‘My Dark Vanessa’ Courts Controversy on the Page and OffPosted by Cybil on March 1, 2020
Taylor Birch wants Vanessa to join her to expose Strane’s predatory behavior and to hold their school accountable for his misconduct. These accusations come 17 years after Vanessa is forced to leave school because of rumors and an internal investigation about her relationship with Strane. She was 15; he was 42.
But what Taylor does not understand is that Vanessa is not a victim in this scenario and that her relationship with Jacob Strane was one based on consent and love. Wasn’t it?
My Dark Vanessa re-creates their relationship, from Strane’s initial attraction to Vanessa in 2000 through the end of their communication in 2017. The story elegantly weaves between the time that Vanessa and Strane start their dalliance to Vanessa’s present-day processing of what that relationship was and what it actually meant.
Author Kate Elizabeth Russell spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about the decades she spent writing My Dark Vanessa, how recent cultural moments like #MeToo changed the story line, and the ironic way that life has mirrored themes in the book (with her recent online controversy and questions of who gets to tell these stories of trauma and sexual abuse). Their conversation has been edited.
Goodreads: You've been working on this book since you were a teenager, if I'm not mistaken. Can you talk about what inspired you to write it? And when it turned from a journal/memoir to fiction?
Kate Elizabeth Russell: In terms of genre, it's a little nebulous, especially when I first started writing it. But the seed of where this story came from can be traced back to my reading Lolita for the first time at 14 years old.
What led me to read Lolita was this musician I adored at the time–Jakob Dylan from the Wallflowers. I read a Rolling Stone profile of him where he referenced Lolita as his favorite book and one that he got so much inspiration from.
So I sought out Lolita, and I started reading it and had this moment where it was a revelation that men thought this way. I didn't know that this was an option, that a grown man would be romantically and sexually obsessed with a girl my age. I think that was the first time that I really became aware of that part of our culture.
But at the same time, this was the first adult novel that I read where I had this experience of feeling like I want to write this way, I want to try to emulate this.
GR: Lolita figures prominently in the story of Vanessa (the main character in My Dark Vanessa). From the point of view of that character, what do you think the book gave her in terms of identity? Do you feel like it normalized things for her? Or do you think that it gave her that same sort of revelation that it gave you, like, Oh, my goodness, this is an option?
KER: When I look back at the memories I have of reading Lolita as a teenager, I was so in love with that book. I knew it almost by heart as a teenager. And I felt like I saw Dolores (the main character in Lolita) in a way that maybe a lot of other readers, especially adult readers, maybe especially adult male readers, didn't see her.
There are these details, these glimpses into her character. At one point, Humbert Humbert mentions that she has a very high IQ and her personal hygiene is really bad. She's lazy. She's moody. She has a really good sense of humor. And also really heartbreaking details, like that she cries every single night after he feigned sleep. She's there in the text, but she's hidden. You have to be looking for her.
And as a teenage girl myself, reading the book, of course I was looking for her because she was the most interesting character to me.
It was a complicated thing reading a book like Lolita at that age, where I did read it as a love story. But my understanding of what a love story could be was influenced by reading Brontë novels and Phantom of the Opera. A love story to me could be full of obsession and darkness and even violence.
GR: You just mentioned Humbert Humbert and Lolita, and that novel is told from his point of view. My Dark Vanessa is from Vanessa's point of view, and, like you said, you have to look for these moments of what is actually going on. When I was reading this book, there were moments when I was wondering if Vanessa was a reliable narrator.
KER: I would say “no” if we're thinking of a reliable narrator as being relentlessly subjective in narrating their own experience. I think she's being emotionally truthful in terms of herself and her own feelings and her own understanding of this relationship. But her understanding of this relationship has been so informed by years of psychological grooming and manipulation that she's inevitably unreliable in that way.
I'm not sure what a story about sexual abuse would read like if it weren't told by an unreliable narrator. We need a little unreliability to be able to tell the story in a way that does feel emotionally accurate because the psychology is so tricky. It's so slippery, and getting the reader in a place where they're able to sort of surrender their own need for objectivity was really important to me.
KER: Most of my research—when trying to figure out this theoretical framework and the larger cultural concepts—focused on critical trauma theory and, specifically, how symptoms of PTSD can show up on the page. How can you write a flashback effectively or how can you write a scene of sexual abuse that shows these moments of dissociation and the mind splitting off?
Throughout that research, I read a lot about the long-term effects of sexual abuse specifically, and certainly things like Stockholm syndrome and this preoccupation or obsession with the relationship with one's abuser. There is this tendency to assign almost godlike qualities to the abuser, like this feeling that he can read my mind or he created me and I was destined to be this for him. Those qualities of Vanessa largely came out of that research.
GR: With the character of Strane, you do a good job of showing him through Vanessa's eyes. Then there are these moments of objectivity where you see this guy is really bad news. How did you approach developing his character, and did you ever consider giving him a different ending?
