Lucky by Alice Sebold
Analysis of Rape Trauma Syndrome
Rape is daunting, scary and has a tendency to change you as a person and take away your identity and self-esteem from the victim. Where the victims try to overcome the trauma that they had experienced in the past, objects and events related to that encounter along with the behavioral change in society’s behavior make that moment live again and again. Where many college students undergo this traumatic event which nearly demolishes their self-esteem and social independence, a limited number of victims actually report this event to local authorities and pursue for seeking justice. Apparently, Alice Sebold is one of those limited girls who have faced this brutality and violence and yet managed to not only stay afloat but let the world become aware of the agony that they went through.
Lucky by Alice Sebold is a narrative of Alice’s personal experience about the first sexual encounter that she had with an unknown man who forced his will onto her and took away not only her virginity but also ability to trust others and live in a world full of hope. Careful chapter by chapter analysis reveals how Alice lives through the moment of humiliation time and again but managed to overcome this feeling with the help of individuals from her social circle despite rejection expressed from her father; and how she managed to strike back and sought justice for the crime that changed her life.
Sebold’s work sheds a great deal of light on how the trauma is aggravated by the non-supportive nature of legal system and also lack of support from social units. In Alice’s case, she was interrogated by the Police rather skeptically. Where skepticism is a must attribute expected to be part of investigative behavior, victims need sympathy and time to catch up their breath and relax. Although the book is not a critique of legal system but it does elaborates the needs of rape victims with reference to sympathy and respect (Raitt & Zeedyk, 1997)
Apparently for Alice, the trauma begins from the moment when she encountered the rapist. Despite her utmost struggle, she could not force the African-American man to let go of her feeble body. The physical resistance ended up in failure and then was followed by verbal negotiation. During this incident, Alice was not fearful about the loss of her virginity nor about her self-esteem; all she could think of the ways to survive and live through this moment. The reason that she gave in her physical resistance was the threat of getting slaughtered by the knife that the rapist possessed. She was awestruck by the horror of death itself, that the phase of penetration was not felt by her despite being a virgin. All she could feel and think was the strategy to stay alive and get along with her life.
Alice underwent the acute phase of trauma right after she encountered this man. Her fear of death made her comply with the demands of the rapist and even help him force himself onto her. She later on recalls that the only reason of her still being alive was smart thinking at the spur of moment. She did consider herself smart enough for not being dead since she played strategically as she writes “I became one with this man. He held my life in his hand. Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I would rather be raped a thousand times. You do what you have to do (2009, p.9).”But the pleasure of having chance to live doesn’t reduce the fear of death in her life after this incident.
The acute phase of rape trauma begins right after event itself and may last for few days. During this phase, the survivor experiences a complete disruption of their life, responding to the fear of death they experienced. Survivors may display any of a number of contrasting emotional responses (Burgess & Holmstrom, 1974, p.982-3). A survivor may cry, shout, swear, laugh nervously, be silent, discuss the weather, or sit calmly. Alice showed a rather controlled behavior when she met her friend and was being physically examined. Although some of the victims tend to be expressive in their display of emotions which may include crying out loud, shouting etc. In her pursuit of revival of being normal, she managed to crack and old joke which made her friend cry. Even after meeting a trustable person, she managed not to show by crying out loud or extreme. Furthermore, she fully cooperated with the medical examiners as well. Even in the extreme moments, she was thinking not about her but how her mother would feel if she knew about it (2009, p. 33).
After the event, she didn’t felt like eating or sleeping which is a common reaction in rape victims however she passed through that stage rather quickly (2009, p.53). Although the acute phase did not have severe physical outcomes, it did change the way she perceived the world. After the incident, she viewed that tabooed violence everywhere. Instead of feeling part of her family and the people she has spent years with, she felt more connected to the victims of the rape. She expressed her feeling by saying, “not with the girls and boys I grew up with, or the students I went to Syracuse with, or even the friends and people I’ve known since. I share my life with my rapist. He is the husband to my fate (2009, p. 103).”
During her medical examination, even the pain killer couldn’t reduce the impact of pain and humiliation that she was feeling. As Sebold writes, “Every inch of my skin prickled and burned. I wanted him off of me. I wanted to shower and rub my skin raw (2009, p.37).” The acute phase is full of confusion for the sufferer. The reactions are mixed and uncertain; also, they vary from victim to victim. In her writing, Alice has portrayed herself to be somebody in full control of herself. Her idea of not taking sympathy from anyone and not letting anyone view as a rape victim but only as ‘Alice’ was portrayed by her gesture of throwing away the prescription. Alice was controlled. Nothing but controlled.
The motivation of not being a weakling like other rape victims was drawn from her obsession of not letting her mother aware of this incident. This controlled response was obviously accompanied by physical issues as well. She viewed herself as a child mummy when she saw her reflection before her first bath (2009, p. 40). She felt so feeble that she requested her friend to help her get cleaned. The bruises around her neck made her feel the grip of rapist’s hands around her neck. It is important to note that Alice’s experience of acute phase was rather limited. She apparently seemed to be problem solver; someone who tries to do things in a conclusive way which would save her fro maximum physical harm. Due to this attitude, she willingly got along with the rapist. and, after the event, she refrained from crying.
