strane’s treatment of Vanessa as abuse, she explained, did she figure out what her book could be.

Russell’s evolving conception of My Dark Vanessa may explain why Vanessa’s story veers so wildly between obsession and disgust, between her steadfast defenses of Strane and her flashes of insight. They first meet at a Maine boarding school, where Vanessa is a freshman and Strane is an English teacher with a practiced air of pomposity and a whispered-about reputation. Russell scatters enough bread crumbs early on that the reader can see what kind of man Strane is straightaway: His eye alights on one of the prettiest girls in class, Jenny, before he notices Vanessa and starts feeling out her vulnerabilities, manipulating her loneliness into a sense of uniqueness instead. “I like to be by myself, too,” he tells her. “My first impulse is to say no, I don’t like being by myself at all, but maybe he’s right,” Vanessa thinks. “Maybe I’m actually a loner by choice.” Even in their earliest interactions, he’s rewiring the way she thinks, the way she understands herself.

To the reader, Strane is a textbook predator, his behavior so predictable it’s almost banal. First, he lets Vanessa know that he sees her as a person, not a student. He compliments her style (“It seems strange for a middle-aged man to notice girl clothes,” she observes) and puts his hand over hers while she’s struggling with a computer program. Ritualistically, he escalates. He compares her hair to maple leaves. He gives her books of poetry to read, tells her that a particularly charged poem by Sylvia Plath reminds him of her. He gives her Lolita. “I start to realize,” Vanessa thinks, “the point isn’t really whether I like the books; it’s more about him giving me different lenses to see myself through.” He asks her whether she meant to “sound sexy” in a poem she wrote. “I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he tells her, appropriating a family nickname he learned at a parent-teacher conference. “I can tell from the way you write that you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

These interactions are electric for Vanessa, not because she’s attracted to Strane—the physical response he inspires in her is disgust—but because it upends the way she sees herself. Before Strane, she was an unexceptional teenager. Basking in the light of his overtures, she becomes significant, “someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has already lived an entire life.” She has, she suddenly realizes, “power over him.” Strane’s single-minded focus on Vanessa indulges her craving for attention, and that’s what she finds so intoxicating—enough to submit to the advances of a burly, jowly man whose glasses dig painfully into her face when they kiss, and whose “lips are dry, like laundry stiff from the sun.”

Vanessa’s story is almost identical to one the writer Katie Roiphe recalls in her new nonfiction collection, The Power Notebooks. In a short essay, Roiphe describes a sexual “relationship” (the meaningful quotation marks are Roiphe’s own) she had with a 30-something rabbi when she was 15, Vanessa’s age. She compares herself to the novelist Jean Rhys, who was similarly preyed on at 14 by an older man who left Rhys “dreadfully attracted, dreadfully repelled,” but who mostly “talked about me, me, me … It was intoxicating, irresistible.” Roiphe wonders if she was drawn in by the same desire for attention, the same vulnerability in the hands of someone willing to focus so intently on a teenage girl.

Like Vanessa, in her 20s Roiphe felt compelled to defend her abuser, arguing in a magazine article that the dynamic between her younger self and the rabbi wasn’t unequal: “I had the power of youth, of being the forbidden object of desire, the injured party, and it was a power I quickly learned to use. If he was exploiting me in the traditional ways in which older men exploit young girls, I was exploiting him in the less well publicized ways in which young girls exploit older men.” Now, though, Roiphe writes, she sees how “the toughness I constructed for myself in response to him, for him, the jaded gamine I evoked or brought into existence to meet him, who was preternaturally in control, prematurely poised and powerful, was a costly fiction.” The question lingers: Without that self-construction, who might she have otherwise been? I found myself asking the same of Vanessa: Who is she, really? How can she be such an elusive part of her own story?

