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Cover courtesy William Morrow Books; Photo Credit: Elena Seibert courtesy William Morrow
Entertainment

'My Dark Vanessa' Is Unsettling, Complicated, and Impossible to Put Down

Almost 20 years after she started it, Kate Elizabeth Russell has delivered a nuanced novel about abuse.
March 6, 2020, 12:51pm

The first time I heard about My Dark Vanessa wasn't in 2018, when the media blitz around the novel—and its seven-figure acquisition for debut novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell—began.

Nor was it in January when Russell and her book, which she promotes as fiction, became the subject of a Twitter firestorm over its alleged similarities to Wendy C. Ortiz's 2014 memoir Excavation and its targeting as an example of gatekeeping in the publishing industry.

Nor was it the uncanny news that a juror at Harvey Weinstein's rape trial was almost kicked out for reading a copy.

It was on LiveJournal over a decade ago, when Russell—then, just "Kate"—and I were members of the same small, off-topic LiveJournal community. While most of us were teenagers posting journal entries, Kate was writing a book. Though the two of us weren't close, our mutual friends lauded its early excerpts, and what we all knew about Kate was that although most of us were "writing," she was truly writing.

Following 15-year-old Vanessa Wye as she's groomed into a relationship with her English teacher at a private school in Maine, My Dark Vanessa was quickly positioned upon its acquisition as Lolita for a post-#MeToo society. After reading Lolita at 14, Russell started what would become My Dark Vanessa at 16 and sold it at 33. With age and experience on her side as a writer and the spark of the #MeToo movement, the My Dark Vanessa that emerged after nearly two decades is one that could have only come about through the perspective of time. Its dark story of obsession is one made possible by Russell's own obsession with Vanessa.

As Russell, now 35, told me in a phone call, the story's framing has transformed since her teenage years.

"I saw this thing that I was writing as a love story, and that stuck with me for a really long time, well into my 20s. It wasn't until I really started reading critical trauma theory that I was able to sort of break out of that mindset and think, okay, maybe even something that's framed as a love story could still be traumatic, and it could be really harmful," she said.

My Dark Vanessa is all the better for it. With industry hype built around review copies, the book—which will be released next week—is a nuanced analysis of trauma, power, and obsession that's, at times, hard to read; more often, it's hard to put down. As Russell shifts from 2000, when Vanessa's relationship with the 42-year-old Jacob Strane is an after-class secret, to 2017, when an outpouring of survivor stories prompts another student of Strane's to go public, she knows exactly what threads to pick at in a society in which institutional failures and sexual abuse form the fabric.

Though it sometimes felt like dead weight, writing My Dark Vanessa always felt necessary to Russell. "It's almost like a euphoria would almost take over me when I was working on this," she told me over the phone, acknowledging how "weird" it sounds to discuss the sensations of writing. "It was really a process of just following that feeling, trusting it, and taking it seriously—that if this story spoke to me so intensely, then it was worth writing."

Over the years, Russell's mind often drifted to Vanessa and Strane, as Vanessa refers to him in the book. "Everything I was reading or watching or listening to was experienced through the filter of them. It was obsessive, but at the same time, it was really helpful, because I would see traces of their relationship dynamic in really unexpected places that ended up just making the writing even better," she said.

While the headspace of a teenage girl is hard to understand, even when you are one yourself, Russell writes it with a masterful touch. "I started writing these characters when I was a teenager, so it was inevitably helpful that I had material that was authentically teenage in that way," she said. Nostalgic for the earlier days of the internet, she tried to capture the "immersive and immediate" voice of early-00s online journal writing.

Teenage Vanessa sees herself as wiser than her years, a mindset that's egged on by Strane's provocations: he brushes her bare leg in a crowded classroom, and when she writes him a poem, he whispers, "Did you mean to sound sexy here?" Stubborn, she thinks she holds the cards in a dynamic that most would agree actually stacks them against her.

"I still feel different from others, dark and deeply bad, same as I did at 15, but I've tried to get a better understanding of the reasons. I've become an expert of the age-gap trope," a slightly older Vanessa reflects in 2006. "Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not—and it doesn't have anything to do with what Strane did or didn't do to me when I was younger. I'm not a victim because I've never wanted to be, and if I don't want to be, then I'm not."

Vanessa's experiences come via the warped lens of girlhood, and the position she occupies as an unreliable narrator isn't unlike Lolita's Humbert Humbert, as Vulture's Lila Shapiro has pointed out.

