A good rape


Alice Sebold <em>Picador, 254pp, £7.99</em>

Alice Sebold is the author of the bestselling novel The Lovely Bones, in which a teenager who has been raped, murdered and dismembered narrates the story, from heaven, of those events and the aftermath. The narration is a chilling juxtaposition of innocence against evil. Why do people read it? Can a book be truthful about the rape and murder of girls and still be a popular phenomenon?

The novel is often accused of being sentimental, which some feel accounts for its success. It does have several happy endings: the serial killer falls down a ravine in freezing ice and snow and dies; the adulterous mother who has left the home, unable to bear the burden of her murdered child, returns; the child's sister makes a happy marriage; and the father recovers from a near-fatal heart attack and falls in love with the mother a second time. The mother and father are treated with extraordinary empathy. There are also resting places in the novel: descriptions of friendships, classmates, teachers, landscapes, weather, and "my heaven", the cognitive world of the murdered child. For those who like feminism straight-up, there is a character who, through her hypersensitivity, can feel where women and girls have been brutalised.

There are no resting places in Sebold's memoir of being raped in her first year of college. The title Lucky comes from the police, who told Sebold that a girl had been murdered and dismembered where she was raped. She was "lucky", they said. The bitter irony of the title resonates throughout the memoir.

And in many ways, Sebold was lucky. She experienced what rape-crisis counsellors call "a good rape": she was beaten so badly that an accusation of rape would be believed. She was wearing loose clothes that covered her body. She fought the rapist fiercely, although at some point, badly hurt and convinced he would kill her, she began to comply. She was a virgin when raped. Eventually, she identified the rapist and got a conviction in a court of law. The conviction made her a hero for local law enforcement. Rape just doesn't get any better than that.

Still, not everyone believed her. Her beloved father did not. He couldn't understand how, once the rapist dropped his knife, which he did as he was getting her to lie down, there was any force. Even though she believed the rapist would kill her, she had consented. Remember the beating, I want to say on her behalf. Rather than give her father all the details, she decides to accept his ignorance.

She found that she had crossed a line. People were embarrassed or self-conscious around her. She was "other than". She was isolated in the horror of what had happened to her. In the immediate aftermath, one friend tried to stay with her until her mother came. Another helped her to stand up in the shower when the police said she could have one. But eventually they disappear from her life.

Returning to the same college in her second year, she makes a new friend. Each is the "clone" of the other. They get an apartment together. One night when Sebold is out, this friend is raped. She has been tied to Sebold's bed. This suggests to the police that it was a revenge rape, retaliation for the conviction of Sebold's rapist. The police even downplay the violence in the friend's rape by comparing it to Sebold's. Sebold tries to help her friend, but later the friend rejects her: the friend does not want to press charges; she cannot do what Sebold did in getting a conviction. She cuts Sebold dead. This is devastating.

The suffering from Sebold's assault and its consequences is unbearable. She wrote about the rape in the New York Times and she went on Oprah as "the victim who fought back"; snorting heroin becomes her survival mechanism. Years later she cleans up. She lives, as she puts it, "where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand".

The Lovely Bones is a tribute to the girl who died where Sebold was later raped; Lucky is burdened with facts, more pedestrian, more real. Lucky is the more important book.

Andrea Dworkin's most recent book is Heartbreak: the political memoir of a feminist militant (Basic Books)

Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was a radical feminist writer known for her work on pornorgraphy, war and sexual intercourse. Her account of being raped in Paris in 1999 was published exclusively by the New Statesman.