I read My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russel in 2020 and I can’t stop to think about it (read my review here). Then I found this reading group guides (there’s such thing!) in www.readinggroupguides.com and I decided to answer all the probing questions!
So, a little heads up, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russel (2020) is a dark romance fiction story about a controversial affair between a female student, Vanessa (15 years old) and a male teacher, Strane (40-ish) in a dormitory school.
Things are bound to get wrong. And oooh, don’t they toxic with each other.
So dark, it’s great. Go read it if you’re a fan of Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Object) or similar genre’s author.
Bring in the discussion!
1. What is your impression of Strane? How do you interpret Vanessa’s attraction to him? Do you consider him an “evil” or “sick” character?
I think of Strane as a manipulative, narcissistic character. I think Vanessa is at that age when she wishes that someone would want her sexually and emotionally. She’s still angry for what happened between her and her best friend Jenny but she haven’t got that proper conversation, and it bothers her a lot. Maybe she did like her best friend’s boyfriend secretly but she just won’t admit that. And I think Strane saw that, either consciously or unconsciously, and just know how to get Vanessa interested in him. I wouldn’t call Strane evil or sick, though. He’s just so good at manipulating people, even manipulating himself in the process. He seems like he always know the right answer to his dilemma.
2. At the start of her second year at The Browick School, Vanessa is lonely and withdrawn. How does this make her susceptible to Strane’s advances? Do you think her seclusion contributes to the reasons Strane is drawn to her?
Obviously, yes. She’s got so much in her mind at the time everything is happening: her low grades, her parents’ expectations, her non-existed love life, her now-long-gone best friend–all crushed her confidence so bad. She just need something, just a thing, to be great, just one thing she could be proud about. I think all of it makes her more susceptible to Strane’s advances.
3. Vanessa is underage when she first has sex with Strane, but believes that she consented and wanted his attentions. Where do you see the line that separates consent and rape in this situation? If Vanessa had been 18 at the start of their relationship, would this change your perception?
I think that moment when Vanessa woke up in the middle of the night only to found that Strane has been doing something sexual to himself (and asking her to help), and then how she felt afraid, but Strane kept saying that everything is alright, shushing her while entering her (it’s a very devastating scene). That Strane kept asking permission after he did the thing. That right there, felt like a moment of rape to me. Even more annoying because right before that scene, Strane said that he don’t want to be that creepy guy, that he wanted to be a great figure in Vanessa’s life. But he did something so sick afterwards.
The fact that she’s underage when the thing happened makes me angrier, to think that all of that happened to a little girl who’s only wish is to feel something, to be adored, but she signed something bigger that night without her even understanding the risks that are waiting for her. To imagine her bright future that may be getting a little bit dim that night. I didn’t think I would feel this mad when she’s 18, though. Still mad, but would not be the similar kind of anger.
4. Discuss psychological grooming and its techniques. Do you feel you have a stronger understanding of this issue after reading the novel? What specific examples of grooming would you cite in Strane’s behavior toward Vanessa?
Strane was sharing all literatures about love affairs between adolescents and older men before all of those things happened. He slipped it to her like it was a recommendation, her reading of the month, but he clearly was trying to plant an idea, an insight, preparing Vanessa, showing her his perspective before he decided to take the moves.
I know about psychological grooming before I read this novel. The beginning of the novel was killing me because I kept saying to myself, as if I am talking to Vanessa, “It’s just an idea, there’s another perspective that you need to know too.”, “BURN THAT BOOK, YOU ARE NOT READY.”
5. Do you think that Vanessa was the first student Strane pursued in this manner? If so, why or why not?
I don’t think so. To someone who desired young girl and cannot seem to hold his urges, it won’t be the first and surely won’t be the last.
6. Besides her seclusion, why do you think Strane singles out Vanessa? Does any of his behavior provide insights into his decision-making process?
I think because Vanessa tried so hard to be different from her other peers, so Strane knew that the only thing he needed to do is to prove to her that she’s indeed different from the other girl.
You’re extraordinary, let me tell you why I know that – kind of moves.
And then Vanessa just keep asking for more, the lolita-ish book, the knee-touching, the private moment. She was deep in her knee, smearing her fingerprint here and there, claiming her place in Strane’s office before everything happened. Strane was basically collecting proofs after proofs, making sure that he wouldn’t be the only one being accused if Vanessa decided to tell her parents and friends about her too-friendly teacher.
7. Strane tells Vanessa, “It’s just my luck that when I finally find my soulmate, she’s fifteen years old.” How do you interpret Strane expressing moral conflict over Vanessa’s youth and concern for her future? Do you think he truly knows that he is doing something wrong, or is only worried about the potential consequences?
I think he definitely knew that he’s doing something that would risk his job and life. If it’s not, he wouldn’t said that it’s his bad luck to find a 15 years-old lover. I don’t think he’s thinking anything about Vanessa’s future. He could wait, he could stop, he could ask for help, but he’s not.
8. How do you perceive Vanessa’s relationship with Jenny? Do you think things might have played out differently if Jenny hadn’t started dating?
I strongly believe that Vanessa was either fall in love secretly with Jenny’s boyfriend or Jenny. That kind of post-traumatic breakup was a bit weird for someone who’s just losing her best friend over a boy. I think things could be different if they were still best friend, at least Vanessa could tell Jenny what happened before everything’s too late.
