Rape Is Not a Dirty Word

When we obfuscate the truth of rape, it's a disservice to victims and to justice.

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When Alice Sebold was eighteen, she was raped by a stranger at the end of her freshman year of college. She vowed to write about her experience, and it became the best-selling memoir Lucky. Eighteen years after its initial publication, Lucky is being reissued by Scribner. Below is an excerpt from Sebold's new afterward. Alice is a member of the National Leadership Council for RAINN.org (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation's largest anti-sexual-violence organization. If you want to support the work they do, please visit www.rainn.org.

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This is how I was introduced at the first public reading I gave for Lucky in 1999:

Alice Sebold is here today to read to us from her memoir concerning the horrible thing she experienced from which she has now thankfully recovered.

Though it would be easy to make fun of the ladies luncheon at which I was a guest speaker that day, I can't help but defend them. Compared to countless other venues, they took me on despite the apparently sordid, unmentionable topic I'd had the temerity to write about. Still, as I made my way to the podium, I began to feel an old familiar fury grow inside me.

I now find anything that tries to obfuscate the truth of rape and its aftermath infuriating because it represents a further deceit of the world at large and the victim herself. It's like slapping a smiley face on a corpse. In our desire to protect people from the truth, we do them a disservice by attempting to hide it. This only creates a new level of distraction from what is most important, which is coming to terms with the cards you were dealt.

Eighteen years after I'd been raped, and despite the stamp of an esteemed publisher on my story, the woman introducing me didn't feel able to use a simple four-letter word. In avoiding it, she perpetuated the idea that rape was still taboo. Her omission made me do something that goes against my basic character, as I've never been a fan of audience participation. But what inspired me that day was a sort of rage against shame. I would not permit what I saw as censorship, even if enacted by a blameless woman who more than anything probably wanted to be polite. I took a moment at the mic to make eye contact with members of the audience, making sure to include those in the front and back and to my left and right. When I did speak, I was so calm in my delivery that it would seem as if I did this every day.

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"Rape, that's the horrible thing that happened to me. We at least have to learn to say the word. Let's all do it together, OK?" I felt as if I had turned the clock back and was reliving the day nearly two decades earlier, where I had insisted on saying the word aloud in my parents' living room in front of my favorite church lady, Myra Narbonne. (I want to pause here to note that Myra, a spitfire to the end, lived well into her 90s, and when Lucky came out, there was no bigger fan.)

In our desire to protect people from the truth, we do them a disservice by attempting to hide it.

Encouraging an audience to say "rape" was never going to be easy, but after a few rounds of me going it alone and adding encouragement, more and more people went from mortified silence to whispering the word to finally joining me in saying it aloud over and over. Doing this together, in such an unexpected way, resulted in a quality of exchange with my audience that I went on to feel was my responsibility to bring to any public event I did. I didn't always succeed, but I was smart enough to know that just as inside any courtroom, the success of my presentation may have been based not only on the power of my words but also on my appearance and behavior.

Sometimes readers would say they were surprised at how funny I was during the Q&A, which of course meant that I didn't seem to be who they expected a rape victim might be. Many men felt compelled to apologize for what had happened to me. I thanked them for their kindness but would also smile and say, "You didn't rape me, so we're cool." At this point in history, the male gender cannot bear all the blame. Just ask men who were raped by their mothers.

But I also see now that I had a tendency to joke in the face of readers' sincerity, because for years I'd remained uncomfortable with the feeling of being "other than."

In the end, we tell each other our deepest secrets because we want these stories to be acknowledged; we also dream that when acknowledged by a few, we might then be understood. If the full narrative of one's life is embraced by others, this opens up the possibility of intimacy or community; if instead it is met with awkward silence or a change of subject on the part of the listener, then the doors of the heart begin to shut down. The message has been received: No one wants to hear your story; no one actually cares. Locked alone in a room with a secret deemed so unspeakable it can't be shared, the imprisoned person will go to any lengths to escape. One need search no further for the origins of addiction and other self-harming behaviors. Anything is preferable to being sentenced to suffer such pain all by yourself. It makes sense then that I've never felt more engaged than when I spoke to readers, or even nonreaders, about their lives.

Because of Lucky, I have met many more rape victims than I ever thought possible. The youngest one was eight. She was an incest victim and haunted by night terrors. She had not read Lucky, but her mother had, and she brought her daughter to a reading so the little girl could shake my hand.

The oldest was a woman in Australia, who, when she reached the table at which I was signing books, told me the story of being gang-raped in the 1940s. When this elderly woman, through tears, told me that she had never told anyone this, I felt nearly as lost at sea as I had when I shook the hand of the eight-year-old. Often, after a reading, a few men and women will thank me for coming, and though they may say nothing more than this, a flash of eye contact will let me know that a version of what happened to me happened to them. Some will actually use those words as I sign a book or shake a hand. For a moment, any sense of what I'd felt was my essential otherness evaporates. Given the opportunity an afterword affords, I want to thank them.

Alice Sebold is the author of three No. 1 best-selling books, including Lucky, and the novels The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon. Her work has been translated into more than 50 languages and has appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian, among other publications.

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