Kate Elizabeth Russell’s ‘My Dark Vanessa’ Delves Into the Deeper Truth of Abuse Victims

My Dark Vanessa Book Cover My Dark Vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell
William Morrow
March 10, 2020

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

Kate Elizabeth Russell does away with taboo in her debut, My Dark Vanessa. Many will likely label it “controversial.” But there are many reasons why everyone should read Russell’s novel depicting child abuse and pedophilia.

When My Dark Vanessa begins, the year is 2017 and Vanessa Wyes is 32 years old. She’s obsessively checking a Facebook post where someone has come out denouncing Jacob Strane as a child molester — the same man that just over 15 years ago preyed on Vanessa when she attended Browick School.

Taylor, the girl behind the popular post, has reached out to Vanessa and asked her to come out in support, asking her to share her story and help stop Strane once and for all, as well as to reveal Browick’s duplicity — a school more concerned with covering up the scandal than they care about the safety and protection of their students.

Vanessa doesn’t want to come out for several reasons. For starters, she’s still in touch with Strane. Secondly, she doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, having willingly complied with much of what Strane did to her. Thirdly, she’s simply not ready.

My Dark Vanessa has been described as “Lolita from Lolita’s perspective” and that’s perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions out there. In her novel, Russell goes to places that not many authors since Nabokov have dared to go, with a cutting honesty, articulation and understanding of a perspective not usually represented when these stories of sexual abuse are exposed.

Vanessa believes herself complicit, so young was she when it all happened that it has defined her for her entire adult life. She fails to understand all the ways in which Strane manipulated her, coercing her to believe she was just as guilty as he. Vanessa believes, even into adulthood, that theirs was a love story; something unusual and unspoken but not wrong in her eyes.

There are moments in the novel that are revolting and low-key traumatizing to the reader that has never experienced the atrocities written about in the book and outright triggering to those who have. However, this doesn’t mean that books like these shouldn’t be written or read. It’s only through narratives such as Russell’s that light can sometimes be shed on a topic that’s so difficult to talk about, understand, and sometimes straight-up taboo.

Though dealing with dark and heavy themes, Russell’s prose is exquisite, as she finds enlightening ways of putting words together to create a crisp understanding of this complicated subject. Like finding beauty in a wasteland, Russell strikes a win for literature by bringing the abstractly somber into the physical and creating something that ravages but lures at the same time.

Readers should come to My Dark Vanessa, not with fear or repulsion but with the willingness to have their minds opened, to understand the complexity of what sexual abuse means and what it does to its victims.


A self-proclaimed hermit and potential cat hoarder, Maria lives in Virginia where she writes, proofreads and copy edits as a freelancer. Her longstanding love affair with books began when her mother would fall asleep reading bedtime stories to her. (Don't worry; she was sure to wake her up so she could finish.) Now, as an adult, Maria struggles with a reading vice that has often threatened the hygiene of her home. On the few occasions that her nose isn't buried in a book, she enjoys exploring new cities, having margaritas with her sister, and curling up with a book--wait, what?

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