When she's older, Vanessa rationalizes Strane's behavior, and she yearns for their relationship, despite all the bad it causes. That relationship dynamic is one Russell said she couldn't write until she had the perspective of age. As readers, we're offered insight into Vanessa's process of working through trauma—one just as messy and nonlinear as it is in real life, and the tension between the reader and Vanessa, and between Vanessa's past and Vanessa's present, is kind of the point.

"That tension that exists in the final form of the book between teenage Vanessa and the reader wasn't really there, where Vanessa is viewing these interactions with Strane in a very romanticized way, while the reader sees him as manipulative and grooming her and taking advantage of her," Russell said. Earning a Master's and a PhD and studying critical trauma theory helped Russell gain perspective, allowing that duality for the reader to come into play.

Tension also exists between Vanessa and Taylor, the former student of Strane's who comes forward in 2017 and expects Vanessa to do the same. The two women disagree about Strane's actions: Vanessa downplays them, while Taylor blames him for wrongdoing—but Russell positions both women's experiences as equally valid.

Russell's interest in a present-day plot line started before #MeToo, after she read accounts of institutional failings like the Columbia Journalism Review's 2015 audit of Rolling Stone's "Rape on Campus" and the Boston Globe's 2016 Spotlight investigation on sexual abuse at private schools.

While Russell was writing in 2017, women began to come forward online and in real life, and she knew the current outpouring of discussions regarding sexual assault and its prevalence would inevitably be the book's context. "I tried to take it as an opportunity to trust the reader a little bit more: to trust that because of #MeToo, the reader might be more familiar with why someone would come forward years later about something that happened to them when they were a teenager, or even why a character like Vanessa wouldn't want to come forward," Russell said.

Her goal with My Dark Vanessa is a conversation with nuance: "I keep returning to this phrase of the complexity of victimhood. I think that we tend to conceptualize victimhood as a one-dimensional, pretty passive thing, like to be a victim is to be inactive or to be just unilaterally helpless. But that feels so inadequate to me," Russell said. "I'm not sure if that's something that we really see portrayed that much of two victims having very different responses to such a similar experience. It's strange to take a step back and think, 'Why is this even revelatory?'"

Like Vanessa, Russell is an "expert of the age-gap trope," sharing an "inevitably incomplete, continuously curated list" of references that includes essays about Britney Spears and Fiona Apple; Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person"; Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides; and, indeed, Ortiz's Excavation. When it comes to similar experiences, Ortiz's comments remain the elephant in the room.

As the disclaimer states, "In a surfeit of caution, it bears repeating that nothing in the novel is intended as recounting any actual events." Tensions high after the American Dirt controversy—which highlighted a white writer taking ownership of Latinx experiences, to huge success—online critics questioned the validity of Russell's experiences with sexual assault and the ethics of writing abuse as fiction. The online discourse has had serious ramifications: Vulture has reported that Oprah's Book Club, which catapulted American Dirt to fame, dropped the book from its picks in an attempt to avoid controversy.

The expectations of increased disclosure from Russell felt like a step backward from the push to believe women, and it echoed the theme Russell engages with the most throughout the book: that experiencing abuse doesn't necessarily manifest in any one particular way.

Though Russell has said in a 2018 interview and in a statement on her website that the book was inspired by experiences during her teenage years, she clarified that writing My Dark Vanessa as fiction was important to her.

"I knew that there was a very strong likelihood that the book would be read by some people as autobiographical. Just because debut novels—especially debut novels written in the first person and written by women and maybe especially women who are perceived to be young—tend to be read as autobiographical. There are obvious parallels between Vanessa and I, even if you look at my author bio: it's like, Kate Elizabeth Russell, she grew up in eastern Maine, Vanessa is from eastern Maine, it must all be, you know, autobiographical," she said. "I knew that was likely and I made a decision early on to try to create a boundary between myself and Vanessa and between my own experiences, which absolutely informed the writing of this novel, and this fictional novel that I had written. That was really important to me."

Over the years, she said, writing the book has helped her work through what love and romance actually mean to her—a process that will likely carry through into her next book.

With My Dark Vanessa so close to hitting bookstores and after so long a process, Russell said that she now feels simultaneously protective of Vanessa, but also relieved.

"To a certain sense, it feels almost like a fog being lifted," she said. "It's finished, and now there's space in me to try to get to that point with another story."

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.