By: Cindy Chen
The following article contains mentions of sexual abuse and may be triggering for some audiences. The article also contains spoilers for the events of the novel.
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold, no fire can warm me. I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off. I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
- Emily Dickinson
While Emily Dickinson might be one of the greatest American poets to have ever lived, her viewpoint on literature is imprecise: poems are not the only type of work that can make one’s body so cold that no fire can warm it.
My Dark Vanessa, written by Kate Elizabeth Russell, meticulously follows the affair between Vanessa, a fifteen year old student at a New England boarding school, and Mr. Strane, her thirty two year old English teacher.
What struck me about Vanessa was that she is unlike the typical protagonist in novels that explore the psychological damages of sexual abuse. While Mr. Strane undoubtedly flattered, seduced, and groomed his student, the reader cannot say for sure that the beginnings of their relationship were not unwanted. Throughout the novel, Vanessa confesses to craving Strane’s affections and liking—wanting even—the things they did together. Vanessa refuses to label their relationship as anything improper, insisting that she loves Strane as he loves her.
Although My Dark Vanessa features stomach-turning descriptions of sexual abuse, the darkest parts of the novel were not limited to how Strane coerced his student into performing sexual acts. In fact, one of the most uncomfortable moments for the reader takes place long after Vanessa has graduated.
Having followed Vanessa’s relationship with Strane since the beginning, I eagerly awaited to find out whether, how, and when she would see her relationship with her English teacher for what it was. However, Vanessa remains defensive of Strane as an adult. Even as former and current students of her boarding school start coming forward with their stories, Vanessa is unable to cast any blame on her abuser, going as far as to claim that the only mistake Mr. Strane made was falling in love with her.
It was so easy to see that Vanessa was parroting Strane’s words, yet there was nothing the reader could do as she defended and justified his predatory actions. The fact that I could understand what Vanessa could not is what made reading My Dark Vanessa so difficult.
Contrary to Dickison’s beliefs, books along with poetry are capable of moving the human psyche.Vanessa’s warped mindset is like a physical burden that cannot not be lifted even after I have closed the book.
If you or anyone you know is in an abusive situation, do not hesitate to reach out to our student assistance counselor Mary Cunningham. Her office is located in the library (first door on your right when you enter).
Essex County Sexual Assault Hotline: 973-759-2154
NJ Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-601-7200
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network: https://www.rainn.org
National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/survivors
NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault: https://njcasa.org/find-help/
Categories: Arts & Reviews