DATE July 10, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dr. David Zangen and Dr. Radgonde Amer discuss
practicing medicine in Jerusalem and the divisions between
Israelis and Palestinians
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The divisions between Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to be irrelevant
at the two Hadassah Hospitals in Jerusalem where my two guests work. About 15
percent of the doctors are Palestinian or Israeli Arabs. The remainder are
Jewish. The patients are more evenly divided. They have included casualties
of Palestinian suicide bombers and casualties of Israeli military actions.
The hospitals were established by Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization
of America. My guests are doctors David Zangen and Radgonde Amer(ph).
Dr. Zangen is Israeli. He's a pediatrician specializing in juvenile diabetes
and pediatric endocrinology. He's also the medical officer for his reserve
unit in the Israeli military and was the chief medical officer for Israel's
military operation in Jenin in April. Dr. Radgonde is Palestinian. She's a
fourth year resident in ophthalmology at the hospitals. They went to a studio
in Jerusalem to record our interview. I asked them how hospital life has
changed since the recent suicide bombings and the Israeli incursions into the
West Bank and Gaza.
Dr. DAVID ZANGEN: I remember very strongly, you know, three weeks before the
Defensive Shield Operation, sitting in the clinic and--I have the juvenile
diabetes clinic in Jerusalem and opposite me, a very kind, a very nice family
who I know and seven-year-old diabetic child, Palestinian from East Jerusalem,
and then I got a call from my wife and she tells me, `Did I have any contact
with our children?' And my oldest has a cell phone and I said, `No.' Usually
I'm not in contact with them during the day and she tells me, `Listen, there
is a suicide bomber or suicide killer in the German colony,' which is a
neighborhood of Jerusalem where my children go to school.
And, you know, my wife tells me that she can't get in contact with our
children. And here I sit, you know, in the diabetic clinic and this family
looks at me getting this telephone call and you know, I'm kind of puzzled in a
situation where you are really worried for your children--I have four--and on
the meantime, treating a Palestinian patient and it's a kind of a strange
situation. You know, I went on and fortunately, nothing happened, and the guy
was caught and fortunately, there were no victims of this episode, but this
was kind of a reflection of what you are going through during the every day.
Dr. RADGONDE AMER: I feel that, although we are physicians, after all, but we
also share our internal conflicts with people surrounding us. So even during
times where Palestinians are being injured or attacked or Israelis being also
attacked, we also have our emotions that we feel inside of us, but definitely
we don't allow these feelings to affect our medical career or our care that we
show to the patients or medical attention, nor our medical decision about our
GROSS: Dr. Amer, what kind of new injuries are you seeing as a result of
either the suicide bombings or the Israeli incursions?
Dr. AMER: I feel that as an ophthalmologist, the thing that has changed is in
the type of the patients that we are receiving during the last, let's say, one
and a half years. We have been seeing more of the penetrating eye injuries,
perforations, intraocular foreign bodies and these have been probably equally
seen in both Palestinians and Israelis, as both of them have also been
GROSS: Are there objects put into the bombs that some suicide bombers use
that create difficult to treat wounds? Like I read that there are, you know,
nails and shrapnel put into bombs. Are there other things like that that make
it very difficult for you to treat the wounds?
Dr. AMER: You know, it's not only because of the bombs, because there were
also some Palestinian patients who have been treated because they were injured
by the army. So we see victims, in fact, of both sides. And this is very
unfortunate because we really suffer when we see innocent civilians suffering
as well. I see no value and I see no meaning in just keeping and seeing all
the time innocent civilians living peacefully in their homes and going
peacefully on the streets sustaining injuries all the time. So this is, I
think, what hurts us also very much.
GROSS: I'm wondering if either of you have found that your politics have been
affected by the medical work that you do or the kind of solution that you
would like to see to the Middle East conflict, if that's been affected by the
medical work that you do and by seeing all the wounds that you have to treat.
