Welcome to the first roundtable between The Book Slut writers. Think of this as a book club meeting, recorded. Except in these times we decided to exchange words in a shared document. We had all read My Dark Vanessa recently, or not so recently, and since its such a talked-about book, we wanted to talk about it. Below, some questions were posed between six TBS writers and an anonymous contributor, like we were all sitting around a table. The spoilers ABOUND, so only continue on if you have read My Dark Vanessa or don’t mind hearing what it’s all about and what happens. Feel free to be that person at book club who did not finish the book but wants to hear how it ends. Please join in the conversation, too. Part of the power of these roundtables (and book clubs in general) is no two people ever have the same exact perspective on a book, and we love to hear the range of opinions!
For the uninitiated: Kate Elizabeth Russell's debut, My Dark Vanessa, is about a 15 year old girl who enters into a relationship with her much older English teacher in a private high school. She examines their relationship as a thirty-something amidst the #MeToo movement over a decade later.
First: if you had to rate this book a certain many stars out of five, what would your rating be?
Jessica Maria Johnson: 4 out of 5 stars. Almost there for me, but it’s difficult to rate something while reading within the cultural context of its much-hyped and somewhat controversial release.
Hunter McLendon: 4 out of 5 for me, too. I didn’t find it particularly literary. It definitely feels targeted towards a wider audience—I’ve seen some criticism about this, but I don’t have a problem with that.
Mel Rosenthal: 5 out of 5 stars. The writing wholly sucked me in in a manner that few books do.
Maggie Chidester: 5 out of 5 stars. This book sucked me in from the moment I turned the first page to the very last. If I find a book gripping enough to finish and enthralling enough to want to discuss it, it is a perfect amount of stars in my book.
Courtney Dyer: 4 out of 5 stars. This book is a prime example of something that was impossible to put down. However, for me it was a round-about read that left me feeling angry/concerned before I felt empowered.
Anonymous: 4 out of 5. At moments it overtook me, both the story and the power of the prose, but at times I felt a little empty.
Cennin Thomas: 5 out of 5.
When did you first hear of My Dark Vanessa and when did you first read it?
JMJ: I first heard of My Dark Vanessa on Instagram in early 2019 when people started receiving advanced copies of it. I imagined it would publish in a few months until I looked it up and saw it wouldn’t publish until 2020. My interest was certainly piqued by the good reviews, but I hadn’t been super interested in reading it.
HM: I saw it making the rounds on Instagram, but I hated the cover (the U.S. edition) and the title didn’t draw me in so I didn’t consider it until a friend told me I might like it. Then I picked up the ARC and a few days later, heard about the controversy. I didn’t read it until after I got a copy of Excavation (the book MDV drew comparisons to), and then read them alongside each other.
MR: I had seen a friend add it to her “want to read” shelf on Goodreads so I recognized it when I was browsing an ARC shelf at an indie store. I snatched it up and eagerly read through it on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It was my first read of 2020.
MC: Sarah (@asarahcarter) is a bookstagrammer I follow in England who posted about the book last summer with the gorgeous European cover (I also agree that the US cover is a wee bit juvenile). I didn’t really think about My Dark Vanessa seriously until another bookstagram friend posted about it in January (@booksnblazers). She called it “an incredibly important book.” There are certain voices of literary authority I listen to online, and Megan is one of them. Her account is the one that finally got me to add it to my TBR. When The Book Slut reached out and asked if I would read it for this roundtable, I immediately agreed and read up on all the ‘controversy’ surrounding it, making sure to do my due diligence in promoting a book that I wholeheartedly believed in. And, here I am.
JMJ: I love all this discussion about the U.S. cover! I didn’t like it either, but then I think the cover artist must have gotten to the Nabokov quote that the title derives from in the book (p. 124 of U.S. edition), from Pale Fire:
Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! Explain
I think it’s the only reference in the book to a butterfly, and that was when I was like ah yes. However, upon looking at the credits, it looks like there is a photograph credit of the face and then a Shutterstock credit for the butterfly. So… sadly, that makes me like it even less to think they were photoshopped together. Yet, I’m not so sure I liked the red-haired ponytail with the creepy quotes of the UK/AUS ARCs? The quotes make me itchy as a ‘selling point’—
CD: I saw it in a Books&Publishing newsletter in 2019 with a critical praise from Stephen King. This intrigued me but then I read the plot and was like uh no no no no. It was only until I started work at HarperCollins AU that I borrowed a copy of a colleague and read it.
CT: Summer of 2019 and I read it November 2019.
ANON: I saw someone on Instagram with an ARC and looked it up. I Googled it, read the first line of the summary and closed the website and preordered a copy.
What was the best part of this book for you?
