2007 - The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold, here
SEBOLD , SCRIBNER'S, 254 PAGES
By Sally Eckhoff
Sept. 27, 1999 | Whether or not you'd go out of your way to read anything that might be classified as a rape memoir, give Alice Sebold your attention for her first five pages and you're in for the whole ride. Written in a fever of unapologetic self-discipline, "Lucky" is just about everything you'd expect it not to be. There's no expedition in search of psychic wounds, no yanking at your sleeve to get your conscience into the picture. Sebold was only a college freshman in a beat-up sweater when her horrible assault occurred, and she was a virgin. Maybe if rape was classified as a form of torture it would be simpler to map out the parameters of the damage it causes. Right now, as Patricia Weaver Francisco, author of "Telling," has said, a lot of people think of it as a form of bad sex.
At first, "Lucky" seems to bounce you into a state of half-belief. The rape itself, narrated at the very beginning of the book, is so merciless it's nearly impossible to absorb. The man beat her and tore at her; the shriveled object in the courtroom evidence bag was so stiff and black -- like ruined leather -- that it was hard to tell it was her blood-soaked underwear.
Once Sebold goes back to her bookish family to repair herself, her household becomes an odd but dramatically rich place to begin to heal. The first thing her father asks her when she gets back home is whether she'd like something to eat. "That would be nice," she says, "considering the only thing I've had in my mouth in the last twenty-four hours is a cracker and a cock."
The smart but not good-looking Alice (as she sees herself, wrongly on that last count) keeps a cool head as her family wavers, as she leaves them once more to return to school, as she helps catch her assailant. And then, in a wrenching moment that comes from out of nowhere, she has to keep from losing her mind when she faces the police lineup and fingers the wrong guy. How in the world is this ever going to work out?
Sebold credits teachers, including Tess Gallagher and Geoffrey Wolff, who surely had something to do with the making of a writer who can spit out a harrowing story that's still vibrating and flexible. Reading Sebold is like listening to Syd Straw singing about the worst thing that ever happened to her. Not that being funny doesn't help; Sebold can do that, too. But mainly, "Lucky" derives imaginative traction from its form and style, its continually expanding view. By the end, the mysteries of individuality that it conveys seem accessible only to the reluctantly brave. The book's acknowledgments conclude with some lovely, ardent thanks to Sebold's vulnerable mother. Because "Lucky" makes compassion a more personal, less automatic response, this gift to her mother seems light enough to carry and to keep.
salon.com | Sept. 27, 1999
About the writer
Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon
Above and beyond
There aren't many women who come out and say they've been raped who also write a novel about violence - let alone narrated by a 14-year-old from heaven - Alice Sebold admits: but that doesn't make it therapy
Interview by Katharine Viner
Saturday August 24, 2002
When she was 18, a student, a virgin, and on her way home one night, Alice Sebold was brutally raped in a tunnel. Her attacker raped her with his fist and his penis; he beat her up; he urinated on her face. When she got home that night, her father asked her if she'd like something to eat. "That would be nice," she said, "considering the only thing I've had in my mouth in the last 24 hours is a cracker and a cock."
It shocked him, she says. But it made him realise that, despite what had happened to her, "I was still the sarcastic kid who talked bodies, and that was not going to change."
Alice Sebold has a way of subverting expectations. She has written a novel, The Lovely Bones, which has been described as "an uplifting book about the abduction and murder of a young girl". Many Americans have said that it provides them with "Christian comfort" - but she doesn't believe in God. Her book is narrated from heaven - though she's not sure the afterlife exists. The heroine of The Lovely Bones, Susie, is raped, as she was; but Susie is dead, which she isn't. (More on being not-dead later.) Everyone expects her to be younger than 39 - "which is old for a first novelist, so they keep telling me". And although the book is a stratospheric once-in-a-decade bestseller in the US - it has sold more than a million copies in a month, with no Oprah-endorsement or big advance - and although Lynne "Ratcatcher" Ramsay has bought the film rights and the bellboy in the hotel recognised her, Sebold herself is cool but low-key, "putting one foot in front of the other", not sure what she'll buy with her new money (maybe an olive tree for the garden, maybe another dog if Lilly the German shepherd will let her).
The Lovely Bones opens with the kind of lines that make you famous. "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Susie was killed by a neighbour, Mr Harvey, walking through a cornfield on her way home. "'Please,' I said. 'Don't,' I said. Sometimes I combined them. 'Please don't' or 'Don't please.' It was like insisting that a key works when it doesn't or yelling 'I've got it, I've got it, I've got it' as a softball goes sailing over you into the stands."
Susie narrates the novel from heaven, from where she watches the hunt for her body (only an elbow is ever found), the search for her murderer, the agonising grief of her family. She sees her mother "bracing under the weight of it, a weight that she naively hoped might lighten someday, not knowing that it would only go on to hurt in new and varied ways for the rest of her life." And her father: "Every day he got up, before sleep wore off, he was who he used to be. Then as his consciousness woke, it was as if poison had seeped in. At first he didn't even get up. He lay there under a heavy weight, the guilt on him, the hand of God pressing down on him saying, 'You were not there when your daughter needed you.' "
As she watches, she begins to understand her family in ways that would not have been possible if she'd stayed living; and they become free only when Susie herself has "given up on earth". It is a stunningly sad novel - and yet it is also, said Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, "a deeply affecting meditation on the ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed - slowly, grudgingly and in fragments - through love and acceptance."
So far, the Atlantic separates critical opinion like a boxing referee. Reviews of The Lovely Bones in the US have matched its sellout status with blanket praise and excitement, from Jonathan Franzen to Anna Quindlen to Michael Chabon; even the usually tough Kakutani loved it, admiring "her ability to capture both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the banal and the horrific, in lyrical, unsentimental prose; her instinctive understanding of the mathematics of love between parents and children; her gift for making palpable the dreams, regrets and unstilled hopes of one girl and her family." In Britain, by contrast, Philip Hensher in the Observer wrote, "Ultimately it seems like a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy." In the US, The Lovely Bones has been criticised for showing a godless heaven; in Britain, critic Paul Morley worried that the book was propaganda "from some peculiar church in the middle of America". In Britain, Private Eye and Ali Smith in this newspaper put the book's success down to September 11 and the consolation that, even if nearly 3,000 people were vaporised at their desks, they're alive and well upstairs somewhere; in the US, says Ron Charles, book editor of the Christian Science Monitor, its popularity is in spite of September 11, child abductions being "perhaps the only dread darker than our new fear of terrorism". In the US, it has been praised for its lack of sentimentality; in Britain, Natasha Walter called it "an incredibly candyfloss read, very, very sugary".
Whether this is down to cultural differences or the disappointment of raised expectations will emerge only when British readers get hold of the book. "If I were a writer with a first novel out now, I would hate me; I'm using up a lot of newspaper pages," says Sebold, when we meet in a hotel in some town-without-pedestrians in Texas, the latest place on her book tour. She is tired from the grind of readings, interviews, hotel rooms. She has clear, white-marble skin, messy black shiny hair and sexy lips, and is soberly dressed in black with a maroon silk shirt; she wears a model of Frankenstein made out of a match around her neck (her "lucky charm") and what she calls her "Asian-looking" eyes are hidden by a pair of extraordinary 1940s glasses with heavy black diamond-shaped frames, studded with diamanté. (She always takes these off for photographs, and considers the glasses a form of disguise from her "temporal literary celebrity".) "I think that Britain is going to feel that this book did really well in America, so a) there must be something wrong with it and b) dammit, it's not going to do well here. It was idiosyncratic at the time of publication, but it appears to have been accepted by the 'establishment' now. So what can I say? I did not expect popular success in the United States or anywhere else, I do not expect to be popular in Great Britain - and they may actually fulfil that expectation." She laughs, and it's very deep, like thunder.