Dr. ZANGEN: Well, I believe both of us and everybody that's a doctor, and I
believe it should be so, that it just strengthens our desire for peace and our
desire to prevent any further wounded peoples, you know, that get wounded, you
know, innocently. I must say that sometimes I'm very worried and--well, I
will tell you, even surprised by doctors, especially you know, because of
their profession, because of their sensitivity and what I expect them to be
towards humans that leads, you know, movements like Hamas. You know, there is
Dr. Mahmoud Zahar in the Gaza Strip who basically encourages the suicide
attacks. And with that, you know, doctors taking part into the political
struggle, but in a way that is really not human, that bothers me.
GROSS: Dr. Zangen, do you have any mixed feelings about serving with the
Israeli military? You're the chief medical officer for your reserve unit...
Dr. ZANGEN: Yes.
GROSS: ...and you were the chief medical officer during the Israeli incursion
into Jenin. Did you have any mixed feelings about being with a military unit
while it was making this incursion into Jenin?
Dr. ZANGEN: First of all, I'm a father of four children. And I belong to my
people and I definitely believe that we had to stop this monstrous
suicide-murders in our streets.
GROSS: Dr. Zangen, have you ever treated somebody who turned out to be a
suicide bomber or somebody involved with the suicide bombings?
Dr. ZANGEN: Well, during the operation, I treated also Palestinians. I
remember clearly one now that--a 22-year-old who had a tattoo of the Hamas
movement on his arms. He had a wound in his neck and, as an army reserve
doctor, I treated him there. It came to our knowledge during the treatment
that he was one of the planning people for the suicide attack on a bat
mitzvah, the celebration of a 12-year-old girl in Hadera in a celebrating
hall, killing some people who came just to celebrate with the girl turning 12
in a hall. And he was the one who organized this suicide-murder. And you
know, when you are treating a patient, you're treating him and he's now
wounded and he's now--you know, has to get the treatment on the spot.
Obviously, afterwards he might be investigated and interrogated and asked
about the terrible things that he had planned, but as a doctor you look at him
as a human being and treat him.
GROSS: Dr. Amer, I'm wondering if there's anyone in your family or within
your circle of friends who have been victims of the Israeli incursion or of,
you know, the IDF.
Dr. AMER: Well, not close people but probably people in East Jerusalem. As
I've told you earlier, a mother of three, she has two daughters in the
university and one son studying in the US, on a Friday afternoon she was
hearing shooting outside the house. And she wanted to protect her daughters
who were inside, and so she decided that she would go and close the window of
the saloon. And so a bullet hit the window and a piece of metal went into her
eye. She had been through four surgeries over her eye and she had sustained
profound loss of vision in that eye. And, well, the stories never end, you
know. But I believe that we were mostly to concentrate on the medical aspect
here in our work. And the question that you asked previously, I didn't have
the chance to answer it.
You asked if you think that our medical career affected our decision of how we
see the future. I'm still a deep believer that coexistence is the solution.
We are two people living on this land, and I believe that peace is the
ultimate solution. And from what we have experienced before the rising of the
last intifada, we have experienced Israelis and Palestinians living together.
And I believe that despite all the despair and despite all the frustration
that people are feeling these days, still they are hopeful because they still
have deep faith in the fact that we can live together peacefully.
GROSS: My guest are Palestinian Dr. Radgonde Amer and Israeli Dr. David
Zangen. They work at the Hadassah Hospitals in Jerusalem, which treats Jewish
and Palestinian patients. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Israeli Dr. David Zangen and Palestinian Dr. Radgonde
Amer. They work at the Hadassah Hospitals in Jerusalem, which treat Jewish
and Palestinian patients. Let's pick up where we left off.
Do politics come up a lot in the hospital, or is that something that the
doctors and nurses try to avoid so that you can focus on the medicine and
avoid the possibility of political conflict?
Dr. AMER: We discuss it here and there. It's not the main issue in the
hospital. We have more crucial elements...
Dr. ZANGEN: Yeah, exactly.
Dr. AMER: ...to experience here in the hospital. We have enough medical
Dr. ZANGEN: You know, politics takes a lot of time, and we do...
Dr. AMER: We leave it for the politicians.
