My Dark Vanessa is Lolita for the #MeToo era
My Dark Vanessa doesn't really start at the first chapter; its true beginning is the dedication page. "To the real-life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed, or understood," writes author Kate Elizabeth Russell, citing both the victim of Vladimir Nobokov's Lolita and the one at the heart of her own powerful debut, out Tuesday.
At a glance as you're flipping to the first pages, the dedication could seem like a rote, #MeToo-era call to believe women. But Russell's powerful and uncomfortable debut doesn't hew to the relatively safe clichés of abuse that we've seen represented by the media over and over again these past several years. Instead, My Dark Vanessa masterfully complicates our ideas about victimhood.
Russell's decision to name Lolita's Dolores alongside Vanessa draws attention to the parallels between the two characters; both are fictional girls who believe they are the protagonists in love stories with much older men. But unlike Nabokov's ornate novel, which is told from the unreliable perspective of the abuser, My Dark Vanessa has the urgency of a thriller while flipping Lolita's script so that this time it is told by the girl. In this case, she is 15-year-old Vanessa, who attracts the attention of her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. In gestures that are clear to the reader to be grooming — but interpreted by Vanessa as the awkward first stages of love — Strane tells his pupil she's special, that she's a gifted writer, that her hair is the color of maple leaves. He gives her his copy of Lolita, and quotes her Pale Fire: "Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed/My dark Vanessa."
What unfolds is especially troubling to read because Vanessa, conflicted, begins to seek out Strane's attention and affection willingly. Although from our outside perspective, there is no question that theirs is a nonconsensual relationship — a 15-year-old cannot in any circumstances give consent to a teacher — Vanessa refuses to accept the label of abuse even years later. "Not that I've ever been raped," she clarifies to herself at one point. "Not raped raped... I'm not going to call myself a victim." She continues to see Strane into adulthood, all the while struggling to understand what's happened to her. "He never forced me, okay? He made sure I said yes to everything... He was careful. He was good. He loved me," she justifies. At another point, she directly challenges the idea that their age difference inherently makes the relationship wrong: "I need someone to show me the line that's supposed to separate 27 years older from 13 years, teacher from professor, criminal from socially acceptable," she says.
Due to the gray area around Vanessa's perceived consent, Russell's book was always going to be provocative, but its release has also been blighted by unforeseen controversy too. My Dark Vanessa earned a rare seven-figure deal, but in the wake of the scandal over American Dirt, Latina author Wendy C. Ortiz tweeted that its plot sounded "very much like" her memoir, Excavation, which was published by a much smaller press. The suggestion of potential plagiarism was explosive, and My Dark Vanessa started to be touted as another example of how white authors benefit from systemic bias in the publishing industry (just last week, Oprah's Book Club backed out of naming My Dark Vanessa as its pick, not wanting to get dragged into further scandal).
While Ortiz's general points about bias are undoubtedly true, any implied accusation of plagiarism was more hollow; Russell publicly worked at writing My Dark Vanessa for two decades before it was published, and in a profile, Vulture thoroughly explores "other reasons My Dark Vanessa may have appealed to [major] publishers who turned down Excavation." Vox separately suggests that Excavation and My Dark Vanessa are "similar because they both mirror Lolita." Counterintuitively, the debate over who "owns" the story of a teenager who is groomed by an abusive older teacher actually cements the urgency of My Dark Vanessa; it is, tragically, far more universal than anyone evidently realized. In fact, the first comparison that came to my mind while reading it was of Maggie, a character in Lisa Taddeo's non-fiction study Three Women, who was also pursued by her English teacher.
The #MeToo movement has often been one of brave declarations and righteous anger. My Dark Vanessa shows, though, that the gray areas of consent get harder and more complicated the deeper and more intimately we engage with them. While the biggest victories of #MeToo played out in celebrities' social media feeds, newspapers, and television broadcasts, we can still forget that not all abuse is so straightforward. Not only famous men are abusers; sometimes ones with as little power as being a schoolteacher are, too. Not everyone who has been abused identifies as a victim. Not everyone wants to be an accuser, and not every accusation ends wrapped up with a neat little bow of closure. You can say "yes" and still be raped.
The word I keep getting hung up on when I read and reread My Dark Vanessa's dedication is "understood." Russell distinguishes that it is one thing to hear and believe a story, and quite another to take the next step and understand a person like Vanessa (in the wake of the scandal involving Ortiz, Russell confirmed she was "inspired by my own experiences as a teenager"). Nabokov's game with Lolita was to never let us understand the victim; Russell's is to trap us in her perspective. But understanding, in this era of seeming certainties, can be thorny and uncomfortable. "I really need it to be a love story," Vanessa says, challenging us, "because if it isn't a love story, then what is it?"
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