It is not uncommon for the pain of physical trauma to transcend into mental trauma as well. This can be seen in Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, in which she describes the aftermath of a brutal rape. Although she was physically hurt by the man that attacked her, she still dealt with the mental turmoil of the event years after her wounds healed. The physical act of rape resulted in a complete shift in her worldview, as exemplified by her changing relationships, her speech, and her definition of virginity.
The physical trauma that Sebold experienced as a result of the rape is undeniable, as she was violently attacked by Gregory Madison. In the first few pages of the memoir, she describes the attack in exact detail, writing how “he reached out and grabbed the end of [her] long brown hair” and she felt it “coming out painfully from [her] skull” (Sebold 5). Whenever she thought she had escaped, he retaliated with even more aggression than before. For example, after he dropped his knife, he “sat on [her] back” and “pounded [her] skull into the brick” (Sebold 6). She even “lost consciousness” for a moment when “he wrapped his hands around [her] neck and began to squeeze” (Sebold 6). It is clear that before the rape even began, her body was already under immense stress. The physical pain was only amplified after he began sexually assaulting her, as she describes how “something tore” inside of her and she “began to bleed there” (Sebold 9). The physical nature of the trauma can be further seen when she is being attended to by medical professionals, and the doctor tells the nurse that “there is so much blood” (Sebold 18). Furthermore, the doctor must take stitches inside of her and tells her she will “be sore down here for a few days, maybe a week” (Sebold 18). Her mental stress in this moment is clear as she is unable to think about the temporary physical pain she will be facing. Upon hearing the doctor’s words, she explains that she “couldn’t think in terms of days or weeks” and “could only focus on the next minute and believe that with each minute it would get better” (Sebold 18-19). Her perception of time is altered and she cannot think about the future since her only priority is survival.
Once Sebold’s physical wounds are attended to by doctors, she begins to consider how she will return her life to normalcy. First and foremost, she is focused on her relationships with her friends and family. Since she has always taken care of her mother, she attempts to protect her as she “told the police not to call” (Sebold 19) her, going against her own best interests. Sebold wishes to “hide the rape from her and from my family” because her “mother had panic attacks in heavy traffic,” and Sebold “was certain [her] rape would destroy” (Sebold 19) her. However, it is inevitable that Sebold’s relationship with her mother is affected by the rape, as she must eventually call her and ask her for help. The shift in their relationship’s dynamic is seen when Sebold asks, “can you come get me, Mommy?” (Sebold 26), reverting back to an almost childlike state. Uncharacteristically, her mother is calm in a moment of crisis and tells her daughter “it would be twenty minutes or so” because “she had to pack up and check out, but she would be there” (Sebold 26). Furthermore, upon her arrival, Sebold notes that, “within seconds, [she] saw that [her] mother, who [she] had expected would collapse, had the kind of fresh energy that was needed to get [her] through the rest of that day” (Sebold 30). Sebold juxtaposes this chapter about returning home with one entirely about her childhood and upbringing, which effectively conveys the contrast between her relationships before and after the rape. Specifically, she discusses her relationship with her mother by referencing a disastrous trip to New York they took together. While Sebold’s mother had a panic attack in the backseat of a taxi, Sebold soothes her, saying “We’ll come another time, Mom… it’s okay” (Sebold 47). After her rape, their roles must be reversed, and Sebold reluctantly abandons her position as the caretaker. Similarly, Alice’s father adjusts his behavior in order to comfort her. Despite his typically distant attitude towards his family, he hugs her when she enters their house, which Sebold describes as being “awkward” and “ill-fitting” (Sebold 50). Sebold writes that she does not “remember him saying anything” (Sebold 50) to her. She explains:
If he did say, ‘Oh, honey, it’s good to have you home,’ or ‘Alice, I love you,’ it would
have been so uncharacteristic that I think I would have remembered it, but perhaps I don’t
remember it for that very reason. I did not want new experience. I wanted what I knew,
the house I had left that fall for the first time in my life, and the father I recognized.
