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Monday, November 29, 2021

The real villain in Alice Sebold’s tragic tale has yet to be caught

It’s a story to break the heart, but also a story with a twist that even a novelist as imaginative as Sebold might have trouble dreaming up. It was a producer working on the Netflix film of Lucky, due out next year, who smelt a rat. “I started having some doubts, not about the story that Alice told about her assault,” Timothy Mucciante, an executive producer on the film, told a newspaper this week, “but the second part of her book about the trial, which didn’t hang together.” He left the film in June, but hired a private investigator, Dan Myers, to look into the case.

Myers, a former detective, became convinced of Broadwater’s innocence. Broadwater had never stopped fighting to clear his name. He even turned down the chance of early release in return for an admission of guilt. But he couldn’t muster the money for lawyers. Mucciante launched a crowd-funding campaign for two lawyers to act on his behalf. And on Monday, state Supreme Court Justice Gordon Cuffy told the court, “I’m not going to sully this proceeding by saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ That doesn’t cut it.”

It certainly doesn’t. And what of Sebold? It was, after all, her false identification of Broadwater as the rapist that played a key part in his conviction. Is she sorry? Yesterday, she was spotted walking her dog in a street near her home. (A “$6m mansion in San Francisco”, according to one newspaper, next to a helpful photo.) When a journalist asked her if she had anything to say to Broadwater, she marched on in silence. Her publisher, Scribner, has issued no comment. It has also said it has no plans to update the text of Lucky. Others have strongly implied that it’s time some of Sebold’s own “luck” was shared.

Sebold, and Scribner, will presumably comment at some point. But what are you meant to say when a man’s life has been ruined? And when your own misfortune had made you rich, but his has cost him almost everything? As the judge said, sorry doesn’t cut it.

The title, Lucky, was always ironic, of course. After Sebold went to the police station, cut, bleeding, and wincing from the pressure points that would soon turn into “an elegant lattice-work of bruises”, she was told by a policeman that a girl had been murdered and dismembered in the tunnel where she was raped. Sebold, he said, was lucky. But Sebold didn’t feel lucky, as she lay on a couch and a doctor took samples of semen and blood.

Sebold didn’t feel lucky when she realised that no shower would ever wash off the shame. “I share my life with my rapist,” she writes in Lucky. “After telling the hard facts to anyone from lover to friend, I have changed in their eyes.” What she sees in their eyes is repulsion. “I was changed, bloodied, damaged goods, ruined.” She “saw violence everywhere”. After dropping out of graduate school, she moved to a “low-income housing project” where she tried to numb her pain with alcohol and heroin. She left to become a caretaker, for $386 a month, at a writer’s colony, living in a log cabin with no electricity, and started to rebuild her life.

When I met her in 2003, she was rich, famous and in love. She had married the writer Glen David Gould and moved to San Francisco. Four years later, she published her second novel, The Almost Moon. It had mixed reviews. Sam Anderson of the New York Magazine commented on its similarity to The Lovely Bones. “I wonder,” he wrote, “if her imaginative territory is just so small that we’ve already had the full tour.” Not kind, perhaps, but she hasn’t published a book since. She is also divorced.

I was not a big fan of The Lovely Bones, but Lucky remains one of the most powerful memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s spare, stark, harrowing and utterly lacking in self-pity. It’s electric with the pain that bad luck brings: walking in the wrong park, on the wrong night, that hair-line fracture between everything being OK and everything changing for ever. Now we know that the day she “ran into” her rapist in the street was the start of another piece of life-changing bad luck. “I looked directly at him,” she writes. “Knew his face had been the face over me in the tunnel.” But she was wrong.

There are plenty casting stones: she must be racist, for example, because she thinks all black men look the same. In fact, she was at pains to point out during the case, she lived on a multi-racial campus. She was also misled and pressurised by people keen to win in court. The evidence was flimsy and, we now know, false. But the rape, the violence and the trauma were not. This is a tragedy for Broadwater and for Sebold, too. The real villain in this tale hasn’t yet been caught.

Broadwater has said that all he wants now is to look at people more confidently, be able to walk through a park without feeling uneasy and maybe take a holiday. His lawyers think he should get financial compensation. Nothing can compensate him for what he has been through, but I really hope he gets it.

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