Trigger warning for mentions of sexual abuse, pedophilia, grooming, emotional manipulation and rape.
In 1997, thirteen-year-old Kate Elizabeth Russell discovered Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and immediately developed a fascination with the relationship between an older man and a younger girl. She begins to write her own love story about a similar illicit relationship. Nearly twenty years later, her debut novel My Dark Vanessa emerges during the height of the #MeToo movement. What had initially started out as an innocent romance presents a tale highlighting themes of consent, coercion, and sexual grooming.
My Dark Vanessa presents the story of Vanessa Wye during two periods of her life.
During the first, she’s a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl and groomed into a relationship with her forty-two-year-old teacher. Contrastingly, by the second period, she’s in her thirties and reading about allegations of his abuse by another victim. Unexpectedly, Vanessa is still in touch with her teacher, Jacob Strane, whose presence has dominated most of her life. They discuss the allegations against him before he guilts her into protecting him.
In the early days, Vanessa has been struggling with her social skills, especially after losing her only friend. Under Strane’s watchful eye, she begins to believe his interest in her makes her superior to her classmates. I’m special, she chants in the book, mistaking his attention as worship. I have power, power to make it happen, power over him. I was an idiot for not realizing this sooner. The flashbacks of Vanessa’s relationship with Strane display clear implementation of grooming techniques; favoritism, flattery, gifts, all to get her trust and normalize his affection for her. He compares her hair to maple leaves and presents her with a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita; not long after, their relationship turns sexual.
The book narrates Vanessa’s point of view, which provides a firsthand view of how the abuse played out.
The conversations between Vanessa and Strane induce an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism and queasiness, alarmingly when she recounts their sexual encounters as erotic. Per the nature of groomers, he manipulates her against speaking out about their relationship with veiled threats.
While Vanessa turns a blind eye to the age gap between her and Strane, she wasn’t immune to the instances when he reveals his true self. Her discomfort when Strane describes a nosy classmate as ‘a smug little bitch’ is a refreshing change in her perspective towards him. Such instances provide solidity to the foundation of resentment she comes to build towards him in her growth.
Though her relationship with Strane forces her to lose her sense of identity, Vanessa still refuses to let him go. In fact, as a reader, dissociating from Vanessa is easy when attempting to understand the appeal in Strane. He’s not attractive or charismatic; at one point Vanessa herself recoils at his appearance. Nevertheless, she remains in denial about the abuse and refuses to acknowledge those who urge her to speak out. In her eyes, there was no sexual abuse nor grooming; she was the Dolores to his Humbert and their love was an ill-fated romance.
“I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.” “I know,” she says. “Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?” I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy. “It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life.”
Eventually, after engaging with her abuser for decades, Vanessa steers towards facing the harsh truth while still refusing to seek justice.
Since fifteen, Vanessa believed that her relationship with Strane made her special above others. It was them against the world, even when he pushed for his innocence at the expense of her academic career. She had given this man everything with the understanding that they were making an equal trade.
It’s just my luck, he’d said to her at the beginning of the book. That when I finally find my soul mate, she’s fifteen years old.
Even as an adult, Vanessa struggled to accept their sexual encounters as rape because she provided consent. In Vanessa’s eyes, the world had turned her soulmate into a monster for simply falling in love with her. Processing her trauma after repressing it rendered her unable to recognize the sexual abuse she’d faced and to empathize with his other victims.
Towards the end of the novel, Strane eventually ends his own life over the backlash he receives after the accusations. Consequently, his victims are blamed for driving a man to his death after outing him as a predator. This scene was significant in providing insight that as a woman, we grow up having the burden of the male gaze on our backs as if women are the problem and are supposed to start paying that price before we even understand it.
While the book never depicts any of Strane’s victims getting the justice they deserve, it still presents a realistic outcome. Vanessa’s goal to remove his influence from her life and to not be defined as a victim but as a survivor is sobering.
Described as the Lolita for the #MeToo era, My Dark Vanessa was a difficult book to read and even harder to stomach.
The presentation of the pain and trauma was educational enough for readers to re-evaluate their relationships with men. Additionally, the book also displays society’s objectification of teenage girls and exposes the insidious nature of sexual grooming.
While it was an uncomfortable read, My Dark Vanessa is still a necessary one. Not only does it provide us with an understanding of what survivors experience during sexual abuse and grooming, but it also ensures that they’re seen and valued. That being said, this novel may also be highly triggering for some, and therefore caution is necessary before reading.