However, her pursuit of not making her mother feel miserable about her was followed by contacting Police. She had to convince them that she was a virgin which was an embarrassing experience itself. Police’s skepticism reminded her of the rapist who also found it hard to believe that she was a virgin (2009, p.60). All of a sudden, she relived that awful moment. But after that brief acute phase, she moved onto reorganization phase in which she tried to collect herself and be part of mainstream college student. Of course, the attitude of those around her changed a great deal. Her friends were concerned and tried to take care of her. Even her friend’s boyfriend who was Black tried to undo the harm by hugging her (2009, p.48).
All this extra care made Alice goes into a state of denial which is a common psychological reaction from a rape victim suffering from rape trauma syndrome. Where some of the victims grow phobia of factors related to the event; others tend to convince themselves that the event never happened or it has no impact on themselves which is was what precisely happened to Alice She wanted to believe and prove that she was still ‘Alice’. She denied having rape a significant event in her life but seeing black men made her insecure and she had flashbacks whenever she saw one (2009, p.203). Despite the fact that she herself segregated the world into ‘safe and unsafe zone’, she wanted others to view her as the same old person. She expressed her feeling by saying, “My life was over; my life had just begun (2009, p.64).
Alice did mock about the word ‘Lucky’ by naming this book Lucky. Although Police considered as lucky because she managed to live however, careful analysis would lead to a conclusion that Alice was lucky because she had sufficient emotional support from her friends, family and legal authorities. During her reorganization phase, her personality and the emotional support from other social units played a vital role. As a person, she was a survivor. She appeared to posses a character which made her endure the pain yet live through the moment. It was her resilience that made her go to public authorities even after she lost her case the first time. Alice always wanted to be somebody whose presence could be felt. This is the reason why she wanted to be Ethel Merman (2009, p.87). She was an actress and a singer whom according to her mother, had no talent but she managed draw the attention of audience solely on herself. Her personality made an exceptional role in letting her cope up with the trauma and also with getting her culprit punished in the later phase.
Another important factor which played a key role in her retaliation was her strong support system. Victims of rape trauma syndrome show a considerable degree of reliance on social support system and so did Alice. She had friends who had signed up for the whole ride, according to her; and also her family who was concerned but not very supportive of her. There were instances when she would not accept their sympathetic gestures and would consider it as their attempt of maintaining distance from her. Example of such action would be her resistance to her sister and mother being concerned about a program on television when something related to rape appeared (2009, p.117). It is important to note that her primary source of strength should have been her family but unfortunately this was not the case. Her family tip-toed around her and perceived her of somebody else.
Her father was exceptionally criticizing by saying that how could she got raped when he came to know that the rapist lost his weapon during the struggle of holding her (2009, p.113). It was mainly the strength that she had developed as a person during her childhood which made her stand up for herself. Although she made clear to her father later by discussing with him what exactly happened. Her father was an educated person who would prefer to stay engrossed in books and literature but yet he failed to understand how absence of a weapon would make the woman confirm to what the rapist is asking. She made her point by saying, “I couldn’t want something like that. it’s impossible (2009, p.116).” This skeptic attitude from her family sometimes provoked her to break ties with her family as she wrote, “Learn a language of another country and then you can go to that country: a place where the problems of your family will not follow. A language they do not speak (2009, p.325).”
A feeling of being an alien further made the situation worse for her as she realized that people perceive her to be somebody different and they tried to maintain distance with her. She was not treated like somebody with end-of — life illness but somebody who was just not one of them. As Sebold wrote, “I was no longer like her but was other than (2009, p.40).’ The experience of the rape also generated a feeling of self-loathing: Sebold believed she was ugly and untouchable and kept involuntarily recalling the rapist’s words that she was “the worst bitch” he had ever had (2009, p.13).
Sebold also mentioned the stereotypes about women who have experienced rape. According to her she had to make the audience believe time and again that a woman can be raped without a weapon. Possibility of submission because of fear and physical violence was not considered as equivalent to having a weapon. She also had to suppress the notion that getting raped is equivalent to having a sexual pleasure (2009, p.131). Audience that she encountered after this event also made assumptions about her based on idea. Example of such behavior was an explicit statement by her therapist, “I guess this will make you less inhibited about sex now (2009, p.152).”
Another family friend who had faced physical violence also commented by saying that their experiences were different as no one was interested in her in ‘that’ way (2009, p.131). Another stereotypic view was that a woman is suppose to remain feeble and shattered after such events and she is expected to remain under the shadow of such events. Continuing with her life, Alice chose not to be a weakling. In the pursuit of changing this stereotype, she got her rapist arrested when she recognized him. One of the old ladies tried to comfort her by saying “it wasn’t such a bad thing growing up to be an old maid” assuming that she would not be able to get decent studies and a normal family life (2009, p. 130). Even her boyfriend who was concerned about her believed unintentionally that she is some prostitute whom he is trying to save (2009, p.156). However, she wanted people to perceive rape as something more than sex without will. She expressed her feeling by saying, “Since then I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything (2009, p. 247).”
