My Dark Vanessa

Trigger warning. Spoiler warning.

I’d like to say that I am being completely open in my review of this book. That in my words I am bringing you into the deep, dark parts of my soul that I’ve never brought anyone else before.

I imagine that I’ll bring you close. I’ll string up a laundry line between two trees in the backyard and hang out some of my memories to dry. Hang them out unwashed and bloody, some covered in a mildew that has been growing for most of my life.

But there are some levels of human depravity that I have no interest in sharing. Some memories I cannot admit to being mine. Memories that some other person has.

I finished listening to the Audible audio book of “My Dark Vanessa” this morning. It feels difficult to put into words the tumultuous advance of dread, horror, and recognition that took place in me as I stumbled carelessly into this story.

As the little girl in me climbed up out of ashes of memories that I’ve burned over and over again through the years, a dark phoenix of pain and distaste. Of incredulity.

In an interview after completion of the book, the author says that she started writing this book while as a teenager, to explore the ways in which she noticed society sexualizing teenage girls.


As if our sexualization doesn’t happen at birth. As if the pretty perfect pink dresses with white lily lace and ears pierced with diamonds haven’t already marked us for life as a thing meant to only be beautiful. A thing.

I write these words, my face slathered in a mask of blemish-covering cream and golden blush on my cheeks. Because I want to be professional. Be respected. Be someone more that what only a blind person can see.

It makes me feel like a hypocrite.

Every time I tell a woman she is beautiful. Every time I tell someone I like their dress. Their lipstick. Their earrings.

Hypocrite. Enabler.

In this book, the main character is involved with her male teacher at a boarding school. They have a tortuous and abusive “relationship” for years. During these years she learns of other girls who were “only groped.”

The book gives us this main monster to grapple with. This main monster to thrust our hate at.

And perhaps we forget to pay attention to the others.

The author hints at them. The men who return the glances of a teenage girl. The other teacher the article ended up being about.

When I was a child, I had a lot of talks with God. About why sex was a theme in my life. Why sexual abuse was a constant part of my existence. I used to think this benevolent father in the heavens thought I still had something to learn about it.

That I had to learn how to say no. Or learn how to like it. Or how to be the one in control.

Reading this book has made me realize how so much of my life has been colored by the experiences I had as a child. As if my brother being hit by a car, my parent’s unhealthy relationship slowly spiraling into madness, my mother’s debilitating mental health issues and the eventual death of my brother four years later was not enough to provide me with the fodder for a fucked up existence.

I hear the narrator of the audio book, Grace Gummer, in a guttaral tone of grief say, “I need it to be a love story. I need it to be that.”

And I think back to the many times I’ve said, “I can’t regret the things that have happened in my life because I like who I am, and I would not be me if I hadn’t had those experiences.” I ignore that the logic doesn’t hold. That there could have been multiple versions of me that I would have liked.

And I think back to the many times I’ve thought, “Because of experiencing these things, I’ll know how to recognize it in my own children. And save them from it.”

And how these things that happen to us don’t just happen to us a little girls. They happen to us as daughters of men who feel proud when they’re told their daughter is beautiful and impotent when told of instances of sexual assault and abuse.

In the story, one of the tragedies is how this event colored the relationship between mother and daughter. How Vanessa’s mother sits in a meeting listening to lies told about her daughter, then sees photographic evidence or a sick and twisted relationship between her daughter and the teacher. The mother keeps her silence. She sees it as a way to save her daughter from the horrible experience of police and lawyers and press.

But in her darkest moments of lucidity, Vanessa questions why her mother didn’t do more.

These recollections of the main character brought me out of the book and back to a hot attic in the Georgia summer of 1991, when I work for a man, probably my father’s age, for a little bit of cash.

That day we are installing drywall and insulation. I am covered from neck to toe in solid dark green sweats. An outfit I would have never remembered if I had not been wearing it that day.

I wore a mask and my hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Sweat dripped into my eye, the salt stinging as I blinked away tears trying not to rub stray fiberglass threads from my hands onto my face.

I remember liking the work, despite the miserable heat, the banter between myself and the man pleasant. Just a down-to-earth nice guy who thought he was funny. I remember he had this tool that marked chalk lines onto the drywall so that we knew where to cut, sections precisely measured and placed.

But there are memories that are blurry. What was he wearing? What did he say exactly to start my heart racing in my chest? What was it that he said that made me start wishing for my father?

I don’t remember every word. But I remember his hulking form coming to stand in front of me, his shadow looming over me as with his body he made me aware of just how small I was. I remember him saying something like, “You’ve been teasing me all day.”

