Vanessa begins attending a boarding school in Maine when she is a freshman in high school. She convinces her reluctant parents to let her live at this school when she earns a scholarship. Her parents are not wealthy so the scholarship is a must. When the massacre at Columbine happens, they become panicked and believe that their only child will be safer in a private school setting.
Alternating time periods between Vanessa as an adult and as a teenager, author Kate Elizabeth Russell shows readers how the impact of abuse has affected the character.
“My Dark Vanessa” opens with Vanessa, almost 30, texting her sexually abusive high school teacher after she sees a social media post by a former student at the school. The student acknowledges her own abuse by this teacher and asks other victims to come forward.
Remarkably, Vanessa has remained in occasional contact with her abuser. She was sexually abused by Jacob Strane, then 42-years-old, when she was just 14; Vanessa can’t believe that he is guilty of abusing other students since she believed he certainly loved only her.
Young Vanessa, a sophomore, without close friends at school, is flattered when Strane singles her out for attention in his literature class. Vanessa likes to write poetry, and the praise that Strane lavishes on her writing makes her feel special, and more importantly, loved, by someone who sees that she is more mature than the “flighty” students he usually encounters.
When Strane gives her his own copy of “Lolita,” she is flattered that he wants to spend time with her discussing the book. The abuse by Strane continues until Vanessa is out of high school. She is so addicted to his attention that she tries to see him even after she graduates. By then, Strane has lost serious interest in her since she has “outgrown” him, as he tells her.
Because Vanessa has feelings of love for Strane, she does not consider what is happening to her as abuse. She is flattered by his attention although she hates what he does to her physically. She considers it a small price to pay to be loved so much and to be “chosen” among all the girls at the school.
Vanessa’s parents, loving and kind as they are, turn a blind eye to signs of their daughter’s struggle. They are convinced that she has turned away the teacher who “flirts” with her.
The predator is at fault, but so too is the academic institution, one that seeks to protect itself from the harm that would befall the school should it become known that sexual abuse occurred there by a teacher.
“My Dark Vanessa” a serious, well-written novel, makes it unnervingly clear that Strane will say and do anything to get what he wants. He is a master at convincing Vanessa that she is at fault for the abuse. His ability to convince the school that he is innocent is chilling. The story is a reminder of how celebrated institutions, powerful people, and trusted adults can manipulate accusers and victims, and how they can hide crimes in plain sight.