JMJ: I really, REALLY liked how Vanessa herself is so unsure, unsettled, and imperfect. She’s not likable, and she will not play into any victim role as a character. She felt realistic in that sense; as a reader, the damage done to her by this relationship with Mr. Strane is clear and heartbreaking. This is not a cookie-cutter, ‘the more you know’ infomercial kind of character, and yet its a story one can learn a lot from.
HM: I definitely agree with Jessica. Vanessa’s unwillingness to view her relationship with Strane as a form of trauma was very realistic to me. I recognize that experience of not wanting trauma, not wanting to be ‘messed up’, and so thinking that as long as you convince yourself you’re complicit, everything is fine. I also felt that her journey to realizing that this was trauma was nuanced in a way I hadn’t seen before. She’s not fully healed by the end of this—it’s just beginning.
MR: The introspective writing style, especially prominent in young Vanessa’s pages, bowled me over. The way that she feels everything as a teenager was so relatable and made me so nostalgic for those years. Though they’re hard to live through, teenagers feel so much and Russell did a great job crafting the words so that they seem most accurate.
MC: There is one moment where she notices at the end of class, and the end of a chapter (every last sentence is killer), how her high school peers are able to just carry on with their lives and realizes that she is not the same. She sees herself as inhuman, untethered, and envious of the people who can now live ordinary lives, as she floats out of her body and becomes no one. Internal thoughts of being a survivor without allowing yourself to believe you are a survivor like this are frequent throughout the book that make you look at how the human mind processes trauma and grief in not quite understanding the trauma and makes a person think of their trauma as a part of their identity that they can’t detach from. It’s really heartbreaking and at times it physically affected me. That is fuckin’ art.
CT: The writing and the way the author got it to flow from past and present. The interlocking was excellent.
CD: I liked how Russell challenged me, or us (the readers?), I guess. I was confused by the perspective of Vanessa as an adult, and the way she treated Taylor. I think that relationship was really important because it highlights the ‘expectation vs reality’ essence of the novel, and the movement at large. I liked how the reaction I expected from Vanessa was highlighted through Taylor, but then rejected and I was shown a different and seemingly more complex reality of this dark situation.
JMJ: Courtney, I agree in loving that complexity that Russell showcases between Vanessa and Taylor. I haven’t really seen that before, I don’t think.
ANON: For me, adult Vanessa was the standout narrative. The teenaged story is predictable; sadly, there’s usually very little variation in authentic portrayals of grooming. But adult Vanessa’s story is complicated, a rare and insightful perspective of the slow, hesitant and quietly earth-shattering rewriting of the self that comes with dealing with trauma. I found this timeline reminiscent in some ways of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh) or The New Me (Halle Butler)—this unlikable, lost, and messy woman, navigating adulthood in a self-destructive way that it’s hard to comprehend but compelling to read.
Vanessa and her teacher Mr. Strane share a lot of literature between themselves. Had you read Lolita before this?
JMJ: I love Lolita. But I also know it’s one of the most controversial books because of how some people interpret it. Russell gets at this in the book, too, and I think that anyone who believes Lolita is a tragic love story is seriously troubled. Perhaps that was part of Russell’s point.
HM: I have! I’ve read it three times. 16, 19, and 22. I think it’s one of the best examples of how manipulative a predator can be. Which then makes me think about Strane, and how manipulative he was to Vanessa. The gaslighting, my god.
MR: No, I’ve never read it!
MC: It is funny to me, I have not read Lolita but after reading this book it feels like I have? She did such a great job of explaining the plot in digestible ways without annoying the reader. Kate Elizabeth Russell let Lolita guide her inspiration for the story, not control her readers. It’s quite masterful, really.
CD: I read this book when I was around 17. I had just graduated from highschool. I wanted to be cool and literary (major cringe). I am glad I had read it in advance but it would be interesting to read it again with a more critical perspective rather than reading it to look cool.
CT: No—prior to this I’d never heard of the book ANON: I read it when I was 14. My teacher gave it to me. I’ve blocked most of it out.
Were there any “double-take” moments you had? Like, you had to reread something because you thought you didn’t read it right the first time?
HM: Honestly—and this is just a personal thing—there were moments when Strane was manipulating Vanessa, and I would recognize it as something someone had done to me before. I would go back through it and try to understand the engineering of the manipulation. Asking myself, “how did they do that?”
MC: Spitballing into the last question to this question... It was so disturbing to me as well, the deep emotional connections occurring between Vanessa and Mr. Strane’s sharing of literature… As a massive reader who absorbs a lot of her energy creative drive joy from books and who often finds herself ogling over men who give her the gift of sharing book recommendations with, it was alarming to feel that I could truly see myself in Vanessa’s shoes as a child. This did not happen to me at all, but it could have, and that’s what Kate unearthed in me.
CD: The first fucking chapter. I was like, wait what the hell is happening here?. It was so jarring and confusing. But I was desperate to know how we got to this present point, so I pushed on. Obviously.
