The Case of Alice Sebold

I’ve been dwelling on the case of Alice Sebold (author of the beautiful novel The Lovely Bones) and the trial of her accused rapist. I wrote about her memoir Lucky here: [P]lucky to Survive The book was structured in essentially two parts. Part one is about Sebold’s rape as a college sophomore and her resulting trauma. Part two is about the rape trial. When I wrote my earlier post I latched onto the opening rape scene because I was reading memoirs with the eye of a writer who wanted to write a memoir. I ignored the rest of the book. A reason, though, was that I felt confused by the book and also found the trial section icky, but I failed to analyze it enough.

Now, it turns out, the man she had identified as her rapist is innocent. Talk about gobsmacked. Anthony Broadwater, the man who went to prison and has now been exonerated, seems to have suffered because he was a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can read about Sebold’s apology here: Alice Sebold Apologizes

I have some thoughts about this matter. My heart goes out to Anthony Broadwater for the ruination of his life and his reputation. I can’t even imagine what his life has been like or how it felt every day knowing he didn’t deserve what was happening. In articles, he sounds like a very balanced, kind man. Can you even imagine what he went through all this time? It seems just BEYOND.

Another aspect is that a lot of writers and others have been quick to condemn Sebold.  But remember she went through a horrific and terrorizing experience where she thought she would die and was never given proper support afterward. She was young and the rape must have damaged her emotionally. Then she had only the police and prosecutor to rely on. They were hell-bent on getting a conviction and manipulated the situation. She must have been like putty for their purposes.

To me, this is one of those horrific tragedies that happen in life where so many issues converge. There are innocents, like Broadwater, and bad actors, like the prosecution. Then there is Sebold, a victim of a horrible tragedy herself. Is she guilty of a travesty against Broadwater? Or is she being victimized all over again by people who were quick to denounce her?

When Sebold saw Broadwater on the street and thought he was the rapist, she was operating under a problem that everyone in the world operates under. Cross-racial identification is known to be very problematic. At least, we know that today. That wasn’t the case in 1982. I’m not sure how to solve this, but it needs solving so that we can trust identification of criminals. I do understand the phenomenon, though. We see the details that identify individuals more clearly in people we are most used to seeing. So if we come from a white family, we are best at identifying white individuals, etc.  I think we can all get better at this, but it takes being around people of all races! So is Sebold responsible for pointing out the wrong man or a victim of a natural phenomenon? Both?

Ugh, I hate situations like this. It’s so much easier when there are clear bad guys and good guys. Please help me organize my thoughts on this matter. What do you think?

What is clear to me is that a grave injustice was done to Anthony Broadwater. And all of us who read Sebold’s memoir were made complicit in it.


I made my first mini junk journal last week. The video is a minute and a half and shows all the pages inside the journal, if you’re interested. The project was to put my “stamp” of authenticity on it. I feel like I did that.



I will leave you with Perry to start your week. By the way, you know what my mother said the other day? That Perry looks like a rat!!! What kind of Grandma says that?! Sigh. More like a ferret or possum? In the following 6 second video, Perry learns that in the “Mouse for Cats” video game when he catches a mouse it squeaks.

NOW you will have a good week!


Filed under #amreading, #writerlife, #writerslife, #writingcommunity, Book Review, Memoir, Writing

85 responses to “The Case of Alice Sebold

  1. Your review is sound; the mini junk journal fun

  2. Thank you for this. I somehow missed all this about Sebold and Broadwater. I remember reading The Lovely Bones and trying not to sob during my daughter’s piano lesson. I read her memoir while I was working on my first Encyclopedia of Rape, but I honestly don’t remember the trial! I think I was so focused on her and her trauma. It’s horrible that such an injustice was done–but yes, understandable that Sebold was also manipulated. I’ll read her apology. At least she did apologize.

    Perry does NOT look like a rat!

    • Thank you for saying that about Perry. I know his face is a little different from most cats. Most likely, that’s the influence of his Sphynx genes. I think it makes him very unique. My mother does have a history of letting unfiltered comments burst out of her mouth.
      This whole fiasco over Sebold’s case is just awful. There is no “clean up” that can be done at this point. I read that they plan to re-release the book in light of all this, but in my opinion, they need to gut at least half the book, put the old rape info in a NEW book and write about the travesty of justice that happened. Retire Lucky entirely.

