Books

“Try, if You Can, to Remember Everything”

The uncanniness of rereading Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky now that the man she identified as her rapist has been exonerated.

Lucky book cover
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scribner.

Alice Sebold was walking down the street in Syracuse, New York, in 1981 when she thought she saw the man who had raped her months ago. Before going to the police, Sebold, then 18, went to the instructor of the class she was supposed to attend that afternoon at Syracuse University to explain why she would be absent. As she relates in her 1999 memoir, Lucky, the professor—the memoirist and novelist Tobias Wolff—put both hands on her shoulders and told her, “Try, if you can, to remember everything.”

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Lucky is a book so punishingly detailed it’s easy to believe that Sebold followed this advice. But last month the New York State Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Anthony Broadwater, the man who spent 16 years in prison for assaulting her. The case relied on a now-discredited form of hair analysis and Sebold’s identification of Broadwater in court. To revisit Lucky today, in light of Broadwater’s exoneration and revelations of prosecutorial misconduct in his trial, is to see the outlines of another story underneath the story that Sebold so desperately wanted to tell and to believe.

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The nature of the assault was particularly brutal. (I’m including graphic detail here because it feels important to convey how traumatizing this attack was for Sebold and how unsparingly she tells the story of what happened to her, but some may find this hard to read.) Sebold was seized from behind by a man who told her that he had a knife and would kill her. She believed him, and struggled to escape. He threw her to the ground and kicked her in the abdomen. When she managed to get up and tried to run, he grabbed her by the hair and punched her. On the ground again he pounded her head into the brick pathway and choked her, leaving a “necklace of bruises” around her neck. At this point, Sebold writes, she believed she could not escape and that he would probably kill her. She surrendered.

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The rapist dragged Sebold by her hair, which came out by the roots, to the tunneled entrance of an amphitheater. He forced her to undress, informing her that she was “the worst bitch” he had ever done this to. He attempted intercourse, but Sebold’s intact hymen and his own inability to maintain an erection interfered. He then shoved his entire fist into her vagina. He forced her to perform fellatio on him and urinated on her. Eventually he was hard enough to achieve intercourse and ejaculate. Passersby assumed the pair were lovers and laughingly cheered him on. Afterward, the rapist was possessed by a bizarre mixture of contempt and remorse, telling Sebold, “You’re going to have a baby, bitch,” and also that she was a “good girl” and “I’m so sorry.” He asked her name. Still terrified that he would kill her, she promised not to tell anyone.

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This would prove impossible even if she’d meant it, as Sebold had obviously been badly beaten. She made it back to her dorm, asked the RA to call the police, and was taken to the hospital. It was difficult for the attending physician to take samples for a rape kit because there was so much blood both from Sebold’s broken hymen and the damage the rapist caused by shoving his fist into her, injuries that required internal stitches. However, the doctor was able to retrieve one of the rapist’s pubic hairs.

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Of course this assault left Sebold severely traumatized, but just as law enforcement at the time lacked the technology of DNA analysis to apprehend criminals, no one seems to have understood how to help her. She went home to Pennsylvania to recover in her parents’ home, but when she needed to talk about the rape, her mother, who suffered from anxiety and disabling panic attacks, couldn’t bear to listen. So Sebold’s mother arranged for her to go to a psychiatrist familiar with the family. When Sebold explained the reason for her visit, the doctor responded “Well, I guess this will make you less inhibited about sex now, huh?” Other than this, Sebold received no counseling or other treatment.

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When the school year began in the fall, Sebold, determined to resume her life, made the fateful decision to return to campus. But Syracuse was also where her rapist presumably lived and could at any moment reappear. One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is a state of perpetual vigilance and alarm. Sebold started experiencing other symptoms: crippling headaches, recurring nightmares, and increased dependence on alcohol to subdue her anxiety. She felt that the rape had changed her in a fundamental way, making her essentially different from both the people around her and her former self, a young woman so naïve that the cop who took her initial statement had to explain to her that a man needed an erection to engage in intercourse. By 1990, Sebold had moved to New York. In such a place, she writes, “The way I acted and thought, my hypervigilance and nightmares, made sense.”

