My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

4/5 stars

I remember in the fall of 2017 when the rumblings of the #MeToo movement were first beginning (well, actually, the movement started way before that, but fall 2017 was when the movement really started to take hold in the public consciousness). Most of the men named meant nothing to me, or were so outwardly scummy I was glad to celebrate their downfalls. Then I saw Jesse Lacey’s name come up.

Jesse Lacey, as the lead singer of Brand New, was my god in high school–even though I was too young to have been a Brand New fan in their early-2000s heyday, they still ruled the Emo Tumblrsphere (if you know, you know) and they remained one of the few bands from that phase of my life I had yet to outgrow. The band’s lyricism and maturity seemed to elevate them above the standard mall-punk fare, and their songs exploring existentialism and philosophy effectively made them The Smiths for millennials, and that made Jesse Lacey my Morrissey.

And then he got, as some would call it, ‘me tooed’. Reports came out of multiple women who had been seduced online by Lacey as teenagers, sent nude photos, and were coerced into sending their own. Many, starstruck by the lead singer of their favourite band paying attention to them, didn’t recognise the abuse until years later. Many had been the same age as me at the peak of my fandom. The band had already annouced their upcoming retirement, but the accusations (and Lacey’s weak apology/’sex addiction’ excuse) sent the band spinning out. The farewell tour dates were postponed and never rescheduled. Brand New was no more, but among the most fervent fans, Lacey was still a rock god and a tortured soul who had made some mistakes, and when many of the other men named in ‘Me Too’ scandals of late 2017 popped back up at comedy clubs and film premieres a few months later, some felt that Lacey had been done dirty. What, exactly, should we make of those who stand by abusers even when their actions have been revealed to the world?

This longer-than-normal introduction brings me to My Dark Vanessa, the breakout debut that focuses on the complicated nature of abuse and its aftermath. Vanessa, the narrator, is troubled by a former classmate naming her teacher, Jacob Strane, as her sexual abuser in girlhood–because Vanessa, who also had an affair with Strane, still sees the relationship as her first love. She idolises Strane in the way teenage girls idolise rockstars and poets, and the fanatacism continues into adulthood. She is still in contact with Strane well into her thirties, working at a dead-end hotel concierge job and still tainted by the memories of her affair. This is a difficult read, with a frustrating main character who will probably drive you up the wall–my mom and I were texting about this book recently and agreed we both wanted to give Vanessa a very stern talking-to.

Unreliable narration dominates this story. The novel switches between Vanessa’s current-day life and the beginning of the affair when she was fifteen, at an idllyic Maine boarding school where the lonely, working-class Vanessa struggles to fit in as the ‘scholarship kid’ among her elite peers. This, obviously, makes her a susceptible target for grooming, and she struggles to see Strane’s attention towards her as problematic. She finds it a bit exciting that he compliments her hair and gives her Nabokov books, and doesn’t see his attention as creepy–in the way that Jesse Lacey’s lyrics, though filled with misogyny, just felt so meaningful and interesting to me as as teenager. I’m not defending the actions of anyone here. But My Dark Vanessa captures that adolescent feeling in a way I haven’t seen reflected in other books. It’s uncomfortable, but it is honest.

As the affair becomes more illicit, the young Vanessa becomes more tangled up in the abuse and manipulation Strane is subjecting her too, and the other adults around her aren’t quite sure what to make of this closeness with her teacher. It is a frustrating read, especially seeing all the scenes in which other adults could have taken action but didn’t. While this is quite clearly an adult book, I think young people should read it–it is important for them to understand what abuse can look like, and how it should be addressed. It’s not always an easy read, and might not be for everyone, but from this debut, I’m eager to see where Russell goes next.

I haven’t listened to Brand New since 2017. I sold my t-shirt on a secondhand site, and the Tumblr page I used to rave about them on (along with other bands) has long since been deleted. Honestly I’m forgetting a lot of the lyrics. I know a lot of people will call to separate the art from the artist–Lacey was certainly not the first musician to have this line directed at his work. I have a complicated feeling towards the phrase, and I think it’s something you have to have some level of privilege to be able to do–for victims, their abuse is forever linked to the artist and their art. I hope this work helps people understand that in a deeper way.

MY DARK VANESSA on Amazon.co.uk:

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