Dr. ZANGEN: Yeah, we leave it for the politicians, I would put it in this
way. I would maybe add, you know, you talked about the hospital. What
happens to you on a personal level--for me, there is an element that you know
you can't escape, and what is that is the chief nurse of the neonatal
intensive care unit of Hadassah, Aviva Razael(ph), well, is the best nurse I
know, you know, one that you can rely on, the one that, you know, will call
you in the middle of the night and say if something is really going bad, it's
100 percent going bad. And if she is not waking you up, you can be sure that
there is no reason to be worried about a patient.
And 11 years ago she lost her husband due to brain cancer. She raised her
four daughters. Three, she got married. And last, she was a 16-year-old
girl. She was a conscript in the youth movement. And I remember her as a
five-year-old during the time when her father passed away running around in
her house. And then when she was 16 she went to the Sbarro pizza in the
center of Jerusalem to buy pizza and she died in the suicide attack on the
Sbarro pizza in the center of Jerusalem.
And I didn't want to talk about that, but about the--you know, if you ask if
you're in the hospital if you feel it, you know, to pass every day on the
corridor was this nurse who never complained after raising alone her four
children, always with a smile, always with professional excellence. And then
to see her, you know, it's a kind of you don't know where to put yourself or
where to escape. So, you know, it's true. We don't, at least on my
side--it's not that you discuss it. It's not that you deal with it. But, you
know, to see her on the corridor you can't escape seeing this Aviva and the
GROSS: Well, it makes me wonder if there's a kind of chill between the
Israeli and Palestinian doctors after an attack or after an Israeli incursion
into a Palestinian town, you know, whether, in spite of all your best efforts,
if there is a chill or is friction.
Dr. ZANGEN: Well, I don't think so. At least in my department there is a
resident who was Palestinian from a village called Jat(ph), and he is an
excellent resident and is doing fine. And I never felt with him any kind of
tension. Moreover I can tell you that during the operation itself, I was
still in contact with some of the--and I'm still now--with the Arab doctors
from the West Bank, even the family that they because they have
hyperinsulinism, which is a disease I deal with a lot. And a family from
Jenin called me during the operation when I was in Jenin to my cell phone.
And, you know, soldiers around heard me speaking in Arabic and not speaking
very fluent Arabic, but they can communicate very well, and, well, they had
questions about what to do in such-and-such case. And it was kind of strange.
But I never felt any kind of friction, not between doctors and not with the
patients I know.
Dr. AMER: Well, I believe that everyone has his own feelings, and even after
each event we do have feelings, but I believe that our medical obligation
leads us to the way of managing with each other without allowing this to
affect our relation with the colleagues, without allowing this to affect
relations with the medical staff or with the patients. Personally I had the
chance of treating both Israeli victims as well as Palestinian victims with my
Israeli colleagues, and I believe that it was very a special effort.
GROSS: Dr. Amer, I'm wondering if you ever feel that you're treated
differently in the hospital than you are on the street in Jerusalem, if you
feel that you're treated with more respect in the hospital and more suspicion
on the street--treated by Israelis that way.
Dr. AMER: Well, it's a different world inside the hospital. No one can deny
that. It's like heaven on Earth.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the differences for you? What's it like on the
street compared to the hospital?
Dr. AMER: Well, there is no difference between people whatsoever, between
medical team whatsoever. There is no difference between doctors. There is no
difference between nurses. There is no difference between the patients
receiving treatment inside the hospital. But definitely you get to experience
the variable and the different indignities on the streets.
GROSS: What are some of the indignities that you're referring to?
Dr. AMER: Well, you have constantly being suspected. You are constantly
being asked to identify yourself. You're searched all the time. So it's not
that easy out there, outside on the streets.
GROSS: Do you ever have any problem getting to work?
Dr. AMER: No. But I definitely have--like three of my colleagues having
difficulties in getting to the hospital. To our living in Ramallah during the
different operations, they have real difficulties in getting to the hospital
for long periods, like for more than three weeks. And during the regular
times they might be late. They might come, like, one hour later, or they
might be, like, one and a half hours late. And they definitely have problems
in passing the different barriers since it's not only one barrier. There are
a number of barriers that they have to pass through during their work. So
this definitely affects their mood. This definitely affects their--I don't
know how to explain it to you. It definitely affects their psychological
status before coming to work.
