The Tortured Bond of Alice Sebold and the Man Wrongfully Convicted of Her Rape
By Rachel Aviv
A few months ago, the writer Alice Sebold began to experience a kind of vertigo. She looked at a cup on the table, and it no longer appeared solid. Her vision fractured. Objects multiplied. Her awareness of depth shifted suddenly. Sometimes she glanced down and for a split second felt that there was no floor.
Sebold and I had recently begun corresponding, a little more than a year after she learned that the wrong man had been sent to prison, in 1982, for raping her. In 1999, she had published "Lucky," a best-selling memoir about the rape and the subsequent conviction of a young Black man named Anthony Broadwater. Then she wrote "The Lovely Bones," a novel about a girl who is raped and murdered, which has been described as the most commercially successful début novel since "Gone with the Wind." But now Sebold had lost trust in language. She stopped writing and reading. Even stringing together sentences in an e-mail felt like adopting "a sense of authority that I don't have," she said.
Sebold, who is sixty, recognized that her case had taken a deeply American shape: a young white woman accuses an innocent Black man of rape. "I still don't know where to go with this but to grief and to silence and to shame," she wrote to me.
In February, I met Sebold in San Francisco for the first time. She lives alone with her dog. She wore fingerless woollen gloves and kept the lights off; her living room was lit by a window. Several times she started explaining something she’d once thought, and then stopped, midsentence. Although she’d quickly accepted the news that Broadwater was innocent, she felt as if she had "strapped on the new reality" and was still in the process of inhabiting it. She allowed that her experience with vertigo represented a kind of psychological progress: she was absorbing the fact that "there was no ground when I thought there was ground," she said. "There's that sense of standing up and immediately needing to sit down because you’re going to fall over."
She was fearful of taking in new details too quickly. "It's not just that the past collapses," she said. "The present collapses, and any sense of good I ever did collapses. It feels like it's a whole spinning universe that has its own velocity and, if I just stick my finger in it, it will take me—and I don't know where I’ll end up."
She was struggling to figure out what to call Broadwater. She had avoided his name for forty years. "Broadwater" felt too cold. "Anthony" felt like a level of closeness she didn't deserve. And yet their lives were intertwined. "The rapist came out of nowhere and shaped my entire life," she said. "My rape came out of nowhere and shaped his entire life."
Sebold and Broadwater had defined themselves through stories that were in conflict. But Broadwater, too, felt that they were bound together, the same moments creating the upheaval in their lives. "We both went through the fire," he said. "You see movies about rape and the young lady is scrubbing herself in the shower, over and over. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Damn, I feel the same way.’ Will it ever be gone from my memory, my mind, my thoughts? No. And it's not going to be gone for her, either."
Sebold was raped in a pedestrian tunnel in a park around midnight on May 8, 1981, the last day of her freshman year at Syracuse University. "I heard someone walking behind me," she wrote in an affidavit. "I started to walk faster and was suddenly overtaken from behind and grabbed around the mouth." When she tried to run away, the man yanked her by the hair, dragged her along a brick path, pounded her skull into the ground, and said he’d kill her if she screamed. Eventually, she stopped resisting and tried to intuit what he wanted. "He worked away on me," she wrote in "Lucky." "I became one with this man."
She walked back to her dorm, bleeding, and a student called an ambulance. According to a medical exam, her nose was lacerated, her urine was bloody, and her clothes and hair were matted with dirt and leaves. When she was interviewed by the police that morning, she said that her rapist was a Black man, "16-18 yrs. of age, small and muscular build." In the affidavit, she wrote, "I desire prosecution in the event this individual is caught." But the detective on her case seemed skeptical of her account—he wrote, without explanation, that it did not seem "completely factual"—and recommended that "this case be referred to the inactive file."
Sebold went home for the summer to a suburb of Philadelphia, where she rarely changed out of her nightgown. Friends from her parents’ church, where her mother was a warden, were told of the rape and treated her as if she had contracted a spiritual disease. Sebold saw herself as a misfit, an "earthy loose cannon," she said, and felt that being raped confirmed her separateness. She sensed that her father believed she was at fault somehow, for walking through a park at night alone. Her parents wanted her to drop out of Syracuse and spend her sophomore year at a small Catholic college near home, but she had been accepted into classes that fall with the writers Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff, and she didn't want to lose the chance to study with them. Even during the rape, she was aware that she would eventually write about it. "It was one of the ways that I stayed with myself," she told me. "There's that thing where you shut down, but you don't want to disappear, so you reach out for the thing that connects you to life, and for me it was words, language, writing."
In the fall, Gallagher, a poet, introduced herself to Sebold's class by singing a ballad. She instructed her students to write "poems that mean," a phrase that Sebold jotted down in her notebook. She felt that Gallagher, the partner of Raymond Carver, who also taught at the university, embodied the transcendence of a life devoted to writing. Carver was such a celebrity on campus that, to discourage students from stopping by their home at all hours, he and Gallagher hung a cardboard sign from their door that read "No visitors please," with a picture of eyes squinting in concentration.
For her first assignment, Sebold turned in an opaque five-page poem that alluded to the rape. The other students didn't pick up on the metaphor, and at office hours Gallagher proposed that Sebold write a poem with a more straightforward conceit: it should begin with the line "If they caught you." Gallagher told me, "I realize now that that was rather dangerous, because I’m not a psychiatrist, but writing comes out of a being, and you must minister to the being. I saw her anger and lostness, and I had to make a way for the condition—that essential condition of having been violated—to find speech."
In the class the following week, Sebold read aloud a poem, heavily influenced by Sylvia Plath, called "Conviction," which was addressed to her rapist. "If they caught you," she wrote. "Long enough for me / to see that face again, / maybe I would know / your name." She went on, "Come to me, Come to me, / Come die and lie, beside me."
The next week, before her workshop with Tobias Wolff, Sebold was picking up a snack on the main street near campus when she saw a man who looked like her rapist. "I was hyperaware," she wrote in "Lucky." "I went through my checklist: right height, right build, something in his posture." A few minutes later, she saw the man crossing the street toward her. "Hey," the man said. "Don't I know you?" He was actually talking to a police officer named Paul Clapper, who was behind Sebold, but she thought he was addressing her, and she suddenly felt certain that he had been on top of her in the tunnel, and that he was mocking her, because he’d got away. She couldn't speak. "I needed all my energy to focus on believing I was not under his control again," she wrote. She walked away quickly and heard him laughing.