  3. Amy

    I think that the police and Sebold fell into the traps of racism that we think we are now today more sensitive to—that we quickly assume all black men are criminals. That stereoype dates back to slavery when some black men dared to confront their abusers with anger and violence and has carried forward for centuries now. I am sure both the police and Sebold desperately wanted to find the rapist, and Broadwater happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been ANY black man. They just wanted to get someone to blame.

    I think Sebold was a victim not only of rape but of racism and sexism. I am sure the police urged her to identify someone, anyone so they could close the case, and as a young woman who had been traumatized and who also had racist assumptions, one black man was as good as any other.

    How far have we come? Not far enough. How else do we explain George Floyd? Or all the other police brutality cases against black men? There is still a widespread assumption that all black men are potential if not actual criminals, so getting any of them off the street is a good thing. It’s just disgusting.

    • Good grief. Whole comment lost. Here I go again. I agree with you in the generality. In Sebold’s case (assuming her version is true . . . ), it started to look as though she would not get justice. Then one day SHE spotted a man on the street she thought was her rapist and she notified the police. They brought a man in they thought was the same man. When she was called to identify him she did not pick him. but the police decided to go after him anyway. He was convicted on the basis of a pseudo-scientific test that is no longer used. This raises so many questions. Just a couple would be, was the man on the street her rapist or was she mistaken? If she was mistaken, was Broadwater the man she saw or did the police grab someone else? If she was correct, well, you get the idea. So it seems like part of the issue is the one of cross-racial identification. But also of course the police sound as if they just wanted a conviction. Any black man would do, as you say. I don’t think Sebold felt that any black man would do, but she was a kid who had been severely traumatized (this was no date rape, although I’m not dismissing date rapes here, but a rape that seemed as though it would end in her death) and not given any support afterward so I think she allowed the authorities to brainwash her into thinking it must be Broadwater, after all.
      The whole thing and the larger picture it is part of is just awful. And, yes, disgusting.

      • Amy

        Yes, I knew all the details. And I didn’t mean that she consciously thought, “Any black man will do.” But in the end she allowed herself to believe—with some directions from the police—that this black man was the same as the one who raped her because in some way she had been conditioned to see all black men as criminals and as the same. I am NOT blaming her in the sense of she meant to do harm to any and all black men, but she was acting in part on racist tropes.

  4. I hadn’t heard about Sebold either. A real life example of how the memory can trick us when trauma is attached – such a tragedy for Broadwater. May the judicial systems learn from and practice more due diligence going forward.

  5. I read Lucky a long time ago and it stayed with me. To learn Sebold and the authorities put away an innocent man is heartwrenching to say the least, and that the rapist got off scot free is also upsetting.
    Love the mini journal. I think you may have inspired me to create one out of my own small memorabilia. 😊

    • I can’t tell you how excited I am about you creating a mini journal!!! Please let me see it if you do!!!
      That whole situation is so heartwrenching. I feel so bad for Broadwater. I feel bad that Sebold was used as a pawn and that now people are being vicious to her. But even as i say that, I have to say again, how bad I feel for Broadwater! And then I feel bad for all the women that rapist may have raped after SEbold–and there is a possibility killed because he sounded right on the brink of becoming a murderer.

  6. Tragic all around. Is Sebold sorry enough to share the book profits?

    • Hi Claudia. That’s an excellent, to-the-point question. I don’t know what she will or won’t end up doing. I plan to give her some time before I rush to any judgments. The book was first published a long time ago. I’m sure she made a lot of money from it, probably more up front and already spent, but more importantly the book gave her a foothold for further writing success. I will be interested to see how the book is re-framed (as it’s clear that is what the publisher plans) and if there is something set up for Mr. Broadwater. I sure hope he figures into the final plan.

  7. There has been proof that personal identification of a crime is fraught with fallibility. You are in a moment of extreme stress and the mind cannot cope nor clearly identify. Our judicial system is so broken that it would rather convict and innocent person then take the time to collect the correct information. Because it’s political rather than truly judicial, it will never work the way it’s set up. They were both victims and because due diligence wasn’t done in the first place, there are probably more victims of the actual rapist out there. I don’t see a happy ending for anyone here. We just keep doing this same thing over and over and never get it right. You mother must be having perspective issues. Perry does not look like a rat. He looks like one spoiled cat, said with love. I would spoil mine too. 🙂

    • You’ve stated my own thoughts very well, Marlene. Eye-witness identifications are known to be unreliable, and it is incombent upon police and the prosecution to develop a valid case with corroborating evidence.