GROSS: Does it show at work? You know, you were talking about how
Dr. AMER: No, I wasn't.
GROSS: ...and equality isn't a big issue at work. Yeah.
Dr. AMER: That's our challenge. It does not.
Even though the doctors are very professional and you try to keep politics
outside of the hospital, what about the patients? Do patients ever object?
Do Jewish patients ever object to a Palestinian doctor, or Palestinian
patients ever object to a Jewish doctor? And do Israeli and Palestinian
patients ever get put in the same room and object to that?
Dr. AMER: Well, I can put it this way. I feel proud of our patients, really,
being both Israelis and Palestinians, since their aim is mainly to receive
medical care, and it's just wonderful how medicine can bypass all the
different views and all the big differences that we have among us. And it's
just make you feel like you're dealing with a one single big family inside the
hospital. And I think that really medicine can make wonders.
Dr. ZANGEN: Radgonde just reminded me now, you know, on the 11th of June I
have--every year we do a kind of patients' conference for juvenile diabetes.
And it's already the third year that we have it. This year we did it in the
Israeli Museum, and we invited the minister of health to come and to see.
During this conference we gave a kind of scientific update of what's going on
in the research of diabetes of the last year, and also it's a kind of a social
gathering because for the diabetic patients it's very important to see each
other, to know that they are not alone struggling with this disease. And
basically, you know, you see there the heterogenic population of Jerusalem.
So you could see there Palestinians with the traditional dresses, you know.
Like about 40 percent of the people were Palestinians. Some are very extreme
Orthodox Jews, you know, with their typical appearance. And some were just,
you know, secular Jews and some secular Arabs. And that was kind of--and the
minister of health told me, `Listen, how do you put them all together? Maybe
come you and, you know, join politics and, you know, put us all together.
That way we'll get to peace.' But this is a kind of--really I agree with
Radgonde, being proud in the patients but being--I'm very much proud in, you
know, the medical personnel who doesn't really--just gives the treatment as it
should be, to a human being.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
Dr. AMER: We would like to thank you as well.
Dr. ZANGEN: So do I.
GROSS: Doctors David Zangen and Radgonde Amer work at the Hadassah Hospitals
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Alice Sebold, author of "The Lovely Bones," perhaps the
most acclaimed novel of the season. It's about a 14-year-old girl who is
raped and murdered and then goes to heaven, where she watches her family carry
on. Sebold is also the author of a memoir about being raped.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Alice Sebold talks about her new novel, "The Lovely
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Alice Sebold, is the author of the new novel "The Lovely Bones,"
which was described in Time magazine as the `break-out fiction debut of the
year.' The story is about the rape, murder and mutilation of a 14-year-old
girl and its aftermath. Our own book critic, Maureen Corrigan, said the
subject matter made her reluctant to pick up the book, but reading it gave her
a singular, disturbing and even enlightening literary experience.
The author Alice Sebold also wrote a 1999 memoir about being raped when she
was in college. The new novel begins with the attack on the girl. The rest
of the novel is narrated from heaven, from where the girl observes her family
and friends as they try to carry on after her death. We'll start with a
reading from the beginning of the book. The girl has taken a short cut home
from junior high through a cornfield. She meets a neighbor, Mr. Harvey, who
forces her to take off her clothes. Before we start, I should tell you that
this is a graphic and disturbing account of the attack which may not be
appropriate for children to hear.
Ms. ALICE SEBOLD (Author, "The Lovely Bones"): (Reading) `"Don't, Mr.
Harvey," I managed and I kept saying that one word a lot, "don't." And I
said "please" a lot, too. Franny told me that almost everyone begged "please"
before dying. "I want you, Susie," he said. "Please," I said. "Don't," I
said. Sometimes I combined them, "Please don't" or "Don't, please." It was
like insisting that a key works when it doesn't or yelling "I've got it, I've
got it, I've got it," as a softball goes sailing over you into the stands.
