The cover of Alice Sebold’s memoir reads, “In the tunnel where I was raped, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was LUCKY.” By juxtaposing the incongruous words “rape” and “lucky,” Sebold invites readers to ask, what does it mean to be “lucky”? Are “lucky” and “unlucky” binary opposites, as they seem to be, or is it possible to be both? Sebold invites readers to question our understanding of binary opposites throughout the book, as apparent opposites prove to be more similar than different. Near the end of the book, Sebold states, “I live in a world where the two truths coexist; where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand” (254). She does not say “heaven and hell” which are the expected binary opposites. Heaven would have been too much to expect. Hope, however, casts a glimmer of light into the future, a way of coping with the unpleasant present.
The fact that Alice finds luck in her horrific rape and hope in the hell of the rape’s aftermath is a testament to her enduring optimism. Throughout the memoir, Alice consistently relies on literacy to give her hope in the hardest moments of her life, thereby turning hell into hope. Language and literacy are the salve she uses to heal from trauma, whether it be storytelling, poetry recitation, or creative writing. The shaping of painful experiences into literary art empowers her to not only heal from the victimization, but also to rise above it. She doesn’t just survive; she thrives.
The first time Alice uses literacy to find hope out of hell is when her father and grandmother take her to a burned down house to salvage treasures from the wreckage. The five-year-old Alice is fascinated by the Raggedy Andy doll and matchbox cars, physical reminders of the child who died in the fire. Although her father deems the toys unworthy, Alice is already making the tragic fire into a story of her own: “Out of the fire grew narrative. I created for this family a new life” (33). This early life experience of turning tragedy into narrative is just one example of Sebold using literacy to escape the harsh reality of her life. Salvaging redeemable treasures out of the wreckage of a fatal house fire is a tangible example of finding hope in a hopeless situation. The fact that Alice turns tragedy into narrative indicates her natural affinity toward storytelling. This predilection toward literacy will prove to be her saving grace at the fateful juncture in her life.
Literacy becomes Alice’s mental escape while she is being physically overpowered by her rapist. She endures the unendurable by reciting poetry in her head. “I went into my brain. Waiting there were poems for me” (6). She mentally detaches from her own body and finds hope by reciting poems committed to memory. At this pivotal moment, literacy helps her escape from the most hellish situation imaginable and gives her a reason to hope. The rhythm of language, the consistency of verse, the shaping of meaning into sound become an out-of-body experience for Alice. Poetry, like an old friend, presents itself when she needs it the most, giving her an escape, but also hope.
After the rape, Alice feels like her life has been cleaved in two: “My life was over; my life had just begun” (30). Sebold uses the binary opposites of “my life was over” and “my life had just begun” to reveal her optimism for the future. Yes, the life she had before the rape—as a virginal co-ed—is over. The contrast between the photos she poses for with Ken Childs and the photos taken by the police indicate this clearly. She goes from “smiling, smiling, smiling” for Ken Childs to “shocked” for the police photos (20). “The word shock, in this context, is meant to mean I was no longer there” (20). The “I,” or the self as she knows it, is gone and will have to be re-invented.
The summer after the trial, she begins her makeover. “The possibilities of the before-and-after that I had been presented with all my life took hold” (210). Her enduring optimism arises as she begins to reinvent herself so as not to be “defined by the rape” (210). Here again, two binary opposites—the before and the after, the end and the beginning—are presented for scrutiny by the reader. The end of the Alice she was before the rape opens up a window to set free the Alice she will become. The end is the beginning, and the beginning comes about because of the ending. They are mutually dependent; one could not exist without the other. Out of the ashes of this tragedy, like the mythical phoenix, Alice’s old self dies so the new one can arise.
Alice’ s new self emerges when she writes a poem directed to her rapist, at the encouragement of her poetry teacher and mentor, Tess Gallagher. By writing a poem to the rapist, she not only escapes her rapist, but she also empowers herself to confront her rapist. This shifts her perspective from victim to advocate. This is an important distinction. To be a victim, or even a survivor, is to be reactive to trauma, to be defined by something that is out of one’s control. To be an advocate is to be proactive in seeking out solutions, shaping one’s own future, and taking control.
