Episode 9: Transcription

Today on the podcast, Head of Reference Janina and I discuss the new novel My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. This book tells the story of the psychological and emotional effects of an affair that the main character, Vanessa Wye, had with her teacher at a Maine boarding school when she was 15. The book jumps from the year 2000, when Vanessa and her teacher begin this abusive relationship, to the year 2017, as she navigates her memories of what happened in the wake of the present-day Me Too movement. There is a lot to discuss, but I also wanted to give a heads-up: this interview deals with heavy subject matter and is probably not appropriate for kids. Enjoy!

Julie: Hi everyone! Today I’m here with Janina, who is the Head of Reference at the library, and we have actually both read the same book, it’s called My Dark Vanessa and it’s by Kate Elizabeth Russel, and it is a very new book – it came out in March of 2020 – and it was extremely popular; it was on many of the must-read lists for 2020, and it got a lot of great reviews, so I was really excited to read it and I think Janina was as well. The subject matter is pretty difficult to deal with; it’s about a woman whose name is Vanessa Wye, and it takes place between her teenage years in the year 2000 and then when she is in her 30s in the year 2017, and it deals with sexual abuse that she suffered at the hands of her teacher at a private boarding school in Maine, and the reckoning that she goes through both in her teenage years and in adulthood about what happened to her, in the wake of the Me Too movement. So it’s pretty current, because there’s not a lot of books that have been written about this yet, so I think we’re both pretty excited to discuss it. So thanks for being here today.

Janina: Thank you.

Julie: So just at first, to start, I would love to just ask you what drew you to this book, why you chose it, why’d you pick it up?

Janina: I really was intrigued by the premise of the book because it was taking – it seemed to take on a different view of the predator and, for lack of a better word, prey relationship between a teacher and a student in that Vanessa seemed inclined to think that she was to blame for it and that it was completely consensual, and that kind of idea intrigued me to delve into the book to find out what exactly happened between these two to make her think that.

Julie: Yeah, I would definitely say the same thing. I think, you know, many of the reasons that I mentioned at the beginning of the show – it was on many of the must-read lists and it’s also one of the first fictional accounts of the hashtag Me Too movement that I’ve seen so far, so I just wanted to see how the author would go about that topic. 

Janina: Right, same.

Julie: Also, the cover was really – I thought it was beautiful. 

Janina: Yeah.

Julie: That drew me to it as well. It’s a woman with her hand over her eye and over her hand is a butterfly, and it’s done in black and white, so it’s kind of interesting.

Janina: Yeah, it kind of – the dark part of My Dark Vanessa, kind of fits the cover.

Julie: What about your general impressions of the book?

Janina: My general impressions were that sometimes it was – I had to put it down because it got a little icky in places, which I think is – you know, it’s supposed to be icky because of the nature of this “relationship,” and I kind of put quotes around that “relationship,” and there were plenty of times that I got irritated with the characters, especially Vanessa, which sounds odd – I mean, Strane was just a straight-up predator, but Vanessa was a victim, and I kind of wanted to smack her a few times and tell her to wake up, but I couldn’t. At the same time I couldn’t leave it, I had to finish it, because I had to know what her ultimate action was going to be. 

Julie: Yeah, I agree, I found it really uncomfortable to read – almost all of it. It’s not really enjoyable to read, for sure, it’s not, you know, an escape for right now – but I thought that it was an important read – definitely something that I wanted to finish, like you say. And I thought it was powerful; I thought the story and the way that she told it was powerful. 

Janina: Yes, I agree.

Julie: What did you think about the tone and setting of the novel? I thought it was pretty specific to the subject; I wonder if you feel the same way.

Janina: Yes – yes, I thought that the tone and the setting were – I thought it was good, I found the book to be really, I mean it was dark and kind of disturbing, but –

Julie: So it takes place in Maine, like I mentioned, at a boarding school, for much of the book, and then the other part of the book is when she’s an adult and she’s living in Portland, Maine. And then at times she’s at her parents’ house, which is, you know,. maybe closer to her boarding school. But, yeah, it’s all like the fall, or early winter, in Maine, like around a ?pond –

Janina: The decay and the death and –

Julie: And it’s all very dark.

