Why Didn’t More of Us Question Alice Sebold’s Memoir?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Amazon

When the news broke just over two weeks ago that Anthony Broadwater, the man who served 16 years in prison for the rape of The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold, had been exonerated, the literary community was shocked. As the story (which at this point you probably already know) goes, Sebold meticulously detailed her assault and Broadwater’s 1982 trial (though she gave him a pseudonym) in her 1999 best-selling memoir, Lucky. From the beginning, Broadwater consistently asserted his innocence, which led to his being denied parole five times. After his release, on December 31, 1998, he tried repeatedly to get himself removed from the sex-offender registry to no avail. That is, until producer Timothy Mucciante, who was adapting Lucky into a film, started asking questions. After being fired from the film, Mucciante hired a private investigator to track down Broadwater. (The film based on Lucky, by the way, has since lost its financing and is no longer in production.) Mucciante also hired a lawyer to work on Broadwater’s exoneration and started work on a new film, Unlucky, a documentary about Broadwater.

That Broadwater has at last been vindicated, cleared of a gruesome crime he never committed, makes this story no less tragic. In a more just world, Broadwater would never have needed Mucciante as his savior — but in the real world, asking the justice system to believe in a Black man’s innocence, to take his word over a white woman’s, is too often too much to ask. If only the system had eventually taken Sebold at her word — her written ones, that is.

With over a million copies of Lucky sold and even a new edition published in 2017, no one until Mucciante seems to have taken action to investigate Sebold’s story. What does this say about American literary culture and of the historically largely white publishing industry? Following the news of Broadwater’s exoneration, I picked up a copy of the 2017 paperback edition of Lucky to try to understand how Mucciante saw what so many others hadn’t.

In the mid to late ’90s, when Sebold’s book was first published, the industry was in the grip of a memoir craze and seemed to have a newfound interest in young women’s voices. (Remember Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel?) And yet for all that Sebold’s book, which is in part a coming-of-age-amid-trauma story, seemed to fit that bill, it was largely about a case riddled with racial bias and the massive flaws that flowed from it — flaws that resulted in the destruction of one Black man’s life.

But who wants to be the one to question Sebold? Who wants to get in the way of her hoped-for path to justice? The instinct to not doubt or question a survivor is of course understandable; still, here, the reluctance to ask hard, moral, and legally critical questions is damning. According to Mucciante, Karen Moncrieff, who was to be the director of the Lucky film adaptation, had insisted that a white actor be cast to play the part of Anthony Broadwater. The director’s reasoning, as Mucciante writes in The Guardian, was that she “wanted to dispel the racial stereotype of a Black man raping a white woman.” An admirable impulse, but literally erasing Broadwater from the story rather than seeking to examine the root causes of the tragic role he was forced to play in it wouldn’t accomplish much other than to further perpetuate injustice.

In the fall of her sophomore year at Syracuse University, months after she was raped on the last night of her first year in a horrific attack in a park near campus, Sebold wrote a poem about her rapist that began, at the suggestion of her poetry professor, the Irish poet Tess Gallagher, “If they caught you …” Just one week after workshopping her poem, which Sebold entitles “Conviction,” she sees a Black man on the street and, as she explains in Lucky, becomes convinced he is her rapist.

“‘Hey girl,’” the man says, coming toward her, “‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’” Sebold believes the man is addressing her and from here on assumes that this interaction and the man’s behavior all stem from his having raped her. “He smirked at me, remembering … He had no fear … He was laughing because he had gotten away with it, because he had raped before me, and he would rape again. My devastation was a pleasure for him.” (Later at trial, Broadwater will testify that what he actually said was “Hey, haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” and that he was talking not to Sebold but rather to a cop who knew his brother and was standing nearby. Interestingly, Sebold does not include any of Broadwater’s testimony in Lucky, nor does she even mention that he took the stand in his own defense.)