"Please don't." But he grew tired of hearing me plead. He reached into the
pocket of my parka and balled up the hat my mother had made me, smashing it
into my mouth. The only sound I made after that was the weak tinkling of
`As he kissed his wet lips down my face and neck, and then began to shove his
hands up under my shirt, I wept. I began to leave my body. I began to
inhabit the air and the silence. I wept and struggled so I would not feel.
He ripped open my pants, not having found the invisible zipper my mother had
artfully sown into their side. "Big white panties," he said. I felt huge and
bloated. I felt like a sea in which he stood and pissed and shat. I felt the
corners of my body were turning in on themselves and out, like in cat's
cradle, which I played with Lindsey just to make her happy.
`He started working himself over me. "Susie, Susie," I heard my mother
calling. "Dinner is ready." He was inside me. He was grunting. "We're
having string beans and lamb." I was the mortar, he was the pestle. "Your
brother has a new finger painting, and I made apple crumb cake."'
GROSS: That's Alice Sebold reading from the opening of her new novel, "The
Lovely Bones." I'm sure a lot of listeners are wondering, why write about
something so horrible, so unthinkable, the rape of a 14--the rape and
dismemberment of a 14-year-old girl?
Ms. SEBOLD: Because it's part of life. You know, that's the simplest answer,
I think, for me. It's very much part of the experience of what it is to live
in this culture. It happens all the time.
GROSS: Now you were raped yourself when you were a freshman in college and
that's the subject of an earlier book you wrote, a memoir. And reading those
two books back-to-back, I was really struck by the difference in the
descriptions of the rape. The rape, as you describe it in your memoir, is
very brutal, very detailed in its brutality. It's as if you're reliving every
moment and describing it like a journalist.
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm-hmm. I think they are very different books in my mind, even
though they both not only have violence but start out in violence. One of
them is factual and I tell every detail in some way in the memoir. And the
other one is a fictive voice and there's so much more being given in the first
chapter of "The Lovely Bones" in terms of getting to know her character and
some of the facts of her family and her background.
GROSS: I got the impression that the kind of moment-by-moment description of
the brutality that's in your memoir is something you felt didn't belong in
this new novel, in the description of the brutality that this 14-year-old
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah. I mean, the funny thing is that I did write the beginning
of "The Lovely Bones" before I wrote my memoir, so the violent crime that
occurs in Susie's life happened in terms of writing about it before a
description of my own rape was written by me later. I think in order to
separate the two stories to make sure that Susie was not doing any of my work
for me when I returned to the novel, I stopped to write "Lucky," and one of
the things that was very important for me to do was to get all the facts down
of my own case, so they had been written, they existed whole in a whole
'nother book and I could go back to Susie and she could lead me where she
wanted to take me and tell me her story in the way she wanted to tell it, as
opposed to me feeling perhaps that I needed to really tell the real deal about
every detail about rape and violence. I did that in the memoir as opposed to
the novel because I wanted my characters to rule the novel, not some sort of
desire to talk about rape and reveal rape to readers.
GROSS: Your memoir ends, `I live in a world where the two truths co-exist,
where both hell and hope live in the palm of my hand.' Is that, in a way,
where your novel picks up, with hell and hope or hell and heaven being side by
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely. I mean, that's one of my major motivations in terms
of how I live my life. And also, though, why I see fiction as so incredibly
important, is to be able to give in a very short space the context where those
two things co-existing and co-existing in an honest way, where hope is really
springing out of something that was--is hard won as opposed to purchased in
the, you know, Hope to Cope section at the local bookstore.
GROSS: After Susie is raped and killed and mutilated, and this is in the
first chapter, she goes to heaven and the rest of the story is narrated by her
as she experiences this part of heaven and looks down on her family and
neighbors as they go on without her. What interested you in this idea of your
narrator being in heaven looking down on the people she's had to leave behind?
