My Dark Vanessa: Abuse, Acceptance, and the Fantasy of the Perfect Victim

Hello, everyone! About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the new IT movie, where I talked about my disappointment in the film for overly sexualizing the then 15-year-old Sophia Lillis. The post didn’t get a lot of views, so when I saw a notification for a comment, I was intrigued. Imagine my shock when I saw the comment said this:

You’re just upset that no one wants to spread your fat, nerdy legs.”

The commenter’s brilliant pseudonym was, of course, HatesSluts.

For a while, I deliberated what to do about this comment. I had gotten angry comments before, especially about my take on J.K Rowling’s The Cursed Child, but I had never received a comment imbued with such misogynistic vitriol. I didn’t want to give the commenter any more attention by insulting him back, so in the end I just deleted the comment and moved on from it. I wasn’t hurt by the comment, but I was shocked by the idea that my post discussing the sexualization of minors in a movie could make someone so angry. It was a no brainer, I thought at the time, that sexualizing young girls is wrong. So why on earth is this guy so mad?

It wasn’t until I started reading Kate Elizabeth Russell’s brilliant debut novel My Dark Vanessa that I received the answer to a question that had been percolating in my brain for months. It was a simple answer, really. He was angry because he didn’t think that the sexualization of minors was wrong, after all. He thought that all women, young girls included, were asking for it. And with a society that criminalizes engaging in sexual acts with minors with one hand, and openly encourages that sexualization through television, film, and literature with the other, could I blame him?

In one of the final chapters of My Dark Vanessa, the titular protagonist has a pivotal conversation with her therapist.

“I 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?”

Vanessa is referring to her decades long relationship with Jacob Strane, a man she met at the age of 15, when she was a sophomore at a prestigious boarding school, and he was her English teacher. At this point in the story, over 300 pages in, we’ve seen the entire course of their relationship, from first touch, to breakup, to the years and years of tenuous connection that Vanessa attempts to maintain with Strane. But it’s only on page 319 that Vanessa first admits her fear: that this relationship, the most important one in her life to date, is not a love story after all, but something much, much worse.

When we read about student-teacher relationships, we usually get two types of stories: news stories and love stories. In the news stories, the teachers are villanized for preying on underage girls, but the girls, too, are villanized in their own ways. She looks older than 15. She’s mature for her age. She was asking for it. It’s the same in the love stories. The most famous example of a relationship between a man and an underage girl, Lolita, has always been seen in some circles as a love story, a kind of Romeo and Juliet where two lovers are separated by age, rather than house.

Attempting to understand these dichotomies, how the United States can on the one hand make it a crime to have sex with a minor, and on the other hand nourish a society where girls are sexualized at the very moment they reach adolescence, is an almost herculean task. It requires digging into the very fabric of gender relationships in this country and picking apart every piece of media that we consume on a daily basis. My Dark Vanessa doesn’t try to make an all encompassing statement about the morality of student-teacher relationships, or even give us a definitive answer about the victimhood of the underage girls in those relationships. Her novel examines this concept on a much smaller scale, through the eyes of a teenage girl whose own attempts to come to terms with what happened to her are never fully achieved.

When we first meet Vanessa, she’s dealing with a common teenage problem: the end of a close friendship. She’s angry, friendless, and determined to find a place for herself at her isolated boarding school. In other words, she’s the perfect target for a predator like Jacob Strane, a character, who despite taking up almost all of Vanessa’s post-high school life, never reveals much of himself to the reader. As we watch him groom Vanessa, first with compliments, then with hesitant touches in the classroom, it’s almost too simplistic of a story. Many times in the first few pages, I wanted to reach through the pages and shake Vanessa, scream “don’t you know what he’s doing?” But the brilliant, heart-wrenching beauty of the novel lies in its realism, its adherence to a pattern that no matter how obvious, thrives in its inevitability.

Because of this realism, My Dark Vanessa is often a frustrating novel to read. Vanessa is not “the perfect victim,” not the type of girl that the media has trained us into thinking deserves to be sympathized with. Instead she’s the opposite, the type of girl we’ve been taught to hate. Many of her actions in the book, and her refusal until the very end to even acknowledge the abuse she’s suffered, make her seem like the type of girl that boys would whisper about in the hallways, insisting that “she wanted it.” But her reluctance to view this all-encompassing time in her life as traumatic is realistic, too. Even though I’m long past my high school years, I’m not old enough to forget how it felt to be a 15-year-old girl, and with every page, I felt myself sympathizing more and more with Vanessa’s jumbled knot of self-hatred and her desire above all to see herself as the mature, strong, and powerful woman that Jacob Strane promised her she was.

One of the most important themes running through this novel is that abuse and trauma can’t be erased overnight. We like to package away abuse and write it off as solved, a pattern that has been repeated over and over again throughout the recent MeToo Movement. Yet even when Vanessa’s abuser is punished for his crimes, Vanessa’s trauma doesn’t disappear. Her loyalty to him, and the blame she’s absorbed for fifteen years, don’t go away the moment that society acknowledges the reality of what she’s suffered. We’re left with the knowledge that the emotional wounds she carries with her may never be healed, and that our society’s reluctance to deal with this pain beyond a quick bout of public indignation, lies at the root of the problem. The very act of being a public victim opens one up to another round of victimization, which is a depressing reality that Strane uses to control Vanessa every time she mentions making their relationship public. Even though it’s Strane who would have the most to lose in terms of status, and his freedom, it’s Vanessa, too who would have to sacrifice herself to be the victim that the public wants.

In her acknowledgement, Russell thanks

“the self-proclaimed nymphets, the Los I’ve met over the years who carry within them similar histories of abuse that looked like love, who see themselves in Dolores Haze. This book was written for no one but you.”

It was a book that badly needed to be written. For decades we’ve debated whether Lolita is a love story, but the debate has always been missing a crucial perspective: that of Lolita herself. Although My Dark Vanessa mirrors Lolita in some ways, and Nabakov’s book plays an influential role in Strane’s grooming of Vanessa, Vanessa is not a surrogate for the character Dolores Haze in Lolita. If anything, Russell hammers home the idea there is no such character, that the character imagined by Nabakov cannot even begin to represent the true feelings of a girl in her situation.

My Dark Vanessa, on the other hand, is the type of book that can.

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