JMJ: Courtney, that’s such a good callout regarding the ‘twist’ in the first chapter, where you believe there’s been a Facebook post about abuse that Vanessa herself has written, only to find that it was someone else, Taylor, who was calling out Strane. I think that really set up the entire book. Particularly well now reflecting on it!
I think the moment that young Vanessa is in the car with her dad and he’s singing out lyrics to The Knacks’ “My Sharona” and me realizing the lyrics to a song that I bopped around to because I grew up watching Reality Bites was jarring. (Lyrics: “Such a dirty mind / I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind”) Just: how pervasive this mentality is in pop culture. No wonder people read Lolita wrong.
ANON: I have to agree about “My Sharona.” I think I read it the same day I saw a meme about ‘My Corona’. I asked about 6 people if they knew the song, and they all said yes. Then I asked them if they knew the lyrics, and none of them would believe me.
CT: The way Mr. Strane was passing blame onto Vanessa.
Were there any parts that made you particularly queasy?
HM: it’s kind of hard not to feel queasy about the rape scenes.
MR: Every time Vanessa and Strane are in his bed.
CT: Yes—the physical/intimate parts of the book. As it was wrong on so many levels.
MC: While the rape scenes are devastating, there are many queasy moments that occur in hidden moments. Dreadful hits you could miss because they happen quickly and in fleeting thoughts versus eruptuous moments. There is a paragraph on page 81 where Vanessa grapples with Strane admitting he is pathetically in love with her.
“As soon as he says this, I become someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some boy my own age but a man who has already lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I’m worthy of his love.”
This part, where Vanessa discovers that this ‘relationship’ makes her feel powerful. You want to yell at her ‘This is not power! He is abusing you! You are 15!’ but you know that this is probably an incredibly real dynamic that is a part of abusive relationships between older men and teenage girls. It is an overwhelming fight for your mind to have at fifteen—is this inappropriate or am I really the exception? When Vanessa asks “If It isn’t a love story, then what is it?” And answers her own question painfully with “It’s my life. This has been my whole life.” I burst into tears.
JMJ: Maggie, that part made me tear up as well. The devastation of realizing that is it her entire being, that he molded her young life into this destruction.
I will say, beyond the real awful sexual parts—and like, Strane pulling out strawberry pajamas, Vanessa later on confusing this act with a scene in Lolita when she’s older—one of the parts that made me queasy about MYSELF was the journalist who is asking for Vanessa to help, to come forward, because she wants JUSTICE! And I’m like YEAH but then while I kept reading I was like, oh that’s a whole lot to ask of a victim who is struggling with her own mental health in the face of #metoo… the therapy sessions and continued thoughts of Vanessa regarding this reporter made me learn something about myself and how I approach these topics as well. An important learning.
CD: It goes without saying that the rape was absolutely fucking awful. My entire soul hurt for Vanessa during these moments. But in addition to that, the parts where Vanessa is older and they try to recreate their ‘first time’ and it is unsuccessful made my stomach churn.
ANON: The hardest parts for me were the manipulations of consent, both in the form of Strane exploiting and engineering Vanessa’s pleasure, but also in their conversations as he masterfully shifted blame, power and responsibility to her. Both through the persistent forced orgasms to the acceptance of his narrative, she is able to maintain the belief that she is in control, when actually it’s all him. As we have seen women and girls be told over and over again: You wanted this, you were asking for, you enjoyed it.
What were your thoughts about Vanessa’s parents?
HM: I don’t think they were as fleshed out as I’d have liked, but also, I don’t think Vanessa as a narrator could realistically flesh them out while dealing with her trauma, so. I will say, my heart broke for the mother when she was packing up Vanessa’s stuff after Vanessa was kicked out. As a child, when our parents are angry, we only see the anger. But reading this as an adult, I can only imagine all of the things going through the mother's head as she realizes just how much her daughter has gone through.
MC: Do you want your author to display parents that behave in the exact way they should to warm the reader or do you want your author to display realistic parents who fuck up acknowledging the trauma they indirectly and directly inflict upon their kid, deny it, and then reckon with it? Until abuse is talked about in a mainstream way without hushed whispers and tears after the fact, parents will keep behaving in ways that further traumatize their kids because it's an uncomfortable situation they don’t know how to deal with because that could never happen to us. I liked the writing of her parents. It felt real to me.
JMJ: I agree it felt real, and as a parent myself I just don’t know how I would react, how to navigate. My daughter is only four years old but reading this gave me anxiety. Like Vanessa’s mom, I do not know how I would handle being faced with the hard facts of my child’s trauma that I was unable to protect her from.
CD: Oh Jessica, that makes my heart heart. I don’t think I could cope having to consider this as something to be wary of for your child.