    • Hehe, Perry is one spoiled cat! He loves being spoiled. He lies on his back in my arm to watch TV with me on the couch. What cat does that on their back?! Not my other ones! (My mother has a mouth-filter problem, always has).
      Yes, that is what I am thinking, too. No happy ending. I feel very teary for Mr. Broadwater. And angry. Are we getting any better in our society? I don’t know. How many more Broadwaters are still in prison today? And then I get angry at people being so mean to Sebold. How can we really know what it was like to be in her shoes?

  8. I’ve been following this story and don’t know how I feel about it. I can see if from many angles. Mistakes made, lives ruined? All I know is that it’s tragic.

    • It’s so hard to know, really. I have evaluated and have written thoughts not only in the post but in comments, but when it comes down to it, I don’t know what in the hearts of any of those people. All that is clear is that Broadwater should not have been charged, much less convicted. And that the cops and DA were too eager to get a conviction.

  9. Perry is way too plump and good-looking to be a rat.

  10. I went looking for more info. This article should ease your conflict to some degree.

    • I actually read that a while back. Not too much ease, I’m afraid. It’s just really hard to know. We also have so much of our information from Sebold herself in the book.

  11. I’ve been following this story too. It’s terrible. Her most gratifying success–convicting her rapist–became a nightmare of a mistake. Plus, she identified an innocent man in exactly the same way that led to my friend’s wrongful arrest (i.e., a late identification from a chance street encounter). What does she do with that? What do we? All I can think is the answer lies in the question, how do we repair what’s been broken? How does she? How do we?

    • Well put, Ellen. And I’m sorry about your friend! This case makes me feel physically sick and teary for Mr. Broadwater. But I also despise those so quite to condemn Sebold so viciously. I remember being 18, and never experienced such an extreme trauma. And I feel guilty for reading the book and not seeing what a complete travesty the whole trial was!!!!

  12. I know from my own experience of a car accident that you can’t trust eye witness accounts. I described the area of the accident in great detail to my husband. We drove by 6 weeks later and I was wrong about distances and land layout. Fortunately no one went to prison for this but it changed my opinion of witnesses for sure. Perry is gorgeous. He doesn’t look like a rat or a ferret but a beautiful happy cat.

    • Thank you so much about Perry. His personality is 100% gorgeous for sure, and he’s a cutie. My mom! See, so you know what it’s like to remember wrongly. Frighteningly I think we all have much less accurate memories than we think!

  13. Okay, Luanne, I have the solution. You wanted some ideas of how to tell who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Why not stick with the way it was done in the old Westerns? You always knew that the good guy had a white hat and the bad guy wore a black one. The exceptions might have been the Ringo Kid (but I think his black hat had some kind of coins [rings] around the hat where the brim attaches) and Lash LaRue, whose hat was also black. So … if we could everyone to wear a hat….

  14. I had not heard of her case, Luanne, so thanks for posting this information. What a tragic story all around. Thanks for the Perry video. He looks very relaxed and contented. 🙂

  15. Loved your journal video. Yeah, the Sebold case was tragic. I don’t have answers. Everyone will have a label for it but in reality all suppered.

  16. I’ve heard of Alice Sebold, of course, but have not read her books or seen the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones. I had no idea of this unfolding case. I can’t imagine the despair that must exist in The States with this racial profiling. It seems so ingrained and prevalent.
    We have it on a lower scale with our Aboriginal people having shorter life expectancy and inadequate living conditions – stemming from past policies such a removal from families and pushing out to mission homes. Something more akin to your Indian reservations.

    My mother rarely spoke, but when she did, she too lacked a filter. After not seeing me for many years, the first thing she said was, ‘You’ve still got that oily skin.” Your poor Perry is the same victim of such thoughtless jabber.

    • Gwen! I’m so sorry she said that to you. That is exactly what my mother does. When we were young and at the lake, boating, my husband caught her attention and she told him he looked like a beached whale. When I was little she always called me the princess and the pea, implying my feelings got hurt too easily. Now I’m not too sure that it wasn’t her hurting them!
      I hear you about the Aboriginal people in Australia. That does sound similar to the treatment of Native Americans in the U.S. and First Nations in Canada.

