My Dark Vanessa

by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Review by Rose

This novel explores the savage hunger and long-lasting psychological damage caused by a sexual predator. A predator can appear in many guises in society. He could, as in this story, be an esteemed teacher of English working at an elite boarding school. A man that smiles in his tweeds, was educated at Harvard and fits adeptly into society. He knows what you expect from him socially, he can present himself as someone you would trust and admire. He understands how to fit into the hierarchical structure of society. When you are not looking, he is forever gazing out into his environment, looking for that lone vulnerable victim. This is where the storm begins: the devastation harvested from an abusive relationship in adolescence can impact adulthood for decades. If one imagines watching a building being torn down with a bulldozer, you will understand the enflamed destruction of Vanessa’s world portrayed in this book: the bricks and mortar collapsing to the ground, sprays of dust intensifying into the sky, glass windows shattering into thousands of pieces, the explosive soundscape of that moment. The author makes you feel the character’s emotional wreckage, the forceful effect of abuse, violently.

When lonely teenager Vanessa is enticed into Mr Strane’s world, his key focus is his sexual gratification, above all else. Despite repeatedly using the word ‘love’ in conversation with her, he does not notice Vanessa’s tears or sobs when he finally abuses her. He grooms the shy quiet girl with long red flowing hair, citing romantic dark poetry and giving her exotic literature to read. He even uses the novel ‘Lolita’ by Nabokov as a tool to lure her into thinking she is becoming part of something thrilling, illicit and daring, stating that she, like he, has a dark side to her nature that he understands. Though later, he does not like Vanessa comparing him to Professor Humbert. Vanessa is experiencing a whirlwind of teenage emotions, passion, anger, confusion, power, isolation and a desperate need to be loved that the author captures faultlessly. Vanessa’s mind, at times, during encounters with Mr Strane is as strained as a violinist playing the highest octave, moving his bow in a frenzied trill. In this novel, the author examines loneliness, not simply the pain of loneliness, but the dangers of loneliness, that predators look for vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

The reader sees the world through Vanessa’s eyes, as a woman in her thirties besieged with complex symptoms of Post-traumatic disorder (PTSD). The impact of the abuse is palpable in the landscape of her adult life, a place she struggles to function in, relying on drink to erase memories. As she looks back on her past, we see the confusion and fear build like a hurricane in the narrative, creating volatile heart-wrenching scenes between teacher and student. Over time, Vanessa incorporates parts of the teacher’s personality into her mind. She repeats his words, phrases, idiosyncrasies and excuses, much like a victim of the Stockholm syndrome. It’s almost as if the predator has entered Vanessa’s world so ferociously, she carries part of him with her everywhere, into every room, every encounter and every decision. She is still his hostage and his victim, years later.

During the abuse, Vanessa suffers from symptoms of dissociation, a common problem suffered by victims of trauma and sexual abuse. This is where the victim’s mind focuses on something else, to escape what is physically happening to their bodies. It’s clear from the descriptions that the author has researched this disorder yet describing it in fiction can be problematic. Nevertheless, the author succeeds in allowing the reader to feel the characters dissociation and the complex mechanisms of the symptom, as well as symptoms of PTSD.

Vanessa as a character is very complicated, which is one of the reasons this story works as well as it does, she is not a simplified character but has many facets to her personality. There are times when Vanessa does things that are truly shocking. You definitely feel this is a teenager, at times she feels power over the teacher, knowing that she is important to him. She enjoys being singled out, feeling special for a time, but this is becuase she has no power in any other part of her life, she does not excel at school work, and is lonely, having lost her best friend at school who left her company to date a boy. There are times when she returns again and again to the teacher, despite being shown evidence he had carefully covered up his role in the abuse at the private school. She is aware that the relationship is causing her great harm, yet cannot cut him out of her life. What is going on? Her youth and naivety are taken advantage of by a much older man in a more powerful position.

The teacher is aware of his power and standing at the school and uses it. Vanessa has a very thin connection to her parents, and has serious problems talking to them, especially her mother, who seems to point out her differences to other more popular girls continually. As she comes from a different social class to the other 'posh' girls at the boarding school, this social class distinction immediately isolates her from her peers. She lives in the wildnerness, far away from the city, her parents are not wealthy like the other students and she does feel shame about the lack of standing her parents have. It's a difficult situation for a young girl to be in. At the moment Straine arrives Vanessa is at the height of vulnerablity. She has little social support and no friends. Thus if a detective were investigating this case and looked into her victimology, what was going on in her life at the time of the abuse, who did she confide in and depend on, it would be apparent that she is in a very vulnerable place when Mr Straines makes his advances. The teacher is well aware of the differences between her and the other girls.

There are symptoms of love addiction in the novel. This usually involves a person who feels unloved, is desperate for someone to show they love them and over time becomes addicted to that person, despite understanding that the love is causing serious mental health problems, and in many cases is abusive. It's never the victims fault, love addiction can affect adults who did not receive the love and nurturing they should have during childhood, they may have a low self-esteem and not appreciate their own gifts and talents, they may also be socially more isolated due to no fault of their own, perhaps having no family. Sometimes love addiction begins because of abuse in childhood.

Vanessa as an adult in her thirties constantly looks at other women the same age, and finds it difficult to talk to them or be friends. This is partly as her 'lived' experiences have created a strong barrier between her and people who have lived a relatively normal life. She has had a past filled with trauma, they have not, so it's difficult for her to fit in as an adult in the usual social networks.

She cannot have a normal relationship with a male, and often has abusive one night stands, getting so drunk that she cannot recall much of the encounter. She is punishing herself and her feelings of shame, guilt and blame. At times wondering why this happened to her, not someone else. This is another symptom of abuse in childhood.

Drink is used as a tool to erase the trauma memories that come up through the day with symptoms of PTSD. This book captures the everlasting symptoms of sexual abuse, the way that sexual abuse can impact an entire life for years, making it impossible for a young woman to progress or make good decisions or hold down a responsible job, to do the things that most people without abuse find easy to do. The author really creates a very truthful, heart-wrenching vision that although dark is more like the realistic symptoms of child abuse. But it is towards the end of the novel that we see hope for Vanessa, I have to admit, by the end of the book I was hoping the author would give us a more positive picture of Vanessa's life and she leaves us with hope for a better future.

Though I understood why the author used Lolita in this novel, I found the constant references to Lolita distracting, making me focus on the plot of Lolita a little too much. Nabokov’s Lolita is mentioned thirty-three times in Dark Vanessa. We are presented with the most basic sketch of the sexual predator's childhood and parental upbringing. I would have preferred a more in-depth background. Some scenes in this book are very uncomfortable to read, but they should be, due to the difficult subject matter. This is a skilfully written novel and hard-hitting, it deserves praise. The author has researched her subject thoroughly and it shows, thus she creates a very realistic portrait of the psychological impact of sexual abuse. However, there is controversy regarding this novel, as a woman who wrote a memoir about abuse accused the author, Kate Russell, of stealing ideas from it.

Themes are sexual abuse, social class differences, power dynamics, teenagers, PTSD, dissociation disorders, long-standing effects of sexual abuse in adulthood.