book review

“Lucky: A Memoir” by Alice Sebold

Review: Lucky: A Memoir

Sebold, Alice. Lucky: A Memoir 
Scribner, 1999
Hardcover, 251 pages
ISBN 0-684-85782-0 
Simon & Schuster Audio, narrated by Alice Sebold

In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky.

This is how Alice Sebold begins the narrative of her rape, which took place the day before she returned home to Pennsylvania after her freshman year at Syracuse University. It wasn’t until more than 15 years after the rape that Sebold was able to begin the research that allowed her to write about the experience and its aftermath.

Lucky is a powerful narrative of the effect of both the violence of rape and the harmfulness of society’s usual reaction to the rape victim. Often the victim blames herself and then feels stained, sullied, unclean. But the shock of being so violated deepens with the reactions of others, and it is this part of her experience that Sebold tells in chilling, controlled prose. Neither her mother, a suburban homemaker with her own psychological baggage, nor her father, a professor of Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania, will talk to Alice about the rape or let her talk to them. 

When Alice’s older sister, Mary, returns home for the summer from the University of Pennsylvania, she has no idea how to act toward Alice. When Mary locks herself in the upstairs bathroom and won’t come down for dinner, Mrs. Sebold sends Alice up to get her: “Alice, I think it would mean a lot if you went up to talk to her,” (p. 64). Instead of the older sister offering emotional support, Alice, the victim, becomes the comforter.

Although a woman from the rape center in Syracuse tries to help, Alice is unable to connect emotionally with her. And Alice’s brief visit to a psychiatrist turns out no better; it’s worth reading Lucky just to hear what this doctor, a woman, has to say to Alice about her experience. Only years later, after dropping out of graduate school and abusing drugs, does Alice begin to realize that she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One never “gets over” an experience like rape, but through researching and writing this memoir Sebold has apparently come to terms with it. The book is a testament to the power of words and of the human spirit to heal.

© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown

Update: April 2022

In November 2021 Anthony Broadwater, who spent 16 years in prison for the rape of Alice Sebold in 1981, was exonerated. He had been convicted in 1982 and released from prison in 1988. Re-examination of his case raised questions about forensic evidence and prosecutorial misconduct.

After much consideration I have decided to keep my original review of Sebold’s memoir here because it focuses on the way people reacted to and treated Sebold after the rape.

Here are a few news articles related to the exoneration of Mr. Broadwater:

Man Is Exonerated in Rape Case Described in Alice Sebold’s Memoir

He spent years in prison for the rape of author Alice Sebold, the subject of her memoir, ‘Lucky.’ A judge just exonerated him

Alice Sebold apologises to man cleared of her rape

Rape at Center of Alice Sebold’s Memoir is Thrown Out

Alice Sebold case: How race and incompetence doomed Anthony Broadwater to prison

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