The view of heaven presented in The Lovely Bones is a familiar one - a place of happiness, without judgment, where you get what you desire as long as you know why you desire it. Susie's heaven has a school but no teachers, fashion magazines for textbooks, peppermint-stick ice cream on tap. Although, says Susie, "I could not have what I wanted most: Mr Harvey dead and me living." There are many others who have portrayed heaven in similar terms, as we learn from Peter Stanford's excellent Heaven: A Traveller's Guide To The Undiscovered Country - from Virgil's paradise, which was an idealisation of his Italian countryside just as Susie's is an idealisation of her own environment, to Monty Python's Meaning Of Life, where a choir is for ever singing Every Single Day Is Christmas Day.
"It's a very simplistic understanding of what heaven would contain," Sebold says. "To me, the idea of heaven would give you certain pleasures, certain joys - but it's very important to have an intellectual understanding of why you want those things. It's also about discovery, and being able to come to the conclusions that elude you in life. So it's from the most simplistic things - Susie wants a duplex - to larger things, like being able to understand why her mother was always slightly distant from her."
Our persistent obsession with the afterlife, what Stanford calls "a glorious but untried promise, utterly open to the wiles of our imagination", is certainly a reason for the success of The Lovely Bones in the US. He writes, "There have always been... unconventional individuals able to service those who are too restless to wait and see [what heaven is like]. The Victorians went to spiritualists and mediums; we, in turn, devour the literature of near-death experiences to satisfy our hankering to know if there is anything more to come." Americans are perhaps particularly keen on this sort of thing: a 1987 poll by American Health magazine found that 42% believed they had had contact with someone who had died, and a book called Hello From Heaven!, subtitled A New Field Of Research - After-Death Communication - Confirms That Life And Love Are Eternal, was a bestseller. (Stanford also says, incidentally, that some Christian fundamentalists, of which there are tens of millions in the US, believe the book of Revelation actually provides a street plan for heaven.)
Notably, there is no God, Jesus or Bible in Susie's afterlife, even though some readers, in Mark Lawson's words, have taken the novel as "factual confirmation of the existence of Christianity". Sebold jokes that she "doesn't know enough about Christianity to know whether or not this is true". She is not religious. "I think some people get angry about this because they want a more justified, religious-based reason for some of the decisions I made about heaven - and I just don't have them. It is certainly not a religious book, but if people want to take things and interpret them, then I can't do anything about that. It is a book that has faith and hope and giant universal themes in it, but it's not meant to be, 'This is the way you should look at the afterlife'."
Her upbringing in suburban Philadelphia (her mother was a local newspaper journalist, her father a professor in Spanish) was, she says, "wishy-washy Episcopalian" (Anglican): "I went to church irregularly and was mostly reading comics in the pew. My mom was briefly the warden for the vestry - but she quit after I was raped because the way people responded made her so sick. There's a religious idea that being raped is a shame-filled thing and maybe you brought it on yourself. So the accusation that I'm religious is kind of hilarious to me."
Is she, then, "spiritual", the modern-day substitute for religious? (This seems to cover everything from believing in kindness to thinking you're "giving something back" by having an aromatherapy bath.) "In my 20s, I railed against anything 'spiritual', I thought it was all crap," she says. "Then when I was 33, a miserable failure - I don't know whether it was spirituality or getting older, but I decided I needed to lighten up a little on my judgment of myself and the world. So there's that. I like gardening - it's a place where I find myself when I need to lose myself. Killing slugs. Very spiritual! And I believe in dogs." Her advice to writers is to get a dog, so that you can "have a relationship that's nothing to do with words".
One wonders if another reason for the book's vast popularity is that it provides some consolation for the living - that the dead are "only in the next room", say, but also that the living can go on living. "It's about imagining it's not over when it's over," says Sebold. (Just as, perhaps, the rape victim's life is not over, either.) "That there is an existence for the living and the dead after someone's died."
This echoes many people's experiences of bereavement - that the dead stay with us and you do, somehow, survive grief. And, as Kate Berridge wrote in Vigor Mortis: "As for the people we love who die, we should not shun them. We should dare to fraternise with these 'people of the pearl', as Emily Dickinson called them." The "lovely bones" in the title refers to the relationships that form in the novel after Susie's death, and because of it, and somehow involving it: "These are the lovely bones that had grown around my absence," says Susie, "the connections - sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent - that happened after I was gone." The new life that configures around the loss.
Sebold says that many of the people who come to her readings have had someone close to them killed. "They are fascinated by the idea that when the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things," she says. "You usually hear the reverse idea, that the bereaved have to let go of the dead. I think it speaks to their experience, that some release has come to them at some point and they're never exactly sure why. The idea that it is, perhaps, a reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead. Also in America there's so much instruction on how to do things - how to grieve, rights and wrongs - which is very scary to me. So I think the idea that grief is organic and fluid is attractive if you've lost somebody. Grief doesn't need to be a scary thing." At a reading, a man said to Sebold that the book was "a permission slip to grieve whatever way I wanted to". Sebold says that many of her friends died of Aids in New York in the 1980s. "I guess that's part of that subconscious bubbling stew that informs the book."
I wonder if new relationships, lovely bones, formed after Sebold's rape, as they did after Susie's murder. "Actually, I think I lost more people than I gained," she says. "Although it happened for me at an age - 18 - where you lose people anyway." (It could also tell us something about how people see rape.) "It definitely bonded my relationship with Tess Gallagher [the poet, Sebold's teacher and wife of Raymond Carver, whom Sebold remembers being awkward at parties and carrying brownies in his pockets]. Tess encouraged me to write about the rape [she suggested Sebold write a poem starting with the line 'If they caught you'] and she came to my preliminary hearing in court. But I lost a lot of friendships - if anyone said something stupid about violence or rape, I used to say, just fuck you."
Three years ago, Sebold published a memoir about her rape, which she called Lucky because "in the tunnel where I was raped... a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by police. In comparison, they said I was lucky." Several months after the attack, Sebold saw her rapist in the street. He greeted her casually, with a smile, saying, "Hey, girl, don't I know you from somewhere?" She went to court, endured a typically savage cross-examination (the police told her she was the best rape witness they'd ever seen) and secured a rare conviction. Her rapist received the maximum jail sentence.
Many have thought that The Lovely Bones, which opens with a girl's rape and murder, must be an imagining of the other girl's story; the "unlucky" girl who didn't get away. "It was never a conscious thing to tell her story," Sebold says. "I didn't know the details of her case, and the police said she was a girl but in the United States that could mean she's 85. But obviously I'd be an idiot to deny that inside my unconscious there's something like that going on."
It is understandable that Sebold fights analysis of the parallels between getting over rape in her own life and getting over grief in The Lovely Bones - artists often resist the idea that their work is informed by their experience, fearing it belittles the imagination. The suggestion some have made that The Lovely Bones is "working out" her rape infuriates her. "First of all, therapy is for therapy. Leave it there. Second, because you're a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something 'therapeutic' - oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you! After I'd started The Lovely Bones, I decided to break off and write Lucky, to make sure that Susie wasn't saying everything that I wanted to say about violent crime and rape. OK, there aren't that many women who come out and say they've been raped who also write a novel about violence. But when people discover you're a rape victim, they decide that's all you are."
And so one American magazine asked Sebold to pose for a photograph as if she were dead, arms crossed over her chest, in a cornfield; another asked her to lie down surrounded by dirty dismembered doll parts. (She declined both.) And on a recent edition of Newsnight Review, the crime novelist Ian Rankin, discussing The Lovely Bones, said, "When I read the novel, I didn't know... that she [Sebold] had been raped... Once I was reading more of her into it, not just taking it as straight fiction, then I suppose I thought of it in a lesser way." The comment, says Sebold (ever the sarcastic kid who talked bodies), "ripped me a new asshole". "You know, some of the writers who write about India are Indian," she says. "There are a thousand writers with experiences in their background. The one thing I'm certain my rape gave me in terms of writing The Lovely Bones is a feeling that I could write a scene of violence with authority. It is extraordinary that knowing I've been raped should lessen my achievement in anything."