Janina: To make it even more morbid.

Julie: It’s just pretty bleak.

Janina: Yes. That’s just the general sense of the whole book, I thought, was bleak.

Julie: Yes.

Janina: But there was – there was this smidgen of hope, it was a little bit like Pandora’s box – 

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Janina: There was a smidgen of hope that things were gonna be – that she was gonna figure it out, and she was gonna be okay, sort of, as much as she could be.

Julie: Yeah. I agree. I sort of kept waiting for her, in the present, to sort of make the realizations that she had to make.

Janina: Those were the parts that were very frustrating for me, I have to admit – because, as much as I had hoped that she would do it, a part of me was wondering “exactly at what point is this going to happen, because you’re really irritating me right now, and things are blowing up, and you have the perfect opportunity to come clean, and you’re not,” and that was very frustrating to me.

Julie: I felt like the book was a little long, too, it kind of lasted maybe longer than I would’ve chosen.

Janina: Yeah, I think it could’ve done with an editing job because it sort of got repetitive towards the end a little bit –

Julie: Yeah.

Janina: – in the later chapters, and I think that’s probably what added to my frustration, too, because we kept going over the same points of her not coming forward, and it just kind of lagged a little bit there.

Julie: Yeah, it’s hard to watch the same – or not watch, read about the same person making the same mistake – not mistake, but – go through the same thing again and again and again and again for years, which is –

Janina: Yeah, it was definitely a vicious cycle that just didn’t end.

Julie: No.

Janina: So, the story moves between Vanessa’s teenage years and her present. So how do you think Vanessa changes throughout those years?

Julie: I didn’t see a lot of change in her between the two. I feel like she had almost been stuck in place when she was 15 – when this abuse started to happen. In her later years, she was like working in sort of a dead-end job in a hotel in Portland and she’s not really going anywhere and I think at the beginning, she had shown promise, but she had sort of been wrapped up in this relationship for 15, 16 years, and I think had almost stunted her growth in a certain way, except she is so defensive of him, even still, into her 30s, and that’s – I think that’s the part that’s the most difficult to read about, is how defensive she was of him. 

Janina: Yes, yes. And I think you picked up on a – I think that was a really good point that you just made about him having emotionally stunted her growth because she didn’t seem to really move past the quote-unquote “relationship” and she didn’t seem to know how to cope with her feelings. And I think that that was a good point about how – that it really kind of did stunt her. And she’s abusing substances that are not helpful for her to move forward in any kind of way.

Julie: Right, yeah. She definitely seems to use certain things as a crutch to not confront her real life – which I’m sure is a symptom of the abuse that she suffered at that age.

Janina: Right.

Julie: Without the book’s own Me Too movement, do you Vanessa would ever have admitted to herself and her therapist that Strane had abused her?

Janina: Maybe eventually, but I think it would’ve taken a lot longer and that without the Me Too movement, bringing abuse and the different stories of abuse – and not to mention Strane’s abuse of other girls – I think it kind of forced Vanessa’s hand a little bit; it forced her to get out of that little bubble that she was in, [thinking] that everything was great with Strane, and made her think about actually what happened in her “relationship” with Strane, and – I don’t think it would’ve, I think it would’ve taken probably many more years for her to actually do anything had the Me Too movement in the book not started. 

Julie: Yeah. So in the book there’s a constant sort of threat that her story is going to be exposed by another survivor of the abuse by the same teacher, but a different girl, and the other girl is asking Vanessa to tell her story publicly to give her story more clout. And I found that that’s a really complex thing to ask survivors to do – 

Janina: Right.

Julie: And I’m not sure – I don’t know if it painted the Me Too movement in a great light at times, particularly the role of the media.

Janina: Yes – yes, when the reporter kind of tries to push her to come out with her story. 

Julie: Yeah.

Janina: But I also think that it was a good thing that – while the Me Too movement was a positive thing, in the sense that it got those stories out there and the acknowledgement that these things do happen, that they continue to happen, and that there are predators out there that are getting away with it, there was also a dark side to the Me Too movement, and – you know, anytime there’s something like this, there’s always that small slice that decides, “well, I’m gonna lie about this” –

Julie: Right.