  17. I never read her memoir and nothing about this case. But I do know that prosecutorial misconduct is rife in our judicial system, and yes, some innocent people (frequently black men) have been imprisoned as a result. I would hope that Broadwater will be getting compensation from somewhere. Frequently a civil suit obtains some from the jurisdiction that convicted the innocent party. I served on a jury once (awful experience) and could see how ready people were to convict someone on rather flimsy evidence.

    • Oh no. That must have been so hard to gut, seeing how people could convict someone that easily. Does the government owe mr. Broadwater compensation? Legally, I know Sebold doesn’t. But will she anyway?

  18. I’d heard of Alice Sebold but knew nothing about the case. Our country’s racial divide is a tragedy with devastating consequences. You’ve given us a lot to think about. Loved both the charming small book and fun video of Perry (who is adorable and not the least bit ratty).

  19. Perry is handsome. Not at all rattish! Maybe Grandma needs her eyes checked? Nice journal, too.

  20. Wonderful post

  21. I read both The Lovely Bones and Lucky. I actually don’t remember what she wrote about the trial in Lucky; I guess it was hard enough to get through reading about her rape. Eye witness accounts are terribly unreliable, but 40 years ago I guess they were good enough. I’ve also read about cross-racial identification and maybe that happened in Sebold’s case, but then maybe (as you note) the police picked up the wrong guy and she was pressured into saying it was him.

    I just read her apology. I don’t know what else she can do but make that heart-felt public apology. Sure, she puts some responsibility on the (in)justice system, but she has to live the rest of her life with the part she played in sending an innocent man to prison. They were both victimized by the system.

    Love your junk journal and, no, Perry does not look like a rat. Now, sometimes I think my Wendy looks like a ferret … 😉

    • It’s such a s**t storm of awful, isn’t it? Thank you re the journal. Haha, once in a while I did call Perry “ferret face” very endearingly (although not lately). But the cats with that look do tend to have a more sensitive, intelligent face :). don’t tell my little calico beauties I said that!

  22. Yikes! Luanne, no wonder your thoughts are confused. What a complex case, horrific crime against a young lady, a huge miscarriage of justice, his exoneration, Seabold vilified because of it all. I never read the book but just finished your previous post about it. Not sure I would have read the book with such a topic and beginning. What stands out for me is the kindness and balance of Anthony Broadwater. I hope justice will be served in this case.

    Oh, Perry is beyond cute with the ipad game. A different way for the cat to chase the mouse, all whilst relaxing and laying down! He doesn’t look like a rat at all!

    Wow! The junk book looks terrific and so much work has gone into that. I was trying to glimpse some of the writing on the pages!

    • That was one of the most astonishing openings for a book I have ever read. But then the rest of the book has a hard time after that, of course. Speaking of it as a book, not real life, of course. But then it IS real life, and I do wonder if Mr. Broadwater ever read the book. If I were him, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to stand reading it.
      Perry will be happy to hear he doesn’t look like a rat! He’s such a floof and a happy boy. I found a new video for him to watch. Hoping he likes it :).
      Some of the writing in that junk journal are scraps from my book Doll God. I made poetry a bit of a theme in this little journal.

  23. I remembered nothing about the case for Alice Sebold but found it fascinating. So many cases of wrongful accusation/identity over countless years, decades, centuries in our justice system. I feel for the people who are wrongfully imprisoned, who lose so much of their lives. Racism has defined our “justice” for 400 years in our country. I wonder if we will ever be able to totally make truth the winner in cases like Alice Sebold’s. Thank God for DNA testing.
    I also found this interesting because I had been thinking about The Lovely Bones on one of my walks recently. Such a disturbing book.
    Loved your journal – very cool. The different textures work very well, I think. Well done.

    • Yes, thank God for DNA testing. I SOOOOO agree!!! What a relief to so many. I saw on our local TV news last night that there is a child found dead 60 years ago in the desert and they are using a good process for DNA extraction because they want to give her an identity. They called her something like “nobody girl” when they put the case to rest all those years ago. Very interesting about you thinking about The Lovely Bones. Obviously the only way Sebold could write that novel was by being obsessed with her own case and her own rapist. There is no doubt that her life was screwed up by having such a horrific event happen to her at 18. I believe she was sure she was going to die.
      Thank you re the journal! Woohoo!