A parent will never be able to fully protect their child, as unfortunate as it is. There will always be a discussion about what you would do, or could do but that will never help. It seems as though her parents were doing the best they could with a teenage daughter who didn’t want to be suffocated by them. There is always space to speculate about how much her parents could have done, but Vanessa was at boarding school. Which I think plays a big role in the parent/child relationship. They are only receiving/revealing snippets of life to one another. I feel a lot of sympathy for Vanessa's parents because I suspect that they blamed themselves, but there is nothing they could have done really. As Hunter said, the parents couldn’t be fleshed out in this framework but through Vanessa’s desperation to separate herself from them, we can also see her mother's desperation to be closer to her.
ANON: I found the parents to be completely believable. I don’t think we as humans see our parents as fellow people until we are well into adulthood, and because of Vanessa’s trauma she doesn’t ever really progress past an adolescent mindset. We saw them through Vanessa’s eyes only, and that’s through the eyes of a teenager. I was satisfied by the ending we got with her mum, and found the way they discussed it to be true to what I’d expect for a relationship like theirs, based on a series of lies and avoidances.
How did you approach Russell’s take on abuse survivors? Vanessa versus Taylor’s depiction?
HM: I think this just captured the different stages of being a survivor. Taylor just happened to be at a later stage.
MC: It is a great display of showing the spectrum of survivors and how ultimately, the comparing of stories that rape survivors do to themselves is so unhealthy and one of the largest roadblocks to recovery.
CD: Russell showed me that I want everyone to be like Taylor in their survival, but that is wholly unrealistic as different narratives of experience exist. This enlightened me a lot. I think this relationship painted a serious picture to me, and without this I don’t think the novel would have sat as well with me.
MR: I was glad to see that Russell showed ‘both sides’ this way, because neither is wrong, per say, they just have dealt with their respective PTSD in far different ways. So it was shocking for Vanessa when Taylor assumes they are the same. Vanessa wasn’t as ready as Taylor was to deal with what Strane really was.
ANON: I think it’s interesting in the post- #MeToo era to see these perspectives. For me, as well as Vanessa not being ready to share her story yet, I feel like she embodied the stance that, ready or not, women do not owe you their stories of abuse, and do not need to be defined by these and the word ‘survivor’ if they choose not to be. That’s an important perspective to consider in a world where women are praised for coming forward for the greater good. It’s fine not to.
Did you like the flashback, double-timeline technique employed here? Between student Vanessa in 2000 and adult Vanessa in 2017 grappling with the message of the #metoo movement?
HM: I think from a narrative viewpoint it definitely kept up the pace. I think it was also necessary to pull us out of young Vanessa’s world, to give us some air. I also think it showed just how much the world has changed between the time periods. People are still doing bad things, but the way we view things and talk about it, the protocols, it’s shifted a bit.
CD: I agree with Hunter, coming up for air from young Vanessa’s world was needed as I felt those scenes were more visceral. But I felt as though I was suffocating in both parts, if not more in adult Vanessa’s narrative because I was so desperate for her perspective to change. I just wanted her to comes to terms with the truth of her situation, I thought that she would have clarity after all this time, the further allegations and #metoo. But she didn’t, and as we waded through the pain and anger she felt towards Taylor and in adulthood, the story really felt whole to me. I liked the way it was set out and I can’t really imagine it resonating in the way that it did with me if it was told more linearly.
MC: I do like these kinds of formatting in novels and notice it more often in thriller books. There are many books that do this format that I don’t think need to and would actually be better if it was written chronologically. This is not one of those books. I think the format was styled this way to show that the timeline of processing trauma is different at the beginning and different at the end (and also that there is no end). It was a strong fictionally telling of rape trauma syndrome (and they say that is has been expanded to victims of all types of sexual violence and should be changed to sexual assault trauma syndrome). In 2000, Vanessa is in her acute phase. This occurs immediately during the assault and the brain processes it as a crisis. It entails a wide range of emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions. We see this in detail during the first time Vanessa goes to Strane’s house. Then, a survivor experiences the Outward Adjustment phase. I would argue that Vanessa is in this phase in BOTH 2000 and 2017. Vanessa focuses less on the actual assault and focuses more on denial. Finally, Vanessa enters the third phase: Long Term Reorganization. It’s a super interesting concept and also may be helpful to learn more about it if you are a survivor. Info on the subject is here: NCBI Medical Journal.
JMJ: Maggie, you’re blowing my mind—this is great information. Thank you!
MR: Damn Maggie. That’s great that you were able to outline this. I heard Russell speak in person on her publication day and she revealed that she had been working on the novel since high school and went on to focus on the study of trauma in one of her degrees (she has an MFA and a PhD).