Ms. SEBOLD: I think I needed to find a way--and first I have to say that,
again, when Susie's voice presented it to me, she presented it completely and
she was already in heaven. So that was something when I got to the end of the
first 15 pages, which I did not know was going to be the first chapter of a
novel, I had my character, I had where she was and I had what had happened to
her. And because she was such a bossy main character, I had no choice. I had
to follow her. So though it was not a conscious choice to place her in
heaven, once I realized that she had put me there in some way, it is a
position from which she can tell a story to a reader and bring a reader to
places that they wouldn't have access on and that she wouldn't have access on
unless she were in heaven. And to see--referring back to the previous
question about heaven and hope or hope and hell, all those things, to see
those things put together in a context that is ultimately in some way horrible
but doesn't have to be so threatening that readers are afraid to read about
the truth or about the reality that a girl like Susie would experience.
GROSS: Can you describe the heaven that you've created for Susie?
Ms. SEBOLD: It's a heaven with what I'd say is a lot of open spaces. It was
much more detailed in early drafts of the book and it was an experience in
creating where I wrote much more than ultimately remained, knowing what to
take away so that people can bring their own ideas of things into the heaven
that remains. There's something probably strangely--like the open fields of
suburbia about the heaven that Susie inhabits, because in the book the heaven
would reflect a bit of what the person had experienced or known on Earth.
There are also silly things like the textbooks that she has are Seventeen and
Vogue because that, in her case, as a 14-year-old girl, would be a textbook
that she'd want to have. And then there are other things that are not, say,
fun or familiar, and those are the things to try to figure out how to rectify
the situation that she's in and look at the people on Earth and see them
really suffering, and how to cope and understand herself with that as they are
coping and understanding with her loss on Earth.
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold, author of the new novel "The Lovely Bones."
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Alice Sebold is my guest. Her new novel is called "The Lovely Bones."
She's also the author of an earlier memoir called "Lucky," which is about her
experiences as a rape victim.
In your memoir about being raped, you write, `The burden of being father and
mother to a rape victim fell very heavily on my parents.' And I'm wondering
if that thought informed some of the writing of your novel, because part of
the novel is about the aftereffects of the rape and murder on Susie's family.
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely. The experience of violence, particularly a tabooed
violence like a rape, in my case, and particularly like a, you know, rape and
dismemberment in the case of Susie's family in the novel, is one of the most
alienating experiences that I think you can have. And for my parents, it
proved to be very strange, sometimes even among their close friends, even
with people who didn't intentionally mean to say things that were hurtful, for
instance, and sometimes hurtful through ignorance, which is not necessarily
their fault. And I think definitely that that transferred to the idea of
Susie's family being extremely alienated in their circumstances.
GROSS: You write about the burden of guilt on the parents in the novel.
Susie says, about her father, `Every day he got up, before sleep wore off, he
was who he used to be. Then as his consciousness woke, it was as if poison
seeped in. At first he couldn't even get up. He lay there under a heavy
weight, the guilt on him, the hand of God pressing down on him saying, "You
were not there when your daughter needed you."' Do you want to talk a little
bit about the guilt you imagine the parents feeling?
Ms. SEBOLD: It's an interesting thing. Some of the father--the father was
another character for me in the novel that was there very quickly, very
immediately, and he really, to me, is the heart of the family. I think
particularly with a sexual assault crime, whether the victim--if the victim is
a child, whether it's a male or a female child, fathers often feel extremely
responsible for what happens in that way to their children. They want to be
able to fix it very, very much and go out and do something. And it has become
somewhat stereotypical in movies and television that the father wants to go
and catch or kill the perpetrator. But the truth is, is that it's a
stereotype that reflects reality. In my own experience, I can count the
number of times that, you know, both my father but also boyfriends, male
friends, particularly would say things like, you know, `I want to kill the
bastard,' just in this desire to do something and also to great shame because
the perpetrator is male.
And for the mother in "The Lovely Bones," it throws her into a whole
re-evaluation of what her life has been about. Obviously there have been
problems with her understanding of its value before this, but then in the loss
of her daughter, it throws her again into this questioning about what she's
done with her life and whether it was actually indeed what she wanted to do
GROSS: After you were raped when you were trying to figure out what you were
doing with your life and dealing with all the wounds that this rape left you
with, psychological and physical, were you at the same time watching your
parents dealing with a different set of wounds caused by the same rape?