Teenage Vanessa is right about one thing. She is unexceptional, in the sense that she’s a conventional 15-year-old enthralled by Fiona Apple, by melancholy, by sex, by the possibility of making someone fall in love with her. She speaks like a teenager. (She tells Strane she thought “that we might, I don’t know, kiss or something,” and when they do, her immediate reaction is to observe “how weird it is that he has a tongue.”) She believes that Strane sees her as a flame-haired soul mate radiating heat and darkness in equal measure. But to the reader, it’s painfully obvious (truly, it caused me pain) that Strane wants Vanessa to be a child. When she sneaks out of boarding school to spend the night at his house for the first time, he stocks the kitchen with ice cream, potato chips, Cherry Coke. She’s stolen a black silk negligee from her mother’s underwear drawer to wear for their first night together. He presents her instead with a gift: a pair of girl’s short pajamas in white cotton with a strawberry print.

After reading My Dark Vanessa, I reread Lolita. I wanted to see what about it might have fascinated Russell so that she spent the best part of her academic career until now crafting a love story between an underage girl and an older man—Lolita from Lolita’s point of view, if you will. What I hadn’t remembered is the extent to which Nabokov lets the 12-year-old Lolita indict Humbert Humbert, the book’s self-confessed pedophile narrator. How repulsed she is by him, how she tenses up when he touches her, how watchful and weary she becomes. How she sobs at night. How obviously she manifests signs of prolonged abuse, how blank she becomes in Humbert’s presence. “I recall certain moments,” Humbert thinks, “let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her … I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness.” Postcoital Humbert is swoony and delirious; Lolita is lifeless, her lashes matted with tears, “her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever.” When Humbert’s lust again becomes obvious, Lolita recoils. “Oh, no,” she says, with “a sigh to heaven.”

Nabokov does the reader other favors, too. He uses language so floral, so ornate, that the brutality of an adult raping a child is kept at a distance. Russell isn’t so generous. Vanessa’s description of the first time Strane violates her is written like an assault: Her younger self is clearly repulsed by the naked Strane, who forces himself on her, even as she’s “crying, really crying.” Afterward, she feels “slimy” and “raw,” while he hacks and spits into the sink. The scene is awful to endure. Vanessa seems to realize that she’s been violated, without knowing what to do with that fact. Adult Vanessa similarly recounts, matter-of-factly, how she tried to have sex with Strane in her late 20s, re-creating the first time, even wearing the same pajamas. But “it didn’t work. He kept going soft; I was too old.” She can see the evidence that he’s a pedophile but refuses to look at it, because it doesn’t fit into her narrative.

How could any of this ever have been understood—by Vanessa or by Russell—to be a love story? For all the emotional damage Humbert does to Lolita, she flees him at the first opportunity. But Vanessa keeps returning to Strane—after she discovers how meticulously he’s planted seeds to label her a dangerous fantasist if his behavior ever gets out, after she is thrown out of school, even after she learns of all the other girls who’ve accused him of preying on them, too. “To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing,” she thinks, in one of Russell’s sharpest indications of how warped Vanessa’s thinking has become. In therapy, she clings darkly to the idea that her history with Strane makes her exceptional. “I’m her favorite client,” she thinks of her therapist, “because there’s always another layer to peel back, something else to unearth.”

What makes other fictional narratives of teenage abuse more bearable—Kate Walbert’s His Favorites, for example, or Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise—is that the person telling the story has enough distance and perception to be able to see what they’re really portraying. Vanessa is infinitely more challenging. Only in the final moments of the book does she seem to begin to understand what the reader has seen all along. Roiphe’s essay, by contrast, contains, in eight short pages, more acuity about the ways abuse can twist people into defending it. That’s not to say that characters need to be “perfect” victims—Vanessa’s stubborn contrarianism, her inconsistency, the distance between the lies she tells other people and the lies she tells herself, are the most interesting things about her. She is an immensely difficult person to spend time with. Is she a valuable one, in the end? I still can’t decide.

By Kate Elizabeth Russell

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