Sebold does not report this man who she believes is her rapist to the cop who is standing there, though she does see Broadwater speak to him. But that, too, is only further evidence of her alleged rapist’s guilt: “He was shooting the breeze, so sure of his safety that he felt comfortable enough, right after seeing me, to tease a cop.”

Before heading to the police station to make her report, Sebold goes to see the writer Tobias Wolff, then her fiction professor, to explain why she will need to miss that afternoon’s workshop. After expressing his concern and asking what, if anything, he can do to help her, Wolff advises Sebold, “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,” a message that Sebold takes to heart. Perhaps too much to heart. Wolff barely knew Sebold at the time, and so it is no surprise that he did not also caution her about how her trauma might affect her memories and how that trauma might make her vulnerable to manipulation by the police and prosecutors she would soon meet. As it turns out, the people who were close to Sebold, family and friends, seem not to have cautioned her either. Of course, rallying around a survivor in order to support them is a good thing. But it is the lack of critical thinking with regard to Sebold’s story combined with a justice system eager to incarcerate Black men that resulted in grave consequences for Broadwater. The consequence for Sebold, paltry though it is by comparison, is that she and her story will now be regarded as symbolic of the racism inherent in our justice system.

About a month after first seeing this man who she believes is her rapist, Sebold is called back to the police station to pick him out of a five-man lineup. But she is torn between suspects number four and five because she says they have similar builds. In the end, after a second look, she chooses number five because he stares right at her. “The expression in his eyes told me that if we were alone, if there were no wall between us,” she writes, “he would call me by my name and then kill me.” The man is not Broadwater. “Number four and five looked like identical twins,” Sebold says by way of explanation, the racial bias in her words going both unnamed and unacknowledged. Broadwater’s prosecutor, meanwhile, tells Sebold that Broadwater and the man who stood next to him in the lineup were friends and “dead ringers” who had deliberately arranged to be there together side by side so that they could trick her. Decades later, Broadwater’s new legal team would argue that the prosecutor’s story was false and a form of prosecutorial misconduct.

Broadwater’s defense, the prosecutor explains to Sebold, is “building a case based on misidentification. A panicked white girl saw a Black man on the street. He spoke familiarly to her and she connected this to her rape. She was accusing the wrong man.” But what did Sebold’s Lucky editors or early prepublication readers make of this “theory”? What Sebold herself, at least at the time, made of it is clear. It is grounds for doubling down: “I needed to rebuild my case.”

And so she does at Broadwater’s trial. When Sebold is then asked why she picked number five in the police lineup, she can feel the Judge’s “attention heighten.” When Sebold is asked if she knew which numbered position Broadwater was standing in within the lineup, Sebold faces a dilemma: “If I told the truth,” she writes, “I could say that the moment I picked number five I knew I was wrong and had regretted it. That everything after that, from the mood in the lineup room, to the relief on [Broadwater’s defense attorney’s] face, to the dark weight I felt on [the police officer] in the conference room, had only confirmed my mistake.”

“If I lied,” she considers, “if I said, ‘No, I do not,’ I knew I would be perceived as telling the truth in my confusion between four and five. ‘Identical twins,’ I had said … ‘It’s four, isn’t it?’ … I knew the man who raped me sat across from me in the courtroom. It was my word against his.” And so with this false sense of conviction against Broadwater as her imperative, Sebold decides to lie. (It is worth noting here that prior to Broadwater’s indictment, a microscopic-hair-analysis technique, which has since been thoroughly discredited, determined that a single strand of his pubic hair, which he had voluntarily extracted, matched “pubic hair combings” of Sebold.) When the prosecutor then asks Sebold if there was any other reason why she felt, as she puts it, “scared or hurried during the lineup,” Sebold answers, “The attorney for the defendant … wouldn’t let me have my rape counselor with me.” This is true. But it is also true that, earlier in the book, Sebold describes this rape counselor as someone “I didn’t quite trust.”

