Vol. 49, Alice Sebold's Lucky and Sexual Assault
I had intended to share more about the miracles of Mexico, but another issue has grabbed my throat unexpectedly. A few days after my return to New York City, I went to visit a friend whose grandmother had, unexpectedly, passed away the night before. We discussed his grandmother and he showed me photos of a sweet looking elderly woman with a big smile and loving eyes. But somehow, our conversation did not stay with his grandmother. It ran toward an issue that had been bothering him over the past week: sexual assault.
Over the past week, he told me, two women who were very close to him were sexually assaulted. One had her crotch grabbed in a club, this same guy tried to put his mouth on her breasts, and the other was inappropriately touched by a photographer who had blocked her from bringing any friends to an unexpectedly private photo shoot. My friend was disturbed by the assaults themselves, disturbed by his sense of helplessness and disturbed by the sneaking question of whether the assaults had been preventable. He was the friend in question who was invited to attend the photo shoot, and was, in fact, downstairs while the woman was being assaulted.
He told me about his cousin’s comments on the issue. His cousin, who has spent the majority of his life surrounded by women (siblings, relatives, friends, lovers, and, now, a daughter), divulged that he held a chauvinist belief when it came to the safety of the women he loved. "You go with your gut feeling," he said. "If they tell you they’re o.k., don’t listen to them. You can’t trust that they will take care of themselves." He went on to cite the tendency he had observed in women to diminish their fears or concerns in favor of making things nice and not upsetting people. His point: sometimes men have to be the saviors, even now in the 21st century.
I’m not convinced his practice of listening to his own gut, instead of the woman’s assurances, is chauvinistic. Perhaps the only macho element of his decision to protect the women in his life is the belief that confronting sexual assault is chauvinistic rather than righteous. It is chauvinistic to blame women for sexual assault by saying you can’t trust women. The fact is sexual assault is often (but not always) beyond the woman’s control, consequently it’s not a matter of trusting her. As she is not the one assaulting herself, she can’t know whether she is will be safe or not. Her assurances are made in the dark. All we can do when confronted by violence and assault is to do our best. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.
This conversation with my friend led to discussion of my article "Navigating to No" that examined my own experience with sex when I didn’t want it. I talked about the times I had difficulty clearly stating my discomfort within a sexual situation and attempted to shed some light on what makes women unsafe during sexual assault. Beyond the assaulter’s own intent to violate, many women are paralyzed by the concept of violence and sexual assault itself.
Sexual Assault is a character most women grow up navigating. From the moment some male person decides you look tasty, sexual assault becomes a looming fear in a woman’s mind. Most of us will have wrestled with a man by the time we become sexually intriguing. We may have tried to lift something that even a skinny man had the strength to lift. We are uncomfortably aware that the majority of men can physically overpower a woman even when she is struggling with all her might. There are many tough women who don’t scare easy. There are many strong women who can overpower almost any opponent. And there is the new knowledge that although women have less upper body strength, we do have a core of strength in our pelvic area. That means we can pack a mean kick—providing we know how to kick.
Which brings me back to the navigating. Women spend so much of their time deflecting sexual energy, approaches and aggression. We flirt when we’d rather ignore. We demure when we’d rather say, &ldquot;Fuck off.&rdquot; We cross the street, when we’d rather take the short cut down the alley. We avoid. We assess. We redirect. (Some of us fight, some of us battle, some of us rage.) And as we evade a direct hit, the pressure builds and we become certain "it" is coming for us one day. One day we will be caught. "It" being sexual aggression. "It" being sexual assault. "It" being rape.
For some women, walking down the street creates intense psychological pressure. It used to for me. I would be angry and full of rage that men would assess me and take me apart physically. They would aggressively nose into my private life with questions about age and marital status. Did I think they had any business asking? No. Did I find a way to answer? Yes. Because I wanted to avoid confrontation.
