Gender and Force in the Media

The postmortal rape survivor and the paradox of female agency across different media: Alice Sebold’s novel "The Lovely Bones" and its 2009 film adaptation

by Laura-Marie von Czarnowsky, University of Cologne, Germany

1In a New York Times article from 1989, entitled “Hers: Speaking of the Unspeakable”, the at the time unknown writer Alice Sebold argues: “the wall of silence and assumptions that surround the crime are one of the most painful results of rape”. Thirteen years later, her first novel, [1] While The Lovely Bones was Sebold’s first novel, her first book was her 1999 memoir <i>Lucky</i>, in which she details her own rape as an 18 year-old college freshman at Syracuse University and the trial that followed. Sebold firmly rejects the notion of <i>The Lovely Bones</i> being a fictionalised therapy to come to terms with her own rape: “First of all, therapy is for therapy. Leave it there. Second, because you're a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something 'therapeutic' - oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you! After I'd started <i>The Lovely Bones</i>, I decided to break off and write <i>Lucky</i>, to make sure that Susie wasn't saying everything that I wanted to say about violent crime and rape” (Viner 2002) The Lovely Bones, topped the bestseller list, and directly challenged this silencing process. [2] <i>The Guardian’s</i> literary critic Ali Smith suggests that the huge commercial success of the book in the United States is due to the traumatic events of 9/11, providing the “reassurance and satisfaction of being able to hear the voice of the gone and to piece together the future after cataclysm” What sets The Lovely Bones apart from other fiction and non-fiction about sexual crimes against women is the unusual narrative setting employed by Sebold: Susie Salmon, aged 14, brutally raped and murdered on December 6th, 1973 in a cornfield near her home, relates the events leading up to and following her murder at the hands of a neighbour in suburban Pennsylvania from her own personal heaven. [3] Heaven in <i>The Lovely Bones</i> is a construct without a deity, but with several levels. To move from the first level, called the ‘inbetween’ in the film, to the second level of heaven, the characters have to come to terms with their death and work through their unresolved issues. Both book and film chronicle Susie’s transcension from life to the first level and from the first to the second.

2The novel seeks to redefine Susie as a ‘survivor’ rather than a ‘victim’, in line with antirape discourse about the use of the term ‘survivor’ “to emphasize women’s agency in response to their victimization and to address the complexity of the women’s post-rape experience” (Projansky 9). This is achieved by means of a postmortal [4] The term postmortal was first connected with <i>The Lovely Bones</i> in Tallent’s 2005 article, wherein Tallent notices a rise of postmortal narrators in general. Whitney, writing in 2010, uses posthumous narrative perspective, wherein a fully silenced character regains her voice and thus paradoxically, despite having been killed, turns into a survivor. Uneasily perched between the living whom she observes and the dead to whom she belongs, Susie epitomises what for Caruth lies at the core of all trauma stories, namely “the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival” (Unclaimed Experience 7). Analysing the novel from a postfeminist perspective, Whitney argues that “the act of naming oneself a survivor symbolically places the subject’s trauma in the past and denies the event the ability to define her” (355). Thus Susie is allowed to define her trauma rather than being defined by it. She remains a person with desires and hopes, wishes and feelings, and power and agency in her own right (cf. Heinze 289). [5] Heinze also raises another interesting point concerning the reliability of the narrative. He argues that had Susie lived and told her tale, her trauma would have made her an unreliable narrator. By narrating from the great beyond, her detachedness once more makes her reliable (cf. 289) Her ghostly but strangely uplifting narration and her few but significant interactions with the world of the living provide her with precisely the sort of freedom her rapist, Mr. Harvey, sought to take from her. Meanwhile, Whitney astutely observes, her family on Earth is not granted any psychological reprieve (cf. 355). It seems that Susie’s safety from the overwhelming impact of trauma comes at the price of her family’s emotional equilibrium. By creating a detached serenity in Susie’s narrative, the novel relocates Susie’s trauma and victimhood and places it in her parents and sister instead.