I loved flipping back and forth because of how starkly it made me question Vanessa’s reliability as a narrator and Strane’s position of innocence. Though, morally, I would never say Strane was innocent in any way, but flipping back and forth allowed me to sit next to Vanessa throughout and really understand why she would or would not want to call attention to her relationship, why she would or would not support Taylor’s plea to call him out.
ANON: Absolutely fascinating when mapped onto these stages of trauma, thanks so much for sharing. I agree that this worked really well from a narrative perspective, allowing us to get the best experience as readers. There were things that would come up in one of the timelines that I would wait for in the other, for example the blog. I was excited to see the convergence.
What did you think of Strane and Vanessa’s relationship in 2017?
HM: I think we’re so used to seeing people separated from their abusers in fiction—at least abusers who aren’t family. This book deals a lot with unresolved trauma, and I think a big part of why trauma sometimes is unresolved is because the abuser is still in the picture. I think Strane knows he can’t manipulate Vanessa as much as an adult, but that as long as he sticks around, she can still sort of buy into his narrative. He can still gaslight her.
MC: Agreed. When I first discovered that present day Vanessa is still in incredibly close contact with Strane, it was shocking. It’s very sad to watch as an outsider as Vanessa realizes that she was not the one special, fifteen year old who won the love of a grown man. Makes me want to cry.
JMJ: I, too, was shocked and agree with you both, Hunter and Maggie. The gaslighting that continued into her adulthood was so sad. CD: Wholeheartedly agree here. This relationship is what differentiates this book and why I think it’s so talked about. Because unresolved trauma is NOT talked about.
MR: It was unsettling and it made me wonder at first if Strane was holding something over Vanessa still. Of course as I learned more about what really happened it became more obvious why they were each relying on their lasting connection but I never felt any less unsettled.
ANON: I agree that this is what makes the book so special and stand out from other depictions of similar relationships. It was also the most frustrating part to read, and what shows with the most clarity that Vanessa is stuck, so fully, in her adolescence.
Were you reminded of anything in your life as a teenager?
HM: so much of this reminded me of experiences I had as a teenager! I dated several grown men in my teens, and I remember the way kids reacted to it—this is the thing I actually found the most accurate in My Dark Vanessa. Her one friend, the one who reports the situation to the principal, I found her split reaction very realistic. On the one hand, she’s worried if Vanessa is being abused—but on the other hand, she doesn’t fully understand that even if Vanessa says she wanted the relationship, it doesn’t change it from being an issue. As adults, we know that Strane is raping Vanessa. But when you’re 15 or 16, you think you’re grown, and you think other people your age are grown. I remember dating a 40 year old man as a teenager, and when I said I wanted it, my admission absolved the man of any responsibility. And then later, when adults found out and I lied and said I didn’t happen, the other kids I’d told felt betrayed. I don’t know...I think there’s just so much to unpack about these types of situations, and I’m glad My Dark Vanessa explores this in a way I found accurate.
ANON: Yes. It’s perhaps the most authentic telling of being groomed by your teacher that I’ve ever read, and that was my teenage years. But there were so many other nuances of behaviour that I felt not only reminded me of my adolescence but specifically an adolescence in the 00s.
JMJ: I think her writing of a teenager was very reminiscent of things I felt: getting lost in song lyrics, how your whole world can break when your best friend gets a boyfriend, being obsessive (with your best friend? Sorry that was def me), and ummm...the AOL chats with strange older men. YIKES, I KNOW! I, too, was in high school in 2000.
CD: Getting attention from an older guy was always quite exciting. Albeit not as drastic, but when I was 16 I was getting attention from 25 year old guys, and it was exciting and made me feel validated (definitely have since grown out of the idea that validation comes from the attention of men), but I always did wonder why a 25-year-old was spending their Saturday night’s texting a 16-year-old. But ultimately, it is nice to feel wanted so I think that’s the foundation of where we can sometimes toe the line of what we think is okay because you justify it by saying, I want this.
MR: Reading this book was scary for me because of how often I flaunted my youth. It was dangerous and stupid and my heart was racing as I flipped through the book because it was like a play on what could have been had I myself been more reckless.
Page 294 and the visiting writer who gets “handsy”—and makes Vanessa feel like a liability just being a woman in a room: anybody else connect to that feeling or (not to get salacious but MAYBE?) think of anyone that this could’ve been about?
JMJ: It’s always on the onus of women to steer clear of predatory men or not provoke them, which is clearly unfair. It just feeds into men ‘getting away with it’ or ‘failing up.’ I’ve come across this too often; of being warned about men and therefore needing to be more on guard of myself and also other women. It’s a terrible feeling to have to act a certain way because someone gets away with something over and over again. I thought this for about 30 seconds and can think of three men I have been warned about… and it’s usually in professional context: they’re singers, artists, politicians. Don’t get in their way by being you, women! Don’t get in the way of their ART!