KER: I never considered giving him a different ending. I always knew that I wanted him to exit the book.
I knew that he needed to get out of the story in order to allow Vanessa to connect with these other women in her life. As long as he was there, she never would have opened up to her therapist. She never would have met with Taylor. She never would have been able to even have that brief, honest conversation with her mother at the end.
Getting him out of Vanessa's world was absolutely mandatory to get her to the point where her defenses could break down, where she could have this chance for growth.
But in terms of his character, I never wanted the reader to feel conflicted about Strane. To me, that’s what Lolita did and continues to do with Humbert Humbert. I feel like, as a culture, we're very familiar with that struggle of I don't want to sympathize with this abuser but I'm going to anyway.
Having Strane be clearly bad was a way to get the reader to focus on Vanessa.
GR: Taylor Birch is interesting in terms of her story line and decision to go public when Strane touches her. The degree of her abuse is not as brutal as Vanessa’s, but her outrage is disproportionate to what Vanessa feels.
KER: Taylor started out as this non-fleshed-out character who just made a social media post. She was very far removed. But as I continued to revise that present-day plotline, she emerged more and more.
It's so tempting to view abuse in terms of hierarchy–where this is the worst and that isn't quite so bad.
I wanted to try to turn that idea of hierarchy on its side and instead look at how these instances of abuse are connected and relate to each other, rather than trying to position them in competition with one another.
But that is at odds with how a trauma narrative is received when it's presented on social media. It can so easily become flattened or become this thing where people can project their own emotions.
I tried to approach Taylor with a lot of empathy, viewing her not as the overzealous, millennial social-justice warrior that maybe she's made out to be on social media. She's a character who felt that she was doing the right thing in the same way that the journalist felt like she was doing the right thing. And Vanessa, obviously, felt like she was doing the right thing.
That's the complexity of victimhood. Abuse doesn't affect everyone the same way. And healing and closure and processing abuse doesn't look the same for everyone.
GR: What was your process for writing this book? You started this decades before the #MeToo movement. Did this whole cultural phenomenon that's happened in the past few years help you bring it to completion?
KER: It did, but it was also a matter of timing aligning in this very specific way.
I took a few years off in terms of school between my M.F.A. and my Ph.D., and that's when I discovered trauma theory. It gave me this new way to think about what I'd been writing for so long. It gave me this academic framework that I could link my work to.
I viewed getting my Ph.D. as a way for me to finally get this book written once and for all, and I defended my dissertation in spring 2018.
When #MeToo started happening in October 2017, I was in the home stretch. I had this present-day plotline of another student, Taylor, coming forward to accuse Strane, but that accusation was a single voice speaking out. I'd, like, take a break from working on the book, and I'd bring up social media, and this was playing out in such an amplified, intense way in the real world.
My first impulse was to ignore what was happening and just keep my head down and get this book written. But then I realized that #MeToo, it’s bigger than celebrity. It's bigger than Harvey Weinstein. It's bigger than these stories that have been reported on, where it was like we were reveling in these lurid details of abuse. It was more than that.
It was about the conversations that I was having with my friends, where we were reevaluating past experiences and discovering these new similarities in our shared history. It was this vehicle for self-reflection and revelation that was directly connected, thematically and explicitly, on a plot level to the book that I was writing.
And I realized that my book is going to be read in the context of this movement no matter what.
I had to just believe in myself–that I’d written this book I believed in and it had something to contribute to this conversation. It felt intimidating, as a debut novelist, to come out with such a timely novel. That wasn't something that I ever envisioned.
My Dark Vanessa for so many years, and then you were confronted and accused in a pretty aggressive way on Twitter.
KER: Yeah, it was a really difficult thing because there's this larger conversation going on right now in publishing about whose stories are elevated and whose stories are ignored and whose stories are silenced before they ever get a chance to be heard.
That is something that I deeply respect, and I feel invested in, in terms of a wider conversation.
But at the same time, I did work on this book for so long. And I've spoken about this before, in previous interviews. I think there is one from 2018, where I spoke about how long I've been working on it, and also that I'd had experiences as a teenager with older men that informed the writing of this book.
That information was out there.
But then this conversation about my book kept evolving and that background wasn't entering into the conversation, so it became clear that I was going to have to clarify the amount of time I'd been working on the book and my own personal connection to the subject matter.
I put out a statement on my website, and even that was a hard decision. I know I had touched on this part of my background before, but I knew that coming out and speaking about this would bring a new level of interest in my personal life. And that's not something I've ever wanted. It makes me uncomfortable in a personal way, as a human being. But also, I really don't want this to be the new normal.
I worry about the precedent that if a woman writes a novel about sexual abuse, then she's expected to come forward and share the most painful, really private experiences publicly just to show that she should be allowed to write that fictional story.
