By Harriet Gray
My Dark Vanessa is a novel centred on the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl, Vanessa Wye, by her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. The story is told in Vanessa’s voice, in the first person, in two interwoven timelines.
In 2000, Vanessa is 15; a friendless, lonely kid attending a fancy boarding school in Maine on a scholarship. Strane grooms her gradually: showering her with attention, complimenting her intellect and her style, giving her poetry to read, comparing her hair to a red maple leaf, and then slowly, step-by-step, introducing physical contact. The ensuing sexual abuse, including repeated rapes (although they are not defined as such by Vanessa, at least at the time), stop only when the abuse becomes widely known about at the school. When this happens, the school does not protect Vanessa but instead protects Strane, allowing Vanessa all-too-easily to ‘confess’ that the abuse never took place but, rather, that she herself had started the rumours based on her own imagination. It is Vanessa who has to leave the school, and Strane – who, it turns out later, had begun laying a paper trail to discredit any future reports from Vanessa from the very beginning, and had pushed for her to be expelled after the allegations emerged – remains a teacher.
In 2017, at the age of 32, Vanessa is an underachieving hotel concierge. Her life is blighted by many easy-to-recognise tropes of the potential long-term effects of childhood sexual victimisation: she can’t develop meaningful relationships, she drinks too much, there is a suggestion that she may have PTSD. Her ‘relationship’ with Strane, suspended when she left the boarding school, recommenced just after her 18th birthday, and continues until his death by suicide half way through the novel. Even when it no longer involves rape/sex (when she becomes “too old” [p. 57]), Vanessa’s self-esteem nevertheless remains bound up with Strane’s approval and her identity tangled up with her past: “Everything about me leads back to him. If I cut out the poison, nothing will be left” (p. 360). We are, however, now in the midst of the #MeToo era. First one, then several, women who Strane also victimised as girls over his years as a teacher come forward to tell their stories. Vanessa is pressured to participate, but she resists, insisting that what happened to her was not abuse. After Strane kills himself, Vanessa gradually begins a healing process: opening up in therapy, speaking more about the experiences with her mother and with another of Strane’s victims, and adopting a dog.
It is no exaggeration to say that My Dark Vanessa is probably one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. In parts, reading it felt skin-crawlingly uncomfortable. I often found myself flinching, wanting to avert my eyes as I read, sleepless after reading it in the evening. If it had been a TV programme, I don’t doubt that I would have watched parts of it while also absent-mindedly scrolling on my phone, my modern equivalent of watching a scary film through parted fingers, hands in front of my face. This discomfort, of course, is part of the reason why the novel, and its interventions into contemporary public debates around sexual violence, is so compelling. In the below, I explore how the novel propels me to think about different aspects of these debates in three main sections – Grooming, Predation, and Consent; The Unattractive Abuser Trope; and Victimhood and Survivorship – before wrapping up my thoughts, unfinished and in flux though they are, in a few brief Final Remarks.
Grooming, predation, and consent
While Vanessa doesn’t see it this way, to the reader Strane is an obvious predator: a paedophile whose interest in Vanessa centres around her youth and her vulnerability. While she tries, in her clunky, awkward adolescent ways, to play the role of a sexy grown up – insisting she’s not embarrassed by talk of sex (p. 45), wearing make-up to impress him (p. 76), taking a black negligée from her mother’s drawer (p. 93) – his interest is clearly centred around the fact that she is a child. He stocks his house with cherry coke, ice cream, and crisps (p. 94). He buys her little girl pyjamas to wear when he first rapes her (p. 95); later he asks her to call him “Daddy” over the phone while he masturbates (p. 133) and initiates a role play of secretive, silent rape in her childhood bed (p. 154-155). While she is disgusted by the “Daddy’ comments and tries to avoid talking about it with him after the event, she cannot recognise the other things as creepy; instead she sees the pyjamas as tender and thoughtful (p. 95-96), she worries that he will be “bothered” by her childlike bedroom (p. 154).
Reflecting Vanessa’s inability to recognise the predator that the reader sees Strane to be, the step-by-step process of grooming – painfully, clunkily obvious to us – is also mostly unseen by her. His gradual steps into her life and her personal space make her feel uncomfortable but captivated, special, burning for more. He is constantly testing the waters: gauging her reactions as he calls her poetry “sexy,” as he touches her knee. Vanessa knows she is being tested, and this renders her laser-focused on passing his tests, on pleasing him. He manipulates and gaslights her, making a move and then ignoring her for a week, pretending to her that nothing untoward is going on even though they both know it is. As a result, Vanessa is constantly on tenterhooks, waiting for his next move, trying to predict when it will come, what it will be, and wracked with worry that one “misstep,” one “wrong reaction on my part” could lead to Strane withdrawing his attentions (p. 72).
