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He’s Humbert, I’m DoloresEmily Witt
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Vol. 42 No. 10 · 21 May 2020

He’s Humbert, I’m Dolores

Emily Witt

2622 words
My Dark Vanessa 
by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Fourth Estate, 384 pp., £12.99, March, 978 0 00 834224 1
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Awoman​ wants to be the agent of her own life. She doesn’t want to be a victim. She wants to believe she has made choices of her own free will, even when shown evidence that she’s been coerced. She prefers to maintain that she was not seduced, manipulated or threatened, that she was an equal player. She is annoyed when her individual circumstances are taken as proof of structural inequality. She may think of herself as an outsider to a certain kind of feminism, to the marketing of ‘self-care’, to the relentless insistence on empowerment, transformation, healing and sharing. The thought of posting online with a hashtag repels her. She may have had friendships or relationships with questionable men, but she would take no satisfaction in seeing those men destroyed. (It’s hard to muster the ideological purity.) She may stay in touch with the worst people in her life. She may feel embarrassed. She resents being forced to consider her life as if its protagonists were on trial, to offer testimony in the form of an accusation.

My Dark Vanessa begins in late 2017, as a wave of allegations of sexual harassment against men in power is starting to swell. Vanessa Wye is a 32-year-old concierge at a hotel in Portland, Maine, leading a solitary life of squandered potential and heavy drinking. When the book opens she is compulsively monitoring a Facebook post by a woman called Taylor Birch, who has revived an accusation of sexual assault against a former high school teacher. Taylor first made her allegation more than a decade earlier, when she was 14, but this time people are listening. The accused is Jacob Strane, a man with whom Vanessa has had a relationship since she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl and he was her 42-year-old English teacher. Their sexual relationship ended years before, but Strane remains Vanessa’s most intimate confidant, their relationship the defining one of her life. She phones him to see how he’s weathering the allegation and to reassure him that she won’t tell her own story. He’s worried that this time – it’s not the first – he’ll lose his job. ‘Paid any attention to the news lately?’ he asks her. ‘We’re living in a different time.’ ‘I want to tell him he’s being overdramatic, that it’ll be OK so long as he’s innocent, but I know he’s right,’ Vanessa thinks.

Taylor Birch has written to Vanessa, encouraging her to speak out, but Vanessa refuses. She thinks of herself not as a victim of abuse but as the protagonist of an illicit romance. She has never talked about Strane with her therapist; she trusts that nobody else will understand. ‘It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him,’ she explains in a summary introduction that primes the reader for a lengthy statement of denial.

Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had ever understood that dark part of him until I came along.

‘It’s just my luck,’ he said, ‘that when I finally find my soulmate, she’s 15 years old.’

The narrative tacks back and forth between 2017, as the allegations against Strane progress, and 2000, as Vanessa enters her second year at Browick, an expensive boarding school in a small coastal town. She is a loner, from a working-class background in rural Maine, newly estranged from her best friend. An ironic detail: she is given a rape whistle for safety when she moves into her dorm.

An academic adviser encourages her to take up an extracurricular activity, so she joins the creative writing club. It’s supervised by Strane, who begins showering her with attention and compliments. He compares her red hair to a maple leaf. He reads her poems. He gives her copies of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (‘She’s a bit overdone but young women love her’) and Emily Dickinson’s poems and, eventually, Lolita, which Vanessa all but memorises, reading it as a romance novel. ‘There’s now a whole new context to what we’re doing,’ Vanessa writes. ‘What conclusion is there to draw besides the obvious? He is Humbert and I am Dolores.’

Vanessa is seduced by Strane’s half-baked charisma. He grew up in Butte, Montana, then went to Harvard before becoming a teacher. He lives an apparently friendless and solitary existence, which Vanessa interprets as proof of their shared alienation. He doesn’t like dogs; Vanessa loves them but forgives him. He lectures on Walt Whitman and ‘the idea that people contain multitudes and contradictions’, and on Robert Frost – ‘The Road Not Taken’, according to Strane, ‘isn’t meant to be a celebration of going against the grain but rather an ironic performance about the futility of choice’. They read Edgar Allan Poe, who (Vanessa knows) married his 13-year-old cousin. Strane teaches her the etymology of her name, invented by Jonathan Swift for a pupil 22 years younger than him. ‘Swift once knew a woman named Esther Vanhomrigh, nickname Essa,’ Strane tells her. ‘He broke her name apart and put it back together as something new … Van-Essa became Vanessa. Became you.’

