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My Dark Vanessa, a review

I recently read the much-anticipated novel, My Dark Vanessa, which follows the story of Vanessa Wye, a 32 year old woman who was sexually abused by her boarding school teacher at the age of 15.  With such a hard-hitting topic, I was of course expecting it to be a difficult and emotional read.  What I had not expected, was how well this jarring novel would reflect the experiences of so many of our clients.  This was particularly evident in its handling of an extremely common reaction to abuse of this nature: feelings of complicity and self-blame.

The reader of this book is clear – Vanessa was groomed and abused by her paedophile teacher, 27 years her senior, who exploited her teenage vulnerability.  The abuser, Jacob Strane, goes to great lengths to make Vanessa feel special, loved and in control of a situation she is far too young to consent to or protect herself from.  However, echoing many of our clients who are coming to recognise their own abuse, Vanessa herself is confused.  Even at the age of 32, when other former pupils come forward with allegations against Strane and ask for Vanessa’s support, she finds it difficult to see the abuse for what it was because she believes she was complicit.

Abusers do not only manipulate their victims, who are vulnerable children at the time, into thinking they are in a loving relationship; they also groom them by providing friendship and solace.  This was the case for one of my clients who has instructed me to bring a claim against his boarding school teacher, for sexual abuse.  My client felt lonely at school and his abuser exploited their shared interests, gave him gifts and spent quality time with him in order to cultivate a friendship and make him feel valued.  In my client’s case, I had to put out a call for witnesses.   There are likely to be others who, like Vanessa, may have confused feelings about the abuse they suffered but feel ready to break their silence and assist my client in seeking justice.

I believe there are many survivors of abuse who will relate to Vanessa’s experience and her feelings of confusion even into adulthood.  Many of our clients also struggle with feelings of shame that they may have encouraged or allowed the abuse to take place and they often think that they did not do enough to stop it.  Like with Vanessa, these feelings can be a barrier to survivors coming forward and reporting the abuse in order to seek the justice they deserve.  What we say to them is this: the abuse was not your fault and you have not done anything wrong.  Abusers manipulate their victims and the people around them, including adults, in order to exploit their position of trust and authority.  This means that survivors often only recognise the abuse for what it was many years later.  As with the various survivors in My Dark Vanessa, it is never too late to speak out against an abuser, no matter how much time has passed.

Emma Ferguson is a solicitor in the Abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you or feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Emma free of charge and in confidence on 020 3973 5008 or at  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Abuse team will contact you.  Find out more about the Abuse team.

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