Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
I love this book. I love this book. I love this book. This wasn't just about reading something that is beautifully written, powerful and immersive. It completely challenged my way of thinking. This is the story of Vanessa Wye, a teenager who becomes involved in a sexual relationship with her English teacher, Mr. Strane. The book jumps back and forth between 2000-2007 - when Vanessa is 15 years old and through to her college years - and 2017, where she is 32. Whenever we read entries from 2017, we got a real sense of how ongoing the turmoil and confusion she experiences as a teenager is. There are so many parts of this novel that I found challenging and interesting. It was impossible to put down, despite there being many moments where you are forced to feel uncomfortable, where your skin will crawl. I should tell him I didn't like being woken up by him hard and practically pushing into me. That I wasn't ready to have sex this way. That it felt forced. But I'm not brave enough to say any of this - not even that I feel sick to my stomach when I think about him guiding my hand to his penis and don't understand why he didn't stop when I started to cry. That the thought I want to go home ran through my head the entire time we first did it. After reading this passage, I almost felt disappointed. Suddenly, this book was no longer challenging my thinking. It was no longer a book from a perspective that I don't understand. It was a now a book about a rapist and a girl that did not want this to happen her. This doesn't change, but her feelings on these events do. And that is what makes this book so profoundly powerful.
We are shown exactly how this can happen. How it's possible that a girl, despite 'only being 15', has the emotional maturity to make decisions, and to act on them; to understand the power she holds over a man that intimidates her.
"Pathetically in love with you." As soon as he says this, I become 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, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I'm worthy of his love.
Before anyone tries to call me an enabler or says I'm making excuses for this fictional man, I had my own strong opinions on a 15 year old and a 42 year old being in a relationship. I, like I expect most people, am against it. I still am. But this book raises questions; they are so obvious I wonder why I'd never thought about them before. 1. What is the emotional and mental difference between an 18 year old having sex and a 17 & 364 day year old having sex?
It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it. Like the laws that flatten all the sex I had with Strane before I turned eighteen into legal rape - are we supposed to believe that birthday is magic? It's as arbitrary a marker as any. Doesn't it make sense that some girls are ready sooner?
2. Does consent and love play into an outcome in criminal court?
...and isn't that what consent is, always being asked what you want? Did I want him to kiss me? Did I want him to touch me? Did I want him to fuck me? Slowly 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.
3. Where is the line when it comes to age difference?
I need someone to show me the line that's supposed to separate twenty-seven years older from thirteen years, teacher from professor, criminal from socially acceptable. Or maybe I'm supposed to encompass the difference here. Years past my eighteenth birthday, I'm fair game now, a consenting adult.
Abuse never crosses Vanessa's mind until another victim, Taylor, comes forward. Her story goes public and there is an onslaught of people forcing their opinions.
The host of a men's rights podcast devotes an entire episode to the story, calls Strane a victim of the tyranny of feminism, and his listeners go after Taylor. They get her phone number, her home and work addresses. Taylor posts on Facebook screenshots of emails and texts from anonymous men threatening to rape her, to kill her and cut up her body.
We must look at ourselves when this happens in our society. Imagery is everything, especially when we are far removed from an assault case; when we don't know the victim or the perpetrator. Images of Taylor as a 14 year old are circulated. She has braces and her hair in braids. She looks like a child. She looks 14. However, Vanessa at the age of 15, does not look like a child. She has hips, breasts, and curves. Would feminist advocates and those that defend girls like Taylor defend Vanessa too? I try to imagine the same line paired with the Polaroids Strane took of me at fifteen, my heavy-lidded eyes and swollen lips...lifting my skirt as I stared at the camera, looking like Lolita and knowing exactly what I wanted. I wonder how much victimhood they'd be willing to grant me.
At so many points, we are confronted with this idea of rape, and rape rape as two separate concepts. One is ok, and one is awful. This is where many that have criticised the #MeToo movement come into play, where we are asked to define degrees of wrongdoing. Is there a degree? Is there ok, and not so bad versus terrible?
1. Not that I've been raped. Not raped raped. Strane hurt me sometimes, but never like that. Though I could claim he raped me and I'm sure I'd be believed. I could participate in this movement of women upon women upon women lining the walls with every bad thing that's ever happened to them, but I'm not going to lie to fit in. I'm not going to call myself a victim. Women like Taylor find comfort in that label and that's great for them, but I'm the one he called when he was on the brink.
2. "It's every woman that comes forward. But if someone doesn't want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that's happened to her, then she's what? Weak? Selfish?"
3. So when a woman chooses victimhood, she is therefore freed from personal responsibility, which then compels others to take care of her, which is why once a woman chooses victimhood, she will continue to choose it again and again.
4. "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. You know? I really, really need it to be that."
This book ultimately demonstrates that there is strength in choice. If one choses to come forward and openly speak about what happened to them, they are strong. If one choses to never speak of it, they are strong. If something that is legally defined as rape, and almost universally seen as abuse, is a love story from a 'victims' point of view, they are strong.
I know there has been and will be more to come in terms of controversy aimed towards this book. I expect the fact that our main character chooses to see this as a love story, not a story of abuse could spark off a debate on whether this goes against the #MeToo movement. For example: Will young girls that read this book, believe they too were loved, rather than abused? Maybe this is a completely valid argument. But it is important to remember that this book is a work of fiction and anyone's feelings are valid. Why should someone that sees an experience as a positive one be forced to feel otherwise? This would ruin their entire life if forced to accept they were abused throughout their entire adolescence. An author has a right to write about anything they want, regardless of how controversial it might be in a time like this, where we need to believe women.
It makes me think of something Kazuo Ishiguro (Nobel Prize winner for literature) said: But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I'm saying? Does it also feel this way to you?
Initial Prediction: 5 stars
Final Rating: 5 stars
Publication Date: 31 March 2020
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
# of Pages: 372