She hurried to class and told Wolff that she had to miss the workshop. "She was utterly distraught," Wolff said, "and she told me that she had been raped and that she had just seen her rapist down on Marshall Street and that he had spoken to her." Wolff told her, "You’ve got to call the police right now." The author of memoirs about the Vietnam War and a tumultuous childhood, he had a kind of mantra: "Hold on to the memories, keep everything straight." He shared that advice with Sebold.
She rushed back to her dorm room, "every nerve ending pushing out against the edges of my skin," to call the police. As she walked, "I became a machine," she wrote. "I think it must be the way men patrol during wartime, completely attuned to movement or threat. The quad is not the quad but a battlefield where the enemy is alive and hiding. He waits to attack the moment you let your guard down. The answer—never let it down, not even for a second."
The scene is a devastating portrait of the nightmare-like state that post-traumatic stress disorder can induce. Previously, when Sebold had seen men who even vaguely resembled her rapist, she had felt sick. On some level, she wrote, she knew that these people hadn't raped her, but described how eerie it was that "I feel like I’ve lain underneath all these men." This time, her terror solidified into a firm belief.
The moment of recognition was perhaps amplified by the wild, magical hopes that can accompany the act of writing. Sebold had looked to Gallagher as a kind of good witch of art, the sort of writer and woman she wished to be. Now Sebold had made literal Gallagher's instruction to write "poems that mean." She had summoned her rapist.
Sebold sketched the man's face, and the Syracuse Police Department issued an alert to its officers. Clapper, the cop who had been chatting with him, recognized the description. Nine days later, Anthony Broadwater, who was twenty years old, was arrested. One of six brothers, Broadwater had left the Marine Corps to take care of his father, a former janitor at Syracuse, who was dying of cancer. His mother had died of pneumonia when he was five, and he and his brothers had been dispersed among various relatives. Broadwater was working as a telephone installer. He couldn't remember what he’d been doing when Sebold was raped, nearly five months earlier, but, he told the police, "I know I wasn't doing that." He had greeted Clapper because he remembered him as a rookie cop who used to patrol his neighborhood.
Five days after the arrest, Gallagher went to the courthouse with Sebold for a hearing. After Sebold testified, a memo from the district attorney's office reported, "She makes a very good appearance, handled herself very well on cross-examination, and was very cool and collected." A judge ruled that the prosecution could move forward. Sebold called her parents to tell them the news. "I could see her trying to talk with them, and it was very awkward," Gallagher told me. "I just felt they weren't responsive in some way. They could not connect with what was happening to her. I could feel that she was unprotected."
Two weeks later, Sebold was asked to identify Broadwater in a lineup. He was the fourth in a line of five Black men wearing jail uniforms. Sebold identified the fifth man. After signing a form that confirmed her decision, she felt a wave of nausea. She sensed that she’d made the wrong choice. The detective on her case looked downcast and told her, "You were in a hurry to get out of there," according to her account in "Lucky."
The assistant district attorney, Gail Uebelhoer, was a thirty-one-year-old pregnant woman whom Sebold saw as another role model, her guide through a court system dominated by men. Sebold felt that she had failed Uebelhoer. But, Sebold writes in "Lucky," Uebelhoer reassured her that her mistake was understandable. "Of course you chose the wrong one," Uebelhoer said. "He and his attorney worked to make sure you’d never have a chance." She said that Broadwater had intentionally duped her by asking an almost identical-looking friend from jail to stand in the No. 5 spot and stare at her, to scare and fluster her. (In fact, Broadwater was not friends with the man in the No. 5 spot, and they did not look the same.) In a memo, Uebelhoer wrote that Sebold had chosen the wrong man because he was "a dead ringer for defendant."
Broadwater's attorney, Steven Paquette, assumed that the case would be dismissed. He was shocked when Uebelhoer presented it to a grand jury that day. He wondered if she was trying to compensate for the indifference with which the police had originally met Sebold's account of her rape. "I think she may have been driven by a feeling of ‘Darn it, this isn't going to happen to this young lady again,’ " Paquette said. (Uebelhoer didn't respond to requests for an interview.)
On the witness stand, Sebold tried to explain her error. "Five did look at me almost in a way as if he knew me even though I realized you really can't see through the mirror," she said. "I don't know, I was very scared, but I picked five basically because he was looking at me and his features are very much like No. 4."
"You picked him out of the lineup," a juror said to her. "Are you absolutely sure that this is the one?"
"No, five I am not absolutely sure," she said. "It was between four and five, but I picked five because he was looking at me."
"So then, what you are saying, you are not absolutely sure that he was the one?" the juror asked.
When Clapper testified, a juror asked him, "When someone is picked out of a lineup, doesn't it have to be absolutely sure that the person that they picked out of the lineup is the one they’ve seen before?"
"That's correct," Clapper responded.
Uebelhoer cut him off. "He really can't give you an opinion on that," she said.
Broadwater was indicted after Uebelhoer told the grand jury that a pubic hair found on Sebold's body during her rape examination matched a sample of Broadwater's hair. Then she read from the medical records, saying that Sebold had been a virgin.
When Paquette offered to show Broadwater photographs taken of Sebold on the night of the rape, as preparation for the trial, Broadwater felt tainted even being near such a crime. He refused to look at the pictures.
Paquette recommended that Broadwater choose a bench trial, because he thought it was likely that a jury would be all white. Paquette assumed that a judge, confronted with the story of a Black man raping a virginal white college student, would be more impartial.
At the trial, Broadwater was the only person to testify for the defense.
"When is the first time that you ever saw Alice Sebold?" Paquette asked him.
"Just today," he said. "Never seen her before."
He explained that he had a scar on his face and a chipped tooth, neither of which Sebold had included in her description of her rapist. But she never heard him testify, because the trial had been scheduled for the same day as her sister's college graduation. The trial date couldn't be changed, and her parents said she couldn't miss the ceremony.
