I do not accept Alice Sebold’s assertion that there is no “debate” in a rape case

In 1981, Alice Sebold was brutally raped while in her first year at university. The man she accused, Anthony Broadwater, served 16 years in prison. She wrote about the crime and conviction, based on her identification of Broadwater, in her 1999 memoir, “Lucky.” Sebold became a successful novelist with “The Lovely Bones”. Broadwater, meanwhile, had always claimed his innocence. Now, 40 years later, evidence has cleared him and he has been cleared of all charges.

On November 30, eight days after the conviction was overturned, Sebold posted a statement on Medium about the case. (Her editor, Scribner, announced the same day that he was removing “Lucky” from distribution pending revisions.) Broadwater said through his attorney he was “relieved she apologized” . But to me his statement sounded more like a classic apologia, a self-absolution explanation – an explanation verified, no doubt, by a lawyer to avoid admitting responsibility for Sebold pointing the wrong man to the court. court.

There is the persistent use of the exculpatory passive voice, on the one hand. (“I’ll always be sorry for what was done to her.”) But the cognitive dissonance I found most infuriating was Sebold’s implication that she couldn’t be aware of the racial disparities in treatment. of the accused in the early 1980s.

“American society is beginning to recognize and address the systemic problems in our justice system, which too often means that justice for some comes at the expense of others,” writes Sebold. “Unfortunately, it was not a debate, nor a conversation, nor even a whisper when I reported my rape in 1981.”

This revisionism doesn’t work, and I think Sebold knows it because, in a way, I was there. Sebold and I are both white, both born in 1963; we were both students in the early 1980s. I grew up fully aware that America treated its black and white citizens differently. I was in elementary school when black students were gunned down at Jackson State University while protesting the invasion of Cambodia. I remember being scared that day because we moved frequently for my dad’s job, and I never knew where we would end up. “I don’t want to go down south,” I say with childish logic. “All they do is kill black people over there.” When I was 7, I recognized that prejudice had deadly consequences.

And then, like Sebold, I grew up in a decade marked by liberation movements pushing back against this prejudice, a movement of progress which ended on a date forever engraved in my memory. It was November 4, 1980. I was 17, a freshman at university in Washington State. That night, the night of Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory and the defeat of several liberal pillars in the Senate, I realized that I lived in a country that would rather embrace comfortable fictions than face difficult truths. on himself. It looked like a much more brutal reversal than Trump’s monstrous victory decades later; he had the affirmation of a large majority which had decided to put aside the ideals of equality and justice for all.

Citizens knew who they were voting for. Reagan had a track record as governor of California, a long history of dog whistle politics. In the mid-1970s, he used a single case of welfare fraud to treat poor black women as “welfare queens” who defrauded welfare services of millions of dollars. Never mind that many of those who depended on state aid were white and many of them lived outside urban areas (as they do today). Reagan used the politics of racial resentment to anger white people.

Of course, Sebold was only in college at the time – so was I. But connecting Reagan’s victory to racial entrenchment wasn’t a baseball issue on the inside. One of his most widely covered and controversial campaign events was a stopover at Neshoba County, Mississippi, the same place where three civil rights activists were murdered by white supremacists in 1964. an accident – and its symbolism was understood at the time as an appeal to white racists. Reagan campaigned with notable segregationists. Jimmy Carter hinted his opponent was running a racist campaign, then backtracked after being accused of fomenting division (a common backlash to the call, then and now).

What does all this have to do with a memorialist who suffered terrible assault? The point is, these arguments were exposed, these fresh injuries, when Sebold was asked to pick a man in a team. If it was not the subject of “debate” or “conversation”, it is only because the Americans had voted, a year earlier, to shut the door on it. They had voted for an America where the lyrics of the old cowboy song, declaring “It’s your misfortune and none of mine ”, would become national policy. Many of them may have closed their eyes, but I find it almost impossible to believe that an educated young woman like Sebold was unconscious. And if she was, she has something else to atone for.

I am deeply sorry for the pain Sebold suffered and the trauma of his rape. I also believe that she is deeply sorry that the wrong man was convicted of the crime. I am glad to hear that Broadwater finds his sincere apologies and I accept his language to be limited, perhaps out of fear of litigation. But her insistence that Americans knew no better in 1981 than to place all their trust in a legal system that pressured her to identify the wrong suspect – clearly wrong.

If Sebold is sincere, she must offer Anthony Broadwater more than carefully crafted words. Irreparable harm has been done, whether she likes it or not. It seems necessary that Sebold does something that looks like restorative justice.

While the ultimate call on what would constitute a proper contrition should belong to Broadwater, I have a suggestion. Sebold could make a large donation to an organization like The Innocence project, who works to free those who have been wrongfully convicted. Or she could establish her own foundation, perhaps one that helps former jailers re-enter society, as Broadwater has struggled to cope with in the face of intense ostracism and lost opportunities.

Whatever she does, the uncomfortable fact is that, lawyer statement or not, Sebold is responsible for the harm it has caused – if not legally, at least morally. Those who suffer from trauma are not exempt from inflicting trauma on the innocent. And to claim that we didn’t know any better – as a society and as individuals – is an insult to those of us who have, and further harm to those we have all fallen victim to.

Berry writes for a number of posts and tweets @BerryFLW.

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