And sometimes women can take this avoidance of confrontation too far. They can allow things that they don’t want to have happen to avoid the Big Bad Thing from happening. O.k., if I smile and act nice, maybe he won’t curse me out. O.k., if I walk slowly away while he’s touching me, he won’t grab me by the neck and force me to do anything I don’t want to. And in worse case scenarios, if I just sleep with him, maybe he won’t hurt me.
All the navigating and deflecting and avoidance leaves us unprepared for those moments when we should confront. When we should rage and rant. (I repeat, there are many of us who take no shit, who rage and rant. Who will slap some boy in a second. But there are just as many of us who won’t.) So I tried to explain the invisible fear that already exists to my friend. I tried to explain to him why it isn’t a question of just trusting the woman because the woman isn’t the only one in the room. I tried to explain that sometimes the force of everything you’ve been taught to fear as a woman is sitting on your neck and you fear if you say the wrong thing, it will fall, like a guillotine and slice your head clean off.
The next day I picked up Alice Sebold’s book Lucky. It was sitting on my friend’s bookshelf. "Did you read this?" I ask. She shuddered. "No," she said. "Too tough?" I asked. She nodded her head.
At the end of her freshman year of college, Alice Sebold was brutally raped. The title comes from the opening paragraph. Sebold writes:
"In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky."
I didn’t start the book at the beginning. I didn’t think I could. I flipped to the back and started at the end. At the end, Alice is in the courtroom testifying against her rapist, defending herself against the defense attorney. The book is not an easy read. Alice’s rape causes a potential boyfriend’s mother to disclose her own rape to her children. Alice’s poem about her rape triggered a fellow student’s suicide attempt. The student was attempting to escape the years of rape her father and brother inflicted upon her while she was in high school. Ironically, her incapacitation due to her suicide attempt put her directly in her father’s care. Then, after all appears to be settled in Alice’s world, her friend is raped. The rape destroys their friendship and Alice’s belief that she can ever be normal again.
It is a hard book to read. Alice writes about the toll the rape and her pursuit of the rapist took on her, her family, and her future. Yet, I read it compulsively, I gobbled it down in two days. The morning of the second day, I woke early in the morning and found myself imagining myself as the victim in Alice’s rape. She provided the details so clearly that at every moment, I asked myself, would I fight back at this point? Would I still be fighting at this point? And in my dream reconstruction of the rape, I inserted the self defense moves I learned in self defense class. When he forces me to do this, would I have the strength to do an elbow strike? If I speared him in the eyes with my fingertips, would that be enough time for me to run for help? Would I ever stop fighting? Could his rage, violence and strength kill all the fight in me? Could he convince me to go limp and follow his commands?
It was a strange sequence of events unfolding in my head. I have imagined being attacked before, but I never imagined hitting back. Alice fought. She kicked, she screamed, she struggled. "I tried to land wild kicks," she writes. "Everything missed or merely grazed him. I had never fought before, was chosen last in gym." That is the crux of the contradiction. We spend so much time fearing the attacks, fearing the rapes, but somehow we never learn to fight. I don’t suggest that learning to fight can prevent rape from happening. I don’t suggest Alice’s rape could have been prevented if she knew how to fight. I only wish the tables had been a little more even. For some one like her, with a fighter’s heart, I want to believe she could have held him at bay and the cavalry could have arrived.
No one wants to believe violence is totally beyond the victim’s control. Alice’s father asks how she could have been raped if the rapist lost his knife early on in the struggle. He also says he didn’t think the rapist would have been so small when he sees him in person. Her father voices the thoughts we all have. Couldn’t you have fought? Couldn’t you have won? But Alice did fight. She fought and she even got away and ran. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her back. Then, after knocking her off balance, he jumped on her back and pounded her head on the ground. He wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed until she momentarily lost consciousness. Sebold writes:
"When I came to, I knew I was staring up into the eyes of the man who would kill me. At that moment I signed myself over to him. I was convinced that I would not live. I could not fight anymore. He was going to do what he wanted to me. That was it."
