Thursday, January 20, 2022

Alice Sebold’s memoirs once gave hope to rape victims, now they show that the legal system has failed

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Lucky’s victim perspective of the legal system that “works” was imbued with a retrospective understanding that it didn’t work at all

Publisher Scribner has pulled Happy off the shelves “while Sebold and Scribner work together to consider how the work might be revised”. But with or without an editor’s pen, Sebold’s authorial debut was irrevocably reshaped.

More than 20 years since the publication of Happy, Alice Sebold’s memoir about her rape and, more importantly, identifying the man she believed to be her attacker, Anthony Broadwater was exonerated. He was wrongly jailed for the crime and served 16 years in prison and many more on the sex offender register before his name was cleared last week.

details of their attack and its aftermath, Happy was also the basis for Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones (which was adapted for a Peter Jackson film in 2009). While neither book can be said to have a “happy ending,” both of Sebold’s treatments of rape present them as trauma with an attendant catharsis. Not a big surprise given the allegedly successful conviction of her own attacker – statistically speaking, an infinitesimally unlikely outcome.

Published long before the #MeToo movement made such testimonies commonplace, Sebold’s books offered strength and solidarity to countless sex crime survivors — but for many readers, the intersection with their own experiences would have stopped at the courtroom door.

In the UK, for example, less than one in 60 people accused of rape was charged, let alone prosecuted, last year; counterintuitively, the revelation that she’s been denied justice all along has made Sebold’s extraordinary story that much more familiar.

Lucky’s The victim’s view of the “working” legal system was suddenly permeated by a retrospective understanding that it didn’t work at all.

No less mind-boggling than the notion that rape goes unprosecuted (but frankly, no more surprising), Broadwater is the only black person present at his own trial in 1982, including when the judge asked Sebold to approach her attacker in the courtroom show. reading Happy Now it’s hard to miss another victim embedded in its pages.

Happy sold one million copies, The Lovely Bones 11 million. Like all resonating stories, the specifics of Sebold’s harrowing experience draw on convenient untruths: that rapists spring from the shadows (theirs would have, but 90 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim); that white women are the most victimized demographic (in Lucky, Sebold recalls being lauded as a “good” witness; meanwhile, black women face higher rates of intimate partner violence, rape, and murder than their white counterparts); that black men are more likely to commit crimes, although in fact black men are more likely to be victims of crime than any other group.

The legal outcome, which represented justice for Sebold, heralded the demise of Broadwater, mistaken for another black man.

Sebold has issued an apology; Broadwater has accepted her apology, noting that “it sincerely comes from her heart.”

As tempting as it may be to portray them as adversaries in this vile saga, Sebold and Broadwater have both suffered.

Broadwater’s exoneration, while important, does little to remedy the injustice of his imprisonment or the distorted social fabric that led to it.

In the meantime, I can only imagine Sebold’s renewed trauma as I learned that the man who had abused her so terribly might never have been arrested at all.

For many victims of sexual assault Happy presented a rare glimmer of hope: a rape trial that “went right” and embodies the elusive paradigms of monsters in the shadows and that monster being held accountable. Such specimens are encouraging, but their scarcity in real life can also be discouraging.

There is precious little solace to be found in this sad tale, but if there is, perhaps in the notion that Sebold’s renewed trauma might offer a more familiar – if less sensational – solidarity than Lucky’s ignorant fiction.

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