Janina: – “because I want my five minutes of fame” – and that ruins something like the Me Too movement, because survivors of abuse coming forward – it takes a lot of bravery and strength to be able to tell that story, and for somebody to come along and lie, it just, it ruins the whole thing and makes it kind of fall apart, and it’s not – it’s not sympathetic to the actual abused victims.

Julie: Right.

Janina: Does that make sense?

Julie: Yeah, I agree. Yeah, I’m always on the side of all survivors; but it shouldn’t – no survivor should also feel that they need to come forward with their story.

More to this sentence – can’t discern the words

Janina: Right, because it’s hard – it’s a hard thing to do, and you know, I commend the people that can come forward, but I also feel very strongly that they don’t have to, because that’s their own – that’s their pain –

Julie: Yeah.

Janina: – and who wants to live out their pain in the media, you know?

Julie: Yeah. Why do you think it took so long for Vanessa to admit to herself what happened to her?

Janina: I think for Vanessa, I think that she had disassociated from what had happened to her a little bit – like if she, by blaming herself, then she didn’t have to admit that it was abuse, and she didn’t have to admit that she wasn’t special, and that Strane actually did not love her – he was a predator, and she was just a tool for him to be basically a pedophile. And I think that she was so starved for love and attention and affection in the beginning of the story, when she was a teenager, and him singling her out made her feel special, and I think that she also had a problem with the fact that this was like – he was like her first love, but it wasn’t a normal kind of love, obviously, it was a predator–prey, it was an abuser and abused victim, it wasn’t a normal kind of relationship, but for her it was like that – that heady feeling that she got when she was around him, is was what teenagers and most people feel in the throes of first love, like “Oh, isn’t he wonderful,” but there’s this dark underbelly to it that’s just gross, and I think that she needed to feel that she was important and special, and I think even as an adult she needed that, because as we talked about, her growth was stunted, and I felt like her parents kind of abandoned her. Her dad didn’t want to talk to her about it, her mother didn’t seem to want to talk to her about it and got angry with her about it, and I think that that didn’t help her process anything. So she clung to him for that – for everything that she was feeling, he became the focal point.

Julie: Mm. I think the parts that were the most difficult for me to read are when she, both as a fifteen-year-old and as an older person, didn’t put the blame on him but put it on herself, saying ‘he can’t help what he’s doing because I’m just so irresistible, as a young woman, it’s unfortunate but it’s just the way it has to be,” and I think that’s the part that I struggled with reading the most. She seemed to sort of defend it. 

Janina: Yeah. Well, he doesn’t really – his comments to her – they talk a lot about priming them – or, is that the word that they use? He kind of primed her for this, because there were comments that he would make – he would say one thing and then do another, and then blame her for the thing that he just did that was wrong. And so I think she – as a teenager, she didn’t have the ability to say “Oh, wait, you just contradicted yourself,” and “that’s not what you said, but this is what you did.” And so she didn’t have that ability to separate herself from that and be like “You are a liar, and you are taking advantage of me, and you are manipulating me in this situation” – she didn’t have the ability to do that, because she was a teenager. Those are things sometimes that you learn as you live your life.

Julie: Right. Or never – never have to learn, hopefully. 

Janina: Right, right. 

Julie: Yeah, this sort of goes into one of my questions that I had about Vanessa as a narrator herself.

Janina: What did you think?

Julie: I’m not sure what I thought of her. I think because of all the reasons that we’ve discussed, the trauma that she had suffered made her almost unreliable as a narrator, and it was really difficult to read all the things that she had to say about the situation, even when she was – even as a teenager, when she was describing some of their first encounters that she has with Strane, she goes back and forth between being completely disgusted with him and then, you know, thinking that this is the best thing ever, that it’s true love. That’s just hard to read. Yeah, I don’t know – did you have any feelings about her as a narrator?

Janina: I actually, there were times, a lot though the book, where I actually didn’t really like her. 

Julie: Mm-hmm. 