  24. This is intense. Thanks for helping me (and others) be aware of what happened during and after the rape trial. I have used Alice Sebold as an example to my writing students of a writer who had to write a memoir before she was able to write a novel. I had never read her memoir, so I didn’t know about the trial part, and I certainly didn’t know the horrific incarceration of an innocent man. But this story is important to get out because it showcases the injustices that have been done because of racial “profiling.” A sad, sad case.

    • Oh wow! re you saying you have used Sebold as an example. let me ask you, know that you know what happened will you still use her and if so will you give it the context of what has been found out since? SUCH a sad case.

  25. I hadn’t heard about this case, Luanne, but what a tragedy all around. And so complex. I don’t blame Sebold as a young college kid for getting it wrong. Rape was and is still a crime where the victims are blamed and shamed, and where knowledge about how to support victims is limited. Rape victims are often raped all over again by the justice system and public opinion. It’s devastating and traumatizing. I doubt she woke up that morning and decided to choose a random person off the street to send to jail.

    At the same time, we live in a culture of systemic racism, where black people, especially men, can’t expect justice on par with their white neighbors. What happened to Broadwater is an outcome of hundreds of years of deplorable treatment so ingrained that many people aren’t troubled by it at all. The justice system holds some responsibility, but in truth, we all do as long as we tolerate racism in law enforcement, businesses, property ownership, education, banking, and employment. It’s everywhere. Thanks for letting me rant a little. Here’s to a better future for every one of us.

  26. I’ve read ‘The Lovely Bones’ but had never heard about Sebold’s true life story. I find it interesting that she identified someone on the street but then not in the line up, so I wonder if, like you say, the man in the line up was the same man. There are so many issues that could have contributed to what happened that it is hard to unpick them, but it is such a tragedy for Broadwater that it is difficult to come to terms with the way his life has been wasted.
    I love your mini journal. And how dare Grandma, I have no doubt Perry has Egyptian cat royalty in his genes 🙂

    • Very hard to come to terms with. I don’t know how he can stand it. Thank you re the mini! And thank you for recognizing Perry’s origins ;). Grandma has shown her true colors. She really only ever loved Pear (because she sat on her lap nicely).

  27. I feel really bad for Mr. Broadwater for having spent 16 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. It is not only the 16 years of his life lost but the pain it must have caused his family. I read Alice Sebold’s apology and found no comfort there. I realize that she was a young girl when the rape happened to her but when she wrote the apology she was an adult but offers nothing more than feeling sorry and blaming the legal system. The Lovely Bones went on to great success and was made into a movie and in some ways i can’t help but feel that she has profited from one man’s unjust trial. I would have liked to have her form a foundation for Black victims unjustly accused or contribute in some way to the fight of racism.
    She says that “Today, American society is starting to acknowledge and address the systemic issues in our judicial system that too often means that justice for some comes at the expense of others. Unfortunately, this was not a debate, or a conversation, or even a whisper when I reported my rape in 1981.”
    Feeling sorry is just not enough. She could do more to help address racism.

    • I agree with you that she needs to do more. I am withholding judgment for now though because I think she has lived with such trauma that she may need time to deal with it all. After all, we don’t know if this has spiralled down her mental health or anything. However, if she doesn’t come out with something stronger within the next year . . . .

  28. That poor, poor man!! Witnesses are notoriously bad at recalling what they saw, and in this case she was more than a ‘witness’ – she was the terrorized victim as you say. And the police and prosecution were operating under a ton of confirmation bias. All in all I’m glad for the fact that he was finally exonerated!!

    Love your ‘junk’ journal but I do think it deserves a more elegant name! Lol.

    Your video of Perry isn’t playing ‘nice’ for me – the circle just keeps going round and round. But hey, I’ve seen Perry and I agree – grandma is being unfair! He is so very handsome – IMHO! xoxoxo

  29. julietwilson

    The Sebold case is very complex, I think, because of the mix of the difficulties of cross racial identification and institutional racism in the police force and legal profession.

    Perry looks adorable in that video and your junk journal is lovely.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on the redwood trees in Edinburgh! Yes, they are a Californian speciality, but many years ago plant hunters from Scotland brought back seeds and planted them in various places over here, including the grounds of stately homes and this particular graveyard in Edinburgh!


    • Thank you so much about Perry 🙂 🙂 and the junk journal!
      About Sebold: it seems as if the story has fallen into an abyss. I feel it should be in front of us a bit more.
      I had no idea about the redwoods! That is so interesting. They really must be a good fit for the stately homes because of their massive and statuesque look.

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