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Memoir Frees Writer From Dark Days of Her Past

September 15, 1999|DENNIS McLELLAN | 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.

"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.

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

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.

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