Vanessa’s interest in Strane’s attentions is less to do with how she feels about him: she finds him, for example, physically repulsive rather than attractive (more on this below). Rather, the ‘relationship’ is so compelling to Vanessa because of how it makes her feel about herself. Right from the beginning Strane begins to re-write her own feelings, to alter her self-perception. She begins to feel that she is valuable because, and only because, of his attentions. Imagining herself through his eyes, she becomes someone valuable, intriguing, admirable: “In my mind he watches me turn the pages, transfixed by every little thing I do” (p. 41). Later, Strane tells her he’s in love with her, and “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 am worthy of his love” (p. 81). Later, he tells her that no other student has ever seemed worth the risk of pursuing: “his words break my chest open wide and leave me helpless… I’m special. I’m special. I’m special” (p. 125). This feeling – that she is special and valuable because Strane wants her – persists even when she is uncomfortable with what he is doing to her. This also persists long into Vanessa’s life; even in 2017, when the accusations are coming out from the other women that Strane victimised as girls, Vanessa holds onto the idea that she, and only she, was truly special to him (p. 194). The tethering of Vanessa’s self-worth to Strane’s “worship” of her gives him tremendous power to control her emotions, and her actions.
The novel’s careful development of Strane’s grooming of Vanessa enables it to effectively demonstrate why the idea of securing verbal consent is meaningless in this context. While academic debates on consent are complex, a fairly straightforward imaginary of consent looms large in the discourse of #MeToo: laws have been rewritten around it, students are offered training on it, some have suggested that it is as simple as tea. Legally, of course, 15-year-old Vanessa is incapable of consent, although as she gets older this statute no longer applies. The novel demonstrates in painstaking, gut-wrenching detail how, while the idea that yes means yes sounds great, securing verbal statements of consent, in power-unequal settings, can function to justify abuse. Strane repeatedly pressures Vanessa into making verbal statements of consent: emphasising again and again that “the last thing I want is to overstep” (p. 38); that if she doesn’t want him to touch her she should “Just tell me to stop” (p. 88).“It’s important to me that you never feel coerced” he says, “That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself” (p. 91). Strane’s constant requirement that Vanessa verbalise consent, however, does not reflect a true commitment to respecting her boundaries but is, rather, a tool with which to justify sweeping them away. Nowhere is this more skin-crawlingly clear than in the scene where he rapes her for the first time, where he ignores her clear, unmistakable non-verbal cues (be warned, the following is hard to read):
For everything he does, he asks permission. “Can I?” before pulling the pyjama top all the way over my head. Is this ok?” before pushing my underwear over, slipping a finger inside so quickly that, for a moment, I’m stunned and my body plays dead. After a while he starts asking permission after he’s already done the thing he’s asking about. “Can I?” he asks, meaning can be tug the pyjama shorts down, but they’re already off (p. 99)
“You gotta calm down, honey,” he says. “Take a deep breath.” I start to tear up, but he doesn’t stop, just says I’m doing great as he keeps trying to get it in. He tells me to breathe in and out, and when I exhale, he thrusts hard and pushes a little further inside. I start crying, really crying – still, he doesn’t stop. “You’re doing great,” he says. “Another deep breath, ok? It’s ok if it hurts. It won’t hurt forever. Just one more deep breath, ok? There we go. That’s nice. That’s so nice.” (p. 102)
Despite this clear demonstration that she is not OK, Strane continues to require that she perform verbal consent, asking her again to reassure him after the rape that she is “fine,” that she is not “too overwhelmed” (p. 103-4). Later, when he knows that he has violated her boundaries and upset her with the “Daddy” phone incident, he again requires her to verbally perform consent:
“I even started to wonder if you enjoy making love, or if it’s just a performance you put on for my benefit.” “I enjoy it” I say. He heaves a sigh “I want to believe you. Truly, I do” (p. 137).
These repeated statements of consent are the price of Strane’s continued attentions, and through this of Vanessa’s continued sense of self-worth. The effect of these statements of consent is to enable Strane to ignore how the hurt that Vanessa experiences, as well as to make her feel complicit in her own abuse. Thus, securing verbal consent becomes a tool that Strane uses to bypass the need to pay attention to Vanessa’s feelings.
