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Death is not always physical. Sometimes it takes the form of a self-destructive feminine desire that gives in to abuse, accepting it as a prized possession. Female desire sometimes refuses to live in the ordered house of kindness and logic. Instead, evil feels familiar and so there is safety in abuse, self-inflicted or not. Women have centuries of trauma to thank for that. Being exploited is the price Vanessa and Nolan’s anonymous narrator must pay to be able to afford a brief trip far from alone. Turning a man’s abusive behavior into a romantic act is the only way forward, or so these women have convinced themselves to believe.
In Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, 15-year-old Vanessa’s first love is her teacher, a 42-year-old Jacob. Jacob cleverly harnesses his hormonal teenage mind and deepest desire for admiration. He goes overboard and starts touching her inappropriately in class, much to Vanessa’s delight. He quotes Nabokov and starts calling him “My Dark Vanessa”. He offers her Lolita, with which Vanessa becomes obsessed to the point of confusing her own memories with those of Lo and Humbert.
The novel opens as an adult, Vanessa tries to relate her “affair” – if we can call it that – with Jacob. Vanessa still hasn’t admitted she was sexually abused by Jacob. Instead, she remains fixated on him. Since her teenage years, she has been full of longing and longing for this monstrous man who repeatedly raped her in the past and now seeks her support to defend him against allegations of sexual harassment. Vanessa says, “I wasn’t abused, not like that.” She firmly believes that she was not “raped raped”. She adds: “All I can think of is the lovely warm feeling I would have when he was stroking my hair.”
Vanessa is a classic victim who protects her attacker because the truth will break her. She is angry at the world that vilifies Jacob and still delusional thinks he was in love with her. We love as we know, and for Vanessa, loving her attacker is a way of loving herself. She has a boring job and much of her potential has been wasted due to her obsession with Jacob. Yet she has her eyes on Jacob as if he is the prize that will finally stabilize her life. Losing her desire for Jacob will mean losing an essential part of herself, something around which she has built her personality. Vanessa’s constant denials of her own victimhood and adamant refusal to stop loving her signify the ambivalences inherent in abuser-abused relationships.
Megan Nolan’s Acts of Despair is a tour de force recounting the many paradoxes of female desire. The narrator is in her early twenties and in love with a man named Ciaran who is cold, cruel, and still in love with his ex-girlfriend. The narrator’s love for this man, the toxicity they share, and the way she feels happiest in a sacrificial role leaves readers feeling claustrophobic and breathless. She purposely distances herself from her friends, reducing her life to revolving around Ciaran: cooking him laborious meals, the increasingly joyless sex they have, and the bottles of wine she downs when Ciaran isn’t around. not there to watch her. Although she revels in her victimhood, pushes herself into anorexia, and has periods where she cuts herself off, she also longs to be free. Her desire to be belittled by Ciaran contrasts sharply with her desire to evolve into an independent woman.
The narrator writes: “When I sleep with men I don’t like, men who irritate me, scare me or disgust me, because it’s easier, I hurt myself as much as they do. The narrator’s quest is to learn to say no, to deny his own propensity for self-destruction and reject his own victimhood, and in the process, to change the way women are viewed by patriarchy. Simplistic binaries of good or evil ceased to exist a long time ago. The moral complexity of the narrator and the state of her sexual relationships demands a more nuanced dissection. About a sexual partner, the narrator says: “He kept touching me and finally I did what I had to do to stop him from wanting to have sex with me, that’s i.e. having sex with him.” It’s tragicomic, relatable and heartbreaking how women navigate patriarchy and deal with cis het men’s sense of entitlement. Nolan gave no name to his narrator because she is one of us: a self that eroticizes its own humiliation to survive the patriarchy, and that every woman carries.
A society that insists on forcing female desire into oblivion fails to recognize that women also need and deserve affection. Consequently, there are women like the anonymous protagonist of Vanessa and Nolan who are so lonely that they welcome any sort of invasion into their lives. Literature depicts female desire for what it is, even when it denies itself and even when it accepts all the indignities in the world. Literature does not exalt feminine desire, nor does it patronize it. Rather, it offers a platform where female desire is neither shameful nor illicit, whatever its dark and morally ambiguous sides.