9. We move back and forth in time between Vanessa’s teenage years and her present. How does Vanessa change throughout the years, or not change? What does this signify about the lasting effects of her relationship with Strane?
I think the event was so traumatic that Vanessa’s mental growth got stopped when she’s 15 years old. She’s till that little know-it-all girl, afraid of admitting that she did something she regrets so much. She wants to be special. That’s all she wants, and aren’t we all?
10. What do you think is the fundamental difference between Vanessa and Taylor and the way they respond to Strane’s advances? Do you consider their respective responses to be products of shifting cultural mores, or different upbringings, or something else?
Different personalities, different ways to cope with a similar situation. Vanessa didn’t want to be seen as a failure. The moment that she realized that she’s making mistakes, she’s regretting that and secretly hating herself for that, but she wants to make it intentional, so she wouldn’t think of herself as stupid. She’d rather be called rebel than stupid, careless girl.
Taylor might not thinking about other people’s thinking that much. When she’s feeling uncomfortable, she do something to get out of it.
11. Do you consider Vanessa a reliable narrator? How do you think the novel would have read differently if it were told from another character’s point of view?
I think it’s great that Kate Elizabeth Russel made Vanessa as the reader’s point of view. I could feel the dilemma, the prison that she’s made for herself because she cannot fathom the shame she would suffer if she admits that she did let her parents down for something so futile. You could see that the moment her mother accepted her daughter’s as she is, showing that she forgave Vanessa, the daughter is starting to be relax and let go too.
I would love to see it from Strane’s side of personality, though.
12. Strane says, “We’re living in a different time,” referring to the change in attitude toward power imbalances in relationships. How far do you think society has progressed from even 10 years ago? How do you think Vanessa’s story would have changed if she had been a teenager in present day?
I think the #metoo movement nowadays would definitely help teenager Vanessa to speak up. People have more perspectives today, I won’t say that is wiser, but they surely think differently than 10 years ago.
As for the imbalance of power topic, I would support the fair judgement of both said-victim and said-perpetrator. To evaluate the case not only because of the sex and age of all the people involved in the event.
Men might be considered more powerful 10 years ago, but I’m afraid another strong and sided new stigma aren’t the solutions we are all looking for.
Let’s just strive to build a better world for everyone.
13. How much do you think Vanessa’s mother suspected about her daughter’s relationship before the school becomes involved? How do you interpret her response after she sees evidence of Vanessa’s relationship with Strane?
I think, like Vanessa, she can’t immediately admit that she’s been way too relax to realize that something’s happening in her daughter life. So she avoided it, she hid everything under the rug, pretended everything is okay. She might also be thinking about how much money and energy she need to spend if she decided to make it a case. Adding the way Vanessa’s attitude towards the problem so far, she decided it’s not worth it.
14. What do you make of Strane and Vanessa’s interpretations of Vladimir Nabokov? How do their references to his work change as their relationship progresses?
I think Strane just wanted Vanessa to see that the affair between Lolita and Humbert Humbert was happening because both have something to do with it. Lolita was an active decision maker in the relationship too. He basically didn’t want Vanessa to think of him as a merely predator.
15. Vanessa muses, “Looking like a Lolita and knowing exactly what I wanted…I wonder how much victimhood they’d be willing to grant a girl like me.” How does appearance and behavior factor into our interpretations of consent, victimhood and agency?
I would interpret this question as will people think differently if Vanessa didn’t look like Lolita and in a situation similar to Lolita, whereas Lolita represents the figure of helpless, innocent, young girl, bathed in beauty and intelligence, trapped in a situation where she’s became the object of fantasy of an older man?
If Vanessa aged older, appeared stronger, or maybe had a history of ill-behavior, would people still place her as the victim of the case, or not?
I think appearance and behavior would clearly influence people’s opinions upon the roles of everyone’s involved in the case. They would look for the cause, ask for the justice, because they will project it to their own life. What if the similar thing happened to them, or their beloved family members and friends? They will try to determine if their world is a safe place to live, and does everyone living up to everyone’s expectation.
16. How has social media shaped the way we respond to news about harassment and abuse allegations? How does the cacophony of responses help or hinder all parties involved in the case, or even others who find themselves in similar situations?
My thoughts are quite typical about this. Social media has allowed us to read and send unfiltered opinions. It’s nothing new, but I will suggest anyone who’s involved in this type of case to reduce their time in social media for a time being. Let someone else read through the comments and posts if there’s a need for it.
17. MY DARK VANESSA is a work of fiction, but there are many parallels to the real world. How has this novel affected your understandings of victimhood, agency and consent? Do you consider Vanessa a victim — and why or why not?
I just wish for Vanessa or anyone who’s experiencing the similar thing in the real world for a safe place or a safe person for them to tell their feelings and problems.
Whatever their decisions, I hope they woke up feeling better about the world, forgiving their mistakes (if they think of it as a mistake), and start over (if they want a new life).
Self-love and self-confidence are two of the most important. Don’t ask what other person is thinking about you, don’t hang on too much on that ‘victim’ or ‘abuser’ label. Life goes on.