Trigger Warning: please read the tags before deciding to read this review and/or book. If you feel that you can read this book, then you must. If you feel that you cannot, I will pass no judgement.
Perhaps you have heard of the drama surrounding this release. American Dirt was climbing the charts and dominating the controversy conversation when My Dark Vanessa tip-toed in and threw a hat into the ring. There was an implication of plagiarism from a woman who wrote a memoir about being groomed and abused by a teacher. There was a persistent rumor pressed around Kate Elizabeth Russell that the story must be true; she must have lifted it from someone else- or it wasn’t fiction, and that the story within had been her true story. While the plagiarism whispers faded away after being unfounded (the person making the statement had not read the book), the accusations of the story being “true” remained.
Critics, contemporaries, strangers- many people wanted Russell to “confess”; to admit that the story of a much older teacher grooming a 15 year old child and the lasting effects on this woman HAD to be true. It all HAD to be read into. It MUST be autobiographical, and that she is “hurting the cause” for not speaking up.
Nothing like harassing a woman for writing about harassment, eh?
Russell opens the novel with a statement; denying any and all similarities between the story on the page and the story of her life.
I understand the need for the emphatic denial; our world denies agency to the women who speak the truth; if they don’t give the truth that we want to hear, then it can’t be the truth. If they deny something that we believe to be wrong, they MUST be lying. If they open up about things that have happened to them, then they MUST be lying. It’s hurtful and infantilizing. It is unfair.
It’s unfair for me to spend so much time talking about the state of the world when I need to be talking about this book.
It is a force of nature. The roaring emotions, the enormous pressure, the constant gas-lighting- the grooming. It’s difficult to be read, but it must be read.
To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.
Vanessa is 15. She is a student an an elite boarding school. She is quiet, bright, and lonely- everything that her teacher wants. He twists her into his own image; an image obsessed with Lolita, youth, and destruction. He tells her it is love. She believes it is love. The belief will torment her well into the future, where we meet up with Vanessa at 32. More stories are coming out; stories about celebrities, other schools, other men, and him. Vanessa sees herself as different. She’s not a victim, she was in charge. That’s what he said. He reminds her that she told him from the beginning that everything was ok; she allowed it. It was love, no matter what friends, survivors, parents, teachers, and therapists say. She’s a dark person, like him. They’re supposed to be together. She can’t see it in any other way; she’ll lose herself completely if she does.
Vanessa’s struggle is alarmingly familiar. Her anger resonates, her sadness hits you in the chest, her life breaks open for you to pick through the crystalline pieces. I found myself gasping out-l0ud and dropping the book like it was suddenly made of burning coals. I took breaks. I had to yell to anyone nearby about the injustice served to this girl.