“My Dark Vanessa,” written by Kate Elizabeth Russell and published by HarperCollins in 2020, is an effectively written story about an affair between a fifteen-year-old student and her forty-two-year-old English teacher. Clear and precise writing describes the variations of violation.
I’m still deciding if this novel is feminist. Authentic. I think it is. Its sexual detail is troubling, but I think it’s not salacious, and maybe it’s important that it’s written–it helps explain the power of predators. It also helps me understand how girls and women are not to blame, even when they/we participate in our exploitation “willingly.” Is the main character worshipped? Is she victimized? Is this kind of relationship better than being blown off by a cruel teen-aged boy after giving him a blow-job? The older man turns Vanessa on–to books, to poetry, to “dark romance,” and cunningly, to cunnilingus. Language helps lead them on. Does her complicity exonerate him? She admits her own predatory gaze: of both a college professor, and of the teen-aged girls she mythologizes.
She thought he loved her. Maybe he did.
I think of rock stars and the sexy power they wield, so similar to teachers or professors. I think of Iggy Pop and his song about sex with a preadolescent, Jimmy Page’s legendary affair with a tween, a thirteen year old’s first sexual experience with David Bowie. They are known as love stories, sparkling and romantic.
What if violators don’t know they are violating? The teacher tells Vanessa he would not have done what he did if she hadn’t been so willing. This book is important because it examines what we are too afraid to discuss: that flattery, attention, and approval feel good, and it can be offered by the very people who do damage. Maybe “My Dark Vanessa” can teach us how to be satisfied with the feeling of desire and the fantasy of another person, without having to have sex with that person.
Kate Elizabeth Russell mentions famous men with younger women–or girls, a more accurate term–Edgar Allan Poe, married to a thirteen-year-old cousin. Jonathan Swift, enamored of a fifteen year-old. She also references Nabokov’s book “Lolita,” and the poem/novel, “Pale Fire.” She mentions films and music and fashion, “American Beauty” and “Pretty Baby,” Fiona Apple and Brittney Spears, babydoll dresses and braids. The author also makes parallels that I really appreciate: how some therapists and journalists can be invasive, their approaches similar to predators, and how social groups such as schools and workplaces re-traumatize.
It’s a gorgeous and painful book. I adore the colors of the book, its book jacket, darkly ruminative, with its closed-eyes brunette, a butterfly alight on one eyelid; its book cover, the lightest of gray, with its dark wine lettering and the imprint of a butterfly on the cover. The materiality of the book is a work of art – I love the gritty texture of the cover, and this signed first edition feels bound by hand and not a machine.
Do violators know that they are violating? I think many do. “My Dark Vanessa” helps me understand my own recent experience with a supervisor, and helps me not be mad at myself for every time I put up with something I didn’t want, smiling smiling smiling at the man who flattered me, the man who could fire me.
Maybe the book is brilliant.