Throughout her rape, Sebold found she focused most on staying alive; she kissed the rapist back when he commanded her to, she made him promise not to tell anyone (a ruse to ensure her escape, to suggest she wouldn't go to the police). "He held my life in his hand," she wrote. "Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I'd rather be raped a thousand times. You do what you have to." She was surprised by this survival instinct, she says. "I grew up hearing that it was better to die than be raped, but that's just not true. A radio show guy in New York said to me [she puts on a gravelly, true-crime voice]: 'So you wrote this book The Lovely Bones. A girl. Raped. Dead. You wrote this book Lucky, about yourself. A girl. Raped. And in many ways dead.' I said, I'm sorry, there's a big difference between me and a dead woman. I'm here talking to you, for a start."
She also thinks that the anonymity afforded to rape victims helps reinforce the idea that they are "ruined". "I'm a big believer that the names of women who've been raped should be published. Why should they be cloaked in shame? It's a story of survival, which is actually heroic. The stereotype is that you're always weak or passive or falling apart - so you don't talk about it because if you do, people will change their opinion of what you're capable of. When the truth is that you're probably capable of a lot more if you survived rape."
She believes you control things by naming them, which is why she always talks about her "rape" rather than, as one radio host did, "that horrible thing that happened to you from which you have luckily recovered". And she thinks that powerful women who've been raped should come out and tell their stories, both for themselves (this echoes Susie in The Lovely Bones saying, "Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop, of pain") and for other women. "It would get rid of the idea that if you're raped, your life is basically over. Rape is a brutal experience, and it does change your life. But it sure doesn't kill you, and I'm sure not dead."
After her rape, Sebold went back to college and finished her degree. She had sex with a boyfriend, Jamie, fairly soon after her return. "I willed myself to want it," she says. "I never really felt angry with men in general - I'd always had good relationships with them and quite a few had listened to me after the rape, sometimes more attentively than women, because they didn't have the fear that it would happen to them. I sensed that if I started shunning men because of the rape, I'd never stop." When she told Jamie she felt self-conscious, he said, "There's no time for that. I've got to get up for Spanish in the morning. Let's get the show on the road." "He fucked me hard," wrote Sebold. "I held on... I wept louder than I ever could have imagined." It's standard bad sex, but rape echoes through the experience. Sebold nods. "He's a stockbroker now."
Sebold spent her 20s in New York, trying to be a writer while working as a research analyst and teaching English (she considers this time her "apprenticeship"). "I took the attitude: this rape is not going to fucking get to me. I lived in the East Village, which was always anti-the rest of America. So while America was going through the do-whatever-you-feel era, we were saying everything was bullshit. Fuck feelings!" She says it took 10, maybe 15 years to get over the rape. "A lot longer than if I hadn't intellectualised everything, denied that it should have had an effect on me." Her 20s were "off-balance. I had jobs, friendships and relationships, but... It's like when you walk into a house and the floor slants. It can still hold chairs and tables and you can live in it, but the floor is slanted." She was seeing men who drank a lot, like she did, and she snorted heroin. "I used heroin recreationally for two years, and I did not find it became habit-forming for me," she says. (She thinks she didn't become addicted because of the warning of her mother's alcoholism, which is vividly described in Lucky: "My mother's pillows when I was little smelled like cherries. It was a sickeningly sweet smell. It was the same way my rapist smelled on the night of my rape. I would not admit to myself until years later that this was the smell of alcohol.") "The heroin was like booze and cigarettes and dating not the most stable people - a distraction from me not feeling the feelings of the rape. Vietnam vets call it 'self-medicating'."
A critical point came when she bought a copy of Trauma And Recovery, the classic book about sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, because she was quoted in it (she'd written a newspaper article about her rape). "I was failing miserably in New York, I'd written two novels that weren't published. And I realised I was quoted in the 'trauma' section of the book, but not in 'recovery'." She read the book, realised she "wasn't all great" and went into therapy for three years. Transformed, she took out a student loan, went to graduate school in California to study creative writing, and on the first day met her husband, Glen David Gold, author of the rapturously received Carter Beats The Devil, a magical mystery tour of a novel which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. "I was sitting at the back in the corner, aged 33, surrounded by all these young tanned women in spaghetti straps, all cheerful and friendly and open. Glen came in late and he couldn't get his motorcycle helmet off. So there it was!"
Was her guard up, after all that had happened to her? "Oh yes, massively," she says. "When we started feeling for each other, my reaction was: Oh fuck, here's another thing that's going to derail me. I had decided writing was more important to me than a relationship would be and this was my last chance - if I failed again, this would be it. But we fell in love anyway." And Gold is not, she says, a typical "guy". "He can't even get through a beer. He's a very sane, stable person, extraordinarily responsible. He grew up watching men sponge off his mom, and hating it. So he'd never do that. When he was eight, people used to call him a 36-year-old midget." (In his acknowledgments in Carter Beats The Devil, Gold writes of Sebold: "Mind-reader, levitator, secret weapon, gadfly, butterfly. Artist's model, box jumper, diva, high-wire aerialist. Quick-change artiste, sensation of the ages, and inquirer into the spirit world. Critic, effects-builder, manager, diva, oracle, mistress of escapes, queen of the mysteries, fellow conjurer, class act, and have I said 'diva' already? Friend, sister, secret weapon, paramour. Wife! I love you - let's take over this evil planet and make it a playground.")
It is ordinary human connections - tricky, complicated - that make us human, Sebold says, and which form the sustenance at the heart of The Lovely Bones. But she believes we are losing our ability to build such relationships - even if New Yorkers rediscovered it for a while after September 11 - which is why she set the novel in the 1970s rather than today. "That was when suburban developments were new - a time before media saturation, chain stores, malls, the internet, homogenised places. What it's meant is that everyone's become more detached from other human beings, sitting in their car or at their computer."
This clearly resonates with a line in Kakutani's review of The Lovely Bones: "The novel is an elegy... about a vanished place and time and the loss of childhood innocence." Because the novel recalls a time when relationships and connections were what made you who you are. "It's about living an extraordinary ordinary life," Sebold says. "People who are living their lives very much attached to the people around them, family, maybe, but also community and friends."
In some ways, then, the messages that Susie teaches her family, and that readers take from The Lovely Bones, are the same that Alice Sebold has learned from her life. She was raped, and it was shattering, and as Susie says, "Horror on earth is real and it is everyday." It never leaves you but, as Susie's father realises, "You live in the face of it." She got older, relaxed, let her guard down, told her story, found happiness in simple connections rather than defensiveness and booze. Her memoir Lucky ends, "I live in the world where the two truths co-exist, where both hell and hope live in the palm of my hand." She gets up at 3am to work because she likes writing in the dark, but she lives in the California sunshine. When she signs people's books, Alice Sebold writes "Viva!"
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is published by Picador.
Lucky will be published later this year, also by Picador.
Alice Sebold: Rape and redemption
Her first novel was a brutal tale of murder, and sold a record two-and-a-half million copies in hardback. But the story of Alice Sebold's own teenage years makes for far more shocking reading. Christina Patterson hears how she survived
06 June 2003
Alice Sebold knows all about arresting first lines. "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie", begins her first novel, The Lovely Bones. "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Her other book, Lucky, also goes straight for the jugular: "In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheatre, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered." These are textbook fiction openings, their unadorned prose designed to maximise the visceral punch. Another American creative writing graduate takes the well-travelled, hard-boiled route to literary success.
But Lucky is not a novel. When she was 18, the woman sitting in front of me, a woman with translucent skin, pink lipstick and extraordinary quadrangular, diamanté-trimmed glasses, was stopped on her way home from a college party. She was beaten, cut and dragged into a tunnel, where she was sodomised and raped. Her assailant thrust his penis into her mouth and urinated on her face, before raping her again and grabbing the loose change from her pockets. " 'You're the worst bitch I ever done this to,' " he told her. Alice Sebold was a virgin. She didn't know how to follow the rapist's instructions: where to put her legs or how to "suck dick". At the trial, months later, the white pants she had worn on the night, now wrapped in plastic and passed around as evidence, were almost entirely red.
