Publisher pulls American writer Alice Sebold’s 1999 memoir, Lucky — here’s why

In her memoir, Lucky, Alice Sebold revisits a traumatic episode from her life in 1981, when she was assaulted and raped at the Syracuse University campus.

A miscarriage of justice that had landed a Black man in jail for a crime he hadn’t committed came to light earlier this week when Anthony Broadwater, the man convicted of raping and assaulting American writer Alice Sebold, was exonerated by a New York Supreme Court justice for grave lapses in the conviction procedure 40 years after the incident. It has led to Sebold’s publishers pulling her 1999 memoir Lucky from shelves.

The incident

American author Alice Sebold, 58, became a household name after the publication of her memoir, Lucky, in 1999. In it, the writer revisits a traumatic episode from her life — on May 8, 1981, when Sebold, a freshman at Syracuse University, was walking home through a tunnel to an amphitheatre near campus, she was assaulted and raped. Even though she reported the crime afterwards, her assailant could not be traced. The title of the memoir, which went on to sell over a million copies, draws from her conversation with a police officer after the incident, who told her she was “lucky” to be alive, unlike another woman who had been raped and murdered at the same location. Sebold suffered from PTSD after the incident, taking recourse to alcohol and drugs, before eventually getting her life back on track.

Five months later, Sebold came across a Black man near the campus, whom she believed to be her assailant. The man, Anthony Broadwater, was arrested in 1982 and served 16 years in prison. Broadwater, who maintained his innocence throughout, was denied parole several times and put on New York’s sex offender registry after his release in 1999.

Anthony Broadwater’s exoneration

A possibility of a film adaptation led to a reinvestigation and eventual exoneration of Broadwater. In 2019, when producer Timothy Mucciante came on board for a screen adaptation of Lucky by director Karen Moncrieff, he noticed discrepancies about the trial that struck him as irregular. In a recent interview to the BBC’s Today programme, Mucciante said, “Certain things leapt out at me as being unusual in the American criminal justice system — specifically, the line-up procedure, where Alice picked the wrong person as her assailant… but they tried him anyway.” Mucciante left the project soon after but his concerns led him to hire a private investigator to reassess the evidence.

In November, a New York Supreme Court justice officially exonerated Broadwater, pointing out serious lapses in the original conviction procedure, including overwhelming reliance on an untrustworthy forensic technique and on Sebold’s testimony. Broadwater, now 61, broke down after the verdict was delivered.

Sebold’s apology

Over a week after Broadwater’s exoneration, the writer tendered an apology in a post on Medium. “First, I want to say that I am truly sorry to Anthony Broadwater and I deeply regret what you have been through. I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life you could have led was unjustly robbed from you, and I know that no apology can change what happened to you and never will…I am grateful that Mr Broadwater has finally been vindicated, but the fact remains that 40 years ago, he became another young Black man brutalised by our flawed legal system. I will forever be sorry for what was done to him.”

Publisher’s statement

In a statement, Sebold’s publisher Scribner announced that it would be pulling Lucky from the shelves. “Following the recent exoneration of Anthony Broadwater, and in consultation with the author, Scribner and Simon & Schuster will cease distribution … while Sebold and Scribner together consider how the work might be revised,” it said. Pan Macmillan, Sebold’s UK publisher, too, will follow suit.

According to reports, the film adaptation, too, stands cancelled after it lost funding.

Sebold’s other literary works

In 2002, Sebold’s most well-known work till date, The Lovely Bones, was published — the story of a young girl who was raped and murdered at 14. The book went on to sell over 10 million copies globally. It was later adapted into a film by director Peter Jackson, featuring Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Mark Wahlberg, and Rachel Weisz in 2009. The film was nominated for the Oscars.

In 2007, Sebold’s second novel, The Almost Moon, was released to mixed reviews. The story of a dysfunctional family explores the murder of a woman by her daughter, a model for art-classes.

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