The trial lasted only two days, and Sebold came for the second day. Her father, a professor of Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania, accompanied her but mostly stayed in the lobby, reading a book in Latin. Her mother didn't come. Sebold had no friends there, either. At the time, she said, "I felt more identified with people I had met in the criminal-justice system than I did with my peers." On campus, she said, she had to pretend to be a normal student, but in the courtroom "I could exist as a person who had been raped."
Sebold felt that, in order to save herself from being murdered, she had been forced to participate in her own rape. On the witness stand, she described how she helped the man undress her; she had to kiss him and give him oral sex, so that he could maintain an erection. After he finished, "he told me that he wanted to hug me," she said. "I wouldn't come near him. So he came over and pulled me back to the wall and hugged me and apologized for that, he said, ‘I am sorry, and you were a good girl.’ " Then he asked her name. "I couldn't think of anything else, because I was very scared," she said. "I said ‘Alice,’ and he said, ‘It is nice knowing you, Alice, and I will be seeing you around.’ "
To draw attention to the biases inherent in the proceedings, Paquette asked Sebold, "How many Black people do you see in the room?"
"I see one Black person," she answered. Except for Broadwater, everyone in the courtroom was white.
"The whole thing made me uncomfortable," she wrote in "Lucky." "But this wouldn't be the first time, or the last, that I wished my rapist had been white."
During a brief recess, the judge, who had four daughters, chatted with Sebold and asked about her family and what her father did for a living. Immediately after the closing statements, the judge pronounced Broadwater guilty. None of Broadwater's friends or family came to the trial. His cousin Delores said, "We knew he wasn't chosen in the lineup. We knew he didn't have a mind-set to do something like that." They expected him to be acquitted. When the judge sentenced Broadwater to between eight and twenty-five years in prison, he was numb.
Sebold felt uneasy that, at the trial, she had been transformed into "a character that was already not me," she said. In court, she heard the word "virgin" so often, she said, that it "clanged in my ear." But she also felt that she’d done something important by seeing the case through. In the year after the trial, the Syracuse Herald American reported, the district attorney's office lost nine rape cases in a row. "There was a sense of pride," Orren Perlman, a friend of Sebold's, told me. She could have "collapsed into incredible shame, but she was really able to tolerate it and to show up."
Broadwater appealed the verdict, arguing that Sebold had a "reduced ability to perceive objects accurately due to the fear she felt during and after the attack." At the time, there was only limited recognition of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony. Since then, studies have shown that roughly a third of eyewitness identifications are incorrect, and that, when the defendant and the witness are not the same race, the witness is fifty per cent more likely to be mistaken. Broadwater argued that Sebold had "probably added the person she saw on the street in Syracuse to the mental file of her assailant." His appeal was denied.
He spent the first few months of his sentence at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, nicknamed Gladiator School, in Comstock, New York. Many of the men there had just been sentenced. "The hatred, the frustration, the pain, the disbelief—it was all manifesting," he told me. Later, he was moved to Auburn prison, where a close friend of his from Syracuse was killed in the kitchen while he stood next to him, protecting himself with a baking tray.
As a convicted sex offender, Broadwater was targeted by other prisoners. Each time he was transferred to a new prison, he said, "I would try to prevent some incident by asking, ‘Hey, who's the head of the Latin Kings? Who's the head of the Aryan Nation? Listen, they need to read this.’ " He would give gang leaders pages from his appeal and transcripts from his trial. "That was the only way I could really save my life," he said. At Attica prison, an imam read parts of his transcript aloud to his cell block. Preparing for the worst, Broadwater made a weapon out of tuna-fish cans that he put inside two socks. But, after the imam finished reading, men came up to him and said, "You shouldn't be in prison, man."
Sebold did not know that Broadwater had appealed his conviction. The D.A.'s office never informed her, she said, and she never followed up herself: "I thought it would be a negative thing, psychologically. I wanted to live my own life."
After college, she enrolled in the writing program at the University of Houston, to study poetry, but she felt adrift. She began doing drugs, and dropped out. She moved to Manhattan and lived in a low-income housing development in the East Village, where she often used heroin. In "Lucky," she describes her realization that she did not share her life with the students at Syracuse or with the friends she’d made in New York. "I share my life with my rapist," she wrote.
In 1989, while teaching freshman composition at Hunter College, she published an article in the Times titled "Speaking of the Unspeakable," which described the "degree of denial and prettification" that surrounds the crime of rape. "Even my own father, who has spent his life working with young people, confessed to me that he did not understand how I could have been raped if I didn't ‘want to’ be," she wrote. "I am alive but eight years later, I can still see and smell that tunnel. And eight years later, it remains true that no one wants to know what happened."
After the piece was published, Oprah Winfrey asked Sebold to appear on an episode of her TV show devoted to rape. Onstage, Sebold looked strikingly beautiful. She wore black pants, a black blouse, and black dagger-like earrings, and her dark hair was pulled up in a high ponytail. "The reason I came today is I think the most important thing we are doing today is telling the story of individual rape victims," she said in a low, deep voice. "That's the first step in getting over all of this."
At Winfrey's request, Sebold recounted the story of seeing her rapist months after the attack.
"And so when he came up to you on the street, was it an approach to—let's go somewhere?" Winfrey asked.
"I think he was just having fun," Sebold responded. "I kept walking, because I was very scared." She added, "And then I pursued an I.D."
"I don't understand how you I.D.’d," Winfrey said.
"What do you mean?" Sebold asked.
"Because you didn't know his name," Winfrey said. "How did you find him, how did you know, I mean—"
"Right. Well he came up and walked up to me, and the policeman was there, so I told the policeman, and then we pursued from that point."
Winfrey still seemed confused. "And the policeman believed you, obviously," she said.
Three years later, Sebold learned that her Times essay had been quoted in "Trauma and Recovery," a groundbreaking book by the psychiatrist Judith Herman. At the time, post-traumatic stress disorder was largely seen as a syndrome affecting male combat veterans—it didn't become an official diagnosis until 1980, the year that Sebold entered college—but Herman argued that trauma could be caused by more intimate forms of violence, too. She wrote that sexual assault could provoke the same symptoms as witnessing death on the battlefield: flashbacks, dissociation, shame, social isolation, a sense of being trapped in the past. She quoted Sebold in a chapter that described how "traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than to the living."