MC: I worked in foodservice sales, specifically in meatpacking, a predominantly white, old, & male industry. I have heard that same warning many, many times. Every single time I wanted to sink into a sandpit. The amount of inappropriate, power weiding, disgusting men that not only exist, but are our neighbors, colleagues, and bosses…..makes me want to scream.
CD: Always. Like Jessica said, it is always the woman’s responsibility to not interfere or steer clear, when rather it should be the man’s responsibility to not be a pig. We’ve all had to smile through a situation and be polite, worry about walking home in the dark, or been wary of women who are COMPLETE STRANGERS who we are ready to step into action to protect if they look like they are in an uncomfortable situation? It completely boggles my mind that most men have never had to worry that they might not get to their car/house safely walking home. I can’t say I’ve ever felt like a liability when it comes to these predicaments but I still feel unsafe or highly uncomfortable. I think the use of the word liability really emcompasses how Vanessa feels she exists in this world, and I can’t blame her, she was kicked out of school and lost everything for the fault of a pedeophile, who’s life remained essentially unchanged.
ANON: That part filled me with dread. It was such a simple, concise way of articulating both victim blaming, but also the way that we have come some way in acknowledging this behaviour, yet not being far enough to stop it altogether. Even five, ten years ago, it’s conceivable that accepting his handsy-ness would have been just part of the role, whereas at least now it’s mentioned and some protection is put in place. We’re not all the way there yet. I’m glad this storyline wasn’t pursued.
What were your least favorite parts of the book or about the book?
HM: I thought—just from a technical standpoint—that more characters could’ve been better fleshed out. But that’s just a personal qualm. I was ambivalent about some aspects of the book but honestly couldn’t put my finger on what.
ANON: My thoughts are closest to Hunter’s, I think. Something was missing when it came to depth. Part of me excused this when I considered that it’s all from Vanessa’s perspective and Vanessa is stagnated, stuck in a time before she could grow and view the world with more depth.
MC: Some of the details and plotlines that were included were interesting to me; the vasectomy, Strane not wanting kids, and Vanessa’s job at the hospital to see Strane’s records plotline was fuddled for me. It either needed more oomph and fleshing out or needed to be taken out. That is me being incredibly picky and just deciphered from a “?” I etched in the margin on 102. I think this plotline just requried a lot of inference from me and I wanted to uncover a little more from the authors intentions, is all. Books are written by authors who drum up entire universes, if Kate Elizabeth Russell wanted that to be included…..she gets it included and I approve of it.
JMJ: Vanessa finding the medical record of Strane’s vasectomy completely took me out of the book. It just really puzzled me since she’d already been told about it, but then I wasn’t sure why her character encounters it. It was also the only snippet of pre-Vanessa Strane, right? And he did it a decade or so before meeting her… it certainly infers that there were girls before Vanessa, but there’s no confirmation.
CD: I wish we got justice against Strane. I know that isn’t what the book is about but I really wish we could have gotten something, to indicate to us that that fucker got what he deserved. He even got to die on his own terms, he got to make the decision about how it ended for him which is more than he would have deserved. He died and none of these women would ever get the sense of justice that would come with him being tried and convicted
MR: I’m with Courtney. A more satisfying conclusion would have been if Vanessa or Taylor brought Strane to justice.
JMJ: Strane’s demise and the fact that there was no ‘justice’ seemed to mirror reality for so many. He did it on his own terms, but Vanessa has to continue on, field questions from reporters, Taylor, her therapist, her own mind. It’s devastating, and Russell seems to leave the reader with that same torture of unsettlement and irresolution.
Do you think you can TRUST Kate Elizabeth Russell? This book is fiction, but there’s been a lot swirling about her in the press re: Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation memoir and subsequent admissions of being a survivor.
JMJ: I don’t know. I do believe her and I feel awful that she even had to release a statement when it shouldn’t have been necessary. I reserve my criticism of the handling of this book at the feet of the publishing industry, not her.
HM: I don’t think I’ve been able to formulate a clear opinion, partly just because there’s been so many different thoughts on this from so many sides.
MC: Yes, I trust her. I refuse to be the kind of feminist who questions a sexual violence survivor. Just like nobody is required to come out about their sexuality, or their immigration status, nobody is required to come out as a sexual violence survivor. I agree with Jessica. I do believe that Wendy Ortiz’s frustration was directed at the publishing industry, not Kate Elizabeth Russell herself. It is a very similar story, published years apart. There are many factors to this: 1) Ortiz’s race. This is a perfectly valid argument to make as the publishing industry absolutely favors books by white authors and the majority of seven figure advances go to white people. 2) Same subject matter. Ortiz’s memoir is about her developing a relationship with her teacher when she was 13. Russell’s novel is about a 15-year-old starting a relationship with her teacher following similar grooming techniques that Ortiz faced. Do I think Russell plagiarized? No. I think publishing changed a bit after the #MeToo movement. Not because they wanted to center stories by survivors, but because they realized it is a profitable genre of books now that women are more openly discussing sexual trauma. This opinion was solidified when I noticed the same publisher who published Catch & Kill by Ronan Farrow on the Weinstein bust was set to publish Woody Allen’s memoir, who is a fucking sexual predator. Do I think Ortiz should have been mainstream published, given a huge marketing budget, and promoted in the same way as Russell? Yes, absolutely. Do I think Russell’s book should have been published and do I trust her? Also, yes.