I marvel at that point. The point at which a victim becomes convinced that there is no use in struggling and they can not fight anymore. For some of us that point comes remarkably easily, but it does not feel easy. The fear of pain or punishment or even death looms large in our minds. And when fear wins that battle, we are victimized with very little apparent force from our attacker. And the public may not understand. May make us feel we should have been stronger. And maybe we should have been. And maybe next time, we will be.
Later, Sebold writes: "Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I would rather be raped a thousand times. You do what you have to." Those are strong words. Words I’m not sure I completely believe. Though I do believe you do what you have to and Sebold certainly does. By page 13, the physical rape is over. For the remainder of the 243-page book, Sebold is managing her devastation, confronting her family, reintegrating into collegiate life, identifying and accusing her rapist, going to trail, and trying to build a future for herself years and years after the rape. While I am prepared to believe that Sebold could live through another rape, I don’t see how she would make it through another recovery. It took her 10 years to heal from her ordeal, which included the rape trial itself.
Sebold’s friend does not put her rapist on trial. Instead, she tries to get past it by embracing new friends and cutting Sebold out of her life. At the time, Sebold feels she won. She put her attacker behind bars. On the day she identified her rapist on the street she states: "In my mind, the rapist had murdered me on the day of the rape. Now I was going to murder him back. Make my hate large and whole."
What is intriguing about all this from a writer’s perspective is that Sebold did not plan to write Lucky. The book was written out of necessity while she was working on her critically-acclaimed bestselling novel The Lovely Bones. Sebold states:
"I…wrote the beginning of The Lovely Bones before I wrote my memoir, so the violent crime that occurs in Susie’s life happened, in terms of writing about it, before a description of my own rape was written by me later. I think in order to separate the two stories, to make sure that Susie was not doing any of my work for me when I returned to the novel, I stopped to write Lucky. … [I got] all the facts of my own case down, so … I could go back to Susie and she could lead me where she wanted to take me and tell me her story in a the way she wanted to tell it, as opposed to me feeling perhaps that I needed to really tell the real deal about every detail of rape and violence. I did that in the memoir as opposed to the novel because I wanted my characters to rule the novel, not some sort of desire to talk about rape and reveal rape to readers."
Regarding The Lovely Bones, "book critic Maureen Corrigan said the subject matter made her reluctant to pick up the brook, but reading it gave her a singular, disturbing, and even enlightening literary experience." I have to say reading Sebold’s memoir Lucky, gave me the same experience. It turns out I was able to handle the tough subject matter, and I was disturbed, and encouraged, and enlightened and inspired. Sometimes I was devastated too. Rape is one of life’s dark and scary corners. Alice Sebold handled this tough terrain with candor, grace, strength, and wit. It is definitely a worthwhile read.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
FOR THE RECORD
In response to last month's post, a KIS.list reader writes:
Australia is a very dry country.
in several places, there has been drought in recent years.
water usage restrictions have been applied by various authorities, & an ethic of using less water is widespread.
it’s quite common in some households not to flush the toilet if there’s only wee in it, especially at night.
most of the urinals in public toilets in my city have been converted to waterless hygiene, with some sort of big coloured cubes in the drainage channel to kill the smell & kill germs.
we’re taught that the toilet design with 2 flush buttons, half flush & full flush, was invented in Australia. Do yours have 2 buttons or just one?
here in Adelaide, when I was a kid, tap water was always very brown (my family drank rain water). It was said that there were only 2 ports in the world where ocean-going ships wouldn’t take on water: somewhere in India & Adelaide. Our water was never smelly, just rusty brown. It’s "hard" water: there are a lot of minerals in it, & you need to use more soap & detergent than you would in "softer" water. These days I drink tap water with no (obvious) ill effects.
so, your stories of water are close to home.