Sebold felt that Herman's book explained the past decade of her life. She went to the library and spent a week reading first-person accounts by veterans of Vietnam. "Somehow, reading these men's stories allowed me to begin to feel," she wrote.
In 1990, after eight years in prison, Broadwater was granted a hearing before a parole board. "I want to prove to myself and the people in the city of Syracuse that it wasn't me," he told the board's commissioners. "I feel a crime like that every day, every night," he went on. "It hurts me, hurts me just to be convicted of a crime like that." He explained that he could have been working and saving money during these years. "I accept the fact it's going to always be with me," he told the board. His parole was denied.
Two years later, he went before the board again. He had gone to sex-offender counselling, to improve his chances of getting parole. A commissioner asked what he talked about in counselling, given his claim of innocence.
"Well, sir, the crime was done," Broadwater answered. "I was punished for it. I must live with that."
"That wasn't my question," the commissioner said. "My question is, what kind of responses do you give when the question was asked, why was this crime committed?"
"Well, sir, there is the problem," Broadwater said. "If I’m convicted of it, yes, I’ve been going through the stages for it, yes."
"You’re still vacillating as to whether or not you committed the crime," the commissioner said. "They can't treat you unless you first come to the threshold of acknowledgment of guilt."
"Well, sir, the fact that I am guilty of being convicted of a crime—"
"No, no one is guilty of being convicted of a crime," the commissioner interrupted. "Either you’re guilty of committing the crime or you’re not guilty of committing the crime. You’re talking in circles when you talk about being guilty of being convicted of committing a crime."
Broadwater tried to find something else for which he could accept responsibility. If he was released, he would make sure "to have all my time accountable," he said. "In case, you know, something like this arises or I be arrested or I’m being questioned for a crime again." The board denied him parole, citing the fact that he couldn't acknowledge his guilt.
Two years later, the board gave him another chance. "I presume after reading the minutes of your last Board appearance two years ago that you still maintain that you did not commit this crime," a commissioner said. "Is that correct?"
"Well, Ma’am, the last time I answered that question, I was hit with twenty-four months," he said. "I’m afraid to say anything."
"I understand that you are in a Catch-22," the commissioner said. Broadwater couldn't get accepted into additional sex-offender treatment programs, which were a requirement for parole, he was told, "because you refuse to acknowledge that you committed the crime."
"And according to what we have in front of us, you are guilty of this crime."
He was denied parole again. The commissioner concluded that "the limited sex offender programming you have participated in does not rise to a level commensurate with the severity of your crime."
On "Oprah," Sebold had explained that she could not have endured her rape "if I didn't separate myself and look down and watch." When she was thirty-two, she enrolled in the master's writing program at the University of California, Irvine, and began writing a novel about a girl named Susie Salmon, who exists in this dissociated state. After being raped and murdered in the first chapter, Susie spends the rest of the novel in Heaven, observing from above as the people she knows continue with their lives. A celestial "intake counselor" tells Susie that she can observe other people living but "you won't experience it." Susie comes to understand that "life is a perpetual yesterday."
Sebold put the novel aside when she realized that she was trying to wedge in everything she wanted to say about rape. For a long time, she’d been frustrated that, when rape appeared in literature, the crime was described through poetic deflection. She wanted to "just put it all out on the table," she said. Sebold got a grant from the university to go to Syracuse and research her rape, for a memoir. Gail Uebelhoer no longer worked in the D.A.'s office, but she met Sebold there. She pulled out a large plastic zipper bag with the underpants that Sebold had worn the night she was raped, which still had blood on them, and showed her pictures and documents from her file. Sebold was allowed to look at only some of the material. "Gail ended up being that filter for me," she said.
In a class taught by Geoffrey Wolff, the director of the graduate fiction program, Sebold submitted the first sixty pages of what became "Lucky." "My god this is good," Wolff wrote to her in a letter. He was astonished by her ability to describe the rape's "daily intersection with your character, your choices, your ferocious will to comprehend." Her work reminded him of the "great good mystery of writing, why it matters to read, why it heals to write."
His brother is Tobias Wolff, Sebold's former professor at Syracuse. Both men had written childhood memoirs with conflicting portraits of their parents, an experience that had made Geoffrey acutely aware of the limitations of a writer's perspective. "There are always other people in that room, too," he said. But it never occurred to him that "Lucky," of which he read many drafts, should try to capture Broadwater's experience. "Shame on me," he said. "The idea that it was the wrong guy didn't enter my mind, so I didn't give a shit about his point of view."
"Lucky," which opens with a meticulous reconstruction of the rape, was published in 1999 to quiet praise. Sebold detailed her failure to discriminate between the men standing in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the lineup, as well as Uebelhoer's justification for her error, but readers did not publicly question her rendering of Broadwater's guilt. (In the book, she refers to Broadwater by a pseudonym.) In Elle, the novelist Francine Prose wrote, "Reading Lucky, you understand how Sebold succeeded in persuading a judge that what happened to her occurred precisely—word for word, detail for detail—the way she described it."
Three years after "Lucky" came out, Sebold, who had recently married a writer from her master's program, published her novel about Susie Salmon, "The Lovely Bones." The novel sold more than ten million copies and was adapted into a movie by Peter Jackson. The World Trade Center had just been attacked, and critics wondered if readers were perhaps uniquely receptive to the story of an innocent person who suffers a harrowing death and then learns how to adapt to the afterlife. "The response to ‘The Lovely Bones’ has been like a big, collective sigh of ‘That's just what we needed,’ " Laura Miller wrote in Salon.
"Lucky" was subsequently reissued in paperback and ended up selling more than a million copies. Sebold was surprised to learn that Uebelhoer was speaking to book clubs that were reading the memoir. Uebelhoer sent Sebold a packet of printouts about "Lucky" that she shared when she spoke with readers. "I love meeting with book clubs because it not only gets Alice's story out there," Uebelhoer wrote in an e-mail to a filmmaker, "but it also increases sales of her book!"
Paquette, Broadwater's attorney, read the memoir after hearing about it from a colleague. He was taken aback by what Uebelhoer had told Sebold about the lineup, but he said, "Twenty years later, it didn't occur to me that a chapter of a book about misconduct would be something to act on." He hadn't spoken with Broadwater since he went to prison.