Writing a poem directed to her rapist releases pent-up emotion, allowing Alice to express hatred and anger toward her rapist. Gallagher recognizes the importance of the poem. By inviting Alice to write about the rape and to workshop the poem, Gallagher gives Alice permission to write about important content and to share it with an audience (103). When Alice workshops the piece, it evokes a visceral reaction from her fellow students, one of whom implies that Alice could not be both beautiful and filled with hate, as if the two were polar opposites (103). They are not, but that is the myth that he believes. The power of Sebold’s language evokes an intense reaction in classmate Maria Flores as her own memory of incestual rape surfaces (152). The pivotal moment in Alice’s healing journey is when she realizes the power of her writing voice. She uses literacy to save herself, to teach those like Al Tripodi who believe myths surrounding rape, and to advocate for other victims like Maria Flores who can not or will not use their own voices.
As if writing the poem “If They Caught You” were an appeal to a higher power, only one week later her appeal is made manifest when Alice sees her rapist and reports him to the police. Before doing so, she checks in with her teacher, Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life. At this hellish moment in Alice’s life, she receives poignant literary advice from one of the great memoirists: “Try, if you can, to remember everything” (108). Wolff practically invites her to tell her story, even if it is many years hence. As he well knows, writing about memory has power, and it can promote healing. Memory is “often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized” (108). Once again, at a pivotal moment in her life, literacy provides Alice an escape from the hell of reality. At this point, it seems that Alice Sebold’s destiny is foretold through the power of language. The rapist will be caught, Sebold will get vindication, and she will write the memoir that will tell her story, using literacy to give power to the powerless.
In the end, Alice Sebold states that “I now feel I was destined to write Lucky” (256). If that is true, then does it follow that she was destined to be raped? Although Sebold would erase that moment of her life if she could (257), she realizes that by having that experience and writing about it, she is able to reach more people and do more good than if it hadn’t happened. Would Sebold have been a best-selling author if not for the first-hand experience of rape? It’s impossible to say for certain. One thing that is certain is this: the Alice Sebold who wrote Lucky could not have written it if she hadn’t been raped. Therein lies hell and hope in the same hand. By all means, Sebold would have erased that moment of her life if she could. Since she cannot, she uses the power of language to shape the story of her rape. By doing so, she empowers herself to be more than someone else’s victim; she becomes the author of her own story and an advocate for others. Literacy is the tool that Sebold uses to turn a hellish event into a vehicle of hope for the future.
Throughout the memoir, Sebold uses literacy to find hope in the hellish events of her life. During the rape itself, she escapes mentally by reciting poetry. Later, she finds her literary voice through poetry in Tess Gallagher’s class. This poem leads to an intimacy between Alice and Tess Gallagher that would lead Gallagher to attend the trial in lieu of Alice’s own mother. The poem also opens Alice up to the possibility of using her literary voice to write about the rape.
Alice Sebold’s optimism allows her to see herself as “lucky” in an unlucky situation. She chooses to see the positive, to go beyond victimhood to advocacy. Alice Sebold is acutely aware of the luck of her circumstances. The “superficials” of her case make her lucky in the courtroom (173). If her rapist had been “a middle-or upper-class white professional from a well-respected family,” she might not have been so lucky (267). She is lucky to be a virgin wearing nondescript clothing, and that her rapist is a man with a criminal history. All of these are lucky circumstances on the unluckiest day of her life. The unlucky circumstance of Sebold not being accepted into Penn State leads her to attend Syracuse University. If she had gone to Penn State, she wouldn’t have been walking home through that park on that fateful day. However, she also would not have had the luck of taking classes from such literary greats as Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff, and to take independent studies from the likes of poetry giant Hayden Carruth and fiction guru Raymond Carver (212). For an aspiring writer, that line-up of mentors is pretty lucky. Alice Sebold creates her own luck by using the unlucky event of her rape and making it Lucky.
Alice Sebold’s life is filled with binary opposites that she has pulled together into a new life for herself. Her life has a distinct before and after, she makes a beginning out of an ending, she finds the luck in the unluckiest circumstances, and she holds hope along with hell in the palm of her hand. Just as she did when she was five years old, the optimist in her turns tragedy into narrative, and Sebold finds a new life for herself as an author of books about rape and as a rape survivors’ advocate. Alice Sebold says that there is a “continual push and pull” between her role as advocate for rape victims and what she would have been doing if she had never been raped (260). In the end, to be “unlucky” is to see oneself as the victim of fate—to use the passive voice. To create luck in spite of unlucky circumstances is to be proactive, to take control, to shape the story, to focus on the future. “I was raped” becomes “I advocate for rape survivors.” To this end, Sebold’s own words resonate: “In the end I think my greatest luck has been in finding the words to tell my story and in the fact that they were heard” (268).
Sebold, Alice. Lucky. Scribner, 1999.