'My Dark Vanessa' Asks, What's Reality and What's Fiction Anymore?

Cristina Arreola
Photo credit: Courtesy

From ELLE

Spoilers for My Dark Vanessa below.

Last month, an unnamed woman at Harvey Weinstein's trial was nearly kicked off the jury for reading Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa. Although the novel had not yet been released, it had been widely touted as a must-read tale for the #MeToo era and the defense took issue with its portrayal of "predatory older men."

The dust-up was but one in a string of headlines for Russell. They began when she secured her “eye-popping” seven-figure book deal in 2018 and continued through a controversy that resulted in the author “outing” herself as a survivor of sexual abuse—a scenario Russell had hoped to avoid when she set out to write a novel about a vulnerable teenage girl and the man who takes advantage of her.

It’s a story Russell began writing when she was a teenager herself. But in the fall of 2017, fiction and reality converged. While the aspiring novelist and PhD student was putting the final touches on the book, Weinstein and other powerful men were in the midst of an unprecedented public reckoning. “It was really surreal having the novel line up with #MeToo in real time” says Russell, now 35.

The book begins with a public accusation; in the opening scene, Vanessa Wye, a 30-something hotel concierge in Portland, Maine, obsessively refreshes a stranger’s Facebook post detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of a teacher at a nearby boarding school. The man accused is Jacob Strane, a teacher with whom Vanessa also had a relationship, at the age of 15. He was 42 years old.

Readers might assume that in witnessing the stranger’s account of abuse, Vanessa would be compelled to share her own similar experience. Not so. Instead, she answers a distressed phone call from Strane and assures him she won’t come forward. After all, what is there to say? As far as Vanessa’s concerned, their relationship was consensual. By the end of chapter one, readers will feel their frustration building like a migraine, a pulsing at the temples that gets louder and more insistent as the story progresses.

Written entirely in the first person, My Dark Vanessa jumps between the present, where adult Vanessa is still in contact with Strane, and the past, where teenage Vanessa is one of Strane’s English students. “I wanted a fully-rounded understanding of Vanessa at all times,” Russell says. “I didn't want the reader to get too comfortable in depictions of her as a teenager, or too comfortable in depictions of her as a 30-something, because her psychology at both ages is different. To fully understand her, you have to see how this relationship started, and you have to see through the long-standing consequences of it.”

In flashbacks, Strane woos a young Vanessa with a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the notorious story about Humbert Humbert’s infatuation with the child Dolores Haze. In the hands of a less skilled author, it could seem like a gimmick to mention Lolita so overtly. But Russell is not new to Nabokov; the title of the book comes from his novel Pale Fire, and Lolita played a critical role in her own coming-of-age—in fact, reading it as a teenager was the impetus for her to start writing. “It was the most beautiful book I ever read,” she says. “I never read anything that used language the way Lolita does. But at the same time, I was a 14-year-old girl reading this depiction of a man sexualizing and romanticizing everything about this ordinary girl who felt so close to me.”

Russell identified with Haze. The two were near the same age, from New England, and both “lazy and moody,” she says. “She has a lot of qualities that I recognized in myself, and it sort of broke my mind open. I started to realize, ‘Hey maybe this is the way the world works.’”

Many interpretations of Lolita frame it as a love story, and Russell certainly digested it as such as a teenager. The first drafts of My Dark Vanessa position Vanessa and Strane’s relationship as one, an unsurprising outcome of Russell’s infatuation with stories of toxic romances, like novels by the Brontë sisters and The Phantom of the Opera. “My understanding of what a love story could be always allowed a lot of room for obsession and darkness and even violence,” she says. It took many years for the novel-in-progress to become a darker portrait of abuse and trauma, a transformation Russell attributes, in large part, to simply growing up.

“It was also a result of me coming into my own as a writer and a woman,” she says. “[From] reading other texts about sexual abuse and trauma theory, I was able to see this component in the relationship between Vanessa and Strane that I’d been chalking [up] to darkness. [It] was actually abusive.” She adds, “There was a lot of trauma in Vanessa’s character that I hadn’t recognized as trauma before, specifically the scenes of her brain breaking away from her body. [It] was weird to see the symptoms I’d already written into Vanessa’s character described in a clinical way. ”

These depictions of dissociative disorder are uncanny and chilling. In one particularly vile phone conversation, Strane asks Vanessa to say, “I love you, daddy." She finds this request ridiculous, but obliges. “I feel my lips move and static fills my head, white noise so loud I barely hear the sounds my mouth makes or the sounds of Strane—heavy breathing and groans,” she describes. “He asks me to say it again, and again my mouth forms the words, but it’s just my body, not my brain.”

