This Day In Literary History
On September 6th, 1963, the famous American writer Alice Sebold was born. She was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. After graduating from Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Alice enrolled at the University of Syracuse.
Her professors, including Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher, and Tobias Wolff, would become her literary mentors. It was during her freshman year at university that a horrific event occurred which would change her forever.
Late one night, on May 8th, 1981, Alice Sebold was walking through a park en route to her off-campus apartment when she was attacked by a rapist. She survived the attack and reported the crime to police.
The police told her that a young woman had been raped and murdered in the same area. They suspected that the murderer was the same man who had raped Alice. She was lucky to be alive.
Five months after her rape, while the investigation was still ongoing, Alice was walking down a street near her campus when she spotted a man whom she recognized as her rapist. He smirked at her and quipped that he knew her "from somewhere."
She immediately informed the police, who found the man and arrested him. At the trial, Alice bravely testified against her rapist. He was convicted and given the maximum sentence. After the conviction, someone broke into Alice's off-campus apartment and raped her roommate.
After graduating from the University of Syracuse, Alice Sebold moved to Texas to do her graduate work at the University of Houston. Still traumatized by her rape, she dropped out of school.
She fell into drug addiction, using heroin on and off for two years. After leaving Houston, she moved to Manhattan, where she lived for ten years. She determined to kick her drug habit. She also determined to become a writer.
Alice got off drugs and worked as a waitress to support herself. She wanted to tell her own story, to give other rape victims encouragement and hope. She moved to Southern California.
For a time, she worked as caretaker of an arts colony, living in a cabin in the woods. It had no electricity, so she wrote by the light of a propane lamp. Later, in 1995, she enrolled at the University of California, Irvine to finally finish her graduate work.
By 1999, her first book, a memoir of her experience as a rape victim, was published. Remembering how the police had told her how lucky she was to be alive, she titled her book Lucky. In it, she poignantly described how the rape affected not just her, but her family and friends as well.
She speculated that the rape of her roommate at their apartment, committed shortly after the conviction of her own rapist, was an act of retaliation - a theory that the police were never able to prove.
After the publication of Lucky, Alice Sebold began working on another book - her first novel. In it, she told the story of another victim of a horrible crime, but with an intriguing twist.
Narrated by the spirit of a recently murdered teenage girl, The Lovely Bones (2002) opens in December of 1973 with 14-year-old Susie Salmon walking home from school. Along the way, she takes a shortcut through a cornfield.
There, Susie runs into her neighbor, George Harvey - a 36-year-old loner who builds dollhouses for a living. He lures her away, then rapes and murders her. Then he dismembers her body, later dumping her remains in a sinkhole.
Meanwhile, Susie's spirit ascends to Heaven - a surreal, tranquil afterlife seemingly customized for each individual soul - where she watches how her murder affects her family and friends.
Despite the strong circumstantial evidence, Susie's parents refuse to believe that she's dead until her remains are discovered. While investigating Susie's murder, the police question her killer, George Harvey. He strikes them as a weirdo, but they don't suspect him of murder.
However, Susie's father, Jack, and her younger sister, Lindsey, do suspect that Harvey is the killer. Susie's four-year-old little brother Buckley can sometimes see her watching from her heaven.
When Lindsey sneaks into Harvey's house and finds some incriminating evidence, the police still refuse to arrest him, satisfied with his explanation. This enables him to leave town before the police can close in on him.
By the time evidence is discovered proving conclusively that Harvey murdered Susie Salmon and had killed other girls before her, he has fled to stalk more young victims.
Susie meets some of Harvey's other victims in Heaven. Curious as to why he killed her and them, Susie looks into his past and experiences his memories of his horrific childhood. She also sees how he has struggled to resist his compulsion to kill and failed miserably.
As she watches over her family, Susie witnesses the destruction of her parents' marriage, as her mother, Abigail, has an affair with the police detective in charge of Susie's case.
Later, Abigail walks out on her husband and children, ultimately moving to California. Her mother, Grandma Lynn, moves in to help care for the children. Buckley is deeply hurt and angered by his mother's selfishness.
When Susie is granted the ability to return to life briefly, she temporarily switches places with her former classmate Ruth Connors so she can make love to Ruth's boyfriend, Ray Singh - Susie's childhood sweetheart, the first boy she ever kissed.
Eventually, Susie decides to move on to another part of Heaven, watching her family occasionally over the years, hoping that they'll be able to come together and help each other heal and move on.
The novel ends with Susie's family finally beginning to heal. Her killer, George Harvey, who was never caught by the police, is killed in a freak accident while stalking his latest victim. But was it really an accident?
Unlike Lucky, which had only been modestly successful, The Lovely Bones became an overnight sensation and runaway bestseller. It sold over a million copies and stayed on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list for over a year.
It won Alice Sebold the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award, as well as the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. Some Christian fundamentalists complained about the author's concept of the afterlife.
They agreed with critic Philip Hensher, who said it was, "a very God-free heaven, with no suggestion that anyone has been judged, or found wanting." Most readers felt that Sebold's concept of the afterlife was fascinating.
In 2009, The Lovely Bones was adapted as a feature film by director Peter Jackson, best known for his Lord of the Rings series and his dreadful remake of the classic film, King Kong.
The reviews for the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones were largely negative. Most fans of the novel hated the movie, which took great liberties with the story. They hated the cinematography, the special effects, and Jackson's inept yet pretentious direction.
Stephanie Zacharek, film critic for Salon.com, opined that the movie was "an expensive-looking mess that fails to capture the mood and the poetry of its source material, [with] good actors fighting a poorly conceived script, under the guidance of a director who can no longer make the distinction between imaginativeness and computer-generated effects."
The late, legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave it 1.5 out of 4 stars, calling it "Deplorable... the makers of this film seem to have given slight thought to the psychology of teenage girls... and none at all to the likelihood that if there is [an afterlife,] it will not resemble a happy gathering of new Facebook friends."
Alice Sebold's most recent novel, The Almost Moon was published in 2007. Beginning with the line "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily," it told the story of Helen Knightly, an artist's model and divorcee, who murders her mother - an agoraphobic now suffering from severe dementia - by smothering her with a towel.
What at first seems like an almost unconscious act committed to end her mother's suffering may really be the fulfillment of a long buried desire for vengeance. After killing her mother, Helen recalls memories of her entire life and her desperate attempts to win the love of a woman who, despite giving birth to her, never had any love for her.
Quote Of The Day
"There’s no condition one adjusts to so quickly as a state of war." - Alice Sebold
Today's video features Alice Sebold discussing her classic debut novel The Lovely Bones on The Charlie Rose Show. Enjoy!