Janina: Because, yeah, she was unreliable, but I think when she was a teenager, I had more compassion for her. But then as an adult, not coming forward, not admitting to herself that what Strane did to her was abuse – I found myself kind of not liking her for a while, and I think that this book was actually – it kind of felt like a meditation on finding compassion for somebody who’s going through something that’s emotionally and mentally and physically harmful and trying to find the compassion that they won’t stop the behavior from happening. That she would continue on with this relationship and defend him, I found that to be an exercise of “Okay, she’s in the midst of still feeling abused, of having” – because he’s still using her, in a sense, and I found it to be like, “Okay, you have to have compassion for somebody who is not yet at that point in their process of healing who is not able to admit what they just went through.”

Julie: I really like that – I think that’s really important, and yeah, it’s probably the way that I was also approaching her, but without realizing – yeah, that’s a really good point. I didn’t think about that.

Janina: Thank you. So, what did you think of how current a topic the novel is?

Julie: Yeah, I thought that it was good to read about a story that is basically happening even at this moment – you know, there’s still people coming forward, and it’s celebrities and other public figures are still in this reckoning process, and I think it’s only a matter of time until more of these stories come out.

Janina: Right. And now the thing that I’m happy about is that some of these people are facing real – some of these men are facing real consequences to what they’ve done, such as Harvey Weinstein being in jail now. 

Julie: yes. 

Janina: I listened to Ronan Farrow’s podcast and his hunting down of the truth about Harvey Weinstein, and he had Rose McGowan on the show at one point, and it made me have a lot of respect for Rose McGowan for being so brave to call him out, essentially, and risk, you know, ruining her reputation and her career to shed light on what was really happening behind closed doors, and to get him to the point where he’s now in prison, that was like – and it made me feel so sorry for all the people, all the women, that he abused, that he raped, and tried to ruin their careers if they didn’t go along with him – it was just, it’s heart-wrenching. 

Julie: Yeah. And nobody wants to be the mouthpiece for – for anything like this. It’s not doing anything for your popularity; if anything it’s making people look at you more often and check your credibility in a lot of ways.

Janina: Yeah. It comes down to the “What was she wearing?”

Julie: Yeah. Do you think Vanessa suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome at the hands of Strane?

Janina: Yes, because she seemed to sympathize with her abuser when he was being accused. And it was like a typical moment in our history where in the beginning of the Me Too movement, all of these things had happening for so long. This was not the first time he’d been accused, but he’d been able to get away with it. And it was, I think, a mix of him manipulating the situation so that he wasn’t – so that he could make it look like “Oh, well they just had a crush on me and they misread some signs,” which is exactly what he did with Vanessa – but I also think that schools were, and still are in a sense, willing to look the other way and not pursue anything because they don’t want to tarnish the reputation of their school. So I think that she could not separate herself from him for so long because it was kind of a Stockholm, sympathize with the abuser, situation.

Julie: Yeah, I agree. I also think it has a lot to do with it being who has the most power in a relationship like this, in which case he’s the teacher, he has the power, and it’s unevenly distributed in this relationship, and I think that’s where it turns to more of an abuse situation. And that’s pretty clear when – hopefully this isn’t giving too much away, but – when she, she only spends one year at the school because this relationship forces her out at a certain point, and he is basically the impetus for her being kicked out because it’s easier for him and he has the power to do so, and she suffers a lot because of that – she’s at a disadvantage for her education, and socially, and she has to take all the blame. 

What did you think of – so when she is kicked out, she has to apologize, or speak to it, in front of all her classmates – what did you think about that?

Janina: I thought that was a very, probably – I thought that was a weird kind of twist to the whole thing, that she had to apologize to her classmates for making them believe that she was in a relationship with him. And then later when you find out that Strane was already making plans for what would happen if they were found out, and making plans against her to protect himself, it just – it made me wonder again why she couldn’t figure it out from that. Why, especially, I can see it as a teenager, but as an adult – 

Julie: Yeah. 

Janina: – that’s where I had a problem. But I think, as you had mentioned, the power was unevenly distributed, and he did have all the power – he had all the power in his relationship with her, but he would try to manipulate her in such a way that he tried to make it seem like she was the one that had the power over him. 

Julie: Mm.

