Sometimes, we become by becoming undone, and have to learn how to become all over again, anew. Such is trauma, both in its making and in trying to unmake it, or rather, to become without being defined by it. But to lose the trauma is to, in a sense, lose yourself, at least the self you’ve known from the moment the trauma began to the moment of awakening to it. Hence, then, why learning to become all over again, anew, is so difficult.
This is the journey our titular character, Vanessa, goes on in Kate Elizabeth Russell’s 2020 novel, My Dark Vanessa. The story follows her growing up in a Maine boarding school at 15, and then oscillates about 17 years into the future, as she deals with the trauma of what happened to her at that school. At 15, she was groomed, abused, and raped by her much older English teacher, Jacob Strane. Dark Vanessa it itself a line from one of Vladimir Nabovok’s books, which I don’t think it is Lolita, although, of course, that book factors into this story quite a bit, as a reflection of this story, and what Strane uses to groom Vanessa by offering it as a gift to her.
I found the book downright uncomfortable, difficult to read, and infuriating, along with half a dozen other emotions. Because not that long ago, when I was still a journalist, one of the stories I did was about a coach who groomed his wife’s younger sister, who he also coached, and it played out eerily similar to this fictional story. The way in which the predator makes the young victim feel unique and special, and “flatters” them with the remark of being “mature for their age.”
In fact, an FBI agent at the trial of the real life case I covered testified to five stages of grooming a victim: 1.) Identification of a child to target; 2.) Establishing a connection; 3.) Gathering more information; 4.) Filling needs and exploiting vulnerabilities; and 5.) Lowering inhibitions.
To the fiction book: 1.) Strane identified Vanessa early on as a target because of her loner self, that she was without friends; 2.) He established a connection through her love of books; 3.) By lettering her “in” more and more with him, he doubly used that as a way to groom her and learn more about her; 4.) He filled her need to seem important, by using nicknames like Nessa, and calling her “dark” and “special,” and with the vulnerability, that she was coming off of a bad relationship with her friend; and 5.) He lowered her inhibitions by making advances slowly, over time, and then reshaping those advances as being her idea, like initially saying he wanted to tuck her into bed and kiss her, then putting his hand on her knee, and so on, escalating all the while. The gaslighting in the book is immense.
Importantly, the FBI agent said these five stages of grooming are for two purposes: to gain sexual activity, of course, and to prevent exposure of that sexual activity.
To the first, Strane gains sexual activity with Vanessa by raping her. She does what she would do for years thereafter: essentially disassociates her mind from the physical reality, so she can escape the awfulness. And yes, he convinces her, repeatedly, that to expose them would be tantamount to ruining not just him, but her own future and reputation. That she was willing. That, of course, it wasn’t rape. That there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. He is so effective at this (because she’s a kid!) that she parrots his own arguments to herself, and to others when the situation comes up.
Although of course, these predators, like Strane or like the real life coach, aren’t as good at hiding it as they think they are. And in fact, I think part of them likes being “showy” about it. As Vanessa muses at one point, it almost seems like they want to be caught. Strane and the real life coach do inappropriate and/or sexual things with their victims with other students or adults within close proximity. After all, that is how these rumors get circulated to begin with.
Which is itself the other indictment in the book: The way Vanessa’s boarding school protected a predator. Worse than that, they believed the predator so much, that they let him talk them into letting Vanessa take the fall for rumors circulating of their “affair.” It gets worse. The boarding school then made Vanessa read a letter of apology to a classroom of people who signed their names saying they heard about the rumor. And still worse yet, after Vanessa’s entire reputation is ruined and that reputation follows her to her next high school after she’s kicked out of the boarding school for trying to tarnish Strane’s reputation (and later to college), Strane not only survives future harassment allegations, but is promoted in his job to department head.
Likewise, in the real life example, other adults reported these incidents to the school, and felt like it went nowhere. How can we believe silly teen girls and their fantastical notions versus a teacher (or in the real life case, a coach and a pastor) who has taught for 30 years and won prestigious teaching awards?
I also have to say, just like the real life scenario, both victims didn’t realize they were victims of abuse until much later in life. That is how long it took the long arm of trauma to unfurl.
The real brilliance of the book, though, is how Russell digs into Vanessa’s brain about how she views what happened to her within the milieu of the emerging #MeToo movement (a journalist is also indicted in the book for seeking Vanessa’s story in a sensationalist and prying way to ride the wave of #MeToo). Vanessa doesn’t see herself as a victim. It wasn’t abuse. It wasn’t rape. Because he loved her. She was more important than those other girls. He only “touched” them. So forth and so on.
But there are signs Russell slips in throughout the book that let us know that Vanessa is traumatized and just can’t bring herself to admit it. The aforementioned disassociating, for one, or self-medicating through drugs and alcohol, or not being able to watch certain films, or even hearing about a maple leaf (Strane gave her a maple leaf because it matched her red hair) makes her sick. These are myriad ways in which Vanessa is dealing with trauma and the post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from it.
In an exchange with her therapist, Ruby, it gets more explicit. Vanessa tells her, “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know. I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”
Ruby tells her she knows.
“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?”
Vanessa continues, “It’s my life … This has been my whole life.”
That exchanges made me tear up because that is the crux of the entire story. That is what trauma does. It took seven years of Vanessa’s life in a literal sense, but in a real sense, it took her entire life, because she remarks to Ruby at one point, for example, that she has difficulty even remembering what she was like before Strane, and looking to the future, she has difficulty seeing life without his lens on everything.
Another great exchange with the therapist, which I think also demonstrates how the victim can be convinced that they were the perpetrator and guilty, that they were the ones asking for it, initiating, that it their fault, is when Vanessa is going on about how she’s to blame for “torturing” Strane, and then she comes to this realization, For a moment, I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.
But then Vanessa talks about how Strane was so in love with her, and how he would put his head on her desk after she left the classroom to “breathe me in.”
To which Ruby responds, “Vanessa … you didn’t ask for that. You were just trying to go to school.”
If that doesn’t knock you down, phew. Goodness.
I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time to come, and I was already thinking about it a lot while reading it. It was one of those fiction books where when I put it down to, you know, work and such, and I was thinking about the book, the plot, and the characters. Like, “I hope Vanessa is doing okay.” And, “Damn, I hope Strane gets his comeuppance.”
As it happens, Strane jumps off a bridge. And Vanessa thinks a part of her died with him. She is right.
But it is not all bad, and the book hardly ends on a sour note. Instead, Vanessa gets a dog. What is beautiful about that other than dogs being awesome is that Vanessa realizes, Strane will never see or know this dog. This dog is wholly hers. Ahh, yes.
“He’ll never meet you,” Vanessa said, with, as Russell points out, both “grief and joy.”
Such is the complicated, nuanced nature of trauma, not easily captured by a hashtag or a movement, no matter how well-intentioned, but captured about as well as I can imagine by Russell. Well-done, brave and heartbreaking and authentic as the best fiction is.