Updated: Feb 28
TRIGGER WARNING: sex abuse / grooming / emotional abuse
Two days before my 32nd Birthday I read My Dark Vanessa. I start reading it at 4pm on Saturday, and by 7am on Sunday morning the book is finished and I am done. I read this so quickly partly because I am a fast reader, partly because it is extremely well-written, but mostly because I could not bear to put it down until it had reached some kind of resolve, which I’m not sure it does.
My Dark Vanessa is a fictional book, of course based on truths, about a girl called Vanessa aged 15 who has an ‘illicit affair’ with her 40-something English teacher, Jacob Strane. It is described as an illicit affair, which I suppose in factual terms is what it is, but in reality this is a story of grooming, rape, child abuse, both emotionally and physically. The book is written from Vanessa’s perspective in two periods of her life – when she’s a young girl being groomed and the years following this, and then later, in her early 30s, when it comes out that Jacob Strane has done the same to other girls, and she is being asked to come forward to ‘tell her story’.
The book is dark and harrowing; particularly the way in which it explores how Vanessa views Strane and his treatment towards her – even as an adult, when the cracks begin to show, she still sees herself as special to him, she sees their relationship as a ‘love affair’, a dark and twisted love affair, but a love affair none-the-less. She thrives off his words and his attention towards her, and as a reader, we watch, almost implicated, as she goes to his house aged 15 and he gives her white pyjamas covered in strawberries to sleep in. He then rapes her, while she cries, aged 15. She tells herself and us (the reader) this happened because she is special, she tells us she is compliant. She tells us he loves her. She tells us they are equal. All the while we look on with disgust and horror, as he continues to hurt and abuse her. At the end of the book, the resolve is weak, in the sense that she doesn’t speak out. But she does begin to move forward. She begins to realise that what happened to her was wrong.
I felt sick as I read it, this story that I’d heard so many times before, a story that will happen so many times again. I thought back to when I was 15, I was seeing a 24-year-old, and he told me: ‘you’re special, you’re different, you look older’, just as Strane did to Vanessa. I remember the feeling I got, of power and excitement. I think back to teachers, behaving flirtatiously with me when I flirted with them, teachers themselves making inappropriate comments about me, or other 13-year-old girls, in sex-education classes – everyone laughing, including me. Was it really so funny? I remember the time when I was 15 and I got so drunk I blacked out, I awoke the next day to be told that the police were called because a group of men had been touching me as I lay on a bench outside the pub, pretty much unconscious while they groped and took advantage of a clearly vulnerable young girl. As I got a little older, around 18 years old, I think back to the older man, in a relationship with another younger girl, cheating on her with me, even younger than she was, the feeling of joy and explosiveness I got when he told me I was ‘the only person he could talk to’, the ‘only one who really got him’. Looking back, he probably said that to everyone. And all the others who swarmed me with flattery, at some of my most vulnerable moments. Me, lapping it up, enjoying it, feeling powerful, really not powerful, not at all.
To this day, I’m still questioning if these situations, and the others - too many to mention - were my fault. Was I too provocative? Too flirtatious? Too open? Too easy? Too sad? Too loud? Too self-destructive? If I ‘asked for it’, I can’t really blame them, can I? Then, I wonder if I even have the right to write this. To share this. My experiences were a breeze compared to many, many other women.
And it’s frightening, and I don’t know what to do with this information, and this feeling of being someone, anyone, no one. I am scared that speaking out could damage me in some way, damage my opportunities, my prospects, could damage the way people think of me, the way I think of myself.
My Dark Vanessa might be fictional, but it is true and real. And now, as women, we need to decide what to do with the stories we have, and create systems between us that don’t allow these things to happen to the people we love and care about, the girls and women of our future, or to ourselves. The conversation has started, and things have improved, but not enough. I don’t know the way out, other than to talk, and to learn say no, that’s not ok. And to not be afraid, which is hard, when deep down we are terrified.