Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I am your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster. Today's episode marks my twentieth. I never thought I would have this many episodes. In truth, I should have closer to thirty at this point, but I'm happy to be at twenty none-the-less. Today's bonus episode is called Notes on a Scandal and is my review and reaction to the books Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Consider this my disclaimer: In this episode I'll be talking about a hard topic that many people don't like to face; sexual abuse. If this is a trigger for you, please exit this podcast episode now. I have 19 others you can listen to.
According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, "every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted" (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence). This violence isn't limited to a particular race, though RAINN states that Native Americans "are at the greatest risk of sexual violence" (ibid). Unfortunately, the scandal surrounding the release of Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa may lead you to believe that white women aren't allowed to have the same brutal experiences of other races of women, and they certainly aren't allowed to write about those experiences and be paid well for them. Prior to the release of MDV, Russell was very publicly branded a plagiarist and unworthy of telling such a story.
As a survivor, sexual abuse is difficult for me to talk about and I didn't experience anything as harrowing as Wendy Ortiz, Mary Elizabeth Russell, and the millions of other survivors who've been subjected to sexual trauma, but I talk about it. Even "triggered" I talk about sexual violence against girls and boys, women and men, because I'm sick to death of those who have suffered being told they should just get over it and get on with their lives.
Here's a hard truth, we do get on with our lives, but those voices, those touches, those lingering stares follow us and when we least expect it, they sneak up and remind us they're there.
For these reasons, I've broken down my review into three parts:
Notes on a scandal
Review of both books
Notes on a scandal:
I took a particular interest in two scandals in the last year, that between Kim Michele Richardson (The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek) and Jojo Moyes (The Giver of Stars), and Wendy Ortiz's Excavation and Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa. In both instances there were claims of plagiarism, though in Ortiz's case those claims came from her fans and not directly from the author herself. It's easy to jump on a bandwagon, especially if you're a fan of an author's work, to defend them to the hilt regardless of what the facts really are. Let's face it, in both cases this boils down to subjective interpretation and misunderstandings. I decided I would read all four books in question and do a reaction review podcast episode for each pairing.
In 2019 I finished the first draft of a book I'd been working on since 2017, Catching Fireflies. This book deals with sexual abuse. I've been trying to find comps for this book for months. As you might expect, there aren't a lot written in the last two years for me to choose from and if there are, I haven't found them. Enter My Dark Vanessa, a book about a young girl's sexual relationship with a much older man. It would be the perfect comp given the similarity of the themes. So I immediately put it on my list of new releases to purchase. Then, on January 19, 2020 Wendy Ortiz, author of the memoir Excavation tweeted, "Can't wait until February when a white woman's book of fiction that sounds very much like excavation is lauded, Stephen King's stamp of approval is touted, etc" (Ortiz, Twitter). Immediately, I was struck. Did Russell, appropriate Ortiz's story? There was only one way to find out, so I immediately bought Ortiz's book and decided I would read them both and form my own opinion, especially since Ortiz admitted that she hadn't read Russell's book and was basing her opinion off of the synopsis she found online. Yes, you heard me correctly. Instead of jumping on one side or the other, I actually purchased both books to read and decide for myself.
Here’s what I learned.
Both books have the similar themes (sexual abuse) and subjects (teenagers having affairs with older teachers), but that's where the similarities as I see them end.
