December 2, 2021

20 years ago, an American creative writing graduate called Alice Sebold published a novel called The Lovely Bones. It was about a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered. She narrates most of the novel while looking down from heaven, in the company of other victims of her killer. The novel did extremely well in America, rapturously reviewed and selling in huge numbers, and in 2002 was published in this country.

A lot of the kudos and awestruck response to the novel came from an awareness of Sebold’s previous memoir, Lucky. In it, she wrote in detail about a horrifying rape she suffered as a teenager. It was a violent rape by a stranger, without a doubt. In the memoir, Sebold explained that she had identified her rapist months later when a black man, Anthony Broadwater, greeted her in the street. Broadwater must have been a friendly man: he smiled at Sebold and, she claims, went as far as to say “Hey girl” to her. Although she identified a completely different man in a police line-up, Mr Broadwater was prosecuted and convicted on her evidence, backed up by some now discredited scientific analysis of hair types. The memoir, rather skating over some details, told a redemptive story of obtaining justice by finding the culprit and locking him up.

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The years went by. Broadwater was released from prison the year before Lucky was published, after 17 years. Sebold, having told her true-life tale in a memoir, went on to publish The Lovely Bones. At the time, I was a book reviewer who sometimes worked for The Observer. They commissioned a review of it from me, and I panned it. I had a fundamental objection to it. I just didn’t believe it.

Although a work of fiction is not true or false in the usual sense, there is no doubt that a novel can be entirely made-up, and yet fundamentally true. I didn’t believe a single word that The Lovely Bones said about human beings. I said, rather briskly, that 14-year-old girls were not like that; that Sebold thought people were defined by race (“Indian, and therefore mystic”) in absurd and damaging ways; that the novel went straight to courting emotion without troubling to be truthful.

It is bad manners to quote oneself, but I think my line that it was “a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy” is bang on. I wish I’d known what effects that unfeeling quality might have had in real life on an innocent man. In the review, I also suggested that this huge bestseller, in the usual way of these things, would be succeeded in five years by a difficult second novel that did zip business and then she would disappear.

That was more or less correct. She published a second novel, not much liked, in 2007, and then fell silent. All the same, The Lovely Bones sold an enormous number of copies and was made into a big-budget movie directed by Peter Jackson. I got a tremendous amount of angry flak from some people involved with the publication of the book, some rather personally homophobic in tone, some bringing up the horror of Ms Sebold’s rape as if to show she was the sort of person who could not write an untruthful word. In the meantime, Mr Broadwater tried to put his life together, working in menial jobs, and choosing, he says, not to have children so as not to inflict the shame of his conviction on them.

Time went on, and, it having become clear that Sebold didn’t have another novel in her to film, her memoir was taken up by the film industry. An executive producer of the adaptation, Tim Mucciante — rather a hero of this case, considering that he was acting with pure disinterest — started to wonder about the degree to which the script had changed Sebold’s book to sustain plausibility. He hired a private detective to look into the case. It didn’t take the detective long to establish that Broadwater had been wrongfully convicted on the basis of Sebold’s testimony. 40 years after the event, the racial attitudes that find it terrifying that a black man should have the effrontery to greet a white girl in the street, and that send him to prison for years because of it, are no longer quite as strong as they were, and Mr Broadwater’s conviction has been quashed. Sebold’s memoir will not be filmed, and has been withdrawn from circulation.

Sebold herself has apologised, sort of. As literary criticism formed the basis of my not believing her in the first place, let me point out her reliance on the passive voice, robbed of agency, and how she can’t decide whether she’s talking to him (you) in a friendly way, or of him (he) in a safely remote way. Broadwater’s life “was unjustly robbed from you.” “I will forever be sorry for what was done to him.” It was “the system that sent an innocent man to jail.” Mr Broadwater was “brutalized by our flawed legal system.”

Reading Sebold’s apology — which goes on about what an honest writer she is, how driven by social justice she always was, and how she has always tried to “act with integrity” — I can only say that the opinion I formed in 2002 is still unchanged. I wouldn’t believe a word that Alice Sebold writes. From her books, and from this statement, one can only conclude that she has always felt a pressing need to present herself as well as possible, according to the drifting preferences of the American marketplace. For other people, the truth — or the truthfulness underlying the superficially invented — matter a lot more.

This case is not remotely difficult. Alice Sebold’s rape was appalling. Her initiating a process that ruined an innocent man’s life was also appalling. The culture that created the rapist is horrifying; the culture that created blame for a black man saying hello to a white stranger in the street is horrifying. There is nothing to take forward from this terrible series of events, however.

Men and women should be listened to by the criminal justice system with investigative purity; the truth or otherwise of their claims examined irrespective of whether they are black, or white, or Indian and therefore, it appears, mystically gifted. For myself I can only say that sometimes, the full forensic weight of the criminal justice system can establish a “truth” where a practised reader of literary prose on the page can see falsity, manipulation, deceit and a self-preservation that doesn’t care what it stamps on and destroys in the hungry pursuit of fame.