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If trauma has a defining quality, it’s helplessness, the awareness that you can do nothing to protect yourself or your body, that at any moment forces entirely beyond your control can cause you grave injury or death. A common therapy for trauma patients today involves the use of role-playing and theater, in which patients can act out a new version of the traumatic scenario in which they are able to successfully fight back against their attacker.

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It was after Sebold, with a full-blown untreated case of PTSD, returned to Syracuse that fall that her catastrophe became Anthony Broadwater’s as well. In her poetry class, Sebold attempted to write about the rape, but the result was a wordy, abstract mess. The teacher, poet Tess Gallagher, correctly perceiving that Sebold had erected an intellectual buffer around the experience, suggested a different approach. “How about you start the poem with this line,” she suggested, passing Sebold a slip of paper with “If they caught you … ” written on it. The result was a fiery Sylvia Plath–style jeremiad about the pain Sebold would inflict upon her rapist if she had him at her mercy the way he had once had her at his mercy, an unfiltered fantasy about reversing the extreme power dynamic of trauma. She titled it “Conviction.”

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Although Gallagher didn’t intend her prompt to be therapeutic, she was in fact suggesting something not unlike the drama therapy used to treat trauma today. Sebold writes of feeling that after the rape, when everyone seemed to know about it, “magically I became story, not person, and story implies a kind of ownership by the storyteller.” The rapist still owned her. She was the victim of a story over which she had no say. To own herself again would require taking over the story and producing another version, one in which she triumphed. Both Sebold’s actions over the following year and Lucky itself constituted exactly that sort of retelling. It was writing “Conviction” that gave her an inkling of the way out.

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Surely it’s no coincidence that a week after writing “Conviction,” Sebold became convinced that she had encountered her rapist on the street. The point where she identified Broadwater, an innocent man, as her attacker, is where the memoir gets sketchy. There is a long history in America of Black men being falsely accused of raping white women, a history that includes thousands of lynchings as well as unjust imprisonments. Furthermore, cross-racial facial identification is notoriously unreliable. Many studies have proved that people of all races are much better able to remember the faces of members of their own race. When Sebold passed Broadwater, she recalls that she heard him speak words similar to those that her rapist had said to her after the assault: “Hey girl, nice knowing you.” She thought he was talking to her, but Broadwater has always maintained that he was addressing a friend standing behind her, a police officer. She was instantly sure he was the man who had attacked her.

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Even the first time I read Lucky, long before Broadwater’s conviction was overturned, this scene struck me as odd. To Sebold, Broadwater’s joviality meant he was gloating that he had “gotten away with it. … My devastation was a pleasure for him. He was walking the streets, scot-free.” But as Sebold describes the aftermath of the attack, her rapist was not reveling in his power. He veered chaotically between disdainful rage at his victim and ashamed self-hatred, weeping and apologizing, asking her if she was OK and then taking the money from her wallet and demanding that she kiss him goodbye. “It’s not right what I did,” he told her. He comes across as a tormented soul, not a cocky, carefree sociopath enjoying the power he still lorded over his victim. The real man who had assaulted her had been transformed into a soulless monster by her traumatized imagination.

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Many people believe that to question any aspect of an assault victim’s account of their ordeal is to compound that victim’s trauma. But many trauma therapists will admit that their most afflicted patients sometimes tell them stories of past abuse that they strongly suspect are not accurate, even though patients believe they are. There is also a history of false accusations and overturned convictions involving recovered “memories” of sexual abuse and Satanic rituals dating back to the 1990s. Our memories are far more unreliable and manipulable than we’d like to admit.

So it is one thing for trauma survivors to seize control of their own stories in therapy, but an entirely different matter to do so within our deeply flawed and racist criminal justice system. It seems that Sebold genuinely believed Broadwater was the man who raped her, but the various authorities who took over the case when she went to the police with this accusation should certainly have been more skeptical. Lucky itself indicates that Sebold could not produce a consistent description of her attacker, and Broadwater did not look much like a composite she enlisted a friend to draw for her.