The unattractive abuser trope
Vanessa’s lack of physical attraction to Strane, her lack of sexual desire centred around his person or his body – indeed, her disgust at his physicality – is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel. One of the first things that that Vanessa notices about Strane is the sweat patches under his arms (p. 18). Describing the first time they kiss, she says “His lips are dry, like laundry stiff from the sun. His beard is softer than I expected, but his glasses hurt. They dig into my cheeks[…] The whole time all I can think about is how weird it is that he has a tongue” (p. 82). Just before the first rape, she steels herself to touch him: “He said me naked is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. It would be cruel for me to counter that with disgust. It doesn’t matter that my skin crawls from touching him. It doesn’t matter. It’s fine” (p. 101). She describes masturbating him in stomach-turning language: “It’s like a dog hacking up garbage that’s been sitting in its stomach for days, that violent, full-body gag” (p. 101). Later on, as rumours circulate around her at her new school, she is embarrassed at the thought of her peers seeing the reality of Strane’s appearance: “I know what they imagine is way off – a handsome young teacher. I wonder what they’d think of me if they saw Strane with his belly and wire-framed glasses” (p. 205).
I wonder about what this lack of sexual attractiveness does, in the novel. I can see why Russell made this decision in her writing. A “handsome young teacher,” one who Vanessa was lusting after, might be harder to write as clearly as a predator. However physically attractive he was, of course, a teacher grooming and raping his student would still be abuse. In addition, even if she did find him physically attractive, unwanted sexual actions would still in all likelihood have made her feel sick, disgusted, violated. However, I wonder if perhaps Russell made the choice to write Strane as physically disgusting to Vanessa because such narratives are easier for us to accept. If Strane was hot, would the reader find it more difficult to recognise him as a predator? Would we find him harder to believe in, as a character? The poster boy of #MeToo predators, Harvey Weinstein, was reportedly known as “the pig” because he was “sweaty and grunting.” While there are of course examples that counter this trend, where conventionally attractive men have been accused or convicted of sexual violence, this is perhaps not the dominant image that we have of perpetrators. Indeed, looking at a NYTimes list from 2018 of 201 powerful men “brought down” by #MeToo, most of them be unlikely to be considered conventionally attractive. In the era of #MeToo, do we still find it difficult to picture attractive men as abusers? Even if we no longer assume that rapists are to be found hiding in the bushes after dark, do we assume that, wherever they are, they are sweating profusely? Do we somehow see rape as the recourse of the pathetic? And if we do, what experiences of sexual violence are obscured as a result?
Victimhood and Survivorship
The book raises multiple interesting and interconnected themes about victimhood and survivorship. Strane himself is disparaging of women who identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, suggesting that many “choose victimhood” because it allows them to avoid personal responsibility (p. 270), and describing the #MeToo movement as a whole as “an epidemic” with “no logic to it”(p. 187). Indeed, through his rejection and inversion of the narratives that underpin #MeToo, Strane manages to frame himself, and not Vanessa, as the true victim of what happened between them. “Loving you branded me a deviant,” he tells her. “Nothing else about me matters anymore. One transgression will define me for the rest of my life” (p. 304). For this state of affairs he expects, and receives, sympathy, support and apologies: “I tell him I’m sorry. I don’t want to say it but feel I have to, like he needs to hear it so badly, he’s pulling the words out of me like teeth. I’m sorry you’ll never get out from under the long shadow I cast. I’m sorry what we did together was so horrific, there’s no path back from it. He forgives me, says it’s alright” (p. 304). As he is the victim, Strane asserts, Vanessa has all the power; the power to “destroy a man with one well-placed phone call” (p. 327). This claim ignores the fact that by this point in the novel it is clear that Strane has already, in many ways, destroyed Vanessa. Mirroring the way in which his insistence on gaining verbal statements of consent enables him to invalidate Vanessa’s non-consent, Strane’s repeated assertions that Vanessa has power over him is used to disempower her throughout the novel. He tells her again and again that she has the power to ruin him and this makes her subservient to him, desperate to protect him from any repercussions, even when doing so is significantly damaging to her.
While Strane wallows in his self-assigned ‘victim’ status, however, Vanessa desperately tries to separate herself from identifying as a victim. “I am not a victim because I’ve never wanted to be, and if I don’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?” (p. 270). This belief – that Strane didn’t force her into anything, that their relationship was real and special, that he loved her – is crucial to Vanessa’s sense of self. Towards the end of the book, she tells her therapist: “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that[…] Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?[…] It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life” (p. 319).
Compounding her own rejection of the label ‘victim,’ there are also suggestions throughout the novel that Vanessa feels that she would not be recognised as a ‘proper’ victim even if she did identify as one: “I wonder how much victimhood they’d be willing to grant a girl like me” (p. 234). Vanessa feels that she was complicit in her own victimisation, and that this makes her too complex to qualify as a ‘victim’:
I would never have done it if you weren’t so willing, he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a paedophile. But no, that word isn’t right. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I (p. 110).