"I'm in the dead zone," she announces with a bewitching pink smile, meaning nothing more sinister than that she is extremely tired. She has come straight from the Hay Festival and has just done four interviews, including Breakfast News and Woman's Hour. Twenty-two years on, Alice Sebold spends a great deal of time sitting in hotel rooms, being quizzed about the hour of brutality that turned her life upside down. If she has had enough of discussing the terror, the pleading and, most of all, the shame, she is polite enough not to show it.
It is not Lucky, however, that has shot her into the literary stratosphere, the one that secures the packed publicity schedule of a Hollywood star and suites in the Savoy, such as the one we're sitting in now. Sebold's fame in America is not as a celebrity rape victim. Lucky was published in the States in 1999. It got some good reviews and then "sank into oblivion". She is famous because her first novel, The Lovely Bones, was last year's publishing phenomenon. It sold two-and-a-half million copies in hardback, a record for a first novel. The paperback shot to the number one slot on Amazon six weeks before it came out. It hasn't left the top 10 since.
As the opening lines reveal, the novel is told in the voice of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered. Speaking from heaven, a heaven with many of the more comforting accoutrements of an American high school - room-mates, counsellors and swings, but glossy magazines instead of textbooks and no teachers - Susie tells the tale of her vicious abduction and murder in the cornfield near her home and observes the sequence of events that follow. Her elbow is found near a large patch of blood, but there is no other trace of a body. This fosters an agonising false hope in her parents, which is gradually replaced by the raw grief reserved only for relatives of the murdered or disappeared. "Before sleep wore off, he was who he used to be," she says of her father. "Then, as consciousness woke, it was as if poison seeped in."
Sebold's portrayal of a family reeling under the weight of unimaginable loss is extremely moving. Less convincing, perhaps, are the forays between heaven and earth. Susie pops down to the family duplex at frequent intervals and is glimpsed, fleetingly, in the corners of rooms. She even, at one point, enters the body of a school-friend who is making love with her own childhood sweetheart. The message, of course, is that "the line between the living and the dead could be ... murky and blurred".
Post September 11, this went down a storm: not just with the reading public, but with the critics, too. Even The New York Times's fearsome Michiko Kakutani described it as "a deeply affecting meditation on the ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed". In this country, the response was a little more muted. While many continued to hail the book's pacing, elegance and luminous prose, others had unlovely bones to pick. Joan Smith attacked the novel's "apple-pie sentimentality", claiming that it made her queasy. Philip Hensher described the book as "a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment". On this side of the Atlantic, was the implication, we are less susceptible to such redemptive whimsy.
Lucky is a much better book. It has all the pared-down strength and precision of the best pickings of The Lovely Bones, without the lyrical flights or excesses. Beginning with the graphic description of the rape in the tunnel, it is an account of a life painfully transformed: from oddball student, draping her awkward curves in flowing dresses and dreaming of being a poet, to rape victim and pariah. It is one of the most shocking books I have ever read. It is also a book that Sebold had no intention of writing.
"I never thought about writing a memoir," she declares matter-of-factly, "because I wanted to be a novelist or a poet." It was only after two years of writing The Lovely Bones that she became aware that another story was fighting to come out: "When I felt a sense of polemic entering the novel, I realised that I had to get myself out of there ... It almost felt like Serena or Venus Williams; they lift a lot of weights, they build a lot of muscle, in order that they can play the game they're meant to play... It wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do, but if I wanted to write the novel I had to do it."
The result is profoundly moving, in so many more ways than the obvious. In addition to the central trauma - the rape, the encounter with the rapist in the street six months later, the trial and the long, slow and at times drug-addled years of recovery - there is another, equally complicated, story. This is the story of a lonely child in a middle-class household, where the father, a professor of Spanish literature, retreats to his study and the mother, an alcoholic who suffers from panic attacks, will only show her daughter affection if she is tricked into it.
"I knew, now that I had been raped, I should try to look good for my parents," the narrator confides, after changing into the green-and-red kilt she knows her mother likes. And yet, for much of the book, her parents seem strangely absent. It was only when Sebold was researching it, looking at court files and speaking to her family, that she discovered that neither of them had wanted to come to the trial. "I remember my blood just running cold when I was on the phone with my mother," she recalls. "I think that was probably the most painful thing for me to realise."
Her mother is effusively thanked in the acknowledgments; her father, more coolly, for "being part of the show". How did they respond to an exposure that many would regard as a humiliation? "My father did what he does," Sebold replies with a wry smile. "He sent me a list of grammatical errors." For her mother "it was devastating", but there was no anger. "The good thing with my mom is that she has tried to the extent that she can ... to own up to her inabilities as a parent. There was a typo that I left in which means that my mother was drinking for many fewer years than she actually was," Sebold confides. "And because she was very supportive of me I left that in as a kind of secret gift to her."
There were plenty more shocks in store. Sebold discovered that the police inspector who took her report wrote that he believed, "after interview of the victim, that this case, as presented by the victim, is not completely factual". She learnt that the rapist had made allegations that she had venereal disease, and that she had asked for rough sex. She also saw the police photos of herself for the first time. "It was intense," she says, with a degree of understatement, "to see the palpable absence of myself in the photos straight afterwards and that I had already taken on an intense level of shame."
One of the most shocking moments in the book, one that made me gasp out loud, is the identity parade that follows his arrest. Alice picks the wrong man. She later finds out that the rapist has insisted on being accompanied by a friend who's almost a double and who stares out at her from behind the mirror while the rapist himself looks down. It is one of a range of tactics designed to weaken her. When, after the traumas of the trial and the defence's excruciating cross-examination, Alice is told by the bailiff: "you are the best rape witness I've ever seen on the stand", you just want to break down and cry.
The woman sitting opposite me, whose laugh is hearty and whose smile is broad and warm, is a woman palpably at peace with herself. It has been a long road. After years living in New York's East Village, failing to make it as a writer, snorting heroin and trying to convince herself that she was OK, she finally acknowledged that she wasn't. She had therapy, left New York and, on a creative writing course in California, met her husband, the novelist Glen David Gold. For both of them, finding each other coincided with spectacular literary success. It is, she says, with peals of laughter and a twinkle in those deep, blue eyes, "awesome".
Away from the whirlwind tours, the readings and the dinners, she longs for nothing more than days at home in California, "walking the dog very early, working till around noon or one o'clock and then going out for coffee someplace with Glen".
"You didn't ask me about sex," says Sebold with relief, when I switch off the tape recorder and start gathering up my things. I didn't need to. Alice Sebold has the rare glow of one who has found true love, and whose demons are firmly in the past. The author of Lucky deserves it.
'Lucky' is published today by Picador, £7.99
02/06/03 - Books section
In need of a
By Rachel Cusk, Evening Standard
Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, was a runaway best seller last year in her native America. Its success, though expected, was never predicted to reach quite the level it did: in the event its publishers had difficulty manufacturing sufficient copies to meet the demand for them.
People expressed surprise at such a phenomenon, customarily the province only of novels chosen by Oprah Winfrey's book club. Their surprise was owed partly to a perception of the book as "literary", meaning the opposite of populist - a perception reinforced, if not created, by its enthusiastic reviews.
This view, however, was markedly not shared by British critics when the book came out here a few months ago. In the States a lone voice of dissent had memorably described Sebold's moral vision as "aroma-therapeutic" and her standard of writing as rudimentary; an opinion more or less shared by reviewers in this country, who found the novel's mixture of schmaltz and violence bewildering.
Why, they wanted to know, had the book done so extraordinarily well?
The Lovely Bones was Sebold's first excursion into fiction, but in 1999 she had published a memoir of the rape and assault she endured at the age of 19 as a student at Syracuse University.
That memoir, Lucky, is now being issued here, and it provides an answer of sorts to the question of Alice Sebold's enormous popularity.
Translated into fiction, the sensibility at work in these pages was always bound to strike a loud and resounding chord. A deeply unpalatable piece of writing, Lucky comes as close to expressing the personality of the American nation as the experiences of a single, middle-class white woman could.
Except for the subject, of course - submitting a poem about the rape for a writing competition, Sebold recounts being told by one of the judges that "subjects like rape had a place in poetry but that I would never win the prizes or cultivate an audience at large that way". In The Lovely Bones she appears to have taken this advice to heart and gone for child murder instead.