Janina: And I think maybe – I’m just realizing this now – that maybe that realization, or him trying to make it seem like she had all the power over him, that that made her then think that “maybe I do have the power,” that “maybe I am the one that lured him into this relationship,” that “maybe I am the one that pursued him,” so maybe that was the narrative that she just – I mean, it was definitely the narrative that she carried on – but I think maybe because of how he manipulated her, and made her think that she was the reason for all of it.

Julie: Yes. That’s a good point, and I didn’t think about that, but that’s a really twisted way to lure somebody in: by telling them that they’re actually luring you in.

Janina: Right. Because I think he mentioned it a couple of times, that she didn’t realize what she did to him, or how she made him feel – there were a few instances in the book where he made reference to that in the beginning. What did you think about the moment when he said to her that he was going to ruin her, when she was a teenager and the affair had just started?

Julie: I don’t know if I remember that part –

Janina: They were in the classroom together, and he had his head in her lap, and he had basically just admitted how he felt about her, and got her to admit that she felt the same, and he said very softly “I’m going to ruin you.”

Julie: Oh. Oh yes. It’s pretty foreshadowing. Well, it’s obvious that he meant it.

Janina: Right.

Julie: You can’t tell how many of these relationships he’d had before her, or how many existed after her, and it’s sort of a cycle of abuse that he continues to inflict on people, so he would know better than anybody. 

Janina: Right. I almost wonder if it was a moment of clarity for him – because you don’t, we don’t get his side, which, I mean – okay, that sounded wrong. 

Julie: No, I know what you mean.

Janina: You know what I mean, though? We don’t – I guess we know what his side is, but were there ever moments of clarity for him? Were there ever moments where he knew what he was doing was wrong?

Julie: Yeah. This actually makes me think – a big part of the book is referencing Lolita, which – I read it a long time ago, but I think it was from the perspective of an adult man that fell in love with a young, young girl. And it’s very, you know, it’s a classic, it’s you know, there’s flowery language, and it almost makes it feel like it’s not wrong what he did.

Janina: Right.

Julie: Have you read it?

Janina: I haven’t read it. I’ve seen adaptions of it.

Julie: Yeah. So in that way, I wonder, since that’s told in the perspective of the abuser, I wonder if it’s a similar situation, where we get that perspective through Lolita.

Janina: Because Strane, he definitely – there’s a lot of times in the book where she’s obsessed with the book, and he’s kind of like “You put too much emphasis and meaning into that book.” 

Julie: Mm-hmm. 

Janina: And it made me wonder, “Well, why did you [Strane] give it to her in the first place?” Because – I mean, I understood that he gave it to her because he was trying to, in some way – I don’t know, I couldn’t tell if it was he wanted her to know how he felt, or he wanted her to to romanticize it – to romanticize the relationship, so she could then transfer that onto their relationship? 

Julie: Yeah. I know what you mean, though, it’s hard to know exactly what he felt about her, because we’re only getting her perspective and it was so twisted – 

Janina: Right.

Julie: It’s – he’s not really a developed character in this book, he’s just sort of the object of her affection throughout the whole thing.

Janina: Right, right. Yeah, it was – I feel like this book was just very – there were a lot of layers to it, was what I came away with, and I particularly found myself wondering about the people like her friend that she had the falling-out with that knew that Strane was garbage and that he was doing these things. And it made me wonder – were there girls, obviously there were girls that had this relationship with him, but were there girls that he tried to prey on that they were strong enough in themselves, whereas Vanessa was kind of an outsider, so I think he kind of singled her out because of that, because that’s kind of a target’s easy prey is someone who doesn’t fit in, because they make them feel special, but I wonder if there were girls that he tried to prey on and they were like “You’re disgusting. Get away from me” – [that] kind of thing. Because it seemed like pretty much the whole school knew that he was a predator. Is target correct?

Julie: Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying, I think – she was on a scholarship at this Maine boarding school and had no friends the year that this happened to her, which would have been her sophomore year, because she had a falling-out with one of her closest friends the year before – yeah, so there’s just sort of a class divide between her and the rest of the students, which I think if somebody wanted to pick up on that, [they] could easily do so.

Janina: Right, right.

