Warning: This article may be triggering to readers and discusses the difficult topics of sexual assault, child abuse and pedophilia.
Everyone has experienced the joy of starting a new book and then left it half-finished to collect dust on a shelf. I will not-so-proudly raise my hand and admit that I have been attempting to read Madeline Miller’s novel Circe for the past three years. It is a great book—I could never find the motivation to finish it.
However, recently I was faced with a problem that I had never experienced before. What if you were fully immersed in a book, but knew deep down that the topic was detrimental to your mental health? Would you put it down?
The book in question is the new breakout novel My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. I originally read about this “must read” novel in a review online and immediately looked for it at my local library. There was one copy and I jumped on the reserve list, making me the 11th person in line waiting to read this book. I have never waited so long to receive a library book and was ecstatic when four months later (in October) I was notified that I could go and pick it up. I dived right into it, curious about what exactly made this novel so popular, and by the end of the first chapter I was sick to my stomach.
My Dark Vanessa was written in response to the Me Too movement and tells a harrowing and all too real story. The protagonist, Vanessa Wye, is a single 30-yea-old woman struggling to deal with life in 2017, when she gets a Facebook message from a high school peer who is about to come forward with her sexual assault allegations against their former English teacher. What we soon learn is that Vanessa has been in an on and off again “romantic relationship” with this man since she was his fifteen-year-old student. In a series of flashbacks, the reader observes how Vanessa was groomed and manipulated by her 40-year-old teacher into having a sexual relationship. With these new allegations, Vanessa is forced to confront her past and realize that her experience was not the forbidden love story she had been manipulated into believing.
I firmly believe that this novel is groundbreaking in its authentic portrayal of sexual abuse and childhood trauma. It is a story that gives a voice to assault victims everywhere and clearly shows the progression of manipulation that exists when dealing with pedophilia. But despite this book’s importance, I could not force myself to finish it.
Every day I felt like I struggled to get through another chapter. I knew that this was an important topic to educate myself on and I kept encouraging myself to just keep going. However, after reading the first sex scene shared between this scared 15 year-old-girl and her 40-year-old teacher, all I could do was put my book down and cry.
The point of this article is not to disparage Kate Elizabeth Russel’s work. In fact, I think she deserves all the praise that she is receiving. But what this experience taught me is that sometimes we are presented with great books that we are not ready to read.
Who knows, maybe in a couple of years I will revisit this book. But it is important to remember that we as human beings do not need to purposely traumatize ourselves in order to empathize with other individuals’ experiences—fictional or real. If I never pick up this book again, that is okay too.