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Broadwater’s conviction was vacated in part because the forensic evidence against him has since been dismissed as “junk science”—and in part because Sebold had originally picked a different man out of the lineup. At the time, prosecutors assured her that this was a fluke, and at Broadwater’s trial, she identified him as the man who had raped her. As Sebold recounts in Lucky, Assistant District Attorney Gail Uebelhoer told her she had failed to identify Broadwater because he had been allowed to bring a friend into the lineup and that this friend had stared menacingly through the one-way glass in order to trick her into picking him. Sebold, who was indeed terrified during the lineup, believed this story. She also believed prosecutors who told her, falsely, that Broadwater had a criminal record and that they were convinced they had the right guy. Broadwater was the only Black man in the room when Sebold pointed to him, and he describes feeling a version of the helplessness that Sebold herself experienced in that tunnel. His own trauma, which would last through a 16-year prison term and the years he spent afterward living under the stigma of sexual offender, began.

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Sebold, meanwhile, was almost pathetically vulnerable to prosecutorial manipulation. Throughout Lucky, she describes herself clinging to authoritative adults who promised to assume the roles her parents could not. When her mother and father realized that one of them would need to accompany Sebold to the trial, they bickered over who would do it: her mother, who could barely leave the house, or her father, who worried the trial would interfere with his annual research trip to Spain. “What I came away with,” she writes, “was the fact that neither one of them had wanted to be at the trial with me.” Above all, she clung to Uebelhoer. In place of the absent mother crippled by mental illness, Uebelhoer was a strong and canny woman, what Sebold writes she “wanted to be when I grew up.” She was also Sebold’s fiercest defender.

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As I understand Lucky given Broadwater’s exoneration, Sebold needed to believe that her rapist had been caught because her fear and her untreated trauma made the alternative, the life of a helpless victim, unendurable. But only catching the actual rapist would provide the safety that Sebold craved. As for the police and prosecutors who had previously shown little interest in finding him? They did not seem too particular about which Black man got jailed for the crime. In Sebold, they had an ideal victim: a white, middle-class virgin whose injuries proved that she had fought back against a Black stranger, and who had made a positive identification of him. Their witness so craved their approval and protection that she was particularly susceptible to misdirection about the man she had mistakenly accused, and to reassurance that she had gotten it right.

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As I reread this memoir now, the narrator of Lucky transforms from a brave survivor summoning the will to bring her rapist to justice into an isolated, psychologically damaged girl making a desperate but delusional bid to regain her life. Sebold committed a terrible wrong in identifying Broadwater as her attacker, but it’s not the responsibility of a traumatized rape victim to fairly investigate and prosecute the person who assaulted her. That is the duty of the police and prosecutors, who failed both Sebold and Broadwater at every stage, from the moment she first reported the crime to the moment he was convicted.

Should Sebold, at some later point, have had second thoughts about Broadwater’s conviction? Possibly. I don’t know. A producer working on a (since-shelved) movie version of Lucky noticed what he calls “discrepancies” in the book, most of which come down to the lies the prosecutors and cops told Sebold to convince her that Broadwater was a bad guy and that the forensic evidence against him was conclusive. That producer’s inquiry ultimately led to the overturning of the conviction. But Sebold herself researched the case while writing Lucky. Did she, too, notice the smaller lies that Uebelhoer told her and wonder if the big one, about how Broadwater had gamed the lineup with a friend, was also untrue? In an afterword added to the book in 2017, Sebold describes Broadwater as coming from “a family with an entrenched criminal record,” which suggests she’d looked into the facts and realized that the prosecutor’s stories about his own past offenses weren’t true. To my mind, that’s the most incriminating line in the book, but it still doesn’t prove that Sebold knew or even sensed that the wrong man had been convicted of raping her. The book’s publisher has since pulled it from distribution to “consider how the work might be revised,” which may reveal more. It seems likely, though, that Sebold simply believed what she was highly motivated to believe: that she had seen justice done, that she made herself safe from the man who had brutalized her, and that she had thereby retaken control of her fate.

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Sebold has since issued an apology to Broadwater, which has been subjected to the usual critiques that now greet public professions of contrition. (Interestingly, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick’s announcement that he would not “sully this proceeding by saying, ‘I’m sorry,’” on behalf of his office because “this should never have happened” has received relatively little criticism for its wording.) For his part, Broadwater says he is satisfied, telling Syracuse.com, the website of the Syracuse Post-Standard, “It comes sincerely from her heart. She knowingly admits what happened. I accept her apology.” Earlier in the week, he told the same news site that if he met Sebold, “I would sympathize with her and tell her how I felt,” he said. “She’s been a victim and I’ve been a victim.” That, tragically, is something they’ll always share.

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