Excavation is a memoir about author Wendy C. Ortiz's long term relationship with her English teacher, Jeff Ivers. It covers their initial meeting, how fourteen year old Wendy tries to appear "disinterested," something she seems to do often in order to "simply observe, absorb," the world around her (Ortiz, Excavation). I found myself comparing my own teenage self and feelings to Wendy, sussing out our differences. She wanted to appear aloof whereas I'd already been introduced to the longings of boys and men by that age, so I wanted to be noticed. My fourteen year old self was all eyelashes and smiles where Wendy's was disinterest and observation. Wendy captures Mr. Ivers's attention quickly, sharing with him a racy novel she's been writing and sharing with her friends. I was also writing a racy novel in high school. I wrote it in journal form and passed it around amongst my friends. Ortiz's novel, however, starts something she doesn't quite anticipate, and is the catalyst for Mr. Ivers believing she is game for his romantic attentions. I'm not blaming Ortiz for what would become a long-term affair with her teacher, continuing long after she passed his eighth grade English class, merely stating what appears to be the beginning point. The move of a child to shock her teacher turns into inappropriate nightly phone calls that evolve into a sexual relationship that is consummated on a blazing southern California day in the summer of 1987. Ortiz at fourteen is suddenly in over her head with her almost thirty year old teacher. I know a little something about seeing things out or letting things happen. I know an awful lot about pushing boundaries and having nowhere else to go but forward when things venture into uncomfortable and inappropriate territories. Wendy pushes boundaries and then gets a bit lost when she has nowhere to go but forward. By the summer, of course, she's ready for something to happen, though I'm not sure she was ready for everything that happens. In true Wendy fashion, though, she goes with the flow even as Jeff is freaking out.
I didn't have overwhelming feelings for any of the adults in this memoir, other than Jeff, of course. They could've been people I knew or grew up around. The men whose eyes lingered on young girls longer than they should, the people who ignored the fact that a grown man would be hanging out with his former female student alone in his home, those who looked the other way when Wendy and Jeff would have obvious lovers spats. What teenage girl would rather hang out with her middle school english teacher than go to the mall with her friends or hang out with kids her own age? It was the 1980s, those questions weren't asked. A lot of things were overlooked and ignored in the '80s, especially if it was inappropriate relationships with young people. I did, however, feel an exception for Wendy's mom, a woman dealing with the dissolution of her marriage, becoming a single mom, and struggling with feelings of failure. She is an alcoholic, yes. She does allow her daughter to do things no mother should, yes. But she's really just doing the best she can.
Others have said this book is a tough read, but I think we should look at it as a necessary read. These things happen; molestation, rape, incest, inappropriate sexual relations, they all happen. We live in a society that insists on keeping these stories in the dark, where for no other reason than their own discomfort they say to stop talking about this. It's a society where even women scorn the #MeToo movement and where they insist that women who "wait too long" are liars only looking to end a man's career, a society where we expect women to sit down to dinner with their rapists and smile and just get over it. Books like Excavation are important. That this hasn't been picked up for reprint by a bigger publisher is beyond me.
Have you ever wondered about the women caught up in a scandal who have a legitimate story to tell but refuse to? Enter Vanessa Wye. It’s 2017 and her former English teacher has just been very publicly accused of sexually abusing one of his former students. The things is, despite the fact that Vanessa had a sexual affair with this teacher, she isn’t the former student accusing him of misconduct. Whether she likes it or not, Vanessa must make an important decision, tell her story to the world in an effort to bring a child predator to justice, or remain silent in the face of scrutiny. Told in dual timelines, My Dark Vanessa asks the question, would you protect someone you love even if you know firsthand how deceptive, manipulative, and devious they can be?
In 2000 fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye is beginning her sophomore year at Browick, a prestigious boarding school in Maine. Awkward and withdrawn, Vanessa doesn’t have any real friends. She never really fit in at her old school and she’s no longer speaking to her former roommate at Browick, Jenny. One of the great mysteries throughout the book is what happened between the two girls. There is a sense that it’s something major, something that they can’t quite come back from. The actual reason is a letdown, but not entirely unexpected from a teenager, especially one like Vanessa. She cares a lot about what people think of her. More specifically, what she believes they think about her. The most important thing for the reader to know about Vanessa is that she doesn’t have a clue.
Perhaps this is why Jacob Strane sets his sights on her. She’s a loner, quiet, and so obviously lonely. She’s everything someone like Strane needs. So he begins testing the waters with her. Little touches, winks, sharing literature with hidden messages. One thing I found particularly gross was the fact that almost every piece of literature he shares with her is filled with themes of sexual deviance. Always older men infatuated with or in love with younger women, usually girls. He tells her she’s special, that she isn’t like the other girls. He grooms her.