The first time Vanessa sneaks out of her dorm to spend the night with him, she takes along a black satin nightie she has stolen from her mother’s drawer, but Strane has bought her a pyjama set with strawberries on, which she wears to please him. He lives in a clean and spartan house that he stocks with crisps, ice cream and Cherry Coke. Kate Elizabeth Russell flags up all the warning signs to which Vanessa remains oblivious. Strane goes through a performance of initially asking for her consent – the abuser wants to believe that his victim is his knowing co-conspirator – only to dispense with all formality. ‘I hope you’re not too overwhelmed,’ he says after raping her. ‘I know he wants the truth,’ Vanessa reflects,

that I wasn’t ready to have sex this way. That it felt forced. But I’m not brave enough to say any of this – not even that I feel sick to my stomach when I think about him guiding my hand to his penis and don’t understand why he didn’t stop when I started to cry. That the thought I want to go home ran through my head the entire time we first did it.

‘I feel fine,’ I say.

Strane is a crude villain, without the simpering cunning of Humbert Humbert (‘try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity’). Nobody in this book dares crack a joke, and Vanessa has none of Lolita’s arch disdain for her captor. My Dark Vanessa is an earnest novel, dedicated to ‘the real-life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed or understood’.

Vanessa’s classmates begin to notice their furtive assignations in Strane’s office. One student compiles evidence and a complaint is filed against him. Vanessa takes the fall on his behalf, telling the faculty she was lying when she confided in a couple of classmates about their relationship. The students who filed the complaint are rounded up and Vanessa reads out a statement to a disbelieving audience: ‘I spread lies about him, which he did not deserve. I’m sorry for being deceitful.’ Strane keeps his job and in the years that follow goes on to groom other teenagers. Vanessa gets kicked out of school, but maintains her relationship with him, and never quite finds her footing in the adult world. Meanwhile, in 2017, people close to Vanessa pressure her to address the abuse she has suffered. She keeps telling them they’re mistaken. Russell contrasts the ‘love story’ Vanessa describes with the abjection of her daily existence: squalid apartments, loveless sexual liaisons, alcohol-soaked inertia. Vanessa’s awakening to her past subjugation is drawn out to the bitter end. It eventually arrives in therapy, as such things do.

‘I just really need it to be a love story,’ she tells her therapist, Ruby. ‘Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?’ It is, in the end, a textbook account of an abusive relationship, with symptoms of trauma that range from dissociation to depression. This is a pedagogical novel in more than one sense, a work of fiction that also wants to be a work of reference: here is how an abusive relationship develops between an insecure teenager and a sexual predator; here is why it sometimes takes years for a victim to tell her story; here is how institutions have failed to protect victims of sexual abuse; here is how buried trauma can affect a life. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched. Vanessa’s prolonged insistence that Strane isn’t a paedophile paedophile, or that if she agreed to spend the night at his house then it wasn’t rape rape, speaks to a wider culture of equivocation. Her eventual acceptance of what really took place banishes ambiguity and affirms the #MeToo movement’s simple politics of right and wrong. I read it with the sense of duty I reserve for learning about terrible things in the world.

Russell began sketching out the characters in My Dark Vanessa 18 years ago, when she was herself a teenager. She finished the book at the height of the zeitgeist and sold it in 2018 for more than a million dollars. The blurbs from people like Gillian Flynn and Stephen King (‘stunning’, ‘gripping’, ‘brilliant’) led me to believe I was sitting down to a thriller, but there are no unexpected plot twists here. In a disclaimer, Russell says any similarities with her own upbringing – she grew up in Maine and withdrew from a private school for ‘personal reasons’ – should not lead readers to ‘the erroneous conclusion that I am telling the secret history of those events’. The book is a work of fiction, she writes, and is informed by ‘critical trauma theory, the pop culture and postfeminism of the early aughts, and my own complicated feelings towards Lolita’.