I worry about how intimidating that might seem to writers out there working with the same sort of material. Five years ago, six years ago, when I was figuring out this novel and working on it in my Ph.D. program, if I had watched something like this play out, it might have scared me off. It might have made me think, I don't know if I want to put myself through that.
And I hate the thought of the environment in the publishing industry, and fiction and writing, to be getting to the point where we end up silencing more of these stories just because of the demands that we put on the writers to publicly open themselves up.
GR: Can you talk about the coupling of My Dark Vanessa with American Dirt in this controversy? How much do you think your advance played in creating that association?
KER: When your book is being published, it is being published in the context of other books that are being published in, sort of, temporally similar times. And you're right about the advances, especially when the amount of an advance is advertised and attached to the story of the book—that becomes something that sticks out in people's minds.
I wouldn't say it surprises me, but I do wonder how much that will change once my book is released and more people actually start reading it.
GR: I was reading various tweets at the beginning of this and was surprised by one accusing you of plagiarism, where the tweeter said that they hadn’t read your book and they didn’t intend to. Did you ever think, I'm just not going to respond. How do you approach defending yourself against plagiarism or stealing the idea for your book to someone who hasn’t read the work?
KER: Especially in terms of the allegation of plagiarism, wherever that came from, it has attached itself to my book. And that's just categorically false. There's just no truth to it.
It puts you in a difficult position when there is an accusation that just isn't true. And how to respond to it, or whether you should, or whether responding to it gives more credence to it.
I was in this really fortunate position to have a big circle of friends and early readers who could vouch for me. That gave me some much appreciated and needed confidence in being able to say, No, this isn't true.
GR: I took a look at your blog and was reviewing all of the books that you used to research My Dark Vanessa. Are there any that rise to the top for people who want to read more about this subject, either in a fiction version or nonfiction? Also, I really enjoyed the playlist.
KER: [Laughs] Thank you. Oh, my God. I had a playlist I was working on as I was writing this, and the playlist that I have on my website is an adaptation of that. I tried to be meticulous in having the playlist reflect the plotline of the book. I got a little obsessive about that.
Books that I would point readers to: I always think of Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout’s debut novel, which tells a similar story of a teenage girl becoming sexually involved with a high school teacher, and the relationship being discovered and following the fallout of that relationship specifically between the girl character and her mother. That novel is also set in Maine, and it's just beautiful.
That's the novel that I think of as a companion to mine.
There's also a poetry collection by Louise Gluck called Averno. The poems alternate back and forth between poems set in our present-day world and then poems that are about Persephone and the myth of her and Hades. These Persephone poems interrogate these questions of complicity and consent and sexual violence in these ways that are so smart and so gutting, and they articulate that contradiction of girlhood where there's this expectation of softness and there's also this relentless threat of violence in the undercurrent of everything.
Also, there are two plays that were influential to me–and I love recommending plays because they're such a quick read.
One is Blackbird by David Harrower, which tells the story of a 20-something-year-old woman confronting the middle-aged man who she had a sexual relationship with starting when she was 12. And the relationship was found out, the man went to prison, and he's since gotten out and changed his name and started a new life. But she's found him and tracked him down.
That play is interesting in terms of handling the subject matter because it gets at this question of closure, because this man has served his time and supposedly paid his debt to society, but that doesn't do anything for his victim and the lingering pain that she has.
Then the second play, How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel, which tells the story in a nonchronological way of a girl coming-of-age while her uncle is sexually abusing her. It does similar things as my book in terms of showing how this kind of prolonged, intimate sexual abuse can become so central to a girl's sense of self and her sexuality, and how it can dictate her entire future.
GR: What books are you reading now, and are you working on anything new?
KER: I'm in the middle of a poetry collection right now called Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets. I love reading poetry because it's so humbling. It reminds me of what I can't do as a writer–I can't write poetry, but I admire it so much.
I also recently read a galley of a debut novel coming out in June called Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg.
For stuff that I'm working on, I'm not totally in writing mode. I'm trying to take advantage of just any glimpse or flash of an idea that comes into my head and getting it down, even if it's just scribbled notes in my journal.
I have the idea for a big project that deals again with young women, but more young women's relationships with each other, and themes of creativity and also the internet, especially the internet in the mid-2000s, right before Facebook, when it was just MySpace and individual blogs and you weren't using your real name for anything.
GR: Last one: What do you want your readers to know about My Dark Vanessa or any of the experiences that you've had these past few weeks?
KER: I would say to readers or potential readers that My Dark Vanessa deals with so many of these questions of how these stories of sexual abuse should be told, whose stories are believed, whose stories are silenced. And how these conversations play out on social media. All these things are in the book.
And I hope that they read it. I hope that they read it and that the book might help compel them to talk about these issues in a way where just characters are caught in the crossfire of the debate and not real people.