Lucky begins with a detailed description of the rape, which took place in a park at night.
Certain that she is to be killed, Sebold nevertheless struggles with her attacker, an 18-year-old black man who makes it clear to her that he has raped women before: "You're the worst bitch I ever done this to," he said.
It was said in disgust, it was said in analysis. He saw what he had bagged and didn't like his catch. She does, however, survive, and, unlike most rape victims, she sees her attacker eventually caught, tried and jailed, largely through her own exertions.
This success Sebold construes as a form of celebrity, something that interposes itself between herself and the world but which nevertheless acts as an index of her value. She is reinforced in this view by others, most particularly in the area of writing, which for Sebold is a quasi-mystical, remedial activity.
She continues her studies at Syracuse until, one night, her room-mate, Lila, is also raped. This event causes Sebold to relapse. After leaving college she wanders in a wilderness of drink and drugs for a decade before writing an article about her rape in the New York Times. Oprah Winfrey reads it and invites Sebold on to her show - and the rest, as it were, is history.
The journey Sebold describes in Lucky lies, in one form or another, at the very bottom of the American soul. It is the journey from conservatism via victimhood to a condition of evangelism, of rebirth.
It is, even, the pioneering journey - the assertion of and immersion in self, the absolute lack of sentiment for the world as you find it, the pre-eminent value of success.
Most importantly, like The Lovely Bones, it describes how violence utterly destroys compassion, and how, as a consequence, happy endings become a necessity.
In the aftermath of 11 September, it doesn't surprise me that America went, as one, to the bookshop.
Alice Sebold's 1999
memoir Lucky inevitably invites comparisons to her stunning 2002 first
novel, The Lovely Bones. Issued last October in paperback in the wake of
that novel's critical and commercial success, Lucky has remained on the
New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list for more than seventeen
weeks. Certainly one of the memoir's attractions is that it provides a glimpse
of the source material for The Lovely Bones, but finally it is much more
than that, a work that stands on its own as a testament to the way "You save
yourself or you remain unsaved."
As a memoir, Lucky lacks the brilliant novelistic artifice of The Lovely Bones, a wrenching and riveting yet surprisingly funny, transcendent account of the aftermath of a teenage girl's rape and murder--told from the perspective of the girl, now in heaven. This voice is one of the enormous gambles Sebold takes in her handling of subject matter and narrative devices. Reading the novel becomes an oddly exhilarating experience because of its portrayal of the resilience and hope that manage to spring from violence and sorrow--and because of the seemingly effortless way Sebold pulls off one risky move after another.
Sebold creates similar effects in Lucky but by a different route, her candid voice and linear presentation a contrast to her novel's omniscient sensibility and more fluid sense of time. Telling Lucky's story simply and directly, Sebold achieves comparable harrowing and often funny and inspiring effects as she recounts her brutal rape as a college freshman at Syracuse University and the aftermath--and as in The Lovely Bones, from the first page Sebold reveals her propensity for taking narrative risks.
The memoir begins with the violent attack, plunging readers immediately into the excruciating particulars of the assault, told with such precise scenic details that it is both deeply unsettling to read and impossible to put down. Beginning with such a scene, omitting any preparation or background detail, has the potential to come across as sensational or disorienting. But Sebold's skill at involving the reader enables us, however uneasily, to experience on a visceral level the devastation of this crime upon its victims.
"My life was over; my life had just begun," Sebold concludes her disturbing opening. Aware that she changes in the eyes of anyone to whom she tells her story, she nevertheless refuses to be silenced. Her headlong courage is evident in the way she gently, but with understated pain, confronts her father's bewildered questions about why she "allowed" the assault. Fueled by the same stubborn courage and encouraged by poet and professor Tess Gallagher, she submits for class comments a poem expressing her rage. Her classmates' puzzled responses are agonizing but ultimately less significant than the permission Gallagher and the act of writing has given her to feel anger and hate. Sebold's trademark honesty is itself risky, but ultimately is what gives the story its authenticity and power.
Anger and hate prove to be productive rather than destructive as they drive her determination when she recognizes her rapist on the street and manages to secure his arrest. She narrates the preliminary hearing, the shockingly botched police lineup that puts her case on shakier ground, the jury selection process, and the trial. But Sebold's hard-earned victory does not end her ordeal. Just as the narrative reaches a plateau, Sebold's best friend is also assaulted. As her friend struggles with her own trauma, Sebold faces another devastating truth about the way rape can ravage solidarity, alienating victims from each other.
In the end, Sebold's triumph is an ambiguous one, her healing haunted by setbacks as she flounders through drug dependency and sexual experimentation. Though her path is a bumpy, disorderly, often painful one, the book's title reinforces her profound gratitude at having survived. Lucky, like The Lovely Bones, provides much insight into the devastation of sexual violence, but these are far more than works about a social issue. With seemingly effortless grace in both genres, Sebold offers profound truths about loss, healing, and the bumbling and glorious ways we save ourselves through the connections we forge--to work, to memory, and with each other.
Nancy McCabe's creative
nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner,
Massachusetts Review, Puerto
del Sol, Fourth Genre,
and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, among others, and has
twice been listed in Best American Essays.
Nancy McCabe's book After the Flashlight Man: A Memoir of Awakening. is forthcoming.
Review by Nick Gansner
Alice Sebold seemingly has many reasons to feel lucky indeed. Her first novel, The Lovely Bones, was published this summer to rave reviews and has become a fixture near the top of the best seller lists. She writes occasionally for the New York Times Magazine. The Village Voice named her one of its Writers on the Verge. She is married to another successful writer, Glen David Gold, and they live in California with their children. The title of her first published book, however, deals with another, earlier, period in her life and is ironic and perhaps dubious, not literal. When Alice Sebold was an eighteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse University in 1981 she was beaten and raped by a stranger in a tunnel in a park near campus on the last night of school year. A Syracuse police officer told her that, compared to the girl who had been murdered and dismembered in the same location, she was lucky.
Lucky, readers are, to have such a skilled, determined, and courageous narrator. Sebold is frank and unpretentious, and her memoir opens with an extremely graphic and brutal account of the rape itself. She was grabbed from behind and told that if she screamed, she would be killed. Yet, just as Sebold refused to allow her parents to hide from what had happened to her, just as she surprised classmates by returning to school the following semester, just as she pushed her case through the criminal justice system all the way to a conviction for the rapist, she fought for herself. She screamed. She bit her attacker, she kicked and punched back as she was kicked in the side, as her hair was pulled from her scalp, as her head was pounded into the pavement, as she was choked. As the rapist dragged her by the hair into the tunnel, she clung to the iron fence that partially covered its opening. Then she fought for her life: "People think a woman stops fighting when she is physically exhausted, but I was about to begin my real fight, a fight of words and lies and the brain... he held my life in his hands. 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."
In addition to providing us with the account of her assault, Sebold illustrates in depth what the post-rape process entails for the survivor. She walks back to her dormitory, past shocked on-looking college students, drunk as they emerge from a party. Her R.A. calls campus security. She is taken to the hospital, where a rape kit is completed. Sebold describes what is taken from her body and how it is done. She is allowed access to a bathroom and a shower only after the doctor has taken every sample of evidence she can from Sebold's body. She is taken to the police station, where the police compile a poor likeness of the attacker. The next day she returns to the police station and gives an affidavit detailing the rape. When she complains that the details of the affidavit taken by a police officer aren't accurate, he tells her that it doesn't matter, that all they need is the gist of what happened. She is also told that she can leave and go home as soon as she signs it.