JMJ: I agree, Maggie, I am glad that both books were published and there is literature out there that speaks to these situations that happen to girls, written by women. Don’t get me started on Woody Allen…
CD: I trust her, because as Maggie said, I refuse to be the feminist that doesn’t believe women. But yes, as everyone has said the fault is on the publishing industry for the imbalance in what is being promoted and where the money is going. From what I’ve seen of Russell on social media, mainly her Instagram really, she seems very self aware. She has posted memes about Lolita and the regular misinterpretation of that book. I think it would take a lot of gall to lie about something of this nature I guess. So at this stage, I don’t think Russell herself has given us anything that would lead to mistrust, all the questions have come from the broader society/industry around her.
MR: I do trust her. I read it before everything came up with Ortiz’ memoir, but I also believe when she says she’s been working on this book for 20 years. I also know that though women have similar stories, that doesn’t mean that one is less valid than another. Unfortunately, the common aspects of both stories point to the issues with patriarchy and the society at large and I will support any person who is going to vocalize the reality that is that sexual abuse and assault occur far too often. Does publishing have a better job to do for people of color? I’d say heck yes but that is part of a longer conversation.
ANON: I trust her, and also agree with all of the criticisms of the publishing industry. I think it’s barbaric that she was forced to come forward, and I think we are trapped in a useless cycle of forcing women to take a stance on how autobiographical their fiction is. I think what people often don’t realise is how similar cases of grooming, in particular grooming by a teacher to a student, are. The fact that most of us were given Lolita is a physical, compelling prop, but it goes far deeper. This was so similar to my personal experience that I laughed out loud at times, at the absurdity of it, and at how unoriginal these men are. It’s remarkable that she managed to create a story so original out of a narrative that we have seen so many times before.
CT: I have read Wendy C, Ortiz’ book Excavation and find similarities to My Dark Vanessa. I understand that the author didn’t want to disclose that she had been abused which is her right but I just can’t help think it was too similar to Excavation.
Follow up: do you feel like you need to trust authors to enjoy their books?
MC: Yes, absolutely. I have to trust an author to even pick up a book/recommend a book after I’ve read a book before the author broke that trust. It’s the same feeling I experience when a Chris Brown song comes on. I do not trust Chris Brown, I will not dance to “Forever” at anyone's goddamn wedding.
JMJ: AGREE, Maggie, regarding Chris Brown and the like. I struggle at times with whether I should trust an author. I do not trust Bret Easton Ellis, but I get something out of his books. I think Murakami broke my trust about how he depicts women after I read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, but before that I thought Norwegian Wood was one of my favorite books. Would it still be if I re-read it today? I’m not sure.
CD: Fuck this is an intense question. I think yes? But also does my reading reflect that? Probably not? I have a Stephen King signifying tattoo for fucks sake and he is definitely not at the top of the ‘men who portray women well’ list. Also, while I am trying to be more conscious about WHAT I read it seems as though my consideration of WHO I read falls through the cracks. It rarely, if ever, occurs to me to consider the author of books before I pick them up. Also, @everyone here, definitely fuck Chris Brown.
ANON: Agree. I mean I could probably hate-read a Woody Allen book, but I’d probably steal it first so he didn’t get the money.
Do you agree with Oprah’s decision to pull this book from her March book club? It seemed to be tied to the controversy around American Dirt and then ballooned into its own with the comparisons to Excavation.
JMJ: I think the issues with American Dirt are different than the issues around My Dark Vanessa and they’re getting wrongly conflated; but I think the publishing industry has a lot to answer to re: who gets seven-figure advances, what stories they’re buying, and the make-up of the people who sit in their offices and make those decisions.
MC: No. Oprah and her team tried to avoid any type of meaningful discussion. This is also an incredibly different issue than the American Dirt controversy. Oprah was trying to save face and her PR team told her to keep a low profile. I feel bad for Kate Elizabeth Russell, but also understand that she is still immensely successful. Her book just hit #6 on the NYT Bestsellers List. An impeccable and admirable feat. Without Oprah’s Book Club. Same thing happened with Jeannine Cummins. It’s so funny to me that Oprah, and Reese Witherspoon, and Emma Roberts have the platforms to amplify new authors, diverse authors, books that weren’t already set to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes they do well, other times I can’t turn my MARKETING brain off and think everything comes down to the dollar and there is meaning in nothing.
