Don’t Blame Alice Sebold

Photo: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

In May 1981, a young white woman in Syracuse, New York, is attacked by a man on the street and raped in the glass-littered tunnel near her campus. In 1992, the story of her assault and what follows becomes a best-selling memoir hailed for its bravery in resolution. Reading Alice Sebold’s Lucky for the first time yesterday, I found myself sick to my stomach with the images of her prose. She goes through the process: the medical examination, the trip to the police station where she first records her assault. Barely 18 years old and with no other option, she goes to the police with hopes they might help.

The state police, with little technology of scientific efficacy, have no recourse to offer her. After shoddily capturing her testimony, they send her home with instructions to come back if there’s anything new. She leaves campus and goes home to her mother, spending the summer working through this trauma, relatively alone, with a limited menu of healing available to her. Determined to continue her education, almost certainly still reeling from the sheer memory of the assault, Sebold returns to Syracuse in the fall. One day in October, on a walk through town, she thinks she sees her rapist. Going back to the same collection of useless law-enforcement officials, as instructed, she tells them she has seen her rapist.

With their heavy boots, their loaded guns, their eager bloodthirst, detectives and police descend upon the scene, rounding up as many Black men in the area as they can find and arresting 20-year-old Anthony Broadwater, who seems to fit the description of the man she described. The description: Black, tall, with wide and flat features.

In a lineup, Broadwater stares blindly through a two-way mirror at an 18-year-old Sebold. He stands among four other Black men of similar complexion, of varying features but all of the same height, men who could be mistaken for cousins if seen together in a casual setting, but from behind this mirror, they are considered criminals, and Sebold’s one job in this moment is to identify the right one. But she picks a man out of the lineup who is not Broadwater. In her memoir, Sebold recalls Assistant District Attorney Gail Uebelhoer telling her that Broadwater intentionally tried to trick her by asking his “friend” to scowl and seem more threatening in an effort to confuse her. In fact, the man the attorney said was Broadwater’s friend was someone he had met only hours before. In a tactic meant to reinforce her year-old memory, the DA tells her that Broadwater has a criminal history (of which he did not), encouraging her to trust her memory.

Broadwater is charged anyway, and the trial begins. Both convinced of her memory and the detective’s cavalier reassurance of it, she identifies Broadwater in the courtroom; for him, this is the beginning of the end. The only DNA evidence introduced to the court in this case was a single piece of pubic hair — a type of analysis that has since been dismissed as junk science. This is all it takes to strip 16 years of Broadwater’s life from his hands: one piece of unreliable evidence and the unreliable memory of a traumatized young woman.

In what began as a writing-prompt response in a class during the fall in which she accused Broadwater, Lucky became a memoir of the assault and Sebold’s struggle to heal from its impact. It is widely successful, particularly among women, its success attributed, in large part, to its candid honesty, both about the rape and how it affected her perception of herself and the world. It’s in this book that the race of her rapist becomes public knowledge, and it’s fair to argue that race becomes a character in this memoir — always there but voiceless and ill-regarded. In the 30 years since its publication, Black feminist scholars and reviewers have decried its lack of critical race analysis and rightfully critiqued Sebold’s choice to center her rapist’s race in her retelling. The matter-of-fact inclusion of her parents’ casual racism in response to her assault is grotesque. It was a poor choice, a choice weathered with historical bias, a choice that she made.

Sebold’s complicity in perpetuating racial stereotypes, and thus racist harm, is obvious. But her bias isn’t evidence, and it wasn’t supposed to be permissible as evidence in an objective court of law. Yet, of course, by design, it was. Her unconscious (or now conscious) bias is an ugly example of the way bias is often weaponized toward structural ends — but Sebold is not responsible for the robbery of Broadwater’s life. Her racism wasn’t supposed to matter to the court. There is only one force fundamentally responsible for the horror done to him, a network of law enforcement and carceral systems that all serve one ambition: mass Black incarceration.

Since Broadwater was exonerated in late November, the internet has been abuzz with condemnation for Sebold, citing the cringey language of her memoir as evidence that she is uniquely responsible for his false conviction and imprisonment. I have seen everything from “She should give him all of her money” to “She should go to jail.” And it has been particularly interesting to see white women authors and writers distance themselves from her as a moral pariah, saying, “We feel for her, but she should have known better,” as if her racism is distinct from theirs, from the street-crossing and purse-clutching habits that articulate the same kind of bias that Sebold recorded nearly 30 years ago in her memoir. In a hunger to distance themselves from her, white feminists who believe they would have been different, or done differently, or been a more vocal advocate of his life have made Sebold disposable, and Broadwater becomes a site of pity. This is too easy. The reality is that many white women in the same situation at that time, and even now, would do the exact same thing — and if we blamed them for the outcome of his life, we would still be wrong.

What if no single individual bears the burden of responsibility here? What if it’s the fault of a centuries-old impulse of a carceral society, and the powers that enact it, and the state agents who carry it out? What if it’s a network of bad actors who rely on women like Sebold, who rely on their biases, to carry out the violence of white supremacy? What then? Whom will we punish then? Alice Sebold alone? Her memoir shows us a convoluted web of deception — from the assistant district attorney’s attempt to sway her memory, to the racist lineup, to the flimsy nonevidence made permissible in court that tied Broadwater to her assault — meant to weaponize her memory and criminalize an innocent Broadwater for an easy win.

There are two victims in this situation and only one criminal: the carceral justice system. Anthony Broadwater’s life matters. The time he lost, the grueling sacrifice of his dignity and pride, the unbelievable resilience of his innocence — all of it matters. And while Sebold certainly owes him every apology she can muster, it’s the State of New York and the system at large that owes him every penny in the bank. The system’s insistence on hunting Black men was its primary interest — not protecting Sebold, getting her the care she needed, or protecting the innocence of the people of that community — and in the end, its agenda was carried out, with Broadwater and Sebold to bear the burden of its success. It took a curious producer and private investigator to unearth the inconsistencies that any law-enforcement professional truly invested in protecting innocence would have found. Our system failed to give Sebold the care she deserved and, by nature of its design, failed to give a shit about protecting Broadwater’s innocence.

It’s not that we’re wrong to want to see Broadwater’s life valued but that our instinct is to conflate individual responsibility with systematic responsibility and expect more from individuals than from the systems that create and perpetuate harm. This impulse to punish individuals instead of confronting systems will keep us in this ugly loop forever, in which victims become scapegoats of a system disinterested in any kind of justice at all.

Justice isn’t an individual ambition, and no single individual could carry it out. Injustice works this way too. Systems are responsible for the injustices that oppress our communities — individuals are just disposable tools on their chessboards. Blaming Sebold (or advocating for her imprisonment, for God’s sake) will not get us any closer to a world in which a story like this can’t be told.

Instead of reveling in false moral superiority, use Sebold as a mirror. What will you do when you are harmed and our carceral system looks to recruit you to help carry out its agenda instead of giving you the care you need? What will you do when your safety is at risk? If you need a place to redirect your anger toward Sebold, rage at the forces that have created the shape of our justice system, at the systems that perpetuate and prioritize racial violence as a means to mass incarceration; rage at white supremacy at large. If you need people to blame, blame the assistant district attorney, a judge with no discernment, and a racist jury disinterested in the truth. If you’re angry enough to do something about it, become an abolitionist and fight for a world in which these systems of oppression are forced to lose their validity and in which the apparatus of mass incarceration is no longer. White supremacy is always recruiting, but abolition is here too, and we are waiting for you.

Don’t Blame Alice Sebold