Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sebold's Novel LUCKY A Powerful But Tough Read for PTSD Survivors

Alice Sebold's memoir, LUCKY, is her account of her beating and subsequent rape in Thornden Park in Syracuse, New York on May 8, 1981. Initially, Sebold had written the first chapter of The Lovely Bones but felt that her own true story might conflict with the story of Susie Salmon, so she temporarily shelved Bones and wrote this memoir.

At the time of the attack, Sebold (pronounced See-bold) was an eighteen year old college freshman at Syracuse University, and a virgin. By Sebold's account, I got the impression that perhaps the attacker suffered from bi-polar disorder or something of the like, since she tells of how his behavior shifts back and forth from a violent, profane evilness to a humbled and remorseful tone, and even at certain times, acting as if he and his victim are on a date. He even tells Sebold to kiss him before he lets her go! When Sebold is able to be examined by trauma specialist Dr. Husa (a woman), Husa breaks it to Sebold that the rape caused so much damage that she had extensive bleeding, a hymen torn in two different places and that there would be stitches required for an internal tear along the vaginal wall. The title of the memoir refers to a police officer's response to Sebold reporting her rape. He tells her that prior to her incident, another girl was killed and dismembered at the same location, so by comparison, Sebold was "lucky". I can imagine how sickening hearing that would be after living through the trauma mentioned above (and I put it gently - there's alot more graphic detail in the book of the damage done).

Thornden Park Ampitheatre as it is today - near here was where the attack took place

One thing that stumped me is why there wasn't more of a fight. Sebold describes how there was broken glass, rock and debris on the ground that she noticed as the rape was occuring - why not grab a good size rock and knock him in the head or shove broken glass shards in his face.... it sounds brutal but at that point it's survival, right? Sebold actually commented on this in the book, saying,

"Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I would rather be raped a thousand times. You do what you have to do."

I don't know, that struck me as a wee bit harsh. Everyone responds to pain and trauma differently. in Sebold's case, she discusses in the book how in the aftermath of the rape and later the trial and conviction of her attacker, she deals with some of the pain by "dabbling", as she puts it, in some pretty hard core narcotics (particularly black tar heroin), pot, alcohol, and for one brief instant even lesbianism. Can't say I blame her, what with some of the reactions she got when disclosing the details of her rape : her father asking "How could he rape you unless you let him?" or her therapist's snarky comment of "Well, I guess you can be less inhibited about sex now, huh?" OMG - I would want to have that therapist's license for that kind of insensitivity. It's flippin' therapy! That's suppose to be the one place you're guaranteed sensitivity and "kid gloves" treatment!
Syracuse University

The ironically named Haven Hall where Sebold lived while attending Syracuse U.

Syracuse University Hall of Languages

But as far as fighting back, I don't know. Maybe it's the sort of thing where you think of what you would have liked to have done in hindsight. Or maybe you think of what you would hope you would do in that situation but you don't really know until it happens to you. Hard to say. Growing up, I was always taught that if someone comes at you like that, clearly intending to severely threaten or even possibly end your life, you fight as hard and dirty as you can until the person is in the hospital or dead. But again, that's easy to spout in theory - and it sounds good in Rambo movies, but who knows what would actually go down until it's happening.
Poet/Professor Tess Gallagher and her late husband, author Raymond Carver.
Tess became a source of strength and friendship for Alice during the trial.

The other thing that confused me was one instance where I guess the teenage Sebold was trying to show her parents that she wasn't entirely broken in spirit. When she returns to her parents' house the morning after her attack and her father asks her if she's hungry she comments that she's had nothing in her mouth in 24 hours "except a cracker and a cock". I understand if you want to show that you still have your sense of humor after a bad experience - I do the same thing. But that struck me as pretty insensitive toward her parents. As parents, they have to deal with their own type of trauma, coming to terms with the idea of their child being violently sexually violated. That's a stomach churner for any dad. At another time, that probably would have come out pretty funny but right then? The moment's bad enough - don't throw the word "cock" at him just to shake him up!