Julie: Yeah, I think that’s probably one of the reasons why he singled her out.

Janina: Yeah. And it’s just unfortunate when you think about something like this and how this does happen to kids and especially – and, like, teenagers – you know, that Vanessa is forced into a situation where she has to learn about things that she should just be kind of experimenting with – 

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Janina: – you know, like having a boyfriend, and kissing – but she’s – but those are all things that are part of development, that are part of, like, learning how to have a relationship with another person, and one where you feel affection for them. And it’s all – it can be a very innocent, first love, true – like true love, first experience – and then you have Strane, who comes in and kind of forces her into this relationship, where she has to deal with very adult things – 

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Janina: – much earlier than she should, and what does that do to a person?

Julie: Yeah. I agree. Probably where a lot of the trauma plays in, that sort of comes throughout her whole life.

Maybe as a wrap-up question I just would want to ask you is, what did you think about Vanessa continuing to maintain that it was consensual, and her continued relationship with Strane?

Janina: I think that she wanted this continued relationship with Strane to be normal. I think that – I think it’s called cognitive dissonance – if she admitted that her relationship with Strane was him abusing her, I think her whole world would have fell down around her. 

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Janina: And by maintaining that she’s the one that did this – that she’s the one that started this – she can tell herself that she is special, that she isn’t just another one of his victims, and that it meant something. I think she needed it to mean something, and I think that she needed to know that she was the special one. I often wondered on his side why he continued the relationship, too, when it was kind of clear, in some instances, that he didn’t care. 

Julie: Right.

Janina: Was it to keep her silent? Or… what was it? And I think that she – and I think that maybe, who knows, maybe if he had stopped the relationship and said “this is over. I don’t want to see you any more,” maybe she would’ve come to the realization sooner. 

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Janina: But he seemed perfectly – he kind of fed into it, still, he still called her and confided in her when he was being accused by other students.

Julie: Yeah, I think you make a good point about him wanting to keep her silent. There’s several instances in the book where she gets a call from him and he’s preemptively telling her that somebody’s gonna contact her about this situation, and she should know what to tell that person, because they have a special relationship, a different relationship that nobody else can understand. 

Janina: Right, right. And then there’s those instances in the book where you can tell that he’s just not attracted to her because she’s older now. It just makes it all the more gross, and disturbing.

Julie: Yeah. That’s the hard part.

So the book ends, we won’t tell you how it ends, but it’s – it made me feel hopeful for Vanessa, that her life would get a bit better, but still sad that she has such a long road to get there, I think it’s – you know, there’s no easy route out of 15 years of trauma.

Janina: Right, right.

Julie: What about you? What’d you think about the ending?

Janina: I thought the ending was kind of realistic. I think that she was in a better place at the end, or at least trying to get there. I think that she actually was starting to “adult” in a way that she hadn’t before. 

Julie: Yeah. I agree.

Janina: Which was the hope that I had wanted throughout the whole thing, you know?

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Janina: It was such a very powerful story to me. And as frustrated as I got, I still enjoyed it because there were so many layers to it – and I think “enjoy” is kind of a strong word, but I think it’s an important book, because there are so many layers to it. Because nothing was really – I mean, it was cut-and-dry that he abused her, but how somebody deals with the fallout of abuse – it’s not a one-size-fits-all; people process it in different ways. And like I mentioned earlier, it made me realize that I can’t fault anybody who’s not at that point in their process of, whatever it is that they’re dealing with, of trying to move forward. Like if they can’t move forward because of this thing that happened to them, instead of saying “Would you just get over it,” or “Would you just do this,” then you have find that place where you’re like, “They’re not ready,” and you have to understand that.

Julie: Yeah, I agree. It definitely taught you a lot about compassion for people in this situation, people going through different things right now, financially, emotionally, socially, whatever. Yeah, I think you can learn a lot about compassion from this book.

Janina: Right, right.

