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Memoir Frees Writer From Dark Days of Her Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting beneath a table umbrella in the backyard of her 1920s bungalow on this patently sunny Southern California day, Alice Sebold is nearly two decades and a continent away from the dark tunnel where her innocence was stolen.

The tunnel--an underground entry to an amphitheater in a park bordering Syracuse University--is where Sebold was raped and beaten as an 18-year-old freshman on the last day of school in 1981.

While walking back to her dorm from a friend’s home late at night, she was grabbed from behind. Covering her mouth and pinning her arms to her sides, the rapist told her, “I’ll kill you if you scream.”

At one point after being dragged into the tunnel--as she lay numbly on the dirty, littered ground now stained with her own blood, and the rapist had “claimed ownership” of each part of her body--Sebold promised herself this: She would one day write about this experience.

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“When I was 18, 19 years old, I was one of those kind of really arty kids and obsessed with poetry and fiction,” Sebold, now 36, recalls. “The poets in vogue for young girls at the time were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I felt like . . . this was something horrible that needed to be written. I mean, it’s not even like you calculate it; it’s just like, ‘This is horrible; it has to be told.’ ”

“Lucky” (Scribner, $22), a literary memoir that is earning critical praise for Sebold’s “unflinching” honesty and “brash, vibrant style,” fulfills her promise. The title comes from a story the police told her after the rape. Another girl had been murdered and dismembered in the same tunnel. “In comparison, they said, I was lucky,” Sebold writes.

The book, which Sebold wrote on the side while earning her 1998 master of fine arts degree in fiction at UC Irvine, offers a vivid account of her rape and its effect on her and her family--a family deemed “weird” by their neighbors in a suburban Pennsylvania landscape of lawn-mowing dads and station wagon-driving moms.

Sebold describes her mother as plagued by severe panic attacks; her father as a remote, work-obsessed Spanish professor who labors behind closed doors and finds it hard to comprehend that his daughter could have been raped “without some complicity” on her part.

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But the rape is only the beginning of Sebold’s story.

Returning to Syracuse her sophomore year after spending the summer at home, Sebold encountered her rapist on the street and notified police. The 22-year-old man was arrested and later convicted. On the morning of the day she would give her testimony in court and face the man who raped her, Sebold writes, “I had written a note to myself on my skin. ‘You will die’ was inked into my legs in dark blue ballpoint. And I didn’t mean me.”

Sebold’s post-rape life has not been without its rough spots: She fell in to using heroin for three years while living in a low-income housing project in Manhattan and underwent several rounds of therapy. Yet the strong-willed Sebold demonstrates, as she writes, that “no one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

Raves Vogue magazine: “Her commanding skill as a narrator (at her best, describing the awful crime itself, she calls to mind a fierce young Joan Didion) forces you to relive her terror. Yet somehow, she makes it all seem educational rather than sensational.”

Says Newsday: “ ‘Lucky’ succeeds not just as a record of one woman’s pain and healing, but as fine creative nonfiction.”

“Lucky” is not Sebold’s first attempt to write about her rape.

“I wrote tons of bad poetry about it and a couple of bad novels about it--lots of bad stuff,” she said with a laugh as Lilly, her year-old shepherd-husky mix frolicked on the lawn.

Early Attempts at Writing Failed

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Sebold believes the novels failed because “I felt the burden of trying to write a story that would encompass all rape victims’ stories and that immediately killed the idea of this individual character in the novel. So [the novels] tended to be kind of fuzzy and bland, and I didn’t want to make any political missteps.

“The thing that’s really freeing about the memoir was then my responsibility was only to tell my story and to tell it as well as I possibly can. So I didn’t have to worry about speaking for everyone else.”

At Syracuse University, she took writing classes from a luminous group of faculty members who included Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher, Hayden Carruth and Tobias Wolff, whom she spoke to shortly after encountering her rapist on the street.

Wolff, who is best known for “This Boy’s Life,” his critically acclaimed memoir of growing up with an emotionally abusive stepfather, advised her: “Try, if you can, to remember everything.”

“He knew,” Sebold writes, “that memory could save, that it had power; that it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed or the brutalized.”

Although Wolff provided the prompt for her to write about her rape, it would be Wolff’s brother, Geoffrey, who provided the impetus 14 years later to turn it into a memoir.

Geoffrey Wolff, author of his own memoir about the brothers’ con-man father, “The Duke of Deception,” was the newly appointed director of the two-year graduate fiction program at UC Irvine when Sebold entered it in 1995.

“Lucky” grew out of an assignment in a memoir-writing class he taught during Sebold’s first year.

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“We were supposed to write 10 pages on something, some kind of memoir, and I sat down and wrote 40,” she recalled. “I showed it to him, and he was extremely encouraging.”

Sebold views those 40 pages, none of which appeared in her final draft of the memoir, as “just a way of getting the facts down on paper. The thing that I did have at the end of those 40 pages, though, was the voice that would drive the entire book, and that was what was essential if I was going to go forward with a longer project.”

Letters Helped Jar Her Memory

Through a series of phone calls and letters, Sebold obtained the transcript of her rapist’s trial. And, during the summer of 1996, she returned to Syracuse, where she met with the former assistant district attorney who had worked on the case and who gave her access to a box of court evidence.

Sebold also obtained letters she had written to a friend after the rape and dug out of her parents’ basement a cache of letters she had written to her mother and journals she had kept during and after the trial.

The combination of material, she said, “really jarred my memory and made me realize I could write this book in the specific detail I wanted to.”

Although her father was initially resistant to the idea of her writing about their family, her mother--"who had the most to be embarrassed by"--has been “extremely supportive.”

Now that the book is out, her father, too, is equally supportive.

“I think that my parents are really proud about how I have come back from this thing that really walloped all of us intensely,” said Sebold, who lives in the rented bungalow with writer Glen David Gold, whom she met in her fiction workshop at UC Irvine.

Sebold is completing the novel she began at UC Irvine, “The Lovely Bones,” a first-person story told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl who was murdered. Laughed Sebold: “I’m an intense, intense woman--what can I say?”

Sebold used a pseudonym for the man who raped her. Sentenced to eight to 25 years, he is out of prison after serving 17 years. That’s cause for some concern--enough that Sebold asks that the Los Angeles County town she lives in not be revealed.

Does she forgive the man who raped her?

“It’s a really common question, and I’d have to say, of course not,” she said. “But I also don’t think that that has to be something you do in order to move on and live your life. I want him to be happy and I want him connected to his family and community because then he won’t hurt somebody else and he won’t come looking for me. But I don’t forgive him for what he did, no.”

Dennis McLellan can be reached by e-mail at dennis.mclellan@latimes.com.


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