In 1999, Britney Spears appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a black bra and polka-dot panties, clutching a stuffed Teletubby in one hand and a pink princess phone in the other. Beside her, a caption calls her a “Teen Dream,” and in the first line of the accompanying interview, Steven Daly writes, “Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so.” At the time, Spears was 19, but her videos still featured her dancing down lockered hallways and wearing a prep-school uniform.
I think about that Rolling Stone interview a lot as an example of the distorted sexual messages she and I and all the other girls of the ’90s learned about sexiness, chastity, and how much blame to shoulder for our own objectification. Kate Elizabeth Russell, author of My Dark Vanessa, tells me that she does as well, and the overlap of what she calls the “early aughts Lolita complex” and her own decades-long fascination with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has resulted in her debut novel, which at once serves as a complicated portrait of the psychological toll of sexual abuse and an indictment of a culture that still doesn’t quite understand that Lolita is not a love story.
My Dark Vanessa chronicles the sexual abuse and complex PTSD of a 14-year-old victim groomed and assaulted by a teacher at an elite prep school. The narrative flashes backward and forward, juxtaposing the abuse with a troubled adulthood in which the titular Vanessa desperately frames her abuse as a love affair in order to preserve her own fragile sense of self.
Reviews of the book keep calling it a “love story” in an effort to explain that it’s not a love story. One interview began with an explanation that Russell herself had never actually been raped by a teacher, as if that matters. And perhaps the confusion around how to talk about My Dark Vanessa comes from the long-normalized cultural practice of assigning sexual agency to girls as justification for the actions of grown men, from Lolita’s Dolores to famous teenagers like Spears and Fiona Apple, without ever asking any uncomfortable questions about whether that normalization enables abusers and silences victims. For example, the copies of Lolita that both Russell and I owned in the early 2000s featured a blurb by Vanity Fair that read, “The only convincing love story of our century.”
But while the upsetting legacy of Lolita as a seductive love story endures (in My Dark Vanessa it’s actually used as a secret gift from the middle-aged male teacher, Jacob Strane, to groom and test Vanessa), novels centering the child victim as the protagonist are thin on the ground. NPR’s review lists Kate Walbert’s His Favorites and Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise as two of the “best” recent examples. And pending the novel’s release, author Wendy Ortiz called the book “eerily” similar to her own memoir Excavation on Twitter. Though Ortiz later clarified that she wasn’t accusing Russell of plagiarism, and reviewers have noted that the stories have little in common outside the premise of an older teacher assaulting a student. But there is something to be said for how uncannily familiar the abuse seems, and not just because of the narrative’s reliance on Lolita. From my high school alone, I can think of two instances of rumors of classmates having “affairs” with male teachers, allegations that circulated in whispers as the men quietly transferred to other schools. And while NPR dismisses Vanessa as “unlikable” and the book as a “too long” narrative feeling “crafted to a fault,” its story, along with those of authors like Ortiz, is an important indicator of a cultural shift in the ways we talk about teenage girls and abuse.
Recently, Russell spoke with Jezebel about Lolita, Spears, and the evolving study of trauma theory, all of which played a part in the writing of My Dark Vanessa. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Lolita plays an important role in My Dark Vanessa. In the middle of MeToo, is there still a place for a novel like Lolita?
KATE ELIZABETH RUSSELL: I think so, but obviously I’m biased in that I have such a close relationship with that novel. I just love it.
That’s interesting because reading My Dark Vanessa, I couldn’t tell if you loved it or hated it.
I feel like I’ve heard that before, specifically when I talk about Nabokov as a whole, people have said, “Are you a fan or are you not? it’s hard to tell.” With Lolita, I first read it when I was 14. I’ve reread it countless times and always approached that book from this position of trying to find Dolores in the text. As a 14-year-old I was doing that because I related to her, though it evolved into something more than a narcissistic search for myself. Searching for Dolores is searching for the real story going on beneath Humbert Humbert’s justifications and the lush prose to the actual abuse that’s going on.
And it’s there. It’s there in the text sort of hidden in the details that Humbert Humbert lets slip, whether on purpose or not I don’t know, but details of her high IQ, her poor hygiene, her laziness, and her sense of humor. These really heartbreaking things that she’ll say that give you glimpses into who she is as a person and the trauma of the abuse that she’s experiencing. That’s all in the text. It’s just so easy to gloss over. So I think of Lolita as a challenge that we almost certainly fail as a culture and as readers.
There isn’t really much of a history of teenage survivors of sexual abuse getting to be the protagonists of their own stories. Did you think about that as you were writing it?