In 1998, Broadwater was at the Mid-State Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison near Utica, when he was asked again to meet with the parole board. This time, he told a jail administrator that he was declining the opportunity. He understood that, unless he took blame for the rape, the parole board wouldn't release him. He had nine more years until he hit the maximum sentence.
Several months later, an officer came to his cell and told him to pack up, because he was going home. "I know you’re joking," he told the officer. "Leave me alone." Broadwater figured that he had been given a disciplinary charge and was being transferred to a maximum-security prison. He gathered his legal records in a manila envelope and packed a few belongings. Then officials handed him paperwork to sign. He had been in prison for sixteen years and seven months and had reached his conditional release date, which is determined by a committee that considers a person's record in prison. "When that last gate buzzed open—Lord have mercy," he said. "You don't think you will do it, but I did what everybody does. I knelt down, and I kissed that ground. I said, ‘Lord, I’m free, and I’m going to stay free for the rest of my life.’ "
Broadwater was thirty-eight. He moved in with a cousin, whose mother was the only person who had regularly sent him letters while he was in prison. His father had died, and his brothers hadn't kept in touch. He applied for temp jobs, but, as a registered sex offender with a sixteen-year gap in his work history, he was rejected. He bought a nineteen-dollar shovel from a hardware store and began clearing people's driveways after snowstorms. When winter ended, he mowed their lawns.
He went to see a psychiatrist at a V.A. medical center about depression, but he was too ashamed to explain the cause of his distress: he didn't want female doctors to learn about the rape conviction and be afraid of him. He figured they’d think he was lying about his innocence. Instead, he spoke in vague terms about injustice in the world. He had nightmares and flashbacks, but, when therapists asked him to elaborate on his memories, he spoke of his mom's death or an injury in the military, leaving out the trauma that defined his life.
A year after his release, one of his cousins set him up with a woman named Elizabeth, who worked as a roofer. On their first night together, he told her that he wanted to be in a relationship with her but that she had to read his trial documents first. He slept on the couch while she spent the night in his bedroom with the transcripts. In the morning, she came into the living room where he was sleeping and said, crying, that she believed him.
They found jobs that they could do together, like roofing, janitorial, and factory work. They requested night shifts, because Broadwater wanted a potential alibi during what he called the "witching hours"—the time when most violent crimes occur. He was continually stunned that Elizabeth never left him for being a sex offender and never doubted his innocence. "That's basically how I kept my face up," he told me. But they decided not to have children, because they didn't want their child to grow up with the stigma of the crime.
He had been free for two years when the police knocked on his door, to ask him about an eighteen-year-old white woman named Jill-Lyn Euto, who had been murdered in her apartment in Syracuse. "I was scared to death," he said. "I said, ‘Oh no, not me—I work from six at night to six in the morning. I’m on the computer. I’m on camera.’ " The police didn't ultimately pursue him as a suspect, but the encounter made him so afraid that he didn't want to work anywhere with female employees. He worried that he might accidentally glance at a woman in a way that would be interpreted as staring, or that he might make a gesture that appeared aggressive. "I’m always thinking, Maybe she knows," he said. "It is very painful and shameful." He became preoccupied with the mechanics of surveillance: he wanted jobs where he could punch into a clock, his movements recorded by cameras in each room. The idea of just being loose in the world, without a method of proving where he had been, was such a source of terror that sometimes he imagined he’d feel less anxiety if he was back in a jail cell.
After he had been out of prison for a few years, Elizabeth learned about "Lucky" and went to the public library to skim the book. Broadwater said, "She was trying to tell me things in the book, but I said, ‘I don't want to know. It's not about me. It's what happened to her. It don't pertain to me.’ "
In 2010, Jane Campion, the only woman to be nominated twice for the Academy Award for best director, called Sebold. Campion wanted to adapt "Lucky," which she had found "gripping, funny, devastating," she said. After Sebold agreed, Campion asked Laurie Parker, who had produced Campion's film "In the Cut," to write the screenplay.
Parker spent two years researching and writing the first portion of the script, which follows Sebold up to the point when she tells Tobias Wolff that she has seen her rapist. Once that part of the script had been approved, Parker began researching the next installment, which dramatized the criminal proceedings. But, after Parker read the trial transcripts, she felt disturbed that there wasn't more evidence. She had already interviewed Uebelhoer, the prosecutor, but she called her again to try to understand why the case had gone forward. Uebelhoer told Parker the same story about the lineup that Sebold narrates in "Lucky." "She also explained how few rapes made it to trial," Parker told me, "and how Alice really was a kind of Joan of Arc figure with the police, how they rallied around her, and how the judge seemed to feel fatherly toward her."
As Parker continued writing, she thought about an episode from her own life. When she was nineteen, living in San Francisco, an older man had sexually assaulted her. She became so afraid of encountering him in the city that she moved to Berkeley. Several months later, she was at a library and thought she saw the man in a study carrel. "I froze," she said. "It was a kind of out-of-body experience. I was tingling, and my face was tingling. It was the sort of terror that teleports you back to the original trauma." For about thirty minutes, she couldn't move. Finally, though, she had to leave for an appointment. As she walked out of the room, the man looked at her. "There was just no recognition at all," she said. "And then I saw it: I’m wrong. That is not the same person."
She had a "visceral but somewhat unconscious" sense, she said, that Sebold's certainty may have been unreliable, too. "Because I had experienced being wrong myself, I just had this fundamental feeling of the subjectivity of every single person involved." She didn't feel that she could write a script in which the actor shown raping Sebold appears on Marshall Street five months later. "I just felt that we couldn't perpetuate this story," she told me.
By the summer of 2014, after interviewing Paul Clapper and a few other Syracuse cops who knew about the case, Parker had reached the point where she felt that "there was so little evidence that it should not have resulted in a conviction," she said. She decided that the only way she felt comfortable telling the story was from a highly subjective point of view: the camera would be like a bird on the Sebold character's shoulder. In her script, Parker referred to the man on Marshall Street not as the rapist but as "SHORT MUSCULAR MAN," and never says if the man has been convicted. "That script had no objective perspective, no signifiers of any kind," she said.