On July 13, 1982, Broadwater was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison, the maximum given for rape and sodomy. Less than a year and a half later, something horrific and profoundly eerie happened. On a night when Sebold, who was by then a college senior, was out at a poetry reading, her best friend and roommate, Lila, was raped by a man who secretly entered their apartment through the window in Sebold’s bedroom that had a broken lock.

Not only did this man make Lila move to Sebold’s room in order to rape her in Sebold’s bed, but “he asked her where I was during the attack,” writes Sebold. “Somehow knew my name.” The police, Sebold reports, had a theory that Lila had been raped by a friend of Broadwater’s as revenge for his incarceration, a theory to which she does not subscribe. “Conspiracy,” she writes, “seemed a stretch.”

But what also seems a stretch is that, at least on the page, Sebold does not wonder whether her roommate’s rapist (whose race is neither disclosed nor addressed) could possibly be the same man who raped her. And if he was, couldn’t her testimony — including her deliberately false testimony — be keeping an innocent man in prison? Did the thought that Broadwater might actually be innocent never cross Sebold’s mind? What about the minds of the prosecutors and police who worked the case? What about the judge who, in the end, was the sole arbiter of Broadwater’s fate? Why did Broadwater not deserve the right, theoretically promised to all by our justice system, to be presumed innocent? Did they simply think, unconsciously or otherwise, that because Broadwater was a Black man he had no, deserved no, humanity?

And what about the people at Scribner who worked on Sebold’s book? What about those who, for the Scribner Reading Group Guide in the 2017 paperback edition, wrote “questions for discussion” including: “Discuss the role of race in this story. Sebold mentions what she calls ‘the cosmetics of my rape case.’ What does she mean by this?” and “Alice fails to identify Gregory Madison in the police lineup. In what ways does Alice’s lawyer’s comment that ‘rights are weighted on the side of the defendant’ (page 145) ring true?” Think about these for a moment.

What of Sebold’s more than one million readers? If I, a white woman, had read Sebold’s book not last week but back when it first came out or at least at any point before the summer 2020 nationwide racial reckoning ignited by the murder of George Floyd, what might I have made of it? Of course, I’d like to think that as a natural skeptic and investigative reporter I, like Mucciante, who happens to be a disbarred lawyer who has himself served time in prison (though justly, he has said, for fraud), would have quickly realized that Sebold’s story was deeply, horrifically flawed due to racial bias. And yet, the evidence of all those other readers, including white women whom I have admired, like novelists Francine Prose and Elena Ferrante, both of whom at some point blurbed Lucky, according to the back cover of my 2017 edition — “Exhilarating to read,” wrote Prose; “An important book for learning to say, ‘me too,’” wrote Ferrante — seems to indicate otherwise.

So many questions remain, not least of all of which is how Sebold might now try to make amends with Broadwater, whose life has been destroyed by her wrongful accusation and false testimony?

In the aftermath of his exoneration, Broadwater told the Associated Press, “I never, ever, ever thought I’d see the day that I would be exonerated.” Scribner, meanwhile, said it had no plans to update Lucky, and Sebold had no comment. But several days later, Sebold issued Broadwater an apology via Medium that was heavy on the passive voice, writing:

“I deeply regret what you have been through. I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life that you could have led was unjustly robbed from you … I will forever be sorry for what was done … It has taken me these past eight days to comprehend how this could have happened. I will continue to struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail. I will also grapple with the fact that my rapist will, in all likelihood, never be known, may have gone on to rape other women, and certainly will never serve the time in prison that Mr. Broadwater did.”

That same day, Scribner announced it would stop distributing Lucky and would consult with Sebold on “how the work might be revised.” How indeed.

This time around, with the assistance of Mucciante, it seems that Broadwater might at least, and at last, have the opportunity to tell a competing narrative of his own. This story, however, should not be misinterpreted as grounds for no longer believing in victims. Victims deserve belief, but so too must we believe at least equally fervently in the racial bias inherent in our criminal justice system, our publishing houses, our society, and ourselves. And isn’t it high time for that?

Why Didn’t More of Us Question Alice Sebold’s Memoir?