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely, particularly my mother, I think. You know, it just
hits the entire family like a ton of bricks and trauma, especially when it's a
trauma that is not a well-known trauma, for those traumas that are well-known,
really there's so much to try to understand. I remember watching television,
say, with my sister after the rape when I was just basically lying on the
couch and trying to recover, and if anything came on that made her maybe think
about violence or whatever, she would stare back at me and it made me highly
self-conscious, but she was deeply trying to understand what my experience had
been. And I think one of my motivations for writing my own book and certainly
also a motivation for writing the novel is the desire to just put it out there
on the table, `This is what a rape can look like.' And if people maybe know
more about it, then the victim's not as alienated, nor is the victim's family
and nor are people who live across the street as afraid of saying something
really stupid because maybe they're more educated about what the crime is.
GROSS: Now you said earlier that it was only after writing the beginning of
your novel, "The Lovely Bones," that you decided to go back and write a memoir
about your rape, and you said it was because you wanted to, like, tell your
own story so that your own story wasn't superimposed on your character's
story. I'm interested in how your memory functioned of the incident because,
you know, when--after something that's about as traumatic as it gets happens
to you, on the one hand you really want to forget it so that it's not
obsessing you and haunting you all the time. On the other hand, I suppose in
a lot of ways you don't want to lose the memories that have been recorded so
that you can continue to comprehend the experience. So did you find that you
had, like, vivid memories of it, vivid enough to write an almost journalistic
account of it, or did you have to work to regain memories that you had tried
Ms. SEBOLD: I would say my memory for the rape itself and the incidents
surrounding the rape, like the trial, was better five to seven years after the
actual event, even up to 10, than it was in the first three or four years
afterwards. You know, I very directly went into therapy right after the rape,
all miserable experiences, and then I didn't do anything like that for about
the next 10 years, and I found a lovely therapist who had the, you know,
uniqueness of being free in New York and worked with her. But one of the
things that was the funniest thing for me is that I've written an article for
The New York Times Sunday Magazine about rape and had been quoted in a book
called "Trauma and Recovery," which is an excellent book, and I bought it
because I'd been such a miserable failure as a writer in my 20s that it was
one of the few, like, places I had appeared in print. And on the subway home
with the book I realized that I was quoted in the first half, which was called
Trauma, instead of the second half, which is called Recovery, and that
strangely inspired me to read the whole book. And by the time I got to the
end of the book, I realized that I had post-traumatic stress disorder and went
So only after, I'd say, a full 10 years away from the rape was I able to face
the rape and deal with the clear memories of it. Luckily, one of the things I
did right after the rape, because I was a kind of, you know, morbid, poetic
kid, was write verbatim accounts of exactly what had happened to me physically
and what the light had been like and things like that in a journal of mine.
GROSS: What did you do with the journal? Did you lock it up and put it away?
Ms. SEBOLD: It was in my parents' basement the whole time I lived in New
York, so I--you know, that's when you just love your parents for having a
waterlogged, messy basement.
GROSS: So the book was--the journal was still readable.
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah, the journal was readable, yeah.
GROSS: What was the experience of opening up the journal after a period of
years had elapsed and reading it in the voice that you had a few years ago,
reading the description?
Ms. SEBOLD: I would say it was mind blowing for a couple of reasons, and not
the least of which was to realize what I had actually experienced. Because I
think while you're going through it, you just--especially if you have the
chance of going through a trial, which I did, you need to keep your eye on the
ball, you need to be focused. You can't really drift off into maximum pain.
So to go back and look at the accounts of what was actually happening, you
know, I have to say I just thought like, `Hey, kid, you did OK.'
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold, author of the new novel "The Lovely Bones."
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold, author of the new novel "The Lovely Bones."
It's the story of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and murdered, then goes to
heaven, where she observes her family try to carry on without her. Sebold is
also the author of a 1999 memoir about being raped called "Lucky."
You were already interested in writing when you were raped. You were a
freshman in college. Later in college, you were studying with the poet Tess
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And one of the assignments she gave you after she realized about this
trauma in your life was to write a poem that started `If they caught you...'
Ms. SEBOLD: Right.
GROSS: I could see you responding one of two ways to that. One way to go,
`Oh, give me a break,' and the other to actually write a great poem. Tell us
what your response was to that.
