Sebold's 'Lucky': Should pain eclipse healing?


"Lucky," by Alice Sebold. Scribner. 240 pages. $22.

In a world where the simple flip of a calendar page triggers fears of Armageddon, it's nice to know that some things are predictable. One is the reliable swish of the pendulum from one social extreme to another: We've gone from suppressing victims to glorifying them, from demanding their silence and shame to encouraging them to flaunt their tragedies for our entertainment.

Popular spectacles include the TV tabloid and courtroom shows, where people compete for designated victim status, and the stampede to become a blameless casualty of one dubious medical entity or another -- attention-deficit disorder, chronic fatigue, sexual addiction. But whatever the villain, we seem far more interested in the damage that was done than the healing that is possible.

As Alice Sebold writes in "Lucky," her first-person tale of rape and its aftermath, "knowing a victim is like knowing a celebrity." In fact, victims are celebrities, at least while the national traffic slows down to gawk.

What distinguishes Sebold (and caught Oprah's attention) is that she successfully convicted her attacker. This makes her story worthwhile, but making a book of it requires more cohesion and depth than are evident here.

Things seem tossed in just to pad out the pages, like the repeated references to her mother's panic attacks. Is this supposed to add the pathos of family dysfunction to the horror of rape? In fact, Sebold seems rather indulged, if anything. And while the blurb promises "outstanding literary quality," she delivers sentences like "I wished to slam-dunk the fact that no one needed to worry about this tough customer."

Other fillers include feeble, pouty attempts to harvest political hay: "It was wrong that I couldn't walk through a park at night." (Well, sure, but it's still dumb to try it.) Sebold says she came to regret that her attacker was black, but never explains why. After a Vietnam vet objects to her laughing "hysterically" through a war film, she reacts with knee-jerk feminism: "It sucks being a woman," I said, stating the obvious. "You always get smashed." Obvious to whom?

But most dismaying is Sebold's embrace of her victimhood. She calls rape her "major," complains that she was "born to be haunted by rape," and uses it to intensify her self-loathing: "there was probably no better way to confirm [my ugliness] for me than to be raped." Yet -- "I share my life with my rapist," she says, writing him a poem for class discussion: "...Come die and lie, beside me."

Obsession and anger are normal victim reactions. Unfortunately, Sebold devotes 242 pages to their cultivation, relegating her recovery to a 10-page afterword. Suddenly we learn that she got addicted to heroin, kicked it, changed jobs and coasts and boyfriends, and embraced post-traumatic stress disorder, as if the labeling were curative all by itself (the rape gets 23 pages of graphic, humiliating detail, yet Sebold shares nothing of her therapy).

"Hell was over," she announces, like a bus driver who trumpets the destination without ever having moved the bus. While "Lucky" may inspire other victims to retaliate in court, it also conveys the destructive message that their healing is less important (and exploitable) than their pain.

Judith Schlesinger, a professor at Pace University, is a psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology. Her biography on Humphrey Bogart was published this fall, and she is working on a new book about creativity, madness and musicians.

Pub Date: 08/01/99

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