When she submitted the script, she was told that it was not "viable." The project collapsed. Parker was a single mother, raising two children with special needs, and the movie could have transformed her career. Nevertheless, "there was a part of me that definitely didn't want to make the movie, and I’m aware of that," she said. "On some level, I probably knew that I was killing the project."
Not long afterward, Parker began volunteering in prisons, holding writing workshops. "I think that connection was pretty direct," she told me. "I felt like the perspective of the person who was convicted is not present, and it should be."
A year and a half later, James Brown, who had recently produced the Oscar-winning film "Still Alice," signed on to adapt "Lucky." One of his sisters had been the victim of an attempted rape, and Sebold's memoir had reshaped his understanding of the crime. Brown enlisted Karen Moncrieff, the writer and director of two well-regarded films about violence against women, to write the script. Moncrieff, who had a close friend who’d been raped, had wanted to adapt "Lucky" since it was published. "There really has not been a film that deals with the true experience of a rape survivor in a way that's honest, raw, unflinching and humane and isn't engineered to titillate on some level," she wrote to Brown in an e-mail, in 2017.
Moncrieff wrote a script that hewed closely to the book. The man that Sebold sees on Marshall Street is referred to as "RAPIST." When he's convicted, Sebold pours herself a shot and "suddenly lets out a celebratory whoop!"
But Moncrieff felt uncomfortable with the script. Since first reading the book, "something had shifted in my awareness," she said. Although "Lucky" had been praised for breaking taboos—it was recommended by psychologists and rape counsellors, and taught in colleges—there was also something traditional about the arc of the story: Sebold became a hero fighting for justice against an evil, unknowable stranger, who would pay for what he had done to her, with little consideration of the violence or fallibility of that form of payment. Sebold described the poem she’d written in Gallagher's workshop as a "permission slip—I could hate." But sometimes it reads as if she is repeating lines that she's been told, assenting to a kind of cultural belief in the redemptive power of getting revenge. The fantasy of the poem—"If they caught you"—was fulfilled. But, when they caught and punished him, she did not find the promised relief.
Before casting the rapist, Moncrieff found Broadwater's name and photograph on a registry of sex offenders. "This guy looked really sweet," she said. "He had the sweetest-looking eyes." She wanted to cast someone with a similarly welcoming face, so her casting directors brought in several young Black actors to audition, a process that involved pretending to rape someone. Moncrieff viewed the videos of the auditions from her home, in Los Angeles. She had felt conflicted by the idea of showing a Black man raping a white woman, and now she was ashamed to be looking at these interchangeable Black bodies. "It was fucking painful on so many levels," she told me. "None of these guys wanted to be there."
In April, 2021, her casting directors recommended a young Canadian actor named Adrian Walters. On a Zoom call, she showed Walters the picture of Broadwater from the sex-offender registry. "I remember feeling so heartbroken," Walters told me. "He just had these kind, unassuming eyes. He looked like someone I would have grown up with." Walters read the memoir and the script and then spent a week praying about whether to accept the role. "I remember something popped up on my TV when I was in contemplation," he said. "I heard something along the lines of ‘young Black person killed by the hands of police’ and whatnot. That was the moment where I got the sign I needed from God, saying, ‘No, you can't do this role. This will not be of service to people who look like you.’ "
When he explained his reasoning to Moncrieff, she decided that she could not move forward with the script. "Since going down this road, and then embarking on the reality of actually casting the part, I have tried to get with the program, but find that I just can't," she wrote to Brown. "That it is true doesn't make it The Truth."
She submitted a revised draft, which Brown accepted. In the new version, the rapist would be white.
In early June, 2021, the movie's actors were supposed to fly to Toronto to begin shooting. Victoria Pedretti was cast as Sebold, and Marcia Gay Harden as her mom. The movie's financier, Timothy Mucciante, was a disbarred attorney—he had spent about a decade in prison after being convicted of bank fraud and forgery of bonds—but he had been upfront about his past. Yet the funds to begin shooting never materialized. When the production team received a copy of a wire transfer from Mucciante that appeared to have been doctored—the font of the dollar signs didn't match—he was terminated from the project, and the shooting was called off. (Mucciante said that the font was altered inadvertently.)
Not long afterward, he asked his employees to investigate the details of Sebold's rape. James Rolfe, an associate producer for the company, said, "I told him to drop it. We’ll move on. But, as soon as control of the project was taken away from him, he wouldn't let go."
When his employees couldn't find information about the crime, Mucciante hired Dan Myers, a former sheriff who worked as a private investigator. Mucciante explained that he had doubted Sebold's story after the race of the rapist was changed in the script. "He wanted me to get him details of the actual rape—whether or not it even happened," Myers said.
Myers called Paul Clapper, the officer who had been talking to Broadwater on the street. "He mentioned the bad lineup," Myers said. Clapper suggested that the right man may not have been caught. "I got the impression that he had been dying to tell someone for quite a long time."
Broadwater was sixty and lived on the south side of Syracuse, across from a cemetery, in a house with broken windows covered by tarp. Myers found Broadwater in front of the house. He asked if Broadwater knew that people were making a movie about the woman he’d been convicted of raping.
"It's a lie," Broadwater said. "The whole conviction." He explained that, since his release, he’d been trying to find a lawyer to take his case. He’d paid three hundred dollars for a polygraph test, which he passed.
"Well, let me tell you something," Myers, who recorded the conversation, said. "Officer Clapper—you know who that is?"
When Broadwater was growing up, he responded, Clapper was an overbearing figure in the neighborhood who would "try to make you snitch."
"I talked to Clapper, and he believes in your innocence."
"The people that hired me want to help you," Myers said.
"Hell yeah." Broadwater's voice gathered strength. "I’m on board with that—hundred per cent." Broadwater said he’d give Myers all his legal documents. "This is something with my head, man, like a black shadow," he said. "Believe it or not, I want to write a book. I want to tell my story."
Myers shared what he’d learned with two Syracuse lawyers, Dave Hammond and Melissa Swartz, saying he believed that Broadwater was innocent. They both read "Lucky." "We were, like, Oh, my God, there's newly discovered evidence," Hammond said. What had been, for hundreds of thousands of readers, a story of justice was, in their eyes, a careful recounting of prosecutorial misconduct.
