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.
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.
"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.)
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.