Sebold spends the summer at home in Pennsylvania. She recuperates largely on her own; her family is perhaps as emotionally constrained and distant as many others. Once Alice is home, she wonders how her parents could have reacted to what had happened to her and to one another. "What did they do? Did they hug? I can't imagine this, but they might have. Did my mother whisper details about the police and my physical condition, or did she promise she would tell him what she knew after I slept?" Her father is an academic and spends the majority of the day behind closed doors in his study reading Spanish literature. Her mother, a recovering alcoholic, tries to avoid panic attacks. The pastor from her church visits and tries to comfort Alice, as do some of the old women from the congregation. In a family so influenced by her father's skeptical and intellectual personality and Sebold's own frankness, however, the formality of these visits feel false. She, in contrast, tries to force the reality of what happened to her in front of her parents. When, upon her return home after the rape, her father asks her if she'd like something to eat, Alice responds, "That would be nice, considering the only thing I've had in my mouth in the last twenty-four hours is a cracker and a cock." Her fondest memories from that summer reflect a similar appreciation for bits of life typically not discussed around the Sebold dinner table. She describes both of her parents giving chase through the house after she has led the dogs to discover discarded tampons in the trash can in her mother's bedroom.
Alice returns to school in the fall, much to the surprise of many of her classmates, some of whom know her personally, others who know her simply as the girl who had been raped the previous spring. Luck of a different sort played a significant role in Sebold's life that fall. As a creative writing major, Sebold was fortunate enough to have Tess Gallagher as her poetry professor and Tobias Wolff as her fiction professor. Their personal support, particularly Gallagher's, became vital over the coming months after Alice encounters her rapist on the sidewalk one day. Sebold recognized him from a distance; he walked up to her and actually asked, "Hey, girl, don't I know you from somewhere?" As she hurried away from the chance encounter, she was lucky again: the rapist encountered a police officer right after speaking with her. The officer's recollection of his encounter with the man would help police identify and apprehend him; it would also bolster Alice's case against the rapist after she identifies the wrong man during a line up at the police station following the arrest.
As Alice hurries to campus to tell Wolff that she can't attend class and to call a friend to get her back to her dorm, Sebold's narrative moves to its next stage. Her account of the arrest, investigation, and trial of her rapist is extremely detailed, both factually and emotionally, and gives readers an extraordinary understanding and perspective on the burdens that are placed on a rape survivor who chooses to pursue a criminal case. Fortunately for her, first Gallagher, then Gallagher's partner, the late Raymond Carver, support her and attend many meetings and pre-trial proceedings with her when her parents do not come up to Syracuse from Pennsylvania. Wolff, after Alice tells her that she must miss class because she has just seen her rapist, gives her advice that becomes lucky for the reader and for Alice, too. The advice Wolff gives her is heartfelt and hard-won and he knows of what he speaks; Wolff had not yet published his own memoir, This Boy's Life, about his childhood and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Perhaps as writer and as human whose life had been scarred by violence, he understood better than most people could have. "I remember his face and I remember it vividly. He was a father. I knew this vaguely at the time. He had little boys. He came near me. He wanted to comfort, but then, instinctually, he pulled back. I was a rape victim; how would I interpret his touch? His face fell into the recesses reserved for the pure confusion one expresses when there is nothing on this earth that he or she can do to make something better." After making sure that she was safe, had a ride home and access to a telephone, Wolff "walked me back out into the hall. Before he let me go... Wolff stopped me and put both hands on my shoulders. He looked at me and when it was clear to him that for that second he held my attention, he spoke. 'Alice,' he said, 'a lot of things are going to happen and this may not make much sense to you right now, but listen. Try, if you can, to remember everything.'" Sebold wants to make sure that we understand the power and the significance of Wolff's advice to her. "I have to restrain myself from capitalizing the last two words. He meant them to be capitalized. He meant them to resound and to meet me sometime in the future on whatever path I chose. He had known me for two weeks. I was nineteen. I sat in his class and drew flowers on my jeans. I had written a story about sewing dummies that came to life and sought revenge on dressmakers. So it was a shout across a great distance. He knew, as I was later to discover when I walked into Doubleday on Fifth Avenue in New York and bought This Boy's Life, Wolff's own story, that memory could save, that it had power, that it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized."
Sebold walks the reader through every memory she kept. She walks us through the line up at the police station, through her certainty immediately afterwards that she picked the wrong man out of the line up, through her anger that the rapist and his lawyer were allowed to include in the line up a friend of the rapist's who both knew bore a near-identical resemblance to the rapist. She walks us through the preliminary and grand jury hearings with near transcripts of her testimony. She remembers the questions that the grand jurors posed to her: "Alice, why were you coming through the park alone at night? Didn't anyone warn you not to go through the park at night?" She remembers her testimony at the trial. She remembers the conviction and sentence her rapist earned. She remembers, later in college, her roommate being raped in their apartment and her decision not to pursue her case and the end that decision brought to their friendship.
Remember Sebold did. In Lucky, she keeps her promise to herself to one day write about what happened to her. She keeps her promise to Wolff that she would remember everything. She remembers, perhaps, for us, but most certainly for herself. For, as she tells us, "you save yourself or you remain unsaved."
Am 8. Mai 1981, ungefähr um Mitternacht, verließ Alice Sebold, 18 Jahre alt und im ersten Jahr ihres Literaturstudiums auf der Syracuse University, New York, eine Party und machte sich auf den Weg in ihr Studentenwohnheim. Alice nahm den Weg durch den Thorden Park, am alten Amphitheater vorbei. Plötzlich hörte sie Schritte dicht hinter sich, dann packte ein Arm sie von hinten, der andere hielt ihr den Mund zu. „Sei still und tu’ was ich sage, dann tu’ ich dir nichts“, sagte der Mann und zog sie in einen verlassenen Tunnel, der unter das Theater führt.
Als es vorbei war, als Alice dreckverschmiert und blutend in ihre Kleidung stolperte, durfte sie gehen. Er rief ihr hinterher. „Hey, wie heißt du?“ Sie konnte nicht lügen. „Alice.“ „Nett, dich kennen gelernt zu haben, Alice. Man sieht sich.“ Dann rannte er fort.
Im Krankenhaus wurde Alice untersucht. Die Polizei nahm ein Protokoll auf. Ein Psychologe gab ihr Beruhigungsmittel. Dann durfte sie duschen. Als letztes griff sie sich ein kleines weißes Handtuch und rubbelte unter dem heißen Wasser so lange über die Wunden in ihrem Gesicht, bis das Handtuch rosa eingefärbt war. Ihre Mutter holte sie im Morgengrauen ab und fuhr sie heim nach Paoli, Pennsylvania. Zuhause legte sie sich auf die Wohnzimmercouch. Ihr Vater fragte sie, ob sie etwas essen wollte. „Das wäre schön“, sagte Alice. „Schließlich war alles, was ich die letzten 24 Stunden im Mund hatte, ein Cracker und ein Schwanz.“ Sie wollte zeigen, dass sie noch die alte Alice war.
Natürlich war sie das nicht. Es dauerte fast zehn Jahre, bis Alice Sebold das erkannte.
Im vergangenen Jahr erschien ihr Debütroman „In meinem Himmel“ in den USA. „Mein Nachname war Salmon“, beginnt er, „wie der Fisch; Vorname Susie. Ich war vierzehn, als ich am 6. Dezember 1973 ermordet wurde.“ Die sachliche Direktheit dieser Eröffnung prägt den ganzen Roman. Er erzählt die Geschichte von Susie, die, nachdem der Nachbar Mr. Harvey sie im Maisfeld nahe der Vorstadtsiedlung vergewaltigt, zerstückelt und in einem orangegelben Sack in seine Garage geschleppt hat, im Himmel sitzt und dabei zusieht, wie das Gerüst ihrer Familie ins Wanken gerät. Weil mit Susie ein Bindeglied fehlt, und weil dieses Fehlen so präsent ist, dass lange keine anderen Verbindungen wachsen können: „Niemand hätte voraussagen können, wie mein Verlust kurze Augenblicke auf Erden verändern würde. Doch ich hielt fest an diesen Augenblicken, hortete sie. Keiner von ihnen war verloren, solange ich da war und zuschaute.“ Sie sieht, wie ihr Vater sich an Susies kleinen Bruder Buckley klammert. Sie begleitet die verzweifelte Flucht ihrer Mutter zurück in die Außenwelt, fern von Familienpflichten und „Home-and-Garden“-Büchern. Und sie beobachtet Lindsey, in der alle nur noch Susies kleine Schwester sehen. Sieht, wie Lindsey beginnt, Spiegel zu meiden und nur noch im Dunkeln zu duschen. In ihrem Zimmer macht Lindsey Liegestützen, bis der Körper schmerzt. „Sie konzentrierte sich nur auf ihre Atmung. Auf das Ein. Das Aus.“
Im Herbst 1981 beschließt Alice Sebold, an ihre alte Universität zurückzukehren. „Das sollte mir mein Vergewaltiger nicht auch noch nehmen.“ Am 5. Oktober kommt ihr auf der Marshall Street in Syracuse ein junger Mann entgegen. Er lächelt sie an. „Kennen wir uns nicht?“ Alice geht weiter. Sie hat zu große Angst. In ihrem Zimmer macht sie eine Skizze seines Gesichts. Notiert sich seine Kleidung. Dann geht sie zur Polizei. Am 14. Oktober um zwei Uhr morgens wird Gregory Madison festgenommen.