In January, two months before the book’s release, Wendy C. Ortiz, the Latinx author of a memoir called Excavation (2014), about a sexual relationship with an English teacher that began when she was 13, wrote online that ‘a white woman has written a book that fictionalises a story many people have survived and the book is receiving tremendous backing and promotion.’ Ortiz described ‘eerie story similarities’ between My Dark Vanessa and Excavation, but stopped short of accusing Russell of plagiarism, since she refused, on principle, to actually read the book. My Dark Vanessa was quickly dropped as an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Perhaps Oprah was exercising caution on account of the controversy surrounding her previous selection, American Dirt (another novel criticised for appropriating trauma for commercial gain).* Oprah, who has spoken publicly about the sexual and physical abuse she endured as a child, has probably done more than any other public figure to educate the American public about the power dynamics of such abuse, yet she has recently faced criticism not only for promoting American Dirt but for withdrawing as a producer of a documentary exploring allegations of sexual assault against the entertainment mogul Russell Simmons.

Ortiz wrote that Excavation, which was published by a small press, had been rejected by mainstream publishers, and implied that its reception would have been different if she had been white. ‘I wonder about an industry that wants to pay seven figures for a fictional book about abuse,’ she wrote. ‘I still see the potential for my book to reach readers it has never been able to reach, but because I’ve been kept outside the gates, I don’t imagine that reach will ever happen.’ The American publishing industry does seem to have found a politically correct equivalent of the 19th-century captivity narrative in books about white women escaping sexual trauma, cults and kidnappings, replacing the old racist tropes with a new kind of villain, the sexual predator. Ortiz’s accusation forced Russell to talk openly about her personal experiences, which earned Ortiz no small amount of criticism for forcing a survivor to out herself in order to prove her right to tell a story. Russell has since told the press that what happens to Vanessa draws in part on her own encounters with older men as a teenager, but has insisted that the actual characters are entirely fictional. ‘I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public,’ she wrote on her website. ‘I have been afraid that opening up about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatising, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction.’

But the characters aren’t fictional so much as composites, even archetypes. I suspect many readers will find ‘eerie story similarities’ between My Dark Vanessa and other works of fiction and non-fiction, or anecdotes of people they know, or their own experiences. As I read the book I thought of the character of Maggie, who tries to hold an abusive high school teacher to account in Three Women, Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction book from last year. I thought of the stories recounted in Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. I thought of Oprah’s long interview with the men who described being abused by Michael Jackson in Leaving Neverland. (‘I had no understanding of it being abuse,’ Wade Robson said. ‘I loved Michael.’) I recalled, for the first time in years, an English teacher at my high school who was quietly dismissed amid rumours similar to those that follow Strane.

Russell wrote her novel as the thesis for a doctorate in creative writing at the University of Kansas. Her website lists dozens of books, movies and essays that she referenced, from Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 incest memoir The Kiss, to Last Tango in Paris, to the academic study Rape and Resistance by Linda Martín Alcoff. Her novel, bolstered by this bibliography, articulates the contemporary consensus about a subject position: how a survivor like Vanessa must think and feel, the nature of her somatic memories, the pathologies that can accompany trauma. Since this consensus is still fragile and embattled, a work of advocacy can’t allow for an exception, and maybe there are no exceptions – #BelieveWomen except when they are lying to themselves. But I admit to being disappointed with the way Russell concludes Vanessa’s narrative. She responds to her delayed enlightenment with a new grace: she makes a peaceful overture to Taylor Birch; she breaks years of silence on the Strane topic with her mother; she opens up to her therapist. But, like Vanessa, I also wanted some recognition that the sort of abuse she suffered doesn’t have to define a life completely. I kept returning to an optimistic aside by Jacqueline Rose in her essay on trans narratives in this paper (5 May 2016): ‘Trauma is not pathology but history.’ If Vanessa had emerged from her experience with her loyalty to Strane intact, it would fly in the face of the accepted evidence; it would have disqualified this book from being the ‘devastating’ and ‘unsettling’ novel of the #MeToo era. Instead, Vanessa accepts her status as victim and continues her process of recovery with pet therapy, adopting a pit bull-Weimaraner from a rescue shelter. She calls her Jolene.

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