Julie: Just before we wrap up I wanted to just shed light on the controversy that surrounds it – it’s hard to talk about it without talking about the controversy – but, on the heels of American Dirt coming out, which is a book by Jeanine Cummins, who wrote about the migrant experience from the perspective of a Mexican woman and then was given a seven-figure book deal for it, and it was also chosen as one of Oprah’s book club picks. So that was a controversy a couple months ago, and then when this book came out, sort of a similar controversy popped up. There is a Latina author whose named is Wendy C. Ortiz, and she has a memoir called Excavation,which came out in the year 2014, and that got published by a small press, and it tells her story of an abusive relationship with a teacher, also at a private boarding school, so it’s a pretty similar story to the fictional story that’s in this book. So in an essay that Wendy wrote before this book was published, she goes into the difficulties that authors of color have in securing literary agents, and the difficulties that she had fighting the bias in the publishing industry towards writers of color who have a much more difficult time breaking in. So when Kate Elizabeth Russell wrote this book she was also given a seven-figure book deal for it, and it sort of exploded because of the subject matter – although Ortiz’s memoir had been on the scene for six years, although it wasn’t as widely read. So on one side people are accusing Russell of borrowing the experiences of a Latina woman to gain a book deal that Ortiz was never offered, and then on the other side fans of Ortiz are calling for Russell to disclose whether or not she was an actual survivor of sexual abuse, to sort of cement the fact that she didn’t plagiarize her book but it came from her own experience. My Dark Vanessa is a fictional book, but through interviews and just the style of the book itself, it sort of appears that it might be based on Russell’s own experience, but she, for many months she hadn’t said whether or not that was the case – 

Janina: Right. 

Julie: So, in either case, authors who write about subjects like this shouldn’t have to disclose or defend their own experiences with sexual abuse; that just seems pretty obvious to me. And then on the other hand, the publishing industry should also be held accountable for the way they neglect authors of color.

Janina: Yeah.

Julie: So I think both things are true.

Janina: Yeah.

Julie: There’s really no – it’s difficult to be on either side of the controversy, but I think both things that – both sides of the controversy – are true.

Janina: When I first cracked the book open, in the introduction, where she states very adamantly and kind of repetitively that the story was not based on anything that she had experienced – or I think she said maybe that she knew about some things going on – I don’t know, but she very adamantly stated that it was not her. 

Julie: Mm-hmm. 

Janina: That it was not based on a real experience – and by the end of the book, I was like, “Hmm. I wonder.”

Julie: Yeah.

Janina: Because of all of the nuances of Vanessa and of her, for lack of a better word, journey, throughout the book. But yeah, I think that the publishing industry really needs to get on the ball with publishing women of color, or I should say men and women of color. It’s a real problem. 

Julie: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so maybe we could’ve gotten this book in 2014 – or we did get this book in 2014, but you know, if Wendy Ortiz could’ve had the same opportunities that Kate Elizabeth Russell did, it would be different. And I did also read that Kate Elizabeth Russell cites many different books and experiences that she used as research, and Excavation was part of that list.

Janina: Right. 

Julie: So she does acknowledge that she read it, and parts of it were an influence on this book.

Janina: And I mean obviously, these things happen every day – so, I mean, I’m sure it’s still happening, that there’s some teacher out there having a relationship with a student, as gross as it is – but you know, it’s not an uncommon topic.

Julie: Right. Unfortunately. 

Janina: Unfortunately, yes. 

And now I kind of want to read Excavation – I think I want to read that now. We must have it somewhere. 

Julie: Yeah, hopefully. 

Well, thank you so much for discussing this book with me. There’s so – there’s a lot to discuss.

Janina: Yes, thank you for discussing it with me too, because I was dying to discuss it with somebody after. 

Julie: I know, it’s one of those books you read and you just want to talk about it and cry about it.

Janina: Yes. Yeah, right, because there’s a lot of layers to it, and there’s a lot of – there’s a lot of nuance in Vanessa’s reactions to things and how she handles things. 

Julie: Right.

Janina: Yeah. So I really wanted somebody to kind of bounce those things off with. 

Julie: Well, we hope our patrons will check it out just to be more informed about the subject and to read an interesting account of it.

Janina: And one day we will be open again, so you can get it at the library!

Julie: You’ll get a physical copy soon!

Janina: Yes.

Julie: Alright, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. 

Janina: Thank you, Julie.