When I was nineteen and in the Army, my immediate supervisor was under investigation for coercing and manipulating one of my peers into a long-term sexual relationship. Well, that’s not quite accurate. He was under investigation, and he certainly had coerced her into having sex with him, but what he was actually under investigation for was whether or not he had helped her cheat at the competition she’d won that was the reason her picture was on the wall of our central building.
Long after he was transferred to another position with equal pay and responsibility in a different unit—and she was fired in disgrace without severance—my new supervisor asked me why I wasn’t interested in entering the competition. He’d somehow noticed that I was smart enough to have won, and didn’t understand why I wasn’t even trying. At that age, I didn’t have the words to explain to him that I knew what everyone would think if they saw my picture up on the wall where hers had been, and why I didn’t understand that he didn’t know it, too.
MY DARK VANESSA is, as one might expect for a book about child sex abuse, laced with low-key suicidality. The main character, Vanessa, is obviously a brilliant writer, insightful and nuanced and interesting, and just as obviously she doesn’t believe that she’s good at anything. Her rapist uses writing to get to know her, uses her love of books to groom her, and although she promises her college professors that she’s going to pursue an MFA, when she thinks about going to grad school, she thinks: I’d rather die. It’s not melodramatic, just a dull fact. If the price of entry to a literary life is repeated rape, the warping of every experience of romance and love and sex, and the disbelief and disgust of everyone who is supposed to protect you, then she wants off the ride.
Sometimes I think about what the world would look like if all the girls like me, like my peer in the Army who certainly had it worse than I did, like Vanessa, were nurtured instead of eaten up. If we weren't warned off public success and punished when we started to achieve it, if the price for being a person in the world was not quite so high.
It would certainly not look like this one. Throughout MY DARK VANESSA are sprinkled literary references to specific plotlines, all in books considered classics. Vanessa’s Humbert gives her a copy of LOLITA to acclimate her to the idea of man-girl relationships. The title of the book is from another Nabokov work. Shakespeare, Robert Frost, old English authors I’ve never read—the cultural legacy of terrible men is everywhere, baked into the air we breathe and the stones our academies are built of.
Where is the cultural legacy of the girls they consume?
Here, I think. Here’s a start. I loved the sense of place I got at the end of this novel—of having a place of your own and being able to relax, calmly, in the sun, because you belong right where you are. That’s what it takes, I think, to have a literature. And this is truly literature.
Content warning: rape, child sex abuse, poor reactions to teenage girls in danger, and suicidality
Pairs well with: Lolita Podcast, by Jamie Loftus, on IHeartRadio