Books

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s MY DARK VANESSA narrated by Grace Gummer

This story, about the abuse of vulnerable 15-year-old Vanessa Whye by her 42-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane, is not easy to read. It brought some people to tears.

It made me furious.

Fifteen-year-old Vanessa is bright, ambitious, gifted. She is a scholarship student at Browick, a private boarding school in Maine. Unlike most of her peers, she studies hard and gets excellent grades, especially in English.

One day, Mr. Strane calls her up to his desk. This seems entirely natural as she is his best student. He invites her to sit down next to him so that they can talk about her work. The other students are bent over an assignment they have to redo as their first efforts were below par. All, except for Vanessa, whose first effort was declared “perfect” by her demanding professor. As Vanessa has nothing to do, he embarks on a friendly chat about a poem she has just written. As they talk, he marks it up with comments. But behind that enormous desk, his other hand reaches out to touch her knee. He rewards her perfect assignment with groping. After all, he needs to assess her boundaries. Is she skittish? Does she flinch at first touch? Is she likely to scream? But Vanessa doesn’t react, and so he continues to groom her for his eventual assault on her in his bed.

With that first boundary crossing,  Strane spins his dark web to entrap Vanessa, a friendless teenager whose parents are absent.

When they are found out, Vanessa, in a bid to save Strane, avers that she lied about the relationship, stating that it was she who put about the rumor they were having an affair. The powers-that-be at Browick brand Vanessa as troubled (true). They say she committed an ethics violation by lying about her professor, that she deserves to be expelled. Then they force her to apologize for lying, in public, to her classmates  (who are allowed to pelt her with questions).

The genius aspect of this book is how un-clichéd everything is. Just when you think things cannot possibly get any worse, Vanessa refuses to help herself. While they are packing up her dorm room, her mother discovers the photo showing Strane with his arm around her daughter. Vanessa hadn’t lied about the relationship after all. But she refuses her mother’s offer of marching back to the Headmaster’s office to set things straight. Her mother is baffled. “Why are you protecting him?”she asks. “He hurt you.”

Vanessa’s reply? “He didn’t.”

At that point her father reappears, finished with the task of packing Vanessa’s belongings into his truck, and the mother decides to become complicit in Vanessa’s scheme to protect Strane. The father realizes something is off, but when he asks about it, his wife tells him that everything is fine. He doesn’t push.

And so Vanessa is expelled from Browick. She is just 16 years old.

The father, not knowing what really happened, believes that Browick had a valid reason for kicking his daughter out, while Vanessa’s mother is in a bind. She did know what happened, but her teenaged daughter has rebuffed her attempts to help her. And so both parents let this matter drop,

In the fall, Vanessa starts a new high school, a public school, completely different from tony Browick. She makes one friend, Charley, who leaves after a couple of months. Left to her own devices, friendless, Vanessa stops eating lunch in the cafeteria, preferring instead to eat pie at a local diner. But she studies hard and gains entrance to Atlantica College, a private liberal-arts college located just outside Bar Harbor, Maine.

On her first day of college, she walks into English class where Professor Henry Plough is waiting. Coolly, she corrects another student on Nabokov. Professor Plough watches with a faint smile. She becomes his best student. When the other, ill-prepared students don’t participate, Plough has Vanessa to turn to, who is always prepared, always insightful, always brilliant. He invites her into his office, invites her to call him “Henry,” gives her extra time, flirts and jokes around, incidentally neglecting to tell her he is married…to a woman who works as a counselor at Browick.

And so Henry comes to learn about her previous relationship with Strane. He asks her about it. Naturally, he is horrified. He comforts her (with words.) But he does more, so much more. Outside the men’s room at Browick, Henry, the Knight in Shining Armor, confronts Strane, accusing him of rape. Strane, furious, partly because he is being accused of sexual assault by at least one other female student, hurls his enormous body into his boxy blue car and drives to Vanessa’s college apartment, where he bursts in, startling Vanessa and her female roommate. The roommate leaves and Vanessa bravely faces the situation alone, managing to calm Strane down. His reward for his atrocious and terrifying behavior? He gets to have sex with Vanessa. Again and again…

Vanessa’s college years are coming to an end and Henry thinks she should apply to graduate school. He writes a strong letter of recommendation. He uses his influence so that she can have a job as his research assistant while she spends the year applying. But Vanessa, exasperated by Henry’s ill-judged attack on Strane (which she had to pay for), confronts him over the existence of his wife. Henry is startled, but he explains. Disgusted, and realizing her life as his research assistant will be a funnel that will lead her ultimately into his bed (his wife was a former student), Vanessa rejects him. She rejects the research position. She rejects graduate school. She leaves for Portland, the main town in Maine, to work a series of thankless jobs in windowless, airless offices. She drinks. She smokes pot. She inhabits a trash-filled apartment, hooking up with unsuitable men she doesn’t like.

At the end of this horrible, gut-wrenching, infuriating saga, Vanessa finally stops punishing herself. She leaves her dreary job and gets a front desk position at an upscale hotel. She acquires a therapist. She makes tentative overtures to Taylor Birch, whose accusations against Strane finally brought him down. Most of all, she acquires a dog, who provides her with the love she so desperately needs, as well as the opportunity to make new friends

Although MY DARK VANESSA is Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel, it does not read as debut fiction, perhaps because it took the author 18 years to write. Five stars. #mydarkvanessa #kateelizabethrussell