on September 12, 2002
Americans can't get enough of Crime TV so American readers may like this book. It delivers bludgeoning description - graphic, straight and true - individualizing the experience of a torture at once the most personal and pervasive, but assuring us the good guys win. Delivered without the annoyance or bother of challenging analysis, and without the awkward courtesy of informed contemporary assistance to others similarly situated, the book asks nothing but that we read on --and most will not help but do so. The paperback will be popular, and no doubt, the made for TV movie.
Americans will like a book about an alienated and alienating teen who suffers and survives, all the while sustaining a wide eyed belief she has gone it alone, triumphed over the odds, and by golly, you could too if you would just give the legal system a go. Never mind that this rape survivor finds a note in her file fifteen years later that betrays a difficult truth: Despite her demographics the police do not believe her any more than a thousand other "lucky" victims they have already seen, will continue to see, and see to this day. We wait for the author to divine the appalling significance of this note, to put aside the emerging potboiler, sniff the air, and seriously reconnoiter. We wait in vain. Breathtakingly naïve, the memoir offers us the author's twenty year head start on contemporary adulation of police as heroic.
Unfortunately, the odor of disbelief is plain to readers from the outset. It scents the air in every interaction and institution with which the author comes in contact. It steams from her very own pages, but Sebold is the last to know. Even now she does not seem to detect the stench as it wafts from police to an incredulous parent's question, is deodorized by a patient feminist attorney's empathy, suspended by a waif's unassuming ministrations, or ramped up by a slimeball defense attorney's assaults.
This undetected fragrance would be bittersweet for readers - she is, after all, only a kid at the time - if only the intervening decade or two and the file information would give the grown up author pause. If it seems to readers that the passage of time and the passing of this file will call for a new and more sophisticated perspective, well, for Sebold, things remain just what they seemed. Reflection on those times, on our own, and on the hard work that makes change possible -- as per Blumenfeld's Revenge, or Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted? No such complications attend this work.
But it is a memoir, and so we want to hear her out. If the author is fond of the particular over the pattern, where does she convey why this particular memoir is necessary or just? Beyond personal catharsis, beyond her tedious hair-trigger competitive instinct and unseemly love of celebrity, what justifies this tell-all? What moral vision does this book offer that justifies, for instance, the vivisection too hastily inflicted on her parents and sister in these pages? A rape survivor does not owe us philosophy, but a memoir has to try.
What are her motives for writing? What sophisticated view of justice does Sebold offer to balance the pain she delivers the hapless but heartrent young people she describes, real people who will read their offers of aid in paperback caricature twenty years later? What larger purpose recompenses their secrets and sexualities exposed? And most of all, what practical, social, or moral vision does she offer the other victims she "outs", with only the merest scrap of a name change? These are, after all real people whom she describes.
It is a testimony to Sebold's talent that she can tell a real story in a real way. But it is her moral failing to have done so recklessly, with so little concern for real others. Memoir is not fiction (at which the author is much better-see The Lovely Bones). And, this is not (yet) TV; these real people weep, and we are asked to watch in a posture of wry detachment, scorned for our squirming. Why?
And what are our motives for reading? I do not care, as some reviewers appear to do, whether or not her professors reek of voyeuristic curiosity. Theirs are not the only mixed motives in the sex crime to memoir nexus; why shouldn't a wounded teen find such people wise and diverting? But memoir is not fiction. Did she learn from these professors that it would be enough to relate a 20 year old tale "authentically", no matter the collateral damage? That it is sufficient to say that the world is divided into good, evil, and ridiculous? That cop lingo is romantic? That when evil befalls us naive determination, sharp wits, and an even sharper tongue will yield the good? That the world is full of suffering, but that it is one's own that counts the most? That even if it changes the way the world regards them, unique women should tough it out , tell the violating details, or have them told for them, and words will make things better? What, exactly, justifies this recklessness?
This memoir could have been important. It offers genuine, wrenching tales of upper middle class adolescent angst made exponentially more bitter by pointless tragedy, courageously described. But this is a harrowing passage from which the author has clearly not escaped. In this instance, adolescent angst is made more destructive by the author's continuing generosity in sharing it; even now she cannot keep a civil tongue in her head. Some may find this witty and arty and lively but I find it sad, empty, and hopeless. The honesty of Sebold's passages can break your heart, especially for the sense that the author is still lost in a time warp, with nothing to show for it but a drug problem, an enduring mean streak undisguised by considerable literary finesse, and a legal victory over, we hope to God, the right man.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2002
I read this book with the same veracity as most other reviewers but when I turned to the last page, I felt like I had been dropped out of a ten story building. And now that I think about it, the dialogue and story had a 'blunted' feel to it. Anyone can describe the brutality of a rape, but to communicate to women everywhere that to be strong and of good humor and maybe use a few drugs to numb the pain along the way is the method for mentally, emotionally and physically handle being raped is not being honest. To be ravaged in that way...first by a rapist and secondly, by a painfully biased court system...and not write in depth about the years of many different types of therapy required to overcome the indignity, anger, self doubt and all the symptoms of PTSD is incomplete at best. When I finished the book, I was really angry. I was angry at the horror of rape, at the insensitivity of the criminal justice system and at the author for not addressing more seriously the unavoidable damage caused not only by the rape, but by an uncaring, dysfunctional family and support system. I was even more surprised when at the end of the book, the author thanks her father, sister and mother for everything they did. What??? While a precious daughter is going through a horrible trial for something entirely not her fault and then resorting to heroin, alcohol and anything else to numb the pain, her father sits outside the courtroom and her mother communicates with her via phone while her sister moans about her college major not quite being as satisfactory as it should be!?!
Maybe Ms. Sebold could write another book about recovery.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2003
It was with relief that I discovered that I was one of many "skimmers" of this book. I would have discontinued after the first twenty pages if I did not have to read this as a (albeit poor)reading group choice.The inability of the author to differentiate between important and less important detail led to a flat narrative. This is one of those times when, to have allowed a few things to remain unsaid, would have added greatly to the impact of the story.
Another reviewer has referred to collateral damage, and this aspect of this book horrifies me. There may be "veiled" references of which I am unaware. I am aware, however, of one instance in which a family which has also suffered tragedy, is accurately named. An encounter with them is described with crudity, and the family tragedy is rehashed, seventeen years later, when there are still family members left to read and remember. Why? I am at a loss to undertand why Ms. Sebold's tragedy entitles her to wound others who wished her no ill. Is this still a part of her own illness?
Ms. Sebold is "lucky" to live in a country in which the press is free; publishers generous and in which forgiveness still prevails in the hearts of most - especially our parents.