A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy. -Edward P. Morgan
As I offer this quotation to you and read it again myself, I’m struck with the vicarious nature of the reading experience. People who know my reading habits will know that I’m not one to shy away from the controversial, the violent, the depressing, or the very ugly side of human experience—not in my reading at least. Books, especially non-fiction ones, take me to places I’ll never go and let me live lives that are nothing like my own. They let me touch the extremes of human existence. And they let me do it at a good, safe distance.
Reading Alice Sebold‘s Lucky, though, I found myself in one of the darkest places of my reading career. In Lucky, Sebold (author of 2002’s The Lovely Bones) tells her own story of being raped by a stranger at the end of her freshman year in college; she reports the incident, remains at school, and pursues prosecution of the man responsible. In this powerful memoir where she recounts the violence she experienced (a story that made me come this close to giving the gift of mace to all the 2009 graduates I know), Sebold also explores the surprising cross-section of reactions that come from family, friends, acquaintances, and herself: surprisingly, Mom and Dad don’t accompany her to the initial phases of the trial; her older sister maintains pangs of sibling rivalry; friends not able to stomach the experience are dismissed; her own clear-headed pursuit of justice careens off into the thicket of self-destruction.
This book made we wonder not, what would I have done if I had been attacked like Alice (that is a vision too frightening to entertain), but rather, what would I have done if I were Alice’s friend? Would the 19-year-old me have known the right words to say and the right things to do, the things that would have encouraged and empowered Alice? Would the 40 -year-old me know that “remember everything” is good advice to a young girl who can’t come to class because she’s off to i.d. her attacker? Would any incarnation of me have a voice, a presence, a mite to contribute to a person whose emotional terrain has been forever altered (though in ways it seems remarkably unaltered) by her experience?
I’ll continue to wonder, I think, glad that Alice had friends who offered her just the right words at just the right time. I’ll wonder, knowing that in a world colored by profound wrong, sometimes even the right words are the wrong words. I’ll wonder whether my words would ever be the right words, and I’ll hope that whatever they are, those words will never have to be spoken.