A Weinstein Juror Was Nearly Kicked Off the Trial Over This Controversial Novel
‘My Dark Vanessa,’ by debut-novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell, is a triumph in how it encapsulates and transcends our current cultural moment
“It’s strange to know that whenever I remember myself at 15, I’ll think of this.”
In a bizarre update to the ongoing sexual assault trial against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, his lawyers this week requested that one of the jurors be dismissed for reading and potentially reviewing a book about “predatory older men.” That book, My Dark Vanessa by debut novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell, doesn’t come out until March 10, yet it’s already the subject of several controversies. Though the juror remains on the panel — she is apparently a novelist herself and writes on similar topics — it’s just the latest headline about My Dark Vanessa that has little to do with the book itself.
Last month, Latinx writer Wendy Ortiz claimed the novel had “eerie story similarities” to her own memoir about the same topic — specifically, a teenager who forms “a relationship” with a teacher. Others took that to mean that the novel was “appropriated” or plagiarized from Ortiz’s book, an allegation which Ortiz has since dismissed, saying that she never outright alleged plagiarism. I haven’t read Ortiz’s memoir, Excavation, but I have heard it is beautiful and painful, due to its incredibly difficult subject matter.
What I have read is My Dark Vanessa, a novel that Russell, now 35, has been working on since before she started college, about a high school student who has “a relationship” with (read: is abused by) her English teacher. Though controversy has threatened to overshadow the novel, I think the hype — Stephen King called it “a well-constructed package of dynamite” — is well worth it.
Vanessa Wye, the book’s intellectually precocious young protagonist, is not entirely “likable.” From an early age, she struggles to connect with her peers, a struggle that grows into disdain when she becomes an adult. This difficulty connecting with other people is partly why she ends up in the arms of Jacob Strane, her high school English teacher.
Unlike the other people in her life, Strane makes Vanessa feel understood. He makes her feel special, brilliant, and beautiful. He weaponizes Vanessa’s alienation, using it to tether her to him, despite the appalling, disturbing things he will do to her over the years. He brainwashes her, and this portrait of emotional and psychological abuse is as disturbing as anything physical that Strane does to Vanessa.
When I’m home over February break, I go to the grocery store with Mom and, as an experiment, stare at every single man, even the ugly ones, especially the ugly ones. Who knows how long it’s been since a girl last looked at them this way. I feel sorry for them, how desperate they must be, how lonely and sad. When the men notice me looking, they’re visibly confused, brows knit as they try to figure me out. Only a few recognize what I am, a hardness taking over their faces as they match my stare.
But the people in Vanessa’s life, to whom the abuse should be obvious, do perhaps what many of us would expect them to do: They turn away from it, pretend it isn’t happening, shield themselves from looking at what they let happen. In one of the most sickening scenes in the entire book, Vanessa herself faces a trial of her peers for what Strane is doing to her.
Vanessa isn’t a “perfect victim,” and society’s inability to contend with the complexity of victimhood might be one of the biggest obstacles prohibiting it from fully embracing the fact that abuse thrives beneath our own noses. Sometimes, victims seem to “want” their abuse. Sometimes, they deny their abuse for years before coming to terms with it — if ever. Sometimes, they condemn other victims for how they express their victimhood, for not being stronger, for not being able to grit their teeth and bear it.
When an abuse victim doesn’t express their trauma in the way society demands — a simultaneous, precipitous manifestation of fragility mingling with steely resolve — it’s that much harder for outsiders to contend with what that person experienced. This is, in part, what My Dark Vanessa forces the reader to contend with. If the victim seems to want what happened to them, if they refuse to accept that what was done to them was wrong, if they blame other victims for their own apparent inability to cope, how much are you going to be able to empathize with them? How much do you rely on sympathy to do the heavy lifting for empathy?
Russell’s writing is electric and propulsive; it’s an incredible feat that she can depict true horror without flinching, yet in the form of a story you don’t want to put down. I read this in two days, staying up late the second night to finish it. I felt like I had just run a marathon, my heart trying to catapult itself from my chest from exertion and thrill. The spectacular pacing of this novel makes it both easier and harder to read — easier, because it’s a race to the finish line, and more difficult, because how does one contend with an illustration of horrific abuse that’s shaped into something you will do anything to read?
Reading the novel now is like taking a magnifying glass to what we’re all living with.
Conversely, some Goodreads critics have complained about some of the monotony of the book’s middle section, where the abuse is shown repeatedly and the inability for anyone around Vanessa to recognize what’s happening unfurls slowly, agonizingly. But this repetitiveness is a strength; it makes it clear, despite the otherwise forceful drive of the novel, that abuse is sometimes monotonous. It’s sometimes kind of… boring. That when it happens, again and again, the self half-turns away, refuses to look it clear in the face, “lets” it happen hoping that it’ll be over soon.
My Dark Vanessa is, without a doubt, not a book for everyone. People with triggers around childhood abuse should probably stay away. But I think anyone who can bear to read about this difficult subject matter should read Russell’s novel. As its presence at the Weinstein trial makes almost cinematically clear, it’s so perfectly timed to our moment in culture, when we are finally at least attempting to come to terms with the ways men subjugate and abuse women. Reading the novel now is like taking a magnifying glass to what we’re all living with. This timeliness is partly why the book sold to publishers for seven figures, as several literary agents told Lila Shapiro in her fantastic profile of Russell in Vulture. (You can read an excerpt of the book there, as well.)
But it isn’t timeliness and politics that make this book so masterful. It’s beautifully written, its characters devastatingly crafted, its approach careful and precise. There’s a lot of ugliness here; the novel itself would be a lie if there weren’t. But it’s this ugliness, brilliantly intertwined with a focused pace and a tender heart, that makes My Dark Vanessa shine.