My Dark Vanessa


Kate Elizabeth Russell, author of ‘My Dark Vanessa.’


I had an illicit relationship with a teacher that started when I was sixteen. I hadn’t thought much about it until recently, once I’d started reading Vanessa.

It was a relationship that grew organically, but when I consider it in light of Vanessa’s relationship with her teacher, it did have some similar qualities.

For example, I was a teenager who didn’t fit in with the group and had ‘personal problems’. I had problems at home, and major self-esteem problems related to my relationship with my father. It was an all-boys school also, and I had very little exposure to girls.

The ones I did meet were aloof and changeable and there was a kind of pressure in their gaze; when they looked directly at me, I felt like they could see through the cloud of my personality and directly into that hard little cluster of shame at the centre. Needless to say, all of them were turned off.

My history teacher was a different story. I suspect she saw all the same elements, but because she was my teacher, we talked about subjects we discussed in class, which were things I was interested in; history and literature.

Maybe she was more interested in what I had to say, rather than being distracted by what the girls my age saw.

Anyhow. She was a woman in her late thirties and she bought to bear all the gifts a woman has, simply by unfolding them in the natural way that an adult can.

Sitting close to her, talking for hours in her study, showing her books I was reading or had read, it wasn’t long before I was entirely enthralled by her. Moreover, I felt safe with her. And she was kind.

Then, the situation became more complicated. She wrote me a long letter in which she explained that she had something of a sexual relationship with her father, beginning when she was quite young.

Writing this down now myself makes me realise what an enormous risk she took, conferring that kind of written confession into the hands of a teenager.

Our relationship then took a mysterious turn. She assumed complete control, having the pleasure of being able to manipulate me within an unequal relationship.

I was relating the story to a couple of women I know the other day, and naturally, they wanted to know what it was like.

The one word I’d put to it was stressful. I remember during exam period, once classes had finished, sitting on the school oval and going blank. I was completely overloaded and couldn’t think straight, let alone remember anything for my exams.

I did well on the English exam – because I Ioved the books and basically did it by feel – and fumbled through the others. I managed to get into the university course I aimed for, but it was a long way from my best academic performance.

That said, my parents’ marriage was on the skids, they’d gone bankrupt and had to sell the family home and mine and my father’s relationship was a year away from deteriorating into a fist fight.

All those things qualified me for the vulnerable category, if you choose to look at this as a simple story of exploitation.

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