A book review & accompanying Book Club Discussion Guide by BPL team member, Beth.
(Content Warning: The review discusses abuse of a teenager by an adult.)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a literary fiction novel about a teenage girl and her relationship with her forty-two-year-old high school English teacher. Vanessa Wye is the protagonist and the narrator, and the novel jumps between her memories of high school, her college years, and the present. In the present, another survivor of the same teacher’s abuse writes of her own experience in a social media post that goes viral. A journalist is writing an article about this woman’s story and how the school enabled the predatory behavior. Vanessa is being pursued by both to come forward and share her own story. While Vanessa wants to take no part in the article for the sake of her own privacy, she also is adamant that she was not abused: she was a consenting party in the relationship, and her so-called abuser, Jacob Strane, actually loved and cared for her.
This is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength: its ability to expose the psychological tension Vanessa faces as she relives and reevaluates her relationship with Strane. The novel expertly depicts Vanessa as a teenage girl, as she struggles to deal with her conflicting emotions towards Strane and their relationship. As readers and third-parties to the relationship, we can clearly see the abusive and predatory behavior. But by witnessing the situation from Vanessa’s perspective, we also learn how Strane groomed Vanessa to see the relationship as one grounded in love and concern. Even as an adult looking back, Vanessa struggles to see the abuse for what it was.
So while the novel’s exploration into Vanessa’s psyche is its greatest strength, it is also its most important cultural contribution. In extensive and disturbing detail, the novel reveals how an abuser picks and manipulates a victim. Vanessa knows that children get abused by adults, but we see the process Strane uses to convince her that he didn’t choose her, how he convinces her that she was the one who initiated the relationship and manipulates her to believe that she is the one who has all of the power. Using her loneliness and vulnerability against her, he is able to convince her that she is the exception to the rule of adult-child relationships: it is not abuse, it is love. And in this exploration, the novel reveals to its readers why so many victims of abuse do not come forward: they’ve been manipulated to believe they’re not being abused at all.
While the novel does have some weaknesses (it could have been edited down to a shorter length, most of the other characters aside from Vanessa and Strane aren’t developed to the degree that they could or should be), overall I would recommend the book. The book is difficult and disturbing to read, but it has a lot of cultural import. It is controversial, and some may find the depictions of the sexual elements of the abuse gratuitous. However, because the book is thought-provoking, it would make a great choice for a book club discussion (with sufficient content warnings to discussion members ahead of time). It stimulates a lot of discussion and debate; albeit around a difficult and sensitive topic. Though, as is often the case, these sorts of debates and discussions tend to be the ones we most need to have.
Book Club Discussion Guide (SPOILERS)
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(Content Warning: Rape and Abuse)
1. After her falling out with Jenny, Vanessa has trouble connecting with other students. How does this make her susceptible to Strane’s advances? Do you think Strane picked her out for this reason?
2. Aside from her loneliness, why else might Vanessa have stood out as a susceptible target for Strane? Does Strane’s behavior reveal anything about why he chose her?
3. The novel moves between the past and the present. How does this inform our perception of the abuse? What long-lasting repercussions can we see as a result of it?
4. Vanessa is underage when she has her first sexual encounter with Stane. Vanessa also believes that she wanted to engage in a sexual relationship with Strane. How should we understand consent and rape in this situation?
5. How does Strane groom Vanessa? What is the purpose of this grooming? Do you feel you better understand the process after reading the novel?
6. Discuss how Vanessa changes, or doesn’t change over time. When do you think she first had doubts about her relationship with Strane? When does she finally admit to herself that she was abused?
7. Discuss Vanessa’s reluctance to label her relationship with Strane as abusive. Aside from the ways in which she was manipulated by Strane, what else explains her reluctance? How does this inform us of why victims of abuse have difficulty coming forward, or why some never come forward at all?
8. The novel tells a story about a sexual relationship between a teenage girl and forty-two-year-old man. How did you feel about the author choosing to show Vanessa’s romanticized version of the relationship? Do you think the author went far enough to demonstrate that the relationship was in fact abusive? Why or why not?
9. At multiple points, Strane expresses his moral conflict to Vanessa about their relationship. He worries that he’ll “ruin” her, and that he tries to fight his “dark” thoughts and feelings. What do you think explains his moral conflict? Does he really believe that what he is doing is wrong? Or is it something else?
10. Discuss how the system fails Vanessa during her time at Browick. How complicit are the other adults in the school responsible for the abuse? Is there one adult (other than Strane) whose behavior you find most egregious or complicit?
11. Discuss the character Henry Plough. Are there any meaningful differences between him and Strane? What about similarities?
12. The abuse first takes place in 2001. Do you think the story would have played out any differently if it took place in 2020? How has the Me Too movement changed (or not changed) our attitudes about and responses to allegations of abuse?
13. After Henry tells Vanessa she would do well in graduate school, she thinks: “I can see myself at the head of my own classroom, telling my own students what to read and write. Maybe that’s what this has always been about–not wanting these men but wanting to be them.” What do you make of what she says here?
14. If Vanessa did engage in a sexual relationship with Henry, how do you think that would have changed her trajectory? Would it have been easier or harder for her to come to terms with the abuse she endured with Strane?
15. How did you feel about the ending? With the death of Strane, is justice possible for Vanessa or the other abused students? What do you think justice would look like for these women?
16. Did this novel change the way you think about abuse, consent and victimhood? In what ways? Do you think it could change the way others understand these issues?