They wondered why Sebold didn't question the conviction when she was writing her book, but her confidence made more sense after they learned of Uebelhoer's involvement in researching and promoting it. Swartz, who had worked in a district attorney's office, said, "I’ve been on the other side, and I know the amount of trust and loyalty people feel for a prosecutor. And then that person is championing your book? It's like reaffirmation that the conviction was good."
Mucciante raised money for Hammond and Swartz to work on Broadwater's case. He also hired Red Hawk Films, a small production company, to make a documentary about Broadwater's quest to prove his innocence. It would be called "Unlucky." Broadwater signed a release giving Mucciante's company the exclusive right to his story.
When Sebold heard about Mucciante's efforts, she asked James Brown, the producer, what was happening. Brown described Mucciante's history of fraud and told Sebold, "Don't believe it. Put it out of your mind."
Swartz asked William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga district attorney, for whom she had previously worked, to read the transcript of Broadwater's trial and give her his opinion. The transcript was so short that Fitzpatrick read it in about an hour. "I was stunned," he told me. "I couldn't believe that, in 1981, in a non-jury trial, a guy could be convicted on that."
In October, 2021, he contacted Sebold, who by then felt that she was largely "done with rape," she said. After the #MeToo movement, she felt that she could retire from the cause as a younger generation took up the work. In an e-mail, Fitzpatrick explained that Broadwater had new lawyers who were filing a motion to vacate his conviction, based on newly discovered evidence. "You have done remarkable things in removing some of the barriers encountered by sexual assault victims," he wrote. "The problem is the hair testimony." He explained that the methodology used at trial had been discredited. In 2015, in one of the country's worst forensic scandals, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. acknowledged that, for two decades, forensic examiners had been applying erroneous standards to the comparison of hairs.
Sebold wrote back a few hours later, thanking him for keeping her updated. "It sounds like Broadwater's attorney is doing the right thing on behalf of her client and that there will be many steps going forward before there is an end result one way or another," she wrote. Sebold told me, "I was very passionate in my belief that he was guilty, and the last twenty years of no one saying anything would only underscore that."
A month later, Fitzpatrick e-mailed Sebold to say that he’d had a call with Gordon Cuffy, the judge who was reviewing Broadwater's motion, and Cuffy wanted to know if the scenes in "Lucky" describing the lineup—and the commentary by Uebelhoer after it—were accurate. In those passages, Fitzpatrick explained, "the inference could be drawn that you were coached on how to handle the issue at trial which is not an ethical approach by law enforcement."
Sebold responded, "I felt an immense responsibility to portray things as truthfully as I was capable of." She believed Uebelhoer had told her details about the lineup, she wrote, because "she had a natural understanding that knowing what was happening in the case helped center and soothe me."
Five days later, Fitzpatrick e-mailed Sebold again. "After a brief hearing moments ago Judge Gordon Cuffy vacated Mr. Broadwater's conviction," he wrote. The foundation of Broadwater's conviction, Cuffy had concluded, rested on a debunked hair analysis and a lineup that had been tainted. "There is much I can wish for," Fitzpatrick went on, "not the least of which is that 40 years ago a young woman had gotten home safely to her dorm. But she didn't. So I wish you peace and happiness and comfort in knowing you never deviated from doing the right thing."
Sebold's friend Orren Perlman went to her house after the exoneration and made food for her, but she couldn't talk about what had happened. (Sebold and her husband had divorced a decade earlier.) "It's like someone pulling a thread out of a sweater and the whole thing just falls away," Perlman said. When Sebold started to speak, "she’d be, like, ‘I have to stop.’ It was too much." She told her friends that she would never write again.
She tried not to look at the Internet, but she understood, from what friends shared, that she was being criticized online. It was easy to internalize the "voices of the Internet," she said, because they were amplifying "the voice that lies inside me." The headline of a Daily Mail story read, "She made millions off the story while he lived in windowless squalor." Perhaps there was an added level of urgency to the criticism, because it relieved the sense of group complicity—the hundreds of thousands of people who had read about Sebold's identification of Broadwater and had not been concerned. It was as if the book itself had become a kind of weathervane for where, two decades earlier, the publishing world and its readership had been in their understanding of crime and race. When pictures were published of Sebold walking her dog, carrying plastic bags for its poop, she stopped leaving her house. Friends took the dog, so that Sebold wouldn't have to go outside.
Eight days after the exoneration, Sebold, whose agent had found a crisis-communications consultant to help her, sent a one-page apology to Broadwater's lawyers, and then posted it on Medium. "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," she wrote. "My goal in 1982 was justice," she went on. "Certainly not to forever, and irreparably, alter a young man's life by the very crime that had altered mine." Bitch Media published an article titled "The Infuriating Failure of Alice Sebold's Apology," criticizing her for writing sentences in the passive voice. An article in UnHerd was titled "Alice Sebold's Empty Apology: I’ve Never Believed a Word She's Written." On the day that she published her apology, Scribner, which had legally vetted the book and reissued it in 2017, announced that it would stop distributing "Lucky."
Broadwater had assumed that Sebold knew about his attempts to prove his innocence, and just didn't care, but when he learned that no one had kept her abreast of his legal ordeal he felt less at odds with her. A wrongful conviction leaves wreckage in more than one direction. "I thank the good Lord I made it to a point where I’m strong enough mentally to say, ‘Hey, it was the court. It was the system. It's not the victim's fault,’ " he told me.
Sebold had written that she shared her life with her rapist, but she had also foisted a kind of unchosen intimacy on a different man. The unspeakable nature of rape, which Sebold struggled with for many years, had become Broadwater's burden, too. When people congratulated him on the exoneration, he said, they seemed not to realize that "I still carry the crime." He never uses the word "rape." "I won't say exactly what it was," he told me, "because that word is perplexing and humiliating, and it's too hard on people."
By the end of December, 2021, the "Unlucky" documentary had come to a halt. The crew refused to continue working, saying that they’d gone for more than a month without being paid and were owed nearly a hundred thousand dollars. (Mucciante said that he was withholding funds because he deemed some expenditures improper, among other reasons.)