Alice geht es ausgezeichnet. Sie wird Redakteurin der Universitäts-Literaturzeitung, sie vertritt ihren Fachbereich auf Lyrikwettbewerben, wird eine feste Größe in der Künstlerclique von Syracuse. An einem Abend Ende November 1983, Alice besucht eine Lesung, wird ihre Mitbewohnerin und engste Freundin Lila vergewaltigt. Der Mann bricht in das Appartement ein, und zwingt Lila, sich in das Bett von Alice zu legen. Die Polizei vermutet einen Racheakt, den Madison aus dem Gefängnis heraus organisiert haben könnte. Lila lehnt jede Hilfe von Alice, fortan jeden Kontakt ab.
Ein. Aus. Ein. Aus. „In meinem Himmel“ ist nicht die Geschichte einer Vergewaltigung. Es ist eine Geschichte, die vom Überleben handelt, von der Kraft, die es Susies Freunde und Familie kostet, und von der Intensität, mit der sich Susie ans Leben klammert. In Ahnungen, Träumen der Hinterbliebenen taucht sie auf. Versucht, Hinweise auf ihren Mörder zu geben. Ausgerechnet mit 14 ermordet zu werden, ist eine Frechheit – da denkt man, man sei der Mittelpunkt der Welt, und dann geht sie plötzlich ohne einen weiter. Auch davon handelt der Roman. Susies bei allem Mitgefühl leicht beleidigter Tonfall verleiht der Geschichte ihre heitere, außergewöhnliche Grundnote.
Alice Sebold verlässt Syracuse und geht 1985 nach New York. Am Hunter College unterrichtet sie Studenten – Flüchtlinge, allein erziehende Mütter, misshandelte Adoptivkinder – deren Geschichten ihre eigene verblassen lassen. Sie trinkt, geht vom Kokain, das sie nicht verträgt, zu Heroin über, das sie schnupft. Ein Bekannter erzählt ihr, sie komme mit einem Essay über ihre Vergewaltigung, den sie einst für die „New York Times“ geschrieben hatte, in der Fußnote eines Buches über „Trauma und Genesung“ vor. Alice kauft sich das Buch und stellt in der U-Bahn verwundert fest, dass ihr Name nicht wie erwartet im zweiten Teil steht, sondern im Kapitel über Traumata. Sie liest sich fest. Und muss erkennen, dass das, was dort über das post-traumatische Stress-Syndrom gesagt wird, sie exakt beschreibt. Sie hatte geglaubt, mit der intellektuellen Auseinandersetzung das Verbrechen verarbeitet zu haben. „Aber meinen Gefühlshaushalt, den hatte ich nicht in Ordnung gebracht.“ Sie beschließt, New York zu verlassen.
1995 wird sie an der University of California, Irvine, für den renommierten Studiengang „Master of Fine Arts in fiction“ zugelassen, ein Schriftstellerdiplom. Am ersten Tag lernt sie ihren späteren Mann, den Autor Glen David Gold, kennen. Doch weiterhin scheitern alle Prosaversuche – bis zu jener Nacht 1996, in der sie, wie sie heute sagt, „Susies Stimme hört“. Sie setzt sich hin und schreibt das erste Kapitel, die Vergewaltigung, „wie im Rausch“. Für den Rest benötigt sie fünf Jahre.
Denn während der Arbeit merkt Alice Sebold, dass ihre eigene Geschichte Susie „beim Erzählen stört“. Sie unterbricht den Roman und verfasst die Autobiografie „Lucky“, in der sie nüchtern und detailliert von der Vergewaltigung und den anschließenden Gerichtsterminen berichtet. Am Ende von „Lucky“ steht die Erkenntnis: „Ich lebe in einer Welt, in der zwei Wahrheiten nebeneinander existieren. In der Hölle und Hoffnung in meiner Hand liegen.“ Dann ist sie bereit für Susie. Wenn „Lucky“ die Hölle war, dann ist „In meinem Himmel“ die Hoffnung.
Der Roman hat ein kitschiges Happy End, das nicht zur Lakonie des Restes passen will. Aber zu Alices Sebolds Geschichte. Im Juli 2002 soll „In meinem Himmel“ mit einer Auflage von 35 000 Stück auf den Markt kommen. Doch die Verlagsvertreter sind begeistert und stecken die Buchhändler an. Die Erstauflage wird auf 100 000 Exemplare erhöht. In ein paar kleinen Blättern erscheinen hymnische Rezensionen. Und kurz vor dem Erscheinungstermin meint die Schriftstellerin und Kolumnistin Anna Quindlen in der „Today Show“, Amerikas einflussreichstem Frühstücksfernsehen: „Wenn Sie in diesem Sommer nur ein Buch lesen können, dann sollte es ,In meinem Himmel‘ sein.“ Eine Lawine geht los. Die überregionalen Zeitungen überschlagen sich. Wochenlang hält sich das Buch auf Platz eins der Bestsellerlisten. Inzwischen sind über zwei Millionen Stück verkauft, keine TV-Show, in der Sebold nicht aufgetreten ist, kein Magazin, dem sie kein Interview gegeben hat.
Sie ist mit dem Mann verheiratet, mit dem sie „verheiratet sein will“, und lebt in Long Beach, Kalifornien, „das Leben, das ich leben will.“ Sie hat einen lichtdurchflutenden, weißen Bungalow im Spanischen Stil, einen Hund namens Lilly und schreibt an ihrem nächsten Roman. „Ich beginne gerade erst zu verstehen, was Erfolg bedeutet. Man kann nichts kontrollieren, außer vielleicht, worunter man seinen Namen setzt. Und vor kurzem stand mein Name in England unter etwas, das ich gar nicht geschrieben hatte. Was man dagegen tun kann? Sich hinsetzen, ein paar Gedichte lesen und darüber nachdenken, wie lang und wunderbar und geheimnisvoll das Leben ist.“
Da sage noch mal einer etwas gegen Happy Ends.
Alice Sebold: In meinem Himmel. A. d. Amerik. v. Almuth Carstens. Manhattan, München. 382 S., 21,90 E.
Lucky. Little, Brown & Company, New York. 246 S., ca. 12 E. (Auf Deutsch 2004 bei Manhattan.)
Artikel erschienen am 15. Mär 2003
"Ich habe es überlebt”
Die amerikanische Autorin Alice Sebold hat in ihren Büchern ihre eigene Vergewaltigung verarbeitet. Ihr Roman "In meinem Himmel", ein Mega-Bestseller in den USA, erscheint jetzt auf Deutsch. Anja Jardine sprach mit der Autorin in ihrem Haus in Long Beach.
Jahr, bevor "In meinem Himmel" erschien, haben Sie eine Art Sachbuch zum selben
Thema veröffentlicht. "Lucky" ist die Erinnerung an Ihre eigene Vergewaltigung.
Sie schildern darin sehr detailliert, wie Sie als 18-jährige Studentin am
College vergewaltigt wurden, dem Täter später zufällig wieder begegneten und ihn
vor Gericht brachten. Warum war es Ihnen ein Anliegen, diesem Thema jetzt auch
noch einen Roman zu widmen?
