Cyberspace and the blogosphere are ablaze with outrage over the sentencing travesty in the Stanford rape case. The name of the rapist Brock Turner has been suggested as the term for sexual assault everywhere (e;g;, "He Brock Turnered the unconscious victim.") so that his name will live forever linked to a heinous crime. Like the Stanford victim, novelist Rebecca Makkai wrote a Victim-Impact Statement and read it in open court to her attacker (like the courageous Stanford victim). Both statements were subjected to abuse by the judicial systems of California and Illinois. In the California case, the abuse was perpetrated by the obtuse California judge who rendered a stupidly inadequate verdict and an Illinois (male) defense attorney who had the sheer gall to accuse 16-year-old Rebecca Makkai of plagiarizing her Victim-Impact Statement. Makkai, a prize-winning writer as an adult, was perfectly capable of writing a powerful statement in her own right. The false allegation was entered in the trial record and Makkai was abused yet again. This blogger is sick and weeping as he writes this because he knows and reveres someone who was the victim of sexual assault (called date-rape at the time) who has suffered what Rebecca Makkai and the Stanford victim have (and aill) suffer. If this is a (fair & balanced) desire for vengeance against sexual predators and those who give them aid and comfort, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Power And Limitations of Victim-Impact Statements
By Rebecca Makkai
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
Last week, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office released a victim-impact statement [PDF] written by a twenty-three-year-old woman raped on the Stanford campus. The statement, which has gone viral, is sharp, clear, stunningly open, occasionally funny. Its author is a very good writer in the purest way: she makes us feel some sliver of what she felt.
I was startled to learn that she’d read this statement out loud in court to her assailant—that she hadn’t just been able to slip it under the judge’s door in the middle of the night and leave it at that. I wrote my own victim-impact statement at sixteen, and, on Monday, as I read about the Stanford case, I tried to remember what the procedure had been; I thought I had handed mine in like a term paper, or sent it through the mail. And then, on Monday night, it came back to me, twenty-two years after the fact: I did read my own statement out loud, in court, to my abuser. I’d had a choice, and I chose to do it. I might have been braver then than I am now.
That I didn’t remember this before has less to do with my blocking it out than with the fact that the memory is overshadowed by bigger plot points. Because, as soon as I delivered the statement, I was accused of plagiarism.
It was the summer of 1994, and I’d been listening to “Janie’s Got a Gun” on repeat since May. That summer, I read James Joyce for the first time; I also still had an American Girl doll in my closet. I was ten years past learning to ride a two-wheeler; I was ten years from publishing my first short story. From the age of seven to thirteen, I had been sexually molested by a family friend who occasionally lived in our house; in the summer of 1994, I was a few months from losing my virginity to someone I liked. I was closer to a healthy sense of sexuality, both chronologically and emotionally, than I was to the abuse.
At our local Children’s Advocacy Center, in suburban Illinois, a place filled with cheap stuffed animals, they asked me to point to the violated parts of a paper doll, as if I were a preverbal toddler. A lawyer named Sean (I was old enough, apparently, to call him that) asked me to write a victim-impact statement.
It strikes me now that there’s a remarkable volume of literature sealed in case files across the country. People writing the most honest things—in many cases, the only personal essays—they’ll ever write. I was an aspiring writer who took herself terribly seriously, and so I tackled that thing as a writing assignment. I used metaphor. I used vivid examples. There were scenes. I went through at least ten drafts. I was torn between the desire to show how well I was dealing with things and the imperative to show that I was not OK, that this man’s actions had derailed my life in a thousand ways. Because how could both be true? I wound up editing any mention of recovery out of the letter. Weren’t my actions a show of strength already? When Sean saw the letter, he was so pleased that he asked if I’d give permission for it to be shown, anonymously, to other victims as a model. I was thrilled.
I read it on the witness stand, in the baggy dress I’d been advised to wear because I had a large chest and we didn’t want the judge to get the wrong impression of me. He was supposed to see me as the child I’d been, and a chest wouldn’t help. I was counselled not to wear makeup.
The defense lawyer was either inept or trying, actively, to throw the case. He disclosed in court, although he didn’t need to and the statute of limitations had passed, that the defendant had admitted to raping two women. The lawyer mispronounced words. He sweated through his shirt. And then, in his closing statement, he accused me of not writing my own victim-impact statement. He knew teen-agers, he said. He had a teen-age daughter, he had a teen-age nephew. And his teen-age acquaintances could not write that well.
The implications broadened from there. If I had fudged this statement, what else might I have fabricated? Even though the guy had already pleaded guilty, even though this was a statement of emotional impact, not my actual testimony, the victim was not to be trusted.
What unnerves me now about this resurfaced memory is that, for the past twenty years or so—from college on—public readings have been sacred to me. They are places where, regardless of the size of the crowd, I feel in control, where people are there to listen. Some of the best moments of my life have been readings in bookstores on the days my novels were released and I was surrounded by friends. To remember, suddenly, that I once performed a public reading of such a different kind makes me look forward to my next reading less.
How can you know six months or a year after a rape what the impact on your life will really be? A victim-impact statement is necessarily limited by when it was written. At sixteen, I had the benefit of three years of distance, some therapy, and a small sense of how the events of my childhood might affect the rest of my adolescence, at least. But a victim-impact statement is not a living document. I cannot call the courthouse to update it every time I notice something new—that, for instance, whenever I pass a certain car dealership I’ve driven by almost every day of my adult life I’m washed over with the exact queasy feeling I get when I pass roadkill. Or that, at the age of thirty-eight, I still avoid using the common noun that is homophonous with my abuser’s name.
The judge in my case wasn’t having any of the defense lawyer’s games. I’d like to say I was lucky, but can you call it luck when it’s what everyone deserves and few get? In his sentencing statement, the judge said—and these are words I remember precisely, because they went straight to my sixteen-year-old ego—“While her written statement bordered on the eloquent, so did her testimony.” It was perhaps the best literary review I’ll ever receive. He then handed down what was, at the time, a fairly harsh sentence in Illinois for aggravated third-degree child sexual abuse: ten months of work release.
I don’t imagine that victim-impact statements sway judges. I don’t imagine they reform criminals. I knew better, even at sixteen, than to expect my letter to sway anyone. If I wanted to prove something with my statement, it was that I was a good writer. That’s not as shallow as it sounds. I wanted, specifically, to prove to my abuser that I was now a grownup who could talk circles around him. That I owned this narrative in a way he never could. That I was smarter than him. That he’d picked the wrong kid.
I wrote a few terrible stories in college about sexual abuse but, until now, haven’t touched the subject again. Someone asked me once if I was scared to write about it. That’s not it at all. I don’t feel compelled to write about it anymore, because it’s already out of my system. I had the chance to speak, and—because in this case I had a judge who listened, because I felt heard—I moved on.
It’s a mercy that impact statements don’t need updating, even if some of us would love for rapists to receive weekly reports for the rest of their lives on the damage they’ve caused. If I could revise mine, twenty-two years on, it would say that I am over it, and that it is no part of who I am. It would also say the opposite. Ω
[Rebecca Makkai is the author of the story collection Music for Wartime (2015) and the novels The Hundred-Year House (2014) and The Borrower (2011). Her nonfiction has appeared in Harpers and on Salon (online). Malakkai received a BA (English) from Washington & Lee University and an MFA (writing) from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English.]
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