Even as Alice Sebold was being raped she knew she would write about it.
She was a writer, after all, so even as the pain ripped through her body and splintered her soul, she knew that she would write it all down.
If she could somehow find a way to live, she would somehow find a way to tell the story.
Alice Sebold, as “luck” would have it, lived.
She went on to write “Lucky,” a memoir of her rape and the ensuing trial. She wrote “The Lovely Bones,” a novel about the rape and murder of 14-year-old Susie Salmon. She wrote the novel “The Almost Moon,” which deals with matricide.
Alice Sebold, a young woman terrified and traumatized by sexual assault, became an author, unflinching and unafraid on the page.
We spent an hour on stage together, Alice Sebold and I, at the South Dakota Festival of Books. We had a few minutes to get acquainted in the Green Room, and then we walked onto stage and tried to get comfortable in the chairs without looking like we were trying to get comfortable in the chairs. The microphones flickered on. The audience applauded. First question. Ready. Go!
Soon this interview from the South Dakota Festival of Books will disappear. SDPB-TV will broadcast the conversation no more than three times. No online archive. No transcript. No eternal YouTube. The conversation slips away like water through the fingertips of cupped hands.
Alice is adamant about this fading into memory. She tells me about an installation artist whose work is crafted to disappear. (Think of sculptural leaves that eventually blow away.) The art is ephemeral.
Conversation is ephemeral too.
Perhaps we are not used to an interview not being preserved. We live in a time when life is hyper-documented. Most of us can, quite easily, record and share the intricacies of our daily lives along with the intricacies of other people’s daily lives.
Every thought, opinion, and outrage is posted within seconds of bubbling up in one’s mind. Here are a million first impressions, ripe for your immediate reaction.
Alice Sebold floats beyond that. There’s something about being in the room for the conversation, she understands. There’s something about how an audience holds its collective breath waiting for her thoughts about everything from trauma (it surprises her still) to heaven (she had never given it much thought before writing “The Lovely Bones”) to rules for revision (read out loud, let your work simmer, find writing partners).
I didn’t take notes during the conversation. I remember feeling a deep responsibility to get the interview “right.” I remember her warmth and her wit. But mostly I remember what it felt like to sit next to one of America’s great novelists and listen to her talk so fluidly about things most of us try to not talk about at all.
Rape happens, she reminds us. Rape happens every day.
Now. What do we intend to do about it?
Here is a place to begin: Create safe spaces and safe friendships where truth can be spoken, where stories can be heard. Not online spaces. There’s no documentation here, no quick and easy answers, no outrage that could possibly soothe the places that need stitches.
Begin by simply being in the room for the conversation.
Alice Sebold has shown us how.
The first broadcast of the Alice Sebold interview airs on
SDPB-TV Sunday, November 18, 1 p.m. CT / Noon MT.