When Alice Sebold, acclaimed author of the novel The beautiful bones and successful memory Fortunate, posted a addressing declaration The recent exoneration of Anthony Broadwater, 61, the black man she falsely accused of rape in 1981, I knew that would be a flawed apology. It took Sebold eight days to finally make a statement – eight days to ponder the shock and confusion the news had undoubtedly brought to him.
Then the 58-year-old author wrote: “I am very sorry for Anthony Broadwater and deeply regret what you went through. She went on to bemoan the fact that “my own misfortune resulted in the unfair conviction of Mr. Broadwater for which he served not only 16 years behind bars, but in a way that serves even more to hurt and stigmatize, almost a life sentence.
While people were clamoring for Sebold to say something …anything-In the days following Broadwater’s exoneration, eight days of reflection on the 16 years of bogus imprisonment of an innocent man resulted in a statement which in many ways exposed the errors and fallibility of what we see as justice in America. There was a glaring lack of nuance.
The statement indicated a sincere apology, but was unsuccessful as it lacked important elements of truth and accountability. Sebold managed to distance himself from the man who went to jail for a crime against her that he did not commit. She asserted that the systemic (ie racist) issues in the US justice system were not “a debate, or a conversation, or even a whisper when I reported my rape in 1981”. She spoke of the “system that sent an innocent man to jail” but never once acknowledged that the system she is talking about is inherently racist. Indeed, she never even used the words “race” or “racism” in connection with what happened in Broadwater. This omission, I think, is an apology for the embarrassing reality that she, herself a victim, also collaborated – albeit unwittingly – with this same racist system to put Broadwater behind bars.
Broadwater was exonerated on November 22, after a producer developed a film adaptation of Fortunate found glaring inconsistencies in the case. Sebold, then 18, initially identified the wrong man in a police queue, and prosecutors then “deliberately trained her to rehabilitate her misidentification”. according to defense lawyers. After being randomly approached by Broadwater, months after his assault, Sebold went to the police and charged him with rape, citing a sentiment that he was his attacker. Based on this – and hair sample evidence later refuted as unwanted science – Broadwater was convicted and thrown in jail.
Sebold’s statement, like his bestselling book and everything else related to this case, highlights the inconsistencies in our cultural conception of justice. What is justice, after all, in an inherently unjust, deeply racist and sexist society? Who obtains justice and what does justice look like for those who suffer harm from others and in particular from the state? Justice in America is constantly changing form, and one person’s idea of what is may just as well be another person’s idea of gross inequality and corruption. It is the nebulous nature of the concept that makes it so easy to corrupt.
In The right to sexFeminist thinker Amia Srinivasan writes: “For many women of color, the traditional feminist injunction ‘Believe women’ and its online correlate #IBelieveHer raise more questions than they answer. Who are we to believe, the white woman who says she was raped, or the black or brunette woman who insists her son is being tricked?
Credibility is a kind of motto, especially in this country, where what happens to be believed is often a matter of life and death, liberty or imprisonment. Especially in the case of sexual assault, where the onus is so often on the victim to prove that she is worthy of belief, despite the fact that statistics show that false accusations of rape are rare. And yet, inflammatory as the revelation of Broadwater’s wrongful conviction has been, his imprisonment is not particularly new.
There is a long and rich history in America of white women falsely accusing black men of rape – a history that exists far beyond the bounds of the legal realm, and that includes white mobs and black boys and men being lynched for. just looking at white women. False accusations of rape are rare, yes, but it is necessary reconcile that with the fact that 52% of those falsely accused of rape are black men; and that black men convicted of sexual assault are 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than white men.
When Sebold named Broadwater as her rapist (with ostensible coaching from police and prosecutors), she was part of a prison feminism of harming blacks as a means to an end. She was perpetuating a story. It is a muddled truth that Sebold can be both victim and perpetrator.
Now, holding all of those truths at once, here’s how I feel about Alice Sebold as a person: nothing. I don’t believe Alice Sebold is “evil,” an “asshole,” “deserves to rot in jail,” or any of the other vitriolic takes that have been shared online since the Broadwater exemption. We forget that there is a subtlety and a banality to racism that allows it to continue. It’s too easy to portray the traumatized rape victim, then 18, as some sort of villain with a twirling mustache.
That’s not to say, of course, that Sebold’s actions were not blatant against black people, and that as a young white woman in a racist society, she colluded with a criminal justice system that is more anxious to punish black men – any black man – with all due diligence and intent in dealing with such a delicate and complex crime. In his memories, Fortunate, it is clear that Sebold’s own prejudices and prejudices clashed with the reality of her assault: she writes that she is afraid of “some” black men after her rape.
Much of the vitriol sent to her has nothing to do with Broadwater, but with general anger at a system that allows such things to happen over and over again, failing rape victims and falsely accused. , because he is more interested in maintaining a racist status quo than he is in justice as a true ideal.
There are no winners in this system. Alice Sebold lost the peace she ostensibly wanted knowing that her rapist was behind bars, no longer a specter haunting her daily life, no longer able to harm anyone who had harmed her. Broadwater lost his personal freedom, his reputation, his life and his light. I don’t believe, at the end of the day, that the justice system has ever had the capacity to do one or the other the justice they deserve. Alice Sebold put her faith in a prison feminism designed to arm her white femininity against blacks.
The criminal justice system is the flawed device by which we seek to remedy harm, but it is a situation where rectifying harm means rethinking the usefulness of that device. Perhaps another way of defining justice is the consequence: someone has been wronged, and the person who wronged them must be held responsible in some way or another. So what does Alice Sebold owe Anthony Broadwater?
I believe that beyond reparations in the form of all future profits from Fortunate and a personal apology (Broadwater has expressed a desire for this in particular), Sebold owes Broadwater the retelling of his story. Scribner, the publisher of Sebold, recently announced plans to stop distributing the memoir while they “consider how the work could be revised”. Broadwater should be included in this process, and with its inclusion there should be the nuance that Sebold did not explicitly recognize in his statement.
Now that the Fortunate the film adaptation was scrapped, documentary director Tim Mucciante has revealed plans to develop a documentary titled “Unlucky,” chronicling Broadwater’s journey from wrongful conviction to exemption. The state has taken the liberty of Broadwater; Sebold took his story. Broadwater will never recoup the years he spent in prison, nor the years he spent out of prison but still confined by the realities of being a convicted sex offender. At the very least, he should get his story back.