Author/Professor Tobias Wolffe, whose own memoir THIS BOY'S LIFE was turned into
a breakout movie role for Leonardo Dicaprio. Tobias and his brother Gregory, also a teacher,
 were additional sources of strength and wisdom for Alice.

While thankfully I have never had to experience rape, I have experienced similar situations of abuse and found that a good amount of what Sebold described, as far as emotions and behavior after trauma, I could definitely relate to. It was particularly her description of the recovery process (which covers years and possibly never quite ends) that I really started to see pieces of my own life and self. There is an excerpt from the book Trauma and Recovery by Dr. Judith Herman ( in which she describes PTSD sufferers ) which Sebold quotes that really struck a chord with me:

They do not have a normal "baseline" level of alert, but relaxed attention. Instead, they have an elevated baseline of arousal: their bodies are always on the alert for danger. They also have an extreme startle response to unexpected stimuli.. People with post-traumatic stress disorder take longer to fall asleep, are more sensitive to noise, and awaken more frequently during the night than ordinary people. Thus traumatic events appear to recondition the human nervous system.

For most of my childhood, I lived in an abusive home where there was almost no break in the constant fighting, yelling, and violence. I never really put the two together but also a norm in my childhood was the fact that nearly every night, I found it close to impossible to fall asleep easily or stay asleep. I jumped at every noise, listened to every sound, trying to anticipate the next threat to my well-being. I grew up to have relationships with men that were sometimes emotionally abusive and even at certain times, dangerously on the verge of becomingly a physical threat. To this day, I'm still a jumpy insomniac who seems to speak at a lower tone than most everyone else around me. I manage a cool exterior but inside I'm pretty consistently a nervous wreck, still keeping my guard up, fearing that some threat always looms around the corner. I was especially interested in the fact that Sebold compared trauma victims (rape & abuse cases) to Vietnam war vets in that they both experience different forms of PTSD. It was yet another brief AHA moment as I thought about how my own father is a Vietnam veteran who came back with PTSD. It made me wonder if his PTSD influenced his violent/moody/mercurial behavior he went on to show for the remainer of my childhood until I was old enough to move out of my parents' home.

Attica Prison, where Sebold's attacker was sent.

I also noticed similarities in the way both Sebold and I went through a phase of seemingly choosing the "bad boy" boyfriend over the "good guy" that inevitably got put in "the friend zone". What is it that makes so many women do this?? I suppose it might be the appeal of "living on the edge" or at least briefly experiencing that sort of thing. I feel bad for guys in this situation, because if the guy plays it too nice, he's boring but if he's overly confident and pushy, he's a dick lol. In the end though, most of us get sick of the game and find a stable, honest guy to love who won't rattle us with headgames. I found such a man. Sebold found such a man in her husband, author Glen David Gold, the person to whom she dedicated her memoir.

Author Glen David Gold

In an interview for NPR, Sebold was asked if she ever felt compassion for her attacker, similar to other interviews where she was asked if readers of The Lovely Bones were ever meant to feel compassion for such a seemingly vile character as Mr. Harvey.Her answer definitely gave me something to think about:

"I would say eventually, certainly not immediately. But you  know, we're all born into this world in very different ways and we have different experiences of it, and I don't know a lot about him, but some things I do know led me to feel compassion for him. There are many people who had much worse circumstances than he did who managed not to go out and rape people. But that doesn't mean you can't have compassion for them. I don't forgive him, but you know, he's a human being. You have to move on. It's just as simple as that. And so you find a way to move on, and having compassion for people just in general is a good way to live in life. "

I don't know if I agree with 100% of that, but it's definitely something to think about, if not aspire to.

In the words of Poet / Philosopher Khalil Gibran (above):
 "All of us are prisoners but some of us have cells with windows and some without."

See an interesting interview: Alice Sebold discusses The Lovely Bones and Lucky on Charlie Rose show here.