3This is where the 2009 film adaptation, directed by Peter Jackson, differs. Even though “most of the key events of the novel are transposed to the film and it ends on the same note, with Susie’s blessing from heaven” (McFarlane 47), the main character – like most female characters in the film adaptation – is equipped with less agency and complexity than in the book. Jackson’s Susie is not located beyond the trauma, but in the middle of it, effectively rendering her “the wound that speaks” (Caruth 8). As trauma embodied, she addresses the audience

in an attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language. (4)

4While Susie in the novel is an omniscient narrator who knows exactly what happened in the underground lair Mr. Harvey specifically built to capture her, the character in the film does not. The reduction of Susie’s narrative omniscience in the film serves not only to create suspense, but has the added effect of keeping Susie childlike, and thus establishes her as the ‘perfect’ victim in all her innocence and helplessness. In order to get closer to omniscience, she needs to regain her memories and spend time in the intermediary stage of afterlife. [6] The exuberant visual design of the afterlife has been met with much criticism given the serious subject matter. For examples of this criticism, see Ebert, Harris, and Brooks This is hindered by Susie’s attempted avoidance of said memories; she prefers to focus on watching her family or enjoying the questionable perks of heaven with another dead girl she meets there. When Susie finally does confront her memories (symbolically located in a dark Gothic house in her otherwise colourful heaven), she learns two important things. For one, that she is one of many victims of Mr. Harvey’s, a fact which supports Sebold’s view that “rape is not a craze but a constant” (1989). The other element she uncovers is that her rapist and murderer keeps her remains in an old safe in his cellar. He often sits in a lawn chair in front of it, playing with a charm from a bracelet of hers and fetishizing the dead girl, subjecting her to his gaze even after her death. Only in the climax of the film is the safe eventually disposed of in a sinkhole, a final burial for the final minutes. This is clearly designed to give Susie as well as the audience a sense of closure. By contrast, in the novel the same scene takes place much earlier (in chapter four), and Susie’s closure is not tied to the disposal of her bodily remains. The symbolic burial is not constructed as the key that leads her from her own heaven into the wider one she wishes to be received into.

5The novel describes a maturation and recovery process, which differs from the film’s trauma-driven narrative. The book carefully sets up a contrast between the living and the dead Susie, the latter of which, even though she does not age, matures considerably to the point where she (re-)discovers and (re-)claims her sexuality. What the filmic version sets her heart on is a chaste kiss from the boy she liked while she was alive, Ray Singh, insinuating that a teenaged girl cannot be a victim of sexual violence, if she simultaneously harbours sexual desires of her own. In the book, Susie has been kissed while still alive, and in the eight years after her death, begins to yearn for more. In one of the book’s most controversial passages, [7] Cf. Hensher, whose disdain of the passage is particularly strong: “Particularly hard to take is a morbid episode in which Susie falls to Earth and inhabits the body of a living girl, and makes love to the boy she liked best. He recognises her immediately, being Indian and therefore mystic (it is very much that sort of book). The revolted reader finds something familiar in all of this, and for me, that was the moment it all fell into place. What, actually, is one reading here? Ah yes, of course; the Demi Moore spiritualist extravaganza, Ghost.” called “a finale of magical realism” by Whitney (361), her spirit inhabits the body of a psychic girl, Ruth Connors, and while in that body, consummates her old relationship with Ray “so that she may experience life on Earth as an adult” (ibid). Susie’s previous sexual experience was at the hands of her rapist Mr. Harvey, resulting in Susie telling the readers that “in the walls of my sex there was horror and blood” (142). But with Ray, the experience is different: “I held that part of him that Mr. Harvey had forced inside me. Inside my head I said the word gentle, and then I said the word man” (349), and finally “we made love” (350). By directly contrasting the two sexual experiences, Sebold highlights both the atrocity of the crime and Susie’s recovery process. In her few moments on Earth, Susie deliberately reclaims not only her sexuality, but her sexual agency, and thus leaves her rape trauma behind in order to move on to the second level of heaven. She thus sheds the constraints of being a victim and fully inhabits the mode of a survivor. For Susie, ‘life’ does not go on, but the ‘afterlife’ does.