JMJ: I agree that Oprah’s decision just seemed like avoidance instead of conversation—their entire treatment of the American Dirt debacle really left a sour taste in my mouth, and they did not do anything to help with this My Dark Vanessa reaction.
CD: No, I think it was unfair and it has now removed a broader and wide reaching platform away from this novel. I think it would have been a good way to curate a discussion, with Russell herself, which could have provided insight to many about the novel and its intent. Because on face value, it’s easy to misconstrue what the book is about and what it is really trying to say. Clearly the Oprah team knew it could turn into a shit storm, but what the fuck is the point of a book club if it can’t lead to a debate? I don’t think shying away from the tough conversations is what we need to be doing these days, and it seems as though that is what some people are doing with this book.
MR: No, I didn’t understand why they pulled their support of Russell’s book. We have to keep having tough conversations, and if putting a spotlight on this book meant opening up the conversation about survivors that would have been great. The decision on Oprah’s part seemed like a lazy one.
ANON: Agree—it was Oprah’s team avoiding a publicity scandal when they could have confronted the bigger issue which is, as others have pointed out, with the industry as a whole and the very narrow pool of authors who get voices.
CT: Not really because the book is out in the public domain therefore it’s too late to do anything now. Whether it’s right or wrong it’s already been published. My only misgivings is that My Dark Vanessa has had a lot of hype and publicity. Yes Excavation got very little or nothing. However it’s now being brought to the for front with the links to My Dark Vanessa.
Did you get any reactions from people online or in person when they saw you were reading My Dark Vanessa?
JMJ: I was out at a large dinner with a few friends and one of them asked what I was reading and upon overhearing, another woman at the table turned around and started talking about how good the book was, how excited she is for it to come out (she works at Audible). The woman I was originally talking to had never heard of it, but then when I showed her the book (because of course it was in my bag), she was surprised to realize she recognized the cover as it had been put on her desk (she works at a woman’s magazine). Online, I think everyone has taken a lot of the conversation around the book at face value without trying to understand the complexities and nuances surrounding it.
HM: Anyone who had the vaguest idea about the controversy was disappointed in me when they saw I’d picked it up. I had people unfollow me on Instagram or tell me to take down my review when I posted it. People made it very clear that they weren’t here for me reading it. Then I had friends who knew nothing about it and had interest in reading it. But most people I discussed it with either had no idea about the controversy or had read the first article by Ortiz and nothing else—no one had really kept up with the story after that.
MC: I had one woman comment that the book was powerful and that was it. I don’t know if my followers and I were in a bubble or what, but I didn’t get backlash or enthusiasm. Which might be worse. I do have a friend over at my house though right now who I am about to pass the book to. CD: My desk buddy and a few others at work had read it. But I didn’t get much of a reaction beyond that. I was trying to hide it on the train though, but only because the copy I was reading had the very dark, “It’s just my luck that when i finally find a soulmate, she’s fifteen years old” quote on it. But online, my likes didn’t fluctuate and it seemed that a lot of people were really interested in reading it for themselves.
ANON: Most people I spoke to hadn’t heard about it. When I explained, people didn’t understand why, with my experience, I would want to read it. I explained it’s something about catharsis, and they seemed to get it. My husband definitely doesn’t get it.
Would you recommend this book? If so, to who?
HM: I’d recommend it. I’m not really sure who I’d recommend it to, but I think it’s worth a read.
MC: Hell yeah. I definitely recommend this book. It’s had me racking my brain for hours over this roundtable. Anything that keeps me entertained and opening parts of my brain that I haven’t cracked for awhile is worth it. Brava to Kate Elizabeth Russell. You kick ass.
CD: I would 100% recommend it. Russell forces us to have a hard conversation, with ourselves (in my case), or one another. She shows us a different side to this unfortunately age-old story and has us holding our breath until the very end. It is something I would want my friends to read, to see how we all feel about it, do our reactions all fall into the same lane? I think it is a novel that forces people to consider how they look at the world and how they think about the world, and therefore, something that demands to be read.
MR: I would recommend with caution because of obvious content warnings, but I clung to it so tightly for the incredible accessibility of the story. It wasn’t mine, but it could have been. This could have happened to anyone. I’d put this in the hands of whoever I knew could stomach it, especially aspiring writers.
ANON: I have already recommended this to people who have had similar experiences to mine and Vanessa’s, obviously with lots of content warnings and knowing where they are at in their trauma journey. I would recommend it to people who want to understand what it’s like to believe so wholeheartedly that this happened because you’re special and not because he’s broken, and how long it takes to undo that, and how, however much you try to stop it defining you, the question about whether it does or not will perhaps always be definition enough.