God, I haven’t thought of Glenn in years. Or was his name Carl? No, his name was Glenn. Glenn with two n’s, not just the one. It was about 25 years ago. I worked as a grocery bagger (I know they call them courtesy clerks now but the main thing I did day in and day out was to bag grocery’s and make sure not to put the watermelon on top of the eggs) and there was this older man, a sometime cashier who mostly worked in the back stocking the shelves. He wasn’t particularly good looking. In fact, he reminded me a lot of Dorothy’s sleazy ex-husband on the Golden Girls, Stanley Zbornak. But there was something about Glenn with two n’s that made me notice him. And made me want to be noticed by him in return.
In Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, it’s the year 2000 and 15 year old Vanessa Wye is at a Maine boarding school called Browick. She’s going through the motions of being a teenager, not really interested in classes until her English teacher, Mr. Strane, seems to take an interest in her. He seems to be the first person who really looks at her, really notices her and she likes that feeling.
It begins with him loaning her his favorite books. One of those books is Lolita, the story of an older man grooming a teenage girl to become his lover. One day while the rest of the class is busy, Vanessa is at the front of the class partially blocked by Mr. Strane’s desk. He touches her knee as they discuss something. It is a brief touch but filled with more meaning than the actual brevity of the act.
Mr. Strane, 42, confesses his deep love to Vanessa and begins to gaslight her. He trots out all the familiar lines of “I’ve never felt this way before, I’ve never been this deeply in love.” And of course, Vanessa, at 15, soaks the attention up even though a part of her knows how wrong it is. Their relationship becomes more intimate. She sneaks out of her dorm room to spend the night at his house. He gives her a skimpy pair of pajamas almost exactly like those given to Lolita by the pedophile Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita.
Vanessa sees how their relationship mirrors the novel, the secrecy, the forbidden meet ups. All the while Strane is telling her how much trouble she could get him into, how he could be fired from his teaching position and even go to jail for statutory rape. It’s all about the trouble he could get into and never about the mental toll the affair is having on Vanessa.
By her junior year, rumors begin traveling around that she’s having an affair with Strane. Her once best friend, Jenny, thinks she sees something in the way Strane grab’s Vanessa’s arm during a fieldtrip and reports him. Vanessa – with a lot of manipulating from Strane – takes a bullet and sacrifices her life at the boarding school, telling the higher ups and a group of students that she lied about the affair because she liked the attention. Strane, for his part (which Vanessa doesn’t find out about until years later) tells his colleagues how Vanessa had been a pesky student who had an obvious crush on him and he was trying to nip it in the bud.
Vanessa is kicked out of school but her relationship with Strane never really ends. Well groomed and slightly mentally abused slave that she already is, Vanessa spends years obsessed with Strane, constantly worried that her life isn’t up to snuff for him, that she’s somehow disappointed him. She doesn’t even get into any other relationships because she’s so mindlessly devoted to him.
The novel bounces back and forth through time, telling the story of 15-year-old Vanessa and then jumping to 32-year-old Vanessa working at a hotel and barely living her life while still under the thrall of her former English teacher Jacob Strane. She finds an article about Browick, her old boarding school, telling the story of a female student who was assaulted by a teacher there. When she confronts Strane, he brushes the assault off as a young girl who misconstrued his patting her knee which was meant a comforting gesture.
Vanessa’s world, already crumbling from the unfaced disaster that began with her teenage affair, begins to rapidly break apart. She realizes she wasn’t the only one Strane mentally waterboarded; she wasn’t the only one who got the line “I’ve never felt this way about someone.” Soon, she begins the work of digging around within herself and asking why she always defended Strane, refusing to see what he did to her as sexual and mental abuse.
At turns horrifying and relatable, My Dark Vanessa is a book that won’t be put down until the last page is soaked up and the story of Vanessa and the almost 20 years under the shadow of a powerful man comes to an end. Whether you have daddy issues and have been in a relationship with an older man who was only flattered by your attention without giving you love in return or you want to read a novel touching on a subject gaining strength and attention throughout the world, My Dark Vanessa will not disappoint you.
Hmmmm…I wonder what Glenn with two n’s is up to these days. Or was it Carl? I really need to write these things down when they happen.