Broadwater cut off contact, after a lunch meeting in which it seemed that Mucciante was focussed on the market value of a wrongful-conviction story. "I’d been thinking he was out for the goodness of proving my innocence, not knowing he had another agenda—profit, stuff like that," Broadwater said.
Brown, the producer of the movie "Lucky," wondered if whatever psychological characteristics had made Mucciante capable of conning people had also made him a different kind of reader. "I think that normal people who are equipped to feel empathy read the first chapter about Alice's rape—the most unimaginable horror you could possibly imagine—and become so fully on Alice's side that you don't pay attention to detail," he said. "But he could see through the emotional clutter of the experience."
Sebold has a box in her house labelled "R," for rape, where she keeps documents from the criminal proceedings, as well as her journals from that time. For the past year and a half, she has wanted to open it and reread the material but she finds that she can't. Several times, when I asked about her memories of the trial—how she made sense of her certainty as an eighteen-year-old, for instance—she would try very hard to answer, straining to offer a helpful remark, but she would seem to shut down. She could discuss the exoneration on a broader level, but "it's the details," she said. "It's the finding out of the details. I can't dive into it without losing a sense of who I even am. My perceptions of other people, my trust in myself. That I can fuck up so badly and not even know it."
Broadwater was disappointed that Sebold had not yet asked to meet him in person, but Sebold said that, when it comes to "identity destruction," she was pacing herself: she is working on sending him a letter first. She wants to directly confront the enormity of his trauma, which she said makes her own troubles feel comparatively small, but she is also aware that her brain is not yet in the place that she wishes it were in, to be ready for those granular details. From remarks that Broadwater made after the exoneration, she sensed that, despite everything he’d been through, he was a remarkable person, a fact that had made her feel both better and worse. In a room together, after forty years, Broadwater hoped to "compare notes," so that he could understand how the district attorney's office "duped her and kept her blind." When she envisioned the meeting, she expected that language would fail."We might do nothing but stare at the floor or weep," she said.
I thought that perhaps Sebold would have to repopulate her rape with a new face, to keep the memory intact, but she said she’d given up on the idea of narrative closure. She knew there was talk of other suspects who might have been her real rapist—"the ghost in this horror story," as she described him—but she wasn't sure she needed to know. She and Broadwater had both "gone from twenty years old to sixty years old in this time," she said. "What most people consider the prime of their life has started and finished." The window for making sense of it all through a story was over.
The philosopher Susan Brison, in "Aftermath," a book about her rape, describes how trauma "introduces a ‘surd’—a nonsensical entry—into the series of events in one's life." In the years after she was raped, Brison was always trying to keep the story of her attack straight, both to make sure that her rapist was found guilty and to regain a sense of control and coherence. In the book, she asks if holding on to one tight narrative may, "if taken too far, hinder recovery, by tethering the survivor to one rigid version of the past." She wonders if, after mastering the story, "perhaps one has to give it up, in order to retell it, without having to ‘get it right,’ without fear of betraying it."
Sebold had always defined herself as a " ‘books saved my life’ person," she said, but, since the exoneration, she had found it impossible to "return to the place where I perceive words as inherently kind and playful." Making sense of her trauma through writing was supposed to help make Sebold feel whole, a wish her writing professors encouraged, but, at a crucial moment when she was eighteen, her faith in literature may have got in the way of her ability to see and judge what was in front of her. Narratives about trauma can restore meaning so that the "surd" doesn't just sit there, destroying a person's beliefs about the world. But they can also provide unrealistic clarity, creating too singular a point of view, symmetries that don't exist. "What I thought was the truth and wrote about as the truth—which then was validated year after year for 20+ years as a never out-of-print title—was not only NEVER the TRUTH, but the truth resided with Anthony B," Sebold wrote to me. "He and his loved ones have held a lonely vigil all along."
Shortly after his exoneration, Broadwater sued the State of New York for wrongful imprisonment. He also filed a federal lawsuit for violation of his civil rights. "While a defendant would normally be left to speculate as to how a victim can pick out the wrong individual at a lineup but then be permitted to explain why they did so," the state lawsuit said, "the victim here published a book explaining in detail the events just after the lineup."
In February, the state settled with Broadwater, for five and a half million dollars. He and Elizabeth are looking to buy a house. They want about ten acres of land, in the country, near Syracuse. Previously, only a handful of friends had ever invited Broadwater and Elizabeth over. Now neighbors were stopping by their house throughout the day. One of Broadwater's brothers, whom he hadn't heard from in more than a decade, had invited them to stay at his house. "I tell her, ‘There's another reason and purpose for them inviting us now,’ " Broadwater said, when I met him and Elizabeth at Hammond's law office, in downtown Syracuse.
Since the exoneration, little in Broadwater's life has changed. He still has a self-imposed curfew of 7 p.m., unless he is working. "I have to prevent myself from being in harm's way," he told me. Recently, when a student at Syracuse University was assaulted, he called his lawyer, panicked that he might become a suspect. "You get tense, you start sweating, and then the adrenaline comes," he said.
When I described Sebold's sense that he was a remarkable person, he and Elizabeth began crying so hard that it took several minutes for them to start speaking again. I mentioned that Sebold wanted to write a letter to him. "I think it needs to be face to face," Elizabeth said, barely audibly. "If she's comfortable with it."
"I guess starting out with a letter would be pretty nice," Broadwater said. When Sebold wrote about her experience, he added, she should know that "I was part of it—whatever she's recollecting, each day and moment, I experienced it, too. I don't think I can judge her pain, but I know that for me it was war," he said, referring to the violence in prison. "I tell Liz, ‘I’m not normal,’ " he said.
Broadwater said that his psychiatrist at the V.A. center often asked him if he had suicidal thoughts, and recently it occurred to him that he no longer had to worry as much about being there for Elizabeth: she would be O.K. without him, because she could live on the money from the settlement.
"Hmm," Elizabeth said, sharply.
"My psychiatrist says, ‘Don't think like that,’ " he said.
Since his exoneration, Broadwater had finally been able to confide in his psychiatrist without worrying about whether his story would be believed. He could share the memories that were really haunting him. "Doubt," he said softly. "It creeps in and goes back out." ♦