Ms. SEBOLD: I think with Tess, who was one of those teachers--I mean, I have
taught and I have had wonderful teachers, and I believe that atmosphere,
particularly for those students who are going through anything traumatic, can
be an incredible atmosphere. And Tess did not shy away with dealing with a
student who I'm sure a lot of people just thought like, `Eek, keep her away
from me. She might explode on me.' She forced my hand on that. I had
written a vague kind of poem about rape. We had a discussion in her office.
She asked me if it were based on anything that had actually happened to me in
my life. I told her and then she suggested that. I admired her greatly as a
poet, she was an extremely empathetic teacher and out of that I decided, `OK,
she's forcing me to do something. It feels a little weird,' but it was a
great thing to do. And they caught him a week later, so who knows. There was
a little magic in that assignment.
GROSS: People often wonder if writing is therapeutic, if you're writing about
a trauma, does that help the pain of the trauma recede? I mean, Susie in the
novel says something about--oh, I forget exactly what she says, but it's
something like every time she tells her story, like a drop of the pain goes
Ms. SEBOLD: Right.
GROSS: But as a writer yourself who's written about your own trauma and then
written a fictionalized version of a similar trauma, is writing therapeutic or
do you think that that's really the wrong way to approach it anyways?
Ms. SEBOLD: My feeling, and it's pretty, you know, rigorous, is that therapy
is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing
should not be published. My job as a writer is to go through the therapy
myself, and if I manage to get through it and I feel I have something to share
from that, to share it with my audience or my readers, but I don't write
novels and seek to have them published so that I can get therapy from having
written them. That's really the responsibility of an individual to do outside
the context of their published work.
GROSS: Before you wrote your memoir, when you went back and re-read the
journal that you'd written shortly after the attack, what was that writing
like compared to the writing in the actual book?
Ms. SEBOLD: You know, pretty horrible. Again, if it's judged from a--was it
worthy ever of being published? No. It was extremely staccato, very direct.
What I would say is it's like somebody taking a few moments out of being in
the middle of a storm just to jot down the temperature, the angle of the wind,
things like that. So it was all very factual, flat, uninflected writing which
just told the facts of what was happening.
GROSS: And what did you want to do to it for publication?
Ms. SEBOLD: I didn't want to do--I mean, I never used that as a draft of
anything. Basically, I went back and read it and it brought me back to the
time. And what I would say is that it was a way of waking up my memory just
as, when you walk down the street you smell a certain smell, it might bring
you back to the state fair when you were four or something. It had that same
kind of--to evoke the memories, not to stand in for them.
GROSS: Writers usually have to have some kind of empathy and understanding of
each of their characters, the good guys and the bad guys. Do you feel like in
your novel you had to have empathy for the rapist, who's a man from the
neighborhood, he's a man that the family knows?
Ms. SEBOLD: Definitely. I don't--I mean, in my own personal belief, you
can't write a good character unless you have both compassion and respect for
them. So Mr. Harvey, who is the killer in the book, yes, I have great
compassion for him. There are moments where he attempts to try to do things
other than what his drive or his instinct is telling him to do by counting
things obsessively or building things. So he resists up until the point where
he's no longer able to resist. And, you know, that is a--you can have
compassion without forgiveness, and I think that's what I would say.
GROSS: Were you able to find that kind of compassion for the man who raped
Ms. SEBOLD: I would say eventually, certainly not immediately. But, you
know, we're all born into this world in very different ways and we have
different experiences of it, and I don't know a lot about him, but some of the
things I do know led me to feel compassion for him. There are also many
people who had much more worse circumstances than he did that had managed not
to go out and rape people. But that doesn't mean you can't have compassion
for them. I don't forgive him, but, you know, he's a human being. You have
to move on. You know, it's just as simple as that. And so you find a way to
move on, and having compassion for people just in general is a good way to
live in life.
GROSS: Well, Alice Sebold, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SEBOLD: Thank you.
GROSS: Alice Sebold is the author of the new novel "The Lovely Bones." She's
also the author of a 1999 memoir called "Lucky."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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