Salutations, I warmly welcome you back to the next installment of "Which Novels Have Inspired My Writing?" Today, I will be discussing the 2020 novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell called "My Dark Vanessa." The novel deals with the complexity of victimhood, the tumultuous journey of being coerced by a teacher, the after-effects of such experiences in adulthood, and how there is no such thing as a perfect victim of sexual assault and statutory rape.
For this article, I want to focus on the complexities of victimhood, the so-called "perfect" victim, and emphasize that the notion of a perfect victim is not only ridiculous but also extremely harmful. Additionally, I will discuss how the story of this incredible novel inspired me and my film in a surprising way. My Dark Vanessa was one of my favorite reads of 2020, and despite the sensitive topics it touches upon, I found it to be an enthralling escape and received high recommendations. The novel effectively portrays how easily one can view something or someone through rose-colored lenses, only to realize that they are in fact deeply flawed.
I recall creating a short concept film called "Le Démon Au Halo," which roughly translates to "Devil with a Halo." This film was inspired by Gerald's (G-Eazy's) verse in "The Beautiful & Damned," which, in turn, was inspired by Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, one of my favorite authors growing up. The concept of my film revolved around an action that initially had good intentions but eventually turned into a harmful habit. In this scenario, I developed the concept of a mentally unstable girl who attempts to lose weight in a healthy manner but ends up developing an eating disorder and a meticulous routine that becomes her downfall. In previous articles, I have mentioned my penchant for evocative prose and imperfect protagonists. One of my favorite quotes from "My Dark Vanessa" is:
"I can’t lose the thing I’ve held onto for so long, you know?" My face contorts with the pain of pushing it out.
"I just really need it to be a love story, you know? I really, really need it to be that."
"I know," she says.
"Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?" I gaze into her glassy eyes, her face brimming with boundless empathy.
"It’s my life," I respond. "This has been my whole life."
While the quote may appear somber to some, it accurately depicts Vanessa's mindset during her therapy session and showcases the dualities that exist within her, both physically and mentally, as a child and an adult.
For those who have not read the novel, I will make my best attempt to summarize it as accurately as possible.
"My Dark Vanessa" explores the complex and disturbing relationship between Vanessa Wye, a vulnerable teenager, and her manipulative older teacher, Jacob Strane. The story is written in two timelines that alternate between the past and the present.
In the puerile timeline, Vanessa is fifteen years old and a student at Browick, a prestigious and well known boarding school in Maine. She becomes the object of Strane’s (her charismatic but predatory English teacher) affection and manipulation over the course of the novel in Vanessa’s elementary timeline. Strane grooms her, rapes her, and convinces her that their relationship holds weight, is special, and pries on her longing for love and validation. Strane entangles her in a twisted and abusive affair.
In Vanessa's postpubescent timeline, she is thirty-two years old and finds herself grappling with her troubled past. When a former student accuses Strane of sexual abuse, Vanessa is compelled to confront her experiences with him and question the narrative she has constructed around their relationship. She must also confront the deeply ingrained belief she has held onto for so long that their connection was consensual and genuine. As the allegations against Strane gain public attention, Vanessa is forced to confront the trauma she endured and examine the lasting impact it has had on her life.
"My Dark Vanessa" delves into the profound psychological complexities of manipulation, power dynamics, and the traumatic effects of child sexual assault. The novel vividly portrays Vanessa's internal struggle as she tries to reconcile her own feelings, perceptions, and memories. It also sheds light on society's tendency to downplay or romanticize abusive relationships, both in traditional media like novels and in the digital realm through social media, television, and film. By doing so, the novel raises crucial questions about consent, accountability, and the long-term repercussions of abuse on survivors and their families.
To conclude, I would like to share how the complex and beautiful novel "My Dark Vanessa" has inspired my short film. Surprisingly, the story I created did not directly correlate with the plot of the novel, or so I thought. In my film, when I wrote the character of Archibald, the leading male, there was a scene where he mentally and emotionally overpowered Gale (his friend with more benefits than deserved).
He held leverage over her due to their escapades, knowing that despite having slept with his best friend's girlfriend, Odin, nothing would happen to him because he was aware of Odin's infidelity. In order to keep their incestuous friend group intact, certain secrets had to remain buried. Edith, Gale's best friend, became a driving force in helping Gale gather her strength and level the playing field with Archibald. This dynamic mirrored the former student who accused Strane in "My Dark Vanessa" attempting to assist Vanessa, although the circumstances were much more psychologically complex than seeking revenge on a guy who held joint actions over her.
In my film, the characters thrive on power, manipulation, machiavellianism, lust, and a lack of empathy. While my leading male character was not Strane, he possessed traits of overpowering women and little regard for those he disregarded.
Another reason why I fell deeply in love with this novel is the depiction of Vanessa's imperfections and her clinging to what she believed was love, both as a child and in her adult years. Even in college, she remained the same vulnerable and easily influenced woman, unaware of how she was being molded by the person she thought she loved. This aspect is relatable beyond the confines of the novel. Many of us, in some capacity, have experienced our own versions of Strane or have even embodied those characteristics ourselves. It's difficult to comprehend how many times I have had to rescue friends from these monsters or helplessly witness their struggles, hoping they would find the strength to survive and rebuild themselves.
My final point to emphasize is the importance of dismantling the notion of a "perfect victim." Such a concept is not only false but also deeply harmful to those who have experienced assault, child sexual abuse, or any form of abuse. There is no predetermined appearance for someone who has suffered physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. This perpetuation of a stereotype makes it even more challenging for men, women, and non-binary individuals to come forward because they may not fit the external image society expects. The wide-eyed, traumatized look isn't the only valid representation. It's crucial to recognize that individuals can bear the weight of their experiences in different ways.
If you have managed to reach the end of this article, I urge you to be sensitive to those around you. Refrain from making insensitive jokes, and call out misogyny when you encounter it. Surround yourself with people who do not perpetuate harmful narratives. By doing so, we can collectively propel society forward rather than backward.
In closing, I would like to express my gratitude to you for reading this article until the end. It truly means a lot to me. Let's see what the future holds for me, and with that, it is time for me to depart.