I try to laugh it off. I say, “Yeah, covered from head to toe in green sweats and wearing a mask is soooooooo asking for it.” I try to convey an air of teenage nonchalance, as if I don’t feel trapped. As if I don’t imagine him pushing me against the wall with his hands around my throat while he pulls down my pants and roughly shoves himself inside me. As if I am not having a conversation with God in my head, imagining the wise old sage beaming down on me and saying, “You didn’t recognize him as a predator. Maybe you’ll do better next time.” His disappointment evident in the shaking of his giant head, eyebrows knit in consternation. I imagine him talking to Jesus, “I keep sending her these predators, and she still trusts people. Is she stupid, or what?”

I recognize myself in every eye roll that Vanessa makes. Eye rolls are the currency of teenage girls. I roll my eyes at this man. This man who has backed me into a corner of the attic and hidden the door from my view. This man who has let me know, without saying it, that there is no escape.

I tell him in a voice I have never used before, “TAKE ME HOME. RIGHT NOW.” I am a tigress. But in my mind I am already downplaying what will happen to me. I am already telling myself that it will not be that bad. I’ve had sex before. Everybody has sex. Sex is a biological drive of every living thing. I am telling myself that if I just give in, he won’t hurt me. My dad knows he’s with me. He can’t kill me. It will be okay.

There is a tick of time where he also considers his options. What options were flicking through his mind? Did he imagine paying me for the day’s work, handing extra cash toward me, using it to draw me close to him as he whispered for me not to tell my father? Was he trying to figure out if he could get away with raping me? If he could talk me into wanting it?

And then he steps out of my way and I flee the house and wait by the car door and wait for him to unlock it. It takes about 40 minutes for him to drive me home.

As we drive he says, “Come on, just show me your tits.”

And I am a bundle of fear, but hands on the handle of the car door, as far away from him as possible. I bring up his wife. I bring up bars. “Why don’t you go find someone your own age?” He tells me, “Age doesn’t matter.”

At that exact moment we are passing an old farm house, an old lady in a rocker out on her porch. “Age doesn’t matter? Why don’t you go fuck her?”

I sound powerful to my own ears. It is power brought on from the thought that when I get home, I will tell my father about this. I will tell my father and he will call and tell this man’s wife. He will tell the man that he is disgusting and despicable. He will rage for me. I am armed with the knowledge that he will not get away with this.

My body floods with relief as the rubber of the tire hits our partially-graveled driveway. He doesn’t ask me not to tell. I don’t even remember if he tried to pay me. I don’t remember if I took it. I just remember being so relieved to be safe and to be home. I remember being ready for justice.

But in my father I saw nonchalance. Impotence. Inaction.

All these years later, I wonder about the adult men that had been in my life, if they know there were moments that stay with me all of these years. My uncle with his wet, sloppy kisses on my face and his hand on my back. My constant attempts to avoid his disgusting mouth upon my skin, how I never once was able to. How my father allowed it. How my ex father-in-law made sexual comments about the friend’s of his teenage daughter.

How my father recently made a “harmless” comment about my step-daughter’s body, as if he has any right to do so. Or a couple of years ago when he made a comment about the little sister of my son’s girlfriend.

How have we created this culture where it’s okay to comment about little girls’ bodies? About their faces? About how “mature” they seem?

One of the most painful memories I have is of a time when I was with my ex-husband and his family. We were waiting to enter SeaWorld, and I was trying to get our son settled into his stroller. My husband was twirling around his keys and accidentally hit a woman with them. As he reached out to say sorry and get his keys, he accidentally groped her breast.

When retelling the story to his father, his father immediately asked, “What did it feel like?” And my husband responded, “Firm.” And then they both devolved into fits of raucous laughter that haunts me to this day. This one incident, when taken apart from a life, seems almost innocuous. A father-and-son sharing laughter and having a bit of harmless fun.

But over time, these seemingly innocent events evolve into a society that sexualizes little girls. A society where being accused of rape is not as bad as being raped. A society where consent only starts to matter when a girl reaches a certain age. A society where she is always “asking for it” and where inappropriate behavior is seen as harmless. A society where it takes 30 years for a father to say, “I remember how hurt you were. I should have taken it more seriously.”

A society where a woman fears giving too much affection to her children. Of feeling envious of parents who can lay their head in their child’s lap and post their “Lay Your Head on Your Toddler Challenge” video to TikTok without cringing. Without their mind taking them to dark places. A society where a woman chooses to be overly sexual because that means she is the one in control. She can joke about sex because she is choosing to do so. Where innuendo is her currency. Because she needs it to be a choice she can control. She needs it to be that.

So, what do I think about this book that has lain me flat against rock bottom and pressed tears from my eyes for days and days? I think it is something that way too many women…teenage girls…and children…will find relatable.

5 of 5 stars, but I can’t call it a “Must-read,” because while it will be cathartic for some, it will be too raw for others. Too close in time and detail.

Buy it. Keep it on your shelf. Take it down when you’re ready for it. When you’re ready to move on. When you’re ready to get a dog.

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