This interaction conveys Sebold’s desire to continue on as if nothing has happened, and her father’s inability to do so. It is likely that her father did speak to her more tenderly than usual, but she refused to accept his personality shift. Her state of denial regarding the changes in her life speaks to the mental trauma that she is facing as a result of her rape.
Another way in which she tries to manage her mental and emotional trauma is through her speech, especially when speaking about the rape with others. Typically, trauma is associated with one’s complete inability to speak following an event. However, Sebold takes the opposite approach and talks candidly about her rape, even when it makes others uncomfortable. For example, in her first interaction with her father following her rape, she makes a crude and inappropriate joke about the event. She justifies it by saying, “To the outsider this might sound awful; to my father… and to my mother… it both shocked them and meant only one thing: The kid they knew was still there” (Sebold 51). This can also be seen in her conversation with Myra, when she abruptly interrupts the woman to say, “I was raped” (Sebold 68). When Myra responds with, “I know,” Sebold continues, “I needed to say the word… It’s not ‘that thing that happened to me,’ or ‘the assault,’ or ‘the beating,’ or ‘that.’ I think it’s important to call it what it is” (Sebold 68). Sebold is direct and unapologetic, which shows her healing process. She also uses her writing as a coping mechanism. This can be seen in the poem she writes for her workshop class, which gave her the opportunity to “address the rapist directly” (Sebold 100) for the first time. In addition, Sebold uses her fiction novel The Lovely Bones, which deals with similar subject matter, and her memoir to further explore her feelings regarding her own rape.
One of Sebold’s biggest mental battles following the rape is based on her status as a virgin. Her initial loss of innocence is seen in her likening undressing to “shedding feathers,” (Sebold 8) as her rapist sees her naked body for the first time. She attempts to defend herself against him by repeating the fact that she is a virgin, but this does not affect him until after he is finished and he says, “it’s not right what I did. You’re a good girl. You weren’t lying to me. I’m sorry for what I did,” (Sebold 13). Although his apology is ingenuine and out of place, it shows the importance of virginity in their society. Sebold’s loss of virginity results in feelings of alienation because her “sister was still a virgin at twenty-two,” and Sebold “spent time wishing she were less pristine… so that [she] wouldn’t be alone” (Sebold 150). Purity and virginity were important topics of discussion in her household, and Sebold comments on how both she and her sister “lived unhappily on either side of the word” (Sebold 150). In an effort to deal with the mental toll of being alienated from her family, Sebold searched definitions of the terms “virgin, virginity, virginal, chaste, chastity” and “manipulated the language and redefined the words” (Sebold 150). This resulted in her ability to claim herself “still a virgin”; in her mind, she “had not lost [her] virginity” because “it was taken” (Sebold 150) from her. Her conclusion is that she “would decide when and what virginity was”‒a theory that is not as “airtight” (Sebold 150) as she had initially believed. Furthermore, she “also created a painful reasoning for why it was better to have been raped as a virgin,” telling people that she “doesn’t have any sexual associations with it like other women do. It was pure violence” (Sebold 151). It is clear that she is attempting to reconcile with the emotional trauma of the loss of identity that came with her loss of virginity, which shows how lasting the effects of her rape are.
Throughout the memoir, Sebold believes she has moved past the trauma many times, like in her various relationships with men or her handling of Lila’s rape. However, to the reader, it is evident that the mental trauma stemming from the rape continues to affect her until adulthood. Even after years, she is still tortured by the aftershocks of surviving a rape. She views the entire world in a different way, dividing everything into two categories: “the safe and the not safe” (Sebold 90). It is only in the chapter she entitles ‘Aftermath’ that she experiences closure, as a man tells her their intercourse “ as almost virginal… like you were having sex for the first time” (Sebold 243). Her realization that she can still live a successful life despite the fact that she will never be able to completely erase her past is clear in the last line of the book as she writes “both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand” (Sebold 243).