For rape victims, existing life problems also play a major role. Victims who are already experiencing traumatic events such as breakup, abortion, financial crisis or parental divorce, face difficulty in reorganizing themselves. Alice Sebold was not exactly from a very happy family. In fact, in her words, neighbors found them weird. Her family comprised of a mother who often had panic attacks but was an accomplished journalist, a father who has always maintained distance from his daughters and has remained engrossed in his books (2009, p.107). Alice did have a good elder sister but she was forced to live under the shadow of hers. The fact that Alice often felt unseen made her desire of being eminent rather strong. She already had borne a poor self-image which was enhanced by the comments of the rapist when he said that she is the worst that he has ever done. Dirty and ugly are the precise words representing what she felt in the initial phase of her recovery.
Flashbacks are an important part of rape trauma syndrome. These flashbacks can be triggered by any factor that could be related to the event itself. During the prosecution, she had to live through those moments time and again. She was made to remember the slightest of the details which made the event live and relive (Boeschen, Sales & Koss, 1998). Even when the policeman mentioned that a girl had already been raped and killed in the tunnel, she recalled a hair band that she saw during the event. She imagined the girl being forcefully held while she is resisting and imagined rapist grabbing her hair and pulling them in order to control her. The imagination made her view herself in that girl’s place and the fear of death reignited in her (2009, p. 4).
During her reorganization phase, most of her strength was invested initially in forgetting the event and then getting her rapist arrested and punished. But by the time prosecution actually began, Alice had already collected herself. She expressed her reorganization by saying
“I was a virgin. He was a stranger. It happened outside. It was night. I wore loose clothes and could not be proven to have acted provocatively. There were no drugs or alcohol in my system. I had no former involvement with the police of any kind, not even a traffic ticket. He was black and I was white. There was an obvious physical struggle. I had been injured internally-stitches had to be taken. I was young and a student at a private university that brought revenue to the city. He had a record and had done time (2009, p.339).
Once the prosecution took place, apparently Alice’s energy lost focused. She attempted to act like normal college students but the fact was simple; she was different. Even her friends exhibited by her attitude that Alice was a disease that she caught (2009, p. 461). Alice’s preference also changed with reference to this event. Once she was done with the prosecution, apparently her reorganization took a downturn. Her only concern was her safety as she said “No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved. (Sebold, 2009, p.119; p.496).”
Quitting the job that required her to work later, quitting poetry sittings, assuming that she is always being watched, having nightmares and heavy alcoholism, attempt of being oblivion by using drugs, overeating resulting weight gain, not responding to the boyfriend as he requires are some of the examples (2009, p.471). it’s not that she became a socially isolated depressed person. She worked as a teacher and found it easy to relate to her students but the after-shocks remained there and kept on reminding her about it. As Sebold (2009) said, ‘”Who would have thought something that happened that long ago could have such power? (2009, p. 481).”
The sexual encounters were also a constant reminder of what happened to her. In the later years, she almost imposed celibacy on herself by not having sexual interaction with her male partners for almost a year (2009, p.496). After rape, the victim tends to develop a special reaction to sex which might turn into obsession or complete reluctance. It will probably take some time for the survivor to disassociate the sexual assault from consensual sex. The survivor may be concerned about their partner’s reaction to them. After the last sexual encounter that Alice and her friend had, they admitted that it was almost like the first time. She even began talking about her rape publically, and published a first-person account in the New York Times Magazine. However, reading a book made her realize that she was actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulted from rape trauma syndrome in earlier part of her life (2009, p.492).
Rape is brutal. It not only has a tendency of causing permanent damage to one’s body but it leaves the victim with lack of self-esteem, memories of violence and a constant struggle to live with. Rape trauma syndrome is one of the common outcomes of rape where the victim makes attempt to accept the event in the first place and reacts to it by being expressive or controlled. In the later phase, the victim steps into the phase of reorganization. In this phase, personality, social support, existing quality of life, prior sexual experiences played important role. ‘Lucky’ by Alice Sebold is a narration which expressed Sebold’s struggle over the years to repair the damage done to her self-esteem and her personality during adolescence. She explicitly explained that recovery can be hard but can take place if one remained intended to get herself healed. Expecting life to get back to normal is not practical but it can get better if the victim wishes to help himself.
Boeschen, L.E., Sales, B.D.,&Koss, M.P. (1998). Rape trauma experts in the courtroom. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4, pp. 414-432.
Burgess, a.W. & Holmstrom, L.L. (1974), Rape trauma syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry, 131, pp.981-986.
Sebold, a. (2009), Lucky, Pan Macmillion Inc.
Raitt, F.E. & Zeedyk, S.Z. (1997), Rape trauma syndrome: Its corroborative and educational roles. Journal of Law and Society, 24(4), pp.552-568.