That was always the approach I was taking, though I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of, “This approach hasn’t been done or hasn’t been done enough, so therefore I should do it.” I was writing from Vanessa’s perspective because this was her story, and she was the character who had been with me for so many years of my life. There were times during my MFA program I was encouraged to write from other characters’ perspectives, especially the teacher’s perspective. I did it, though it didn’t feel right. Back then I wasn’t able to fully articulate why. I decided to focus the narrative exclusively on Vanessa, and once I did that, I tried to commit myself fully to her. But even then, there were struggles with letting my own 30-something-year-old voice slip into the first-person narrative. I was signaling to the reader: I know these scenes of abuse are wrong. I know she’s being hurt there. I get it. So I also had to get myself out of the narrative.
After writing the sexual abuse scenes, did you worry that people wouldn’t know you knew they were wrong?
It was intimidating, but while I was working on the book, I always thought this book was too difficult and dark to find a wide readership, so I think that was helpful in a way. I was operating under this assumption that this would be a small press book, or maybe a book that just wasn’t read by a ton of people in the way that relentlessly dark books about sexual violence tend not to be read by a ton of people. Maybe that’s wrong. I was just trying to be as true to Vanessa as I could.
What did you read to prepare to accurately write from Vanessa’s point of view?
It really started with reading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. It’s a clinical text, but I also think of it as a pretty foundation text for contemporary trauma theory in that she introduces the idea of complex post-traumatic stress disorder which she distinguishes from noncomplex PTSD in that complex PTSD is the result of prolonged trauma over many years. The difference is that complex trauma—versus an acute isolated event—invades a victim’s sense of self and their entire personality. So reading that text got me thinking about this theoretical framework of trauma and how this book that I was already working on fit into it so well, and I started to read more literary trauma theory like Cathy Caruth and a lot of Freud and also [Jaques] Lacan.
That allowed me to think really critically as a writer how to render post-traumatic stress on the page, and how to write a scene of sex abuse that isn’t eroticized, but that’s still honest to show the way the mind can sort of leave the room or observe it from a distance.
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert goes out of his way to explain, “I’m very attractive.” The abuser Alyssa Nutting’s Tampa does the same thing. These descriptions seem tailored for the protagonists to convince themselves that this is attraction and not abuse.
A lot of girls are taught, in regards to sex, not to expect pleasure from it, and that they won’t necessarily enjoy it. I wanted to extend that to [Vanessa’s character]: “Okay so when it comes to sex, you might not enjoy it, and you might actually be repulsed. But that’s just how it is, and you just have to deal with it.” Which is heartbreaking, but I think that it’s relatable even if you didn’t experience this kind of sexual abuse. This just “grin and bear it” attitude toward sex is something that a lot of girls feel or felt.
Setting this book in 2000 with the specter of Britney Spears and Fiona Apple looming in the background—I think about Spears’s Rolling Stone cover with the Teletubby all the time and also Fiona Apple and this weird teenage sexuality in videos directed by men. Reading the book, I thought of all the ways that coming of age in 2000 really fucked me up. I was wondering: Could anybody from any generation could say that, or were we a specific kind of fucked up? Do you think 2000 was peak Lolita creepiness for our culture?
It definitely seemed like a starting point. Vanessa and I are about the same age. She’s like a year younger than me, so I had firsthand really intimate knowledge with that time period and the way that Lolita showed up in pop culture, but at the same time, I think there was this specific Lolita trope that was so prominent then. When I was working on my dissertation for my PhD I referred to it as the early aughts Lolita complex. And Britney Spears was the sort of perfect example of this in a situation like that Rolling Stone cover.
For the record, I love Britney Spears.
And part of it is the tragedy of Britney Spears. The fans who worry so much about her now are kind of culpable in her eventual breakdown.
That’s what I wanted to show in the novel. It’s just a brief mention in 2007 of Vanessa dicking around on her laptop and seeing the paparazzi photos of Britney when she was having a really hard time, and her quote/unquote “breakdown” was something to be gleefully entertained by. It’s so cruel in hindsight, but I remember going to Perez Hilton and consuming her obvious pain just another news story. I hate that, but I was completely culpable. We all were culpable.
What about perception in regards to My Dark Vanessa? Are interviewers asking you if this is a love story?
People seem to get it. The questions about it being a love story are more asking about my own evolution in thinking about it. Because when I was young I did think of this as a love story.
There was a point when you read Lolita and thought it was a love story?
I mean, yes, but even when I was a teenager I saw love stories as having a lot of room for obsession and even violence.
Oh, I’m a V.C. Andrews girl through and through.
Right. And I still think this is a way we practice and conceptualize romantic love. The practice still does leave a lot of room for abuses, and I think that’s part of the difficulty in something like Me Too. There are real emotions that are wrapped up in the relationships or encounters, where there was obviously an abuse of power. And you were maybe taken advantage of, but you still feel romantic or tender toward that person. That’s really really tough, and it’s harder to talk about. So in terms of the book being a love story, if I’m asked those questions I say it leaves a lot of room to unpack what a love story is.