Vanessa’s actions are better understood and empathized within this context. She defends her abuser; she attacks the other women who come forward with their stories; she is messy, lazy, depressed, and unfocused. She’s unable to condemn Strane because she’s still controlled by him. Her actions, Russell anticipates, will inspire a variety of reader reactions, not all of them understanding.

“I think any reaction to Vanessa and her choices are valid, whether people relate to her, empathize with her, or are disappointed and frustrated with her,” she says. “All those reactions are important, and I hope readers walk away from the experience questioning what is the best thing to put a survivor through. Is [it] the horror of a trial, especially knowing how few rapists are actually convicted? These are really tough questions, and there are no easy answers.”

What readers might expect but won’t receive is a sense that the abuser is held accountable for his actions. Justice takes a backseat to healing when Strane, the white-hot star around which Vanessa orbits, unexpectedly dies midway through the novel—before facing any substantial professional or legal repercussions. It’s a shocking narrative decision, but one Russell claims she always intended for the story.

“I needed Strane out of the picture in order to give Vanessa any chance of growth or healing,” she says. “It was always clear to me that Vanessa would never have been able to open up to anyone—her therapist, Taylor, her mother—so long as Strane was still there. His control over her was absolute.” And Russell never considered any formal type of justice. “[Police questioning or a trial] would have only made her psychological trauma that much worse.”

It’s a decision tailor-made for probing conversations, and these discussions will likely be inseparable from the news that surrounds the book. This week, Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison—thanks in part to the emotionally fraught testimony of several women, including Jessica Mann, who broke down in tears on the stand. Justice often comes at a steep emotional, professional, and personal cost for survivors, if it comes at all. Indeed, the odds of justice are so slim, and the stakes so high, that many women choose not to come forward at all, for a variety of reasons. This theme of My Dark Vanessa is so crystalline, it’s impossible to comprehend that its own creator was forced to disclose her history with sexual abuse before the novel was published.

In January, writer Wendy C. Ortiz alluded to the similarities between her own book, the 2014 memoir Excavation, and an unnamed book later revealed to be My Dark Vanessa. Both are about relationships between adolescent or teenage girls and their older teachers, but Ortiz did not receive a seven-figure advance for Excavation. It was published by an indie press after many editors passed on her manuscript.

Russell had read Ortiz’s book; she included it in a list of “interests and influences” on her website. Though Ortiz never accused Russell of plagiarism, in an essay for Gay magazine, she wrote, “I have not read the book and have no interest in that story, fictionalized, sensationalized.” The controversy came at the heels of questions surrounding the book American Dirt, and the two stories sparked undoubtedly important conversations: Who gets paid to write which stories? Why are white women so often the recipients of large advances? What can publishing houses do to increase diversity among its authors and staff?

But Russell’s story, though fictionalized, is also based in truth. She’s been open about the parallels between her own life and Vanessa’s, and the accusations led her to a tough decision: In a note posted to her website, she unequivocally revealed to her readers that the story was inspired by her own.

Russell isn’t the first female author pushed to “justify” her writing of a subject—or even the first author in the last year. In 2019, Leigh Bardugo faced heated criticism for her refusal to include “trigger warnings” in Ninth House, an adult fantasy novel that includes a depiction of the sexual assault of a child. In response Bardugo tweeted that her heroine’s experiences “draw directly from her own,” and in an interview with Vice, she criticized the notion that women need to expose their own history of abuse and harassment in order to write about difficult subjects: “Let women write horror. Let women write darkness, let women write trauma, without having to carve out their own trauma to justify it.”

Russell grappled with her decision to post the note. “I worry this could contribute to a precedent that is already set, where if you're writing about sexual abuse—especially if you're a woman writing about sexual abuse—you’re expected to make public your own history and your connection to the material,” she says. “Because if you don't, people are going to question your right to tell this fictional story.”

That there is no perfect victim, no perfect response to sexual abuse, is the crux of Russell’s remarkable work of fiction. That her own life would become an essential part of the conversation is a painful turn—proof that these books must exist, if only to charge the slippery, difficult, and nuanced conversations that need to be had.

Russell hopes the book makes space for conversations about readers’ own experiences, as messy as they may be. “This is a novel that people are going to inevitably have varied reactions to, because readers aren't told exactly how to feel,” Russell says. “It belongs to readers now. It's out of my hands. That's how I’m drawing the boundaries between myself and the book.”

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