Alice Sebold: Es war andersherum. Ich habe mit dem Roman angefangen, und nachdem ich ein paar hundert Seiten geschrieben hatte, spürte ich, dass meine eigene Geschichte den Roman belastete. Alice musste aus dem Weg, damit Susie sie selbst sein konnte. Ich habe die Arbeit an dem Roman unterbrochen und in knapp zwei Jahren meine eigenen Erfahrungen zu Papier gebracht. Danach konnte ich mich ganz Susie widmen.
BRIGITTE: Sie selbst sagen, therapeutisches Schreiben ist zur Therapie da und sollte nicht veröffentlicht werden. Was also war "Lucky" für Sie?
Alice Sebold: Als ich vergewaltigt wurde, gab es kein Buch für mich in dieser Art. Von jemandem, dem das Ungeheuerliche auch geschehen war, der überlebt hatte und drüber sprach. Verstehen Sie? "Ich werde es überleben" diesen Aspekt wollte ich anderen vermitteln. Ich hätte mein Erlebnis damals gern in einem Buch reflektiert gefunden. Nun liegt es als Taschenbuch in jeder Buchhandlung. Aber so etwas lässt sich nur schreiben, wenn der Autor die Sache verdaut und, soweit es geht, verstanden hat, wenn die Therapie und das Verarbeiten hinter einem liegen.
BRIGITTE: Es gibt Vergewaltigungsopfer, die sich bei Ihnen beschwert haben, dass sich keine konkreten Hinweise in Ihrem Buch "Lucky" finden, wie man heilt.
Alice Sebold: Wir Menschen sind ungeduldig. Wir wollen drüber wegkommen, und zwar möglichst schnell. Aber es gibt natürlich kein Rezept. Ganz im Gegenteil: Ich bin misstrauisch gegenüber jedem, der das behauptet. "Lucky" wurde in der größten Buchhandlungskette Amerikas versehentlich unter "Ratgebern" angeboten. Das weckte natürlich eine falsche Erwartungshaltung. Alles, was ich sagen wollte, war: So kann eine Vergewaltigung aussehen. Nun steht mein Buch unter Biografien und Erinnerungen.
zerbricht nach dem Mord. Auch Ihre eigene Familie hatte große Probleme, mit
diesem Verbrechen umzugehen, Ihnen als Vergewaltigungsopfer zu begegnen. Was
geschieht in einer Familie, wenn die Gewalt so massiv in ihre Welt einbricht?
Alice Sebold: Plötzlich macht nichts mehr Sinn. Die Idee von einer einigermaßen gerechten Welt ist nicht mehr haltbar. Der sexuelle Akt ist extrem bedrohlich, er ist die invasivste Form von Gewalt, er kann Familien in Geschlechter spalten. Auch in meiner Familie tat sich diese Front auf, als mein Vater mich fragte, wie es dem Mann denn habe gelingen können, mich zu vergewaltigen, obwohl er sein Messer hatte fallen lassen. Meine Mutter und meine Schwester gerieten außer sich. Da rutscht jemand schnell in die Isolation. Eine Vergewaltigung ist wie ein Prisma, und je nachdem, wie das Licht einfällt, werden die Dinge ungeheuerlich.
waren diejenige, die Stärke gezeigt hat, die alle anderen aufrichten musste.
Alice Sebold: Meine Eltern und meine Schwester haben dennoch das Beste getan, was sie tun konnten. Das ist heute mein Gefühl.
BRIGITTE: Gewalt und Hoffnung sind ein großes Thema für Sie?
Alice Sebold: Ja, es ist eigentlich offenkundig, dass beides koexistiert, doch ich möchte es immer wieder aufzeigen. Wenn du Gewalt erlebt hast, hast du die Wahl, ob du von nun an diesen Gewaltakt als Linse nutzen willst, durch die du den Rest der Welt wahrnimmst, oder ob du dagegen ankämpfst. Ein solches Verbrechen kann dein ganzes Leben vergiften, du musst jeden Zentimeter verteidigen. Deswegen bin ich an dieses College zurückgekehrt, wo es passiert ist. Ansonsten hätte mir der Vergewaltiger noch ein Stück meines Lebens genommen. Du lebst jeden Tag im Angesicht deiner Angst aber genau das ist die Aufgabe: zu leben. Im Sinne von erleben.
BRIGITTE: Wird die Angst im Laufe der Jahre blasser?
Alice Sebold: Ich glaube, sie wird blasser in Proportion dazu, wie sehr du dein Leben lebst. Wenn du nicht rausgehst, neue Freunde findest, neue Erfahrungen suchst, dann wohl eher nicht. Dann wird die Angst eher lebendiger es ist eine Krankheit, die im Vakuum wächst. Man kann ihr nur den Nährboden entziehen, indem man das Leben wachsen lässt ...
Donnerstag, 01. Juli 2004
Auch im Himmel geht nicht alles in Ordnung
Alice Sebold: Glück gehabt, Aus dem Amerikanischen von Ursula Walther. Manhattan/Goldmann, München 2004, 348 S., 22,90 Euroy
Mit achtzehn Jahren wird Alice Sebold in einem kleinen Park unweit des Campus ihres Kleinstadtcolleges vergewaltigt. "Glück gehabt", meinen die Polizebeamten danach zu ihr; an derselben Stelle sei einige Jahre zuvor ein Mädchen ermordet worden. Viel später wird Alice Sebold dieses "Glück gehabt" zum Titel des Buches machen, in dem sie das Verbrechen und seine Folgen schildert. Das Buch erweitert einen Artikel Sebolds für das New York Times Magazine, der 1990 breite Beachtung fand und der Autorin eine Einladung in Oprah Winfreys Talkshow eintrug. "Ich war das Opfer, das sich zur Wehr gesetzt hatte. Es war noch ein anderes Opfer da, das anscheinend nichts unternommen hatte ... Michelles Widerstand hatte keine sichtbaren Narben hinterlassen. Aber ich bezweifle, dass Michelle nach der Show nach Hause flog und Heroin schnupfte."
Alice Sebold ist Verfasserin des Bestsellerromans "In meinem Himmel", der ehrenwerte Versuch, dem 12-jährigen Opfer einer Vergewaltigung und Ermordung eine Stimme zu geben. Im Roman überlebt das Opfer, indem es nicht überlebt; alles wird gut, weil im Himmel alles gut ist. Solchen Trost findet Alice in "Glück gehabt" nicht. Ein Jahr nach dem Verbrechen begegnet sie ihrem Vergewaltiger zufällig auf der Straße, sie zeigt ihn an, ein Gerichtsverfahren folgt, in dem ihr fragwürdiger Vorteil darin besteht, dass alle Nebensächlichkeiten zu ihren Gunsten sprechen: Sie kannte den Mannnicht, sie war zur Tatzeit noch Jungfrau, weder betrunken noch unter dem Einfluss von Drogen, und außerdem trug sie weite Kleidung. Weil ihre Mitschuld nicht erwiesen werden kann, steht die Schwere der Schuld des Täters außer Frage. Seine Verurteilung bietet Genugtuung, eine Rückkehr in ihr altes Leben bleibt Sebold danach erst recht verwehrt. Erst die Einsicht, dass so schnell nicht alles gut wird, verhilft zum Neuanfang.
Riding by there every day
surrounded by eucalyptuses and palms
I hear them barking behind the whitewashed adobe fence,
see from my bicycle the ladies going in carrying
the loved ones in their arms-
in fact have been there myself
met the receptionist smiling beneath her cap,
read the magazines on training waiting
for the nodding Japanese man
who tries to pet her as he gives her shots,
gets bitten on the hand, nevertheless
days later she comes out smiling, refreshed
as she jumps into my arms and he almost
bowing winks. Though riding by now
there are stories of those others calling
over the walls, that they are left to starve,
given other brains, arms
sewn to their necks, and
some are locked in canisters,
lowered down polished tubes
into caves where there is no light
except the candle in their heads,
and the shadows around them that they
seeing now bark at.
Peter Wild, from “Cochise” (1973)