This is where I think everyone is getting it wrong with this book. It isn’t about the relationship between Strane and Vanessa, it’s about victimology and Vanessa being the perfect target. Strane is a predator. By the time Vanessa has him for a teacher he’s been teaching at Browick for more than a decade. It’s obvious, if only to the reader, that he’s done this before and will do it after Vanessa is far removed from his life. He knows what he’s doing, knows how to take it one step at a time, and he knows how to cover his tracks.
Russell did an excellent job showing how manipulative predators like Jacob Strane are, and she did an exceptional job showing how easily a lonely teenager can be duped into feeling loved and the ramifications of what happens to them after the affair is over. Vanessa becomes a master avoider, living her adult life in a fog of drugs, alcohol, and strange men. She is the product of Strane’s tactics, and he fails to show even an ounce of remorse. Russell has stated in interviews that she wanted Strane to love Vanessa. He’s far too narcissistic to love anyone other than himself.
I have a major problem with the author wanting to show that Strane really loves Vanessa in his own way. This relationship is unhealthy, it’s borne from a forty-two-year-old man’s inability to become sexually aroused by anyone older than eighteen. He is quite literally a dirty old man who I feel no sense of attachment or remorse for, a man who not only bends ethical rules but snaps them in half. This is not the sort of relationship to romanticize. The reader should despise Jacob Strane by the end of the book. Personally, I hated him well before. I also take major issue with the number of sex scenes featured in the book. As mentioned, this is not a relationship to be romanticized, it is a crime and is causing irreparable damage to one half of the couple. I understand the need to reference their intimate moments together, but to have so many scenes where their sex is told in detail was too much for this reader.
Finally, I’m angry that Vanessa didn’t grow more as a character. She deserves more than what she gets in the end of this. A slight admission in the closing pages doesn’t make up for hundreds of pages where she’s broken apart and pieced back together by a child rapist. It’s a step in the right direction, but after all of that I needed to see something more from her and she failed me. It is for this reason alone that I gave the book four stars instead of five.
After reading both books back-to-back, I don't believe that Russell appropriated anything. Not once while reading did I flash to Ortiz's book. The characters are made of different stuff, the situations are different, and the outcomes are certainly different. If you put a dozen survivors into a room and have them speak openly about their experiences, how they began and how they ended, chances are you will find commonalities.
I think the argument should never have been that Russell was telling anyone else's story as her own, but how the publishing industry approaches certain books. Ortiz has since tried to clarify her position, that she wasn't attacking the Russell, but was commenting on how unbalanced publishers are with acquisitions and the money they put into certain titles. She's right. If she'd written Excavation as a novel instead of memoir she might have seen the same type of interest as My Dark Vanessa.
Kircher, Madison M, 2020, What's Going on With My Dark Vanessa and Excavation?, Vulture, February 3, 2020: https://www.vulture.com/2020/02/my-dark-vanessa-and-excavation-book-controversy-explained.html
Ortiz, Wendy, January 9, 2020, https://twitter.com/WendyCOrtiz/status/1218999472224493569
Ortiz, Wendy, 2020, Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates: On the Industry's Gatekeeping, Gay Mag, January 29, 2020: https://gay.medium.com/adventures-in-publishing-outside-the-gates-a06f089c372e
Ortiz, Wendy. Excavation: A Memoir. Future Tense Books: Portland, OR, 2014.
Oswald, Anjelica, 2016, The multimillion-dollar sums that celebrities make on books — and how they actually sell, Business Insider, March 9, 2016: <https://www.businessinsider.com/celebrity-book-advances-2016-3>
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network): https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
Russell, Kate Elizabeth. My Dark Vanessa. William Morrow: New York, 2020.
Russell, Kate E., 2020, Note to Readers, http://kateelizabethrussell.com/note-to-readers.