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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

What Does Alice Sebold Owe Anthony Broadwater?

There is a long, rich history in America of white women falsely accusing Black men of rape—a history that exists far beyond the bounds of the legal sphere.

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Image: Leonardo Cendamo for Getty / L: NBC News

When Alice Sebold, acclaimed author of the novel The Lovely Bones and bestselling memoir Lucky, published a statement addressing the recent exoneration of 61-year-old Anthony Broadwater, the Black man whom she’d wrongly accused of rape in 1981, I knew that it would be an imperfect apology. Sebold took eight days to finally make a statement—eight days to meditate on the shock and confusion that the news had undoubtedly brought up for her.

Then the 58-year-old author wrote, “I am truly sorry to Anthony Broadwater and I deeply regret what you have been through.” She went on to lament the fact that “my own misfortune resulted in Mr. Broadwater’s unfair conviction for which he has served not only 16 years behind bars but in ways that further serve to wound and stigmatize, nearly a full life sentence.”

While people were clamoring for Sebold to say something—anything—in the days after Broadwater was exonerated, eight days of contemplation on an innocent man’s 16 years of false imprisonment yielded a statement that in so many ways highlighted the fallacies and fallibility of what we perceive as justice in America. There was a glaring lack of nuance.

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The statement gestured toward sincere apology but fell short, because it was missing the important elements of truth and accountability. Sebold managed to distance herself from the man who went to prison for a crime against her which he did not commit. She claimed that systemic (i.e racist) issues in the American judicial system were not “a debate, or a conversation, or even a whisper when I reported my rape in 1981.” She spoke of “the system that sent an innocent man to jail,” but never once acknowledged the fact that the system she speaks of is an inherently racist one. Indeed, she never even used the words “race” or “racism” in connection to what happened to Broadwater. That omission, I think, is a way of excusing herself from the inconvenient reality that she, herself a victim, also collaborated — however unwittingly — with that very same racist system to put Broadwater behind bars.

Broadwater was exonerated on November 22, after a producer developing a movie adaptation of Lucky found glaring inconsistencies in the case. The then-18-year-old Sebold had initially identified the wrong man in a police lineup, and prosecutors later “deliberately coached her into rehabilitating her misidentification,” according to defense lawyers. After she was randomly approached by Broadwater, months after her assault, Sebold went to police and accused him of rape, citing a feeling that he was her attacker. Based on this—and hair sample evidence later disproven as junk science—Broadwater was convicted and thrown in prison.

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Sebold’s statement, like her bestselling book and everything else connected to this case, emphasizes the inconsistencies in our cultural conception of justice. What is justice, after all, in an inherently unjust, deeply racist and sexist society? Who gets justice, and what does justice look like for people who experience harm at the hands of others and particularly at the hands of the state? In America, justice is constantly shapeshifting, and one person’s idea of what is just can just as easily be another person’s idea of gross inequality and corruption. It’s the nebulous nature of the concept that makes it so easy to corrupt.

In The Right To Sex, feminist thinker Amia Srinivasan writes, “For many women of color, the mainstream feminist injunction ‘Believe women’ and its online correlate #IBelieveHer raise more questions than they settle. Whom are we to believe, the white woman who says she was raped, or the Black or brown woman who insists her son is being set up?”

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Believability is a kind of currency, particularly in this country, where who gets to be believed is often a matter of life or death, freedom or imprisonment. Especially in the case of sexual assault, where so often the onus is on the victim to prove that they are worthy of being believed, despite the fact that statistics show that false rape accusations are rare. And yet, as incendiary as the revelation of Broadwater’s wrongful conviction has been, his imprisonment isn’t particularly novel.

There is a long, rich history in America of white women falsely accusing Black men of rape—a history that exists far beyond the bounds of the legal sphere, and which includes white mobs and Black boys and men lynched for merely looking at white women. False rape accusations are rare, yes, but one must reconcile that with the fact that 52 percent of people falsely accused of rape are Black men, and Black men convicted of sexual assault are 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than white men.

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When Sebold pointed to Broadwater as her rapist (with the ostensible coaching of police and prosecutors), she was participating in a carceral feminism reliant on inflicting harm on Black people as a means to an end. She was perpetuating a narrative. The fact that Sebold could be both a victim and perpetrator of harm at the same time is a messy truth.

Now, holding all these truths at once, here is what I feel about Alice Sebold as a person: nothing. I don’t believe Alice Sebold is “evil,” a “cunt,” “deserves to rot in prison,” or any of the other vitriolic takes that have been shared online in the days since Broadwater’s exoneration. We forget that there is a subtlety and banality to racism that allows it to endure. It is too easy to cast the then 18-year-old traumatized rape victim as some kind of mustache-twirling villain.

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This isn’t to say, of course, that Sebold’s actions were not egregiously anti-Black, and that as a young white woman in a racist society, she colluded with a criminal justice system that is more concerned with punishing Black men — any Black man — than it is with due dilligence and intentionality in handling such a delicate and complex crime. In her memoir, Lucky, it’s clear that Sebold’s own biases and prejudices collided with the reality of her assault: She writes about being afraid of “certain” Black men after her rape.

Much of the vitriol sent her way has nothing to do with Broadwater, but with an overall anger at a system that allows such things to happen over and over and over again, failing rape victims and the falsely accused alike, because it is more interested in upholding a racist status quo than it is in justice as a true ideal.

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There are no winners in this system. Alice Sebold lost the peace she ostensibly wanted from knowing that her rapist was behind bars, no longer a spectre haunting her everyday life, no longer in a position to harm anyone else who had harmed her. Broadwater lost his personal freedom, his reputation, his life and his light. I don’t believe, ultimately, that the justice system ever had the capability of giving either of them the justice they deserve. Alice Sebold put her faith in a carceral feminism designed to weaponize her white femininity against Black people.

The criminal justice system is the faulty apparatus by which we seek to address harm, but this is a situation in which rectifying the harm means rethinking the usefulness of that apparatus. Perhaps another way of defining justice is consequence: Someone has been wronged, and the person who has wronged them must be held accountable in some way. So what does Alice Sebold owe Anthony Broadwater?

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I believe, beyond reparations in the form of all future profits from Lucky and a personal apology (Broadwater has expressed a desire for this in particular), Sebold owes Broadwater the retelling of his story. Scribner, Sebold’s publisher, recently announced plans to halt distribution of the memoir while they “consider how the work might be revised.” Broadwater should be included in this process, and with his inclusion should be the nuance that Sebold failed to explicitly acknowledge in her statement.

Now that the Lucky movie adaptation has been scrapped, documentary director Tim Mucciante has revealed plans to develop a documentary called “Unlucky,” chronicling Broadwater’s journey from wrongful conviction to exoneration. The state took Broadwater’s freedom; Sebold took his story. Broadwater will never get the years he spent in prison, nor the years he spent out of prison but still confined by the realities of being a convicted sex offender, back. At the very least, he should get to reclaim his story.