In her afterword to the novel, Russell tells of her discomfort when the #MeToo movement began to make headlines just as she was finishing up the manuscript that had worked on for 20 years. She feared, she says, appearing to be capitalising on people’s pain, and she also worried that “Vanessa’s imperfect victimhood might be seen as too difficult for the current cultural climate” (p. 376).
I can see that Vanessa is a complicated victim, of course. In defending Strane so loyally, and in insisting repeatedly that she was an active player in a love story, she certainly undermines the notion that we should simply #BelieveWomen (as Emily Witt writes in the London Review of Books, “#BelieveWomen except when they are lying to themselves”). In other ways, however, I think that Vanessa is the perfect victim for the #MeToo era, because while she can’t see Strane as an abuser, we, the reader, cannot see him otherwise. Vanessa may be a complex victim, but Strane is a fairly simple perpetrator: as I discuss above, his pattern of grooming behaviour, his manipulation of Vanessa and those around her, his violation of her, his interest in her because she is a child, are transparent and gut-wrenching – they incite disgust in the reader. One important thread in the narratives of #MeToo was precisely the idea that there are no ‘perfect victims’; and that some women may take years to recognise what happened to them as abuse. My Dark Vanessa paints a vivid picture of why this might be the case, for some victims. Moreover (as noted above) by the end of the novel Vanessa’s denial begins to crumble. As such, Vanessa’s story can be read, I think, as a clear #MeToo story: even when victims take a long time to come to the realisation that they were abused, the harm they experience and their perpetrator’s depravity is no less real.
Interconnected with Vanessa’s unwillingness to define herself as a victim is her refusal to join the growing number of accusing voices denouncing Strane. This refusal elicits incredulous, even angry reactions from multiple characters (pp. 51, 112, 143, 231-232, 312-314). This raises the perhaps thorny issue of what survivors might ‘owe’ to the movement. A former boyfriend is, in Vanessa’s words, “disgusted” at her, thinking her “an apologist, an enabler” for refusing to report what happened (p. 51). A journalist tries to manipulate her into sharing her story against her will, following up her threat to publish excepts from Vanessa’s old blog without her permission with the line that “We owe it to each other to do whatever we can. We’re all in this together[…] I’m a survivor too” (p. 232). This question – do survivors have a duty to speak out? – also emerged in the events around the book itself. When it was originally published, the book was framed as a fiction. In a disclaimer in the original US version of the book (not the version I read), Russell says any similarities with her own history – she attended a private school in Maine until she “withdrew for personal reasons” – should not lead readers to “the erroneous conclusion that I am telling the secret history of those events.” Later, however, in response to accusations that the book was plagiarised, Russell shared online that the book was, in fact, inspired by her own experiences as a teenager. In her brief note, the author expresses uncertainty about sharing this with her readers:
I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public. The decision whether or not to come forward should always be a personal choice. I have been afraid that opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatizing, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction.
Survivors do not owe anyone anything – they do not have a moral duty to report what happened to them, in particular given that reporting itself can, in far too many cases, result in little or no repercussions for perpetrators, and/or re-traumatisation for survivors. While the narratives surrounding #MeToo do recognise the barriers to reporting, do survivors nonetheless feel pressured into revealing their experiences, when they otherwise might choose not to do so? Is there a new ‘perfect victim’ emerging in the #MeToo era – one who performs a heroic sacrifice for her sisters in putting herself through the potential horrors of speaking out publicly?
On the first night of the school year, before anything has begun with Strane, Vanessa attends a meeting in her dorm. The dorm parent gives all the girls a whistle: ‘“It’s in case someone tries to rape you,” Deanna Perkins says. “You blow the whistle to make him stop” (p. 16). This reductive, simplistic view of rape – the one that assumes an unknown perpetrator hiding in the bushes who might be scared off with a whistle – still holds sway, but it is one that has been identified, time and time again, as far from reflective of most realities. In some ways the debates around #MeToo, like many social movements (in particular, perhaps, those orientated around a hashtag) likewise relies upon simple, straightforward assumptions: for too long men’s abuse of women has been ignored, so we need to tell our stories and punish the guilty.
The novel, and the buzz it generated, opens up space for troubling some of the easier, comforting assumptions of the #MeToo era: that survivors are burning to come forward, that if we would only #BelieveWomen then perpetrators would have nowhere to hide. The novel is, of course, far from the first attempt to upend these assumptions. Consent is complicated. Children, in any case, cannot consent. Survivors have many reasons for not coming forward. These ideas themselves are not new. The simple story, however remains tempting: it promises so much, and it lends itself to snappy hashtags. My Dark Vanessa creates space, once again, to explore victimhood, as Russell puts it in the book’s afterword, “not as a passive cliché but as a complex, dynamic state of being” (p. 374)