Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Stanford Letters

Millions of people have read the twelve-page letter written from a 23-year-old “Emily Doe” to her 20-year-old victimizer, Brock Turner, and to the judge in her case, Aaron Persky. On June 2, Persky sentenced Turner to six months — of a maximum fourteen years — in Santa Clara County’s jail. Eight male and four female jurors had found the ex–Stanford freshman guilty on three charges of sexual assault, including assault with intent to commit rape, after hearing competing and incomplete explanations for the night of January 17, 2015, when Doe went with her sister to a fraternity party, got drunk, disappeared, and was found half-naked and unconscious behind a Dumpster while Turner was caught running from the scene, drunk but clothed. Doe found him guilty on a fourth charge, that of not understanding the first three: “You have been convicted of violating me with malicious intent, and all you can admit to is consuming alcohol,” she wrote in her letter, delivered at the sentencing, in open court. “You should have never done this to me. Secondly, you should have never made me fight so long to tell you [that] you should have never done this to me.” (...)

Doe tells a story around a crime that is also, to start, a crime story so well done that CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield called it “riveting” before taking twenty-two minutes of her Legal View broadcast to read it live. The details are chosen to excruciate, not to reveal. At the hospital, Doe and two nurses “worked to comb the pine needles out of my hair, six hands to fill one paper bag,” and I feel scratchings on the back of my own neck. She describes a “beige cardigan” that an officer had seen as a “grey sweatshirt,” and even if you think that police reports are infallible and she is lying, you must know that the “beige cardigan” could only be hers while a “grey sweatshirt” could have been sluttily borrowed from a jock. She says “underwear,” not “panties,” and her dress is not “skin tight” but “hiked up.” It’s hard to show rape from the point of view of the victim without falling on a pornographic angle, but she is describing the ex post facto photographs, not the act, and her word choices obscure her fleshly and identifying characteristics, removing any enticements to gawk. For all her letter’s virality, no one could describe the trial or her case as sensational.

Yet the letter was a sensation. Rape stories are told all the time, but few are told to the rapist. (...)

Doe says to Turner, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” If her triumph in until today is more like a wake-up call than an old-fashioned martyr act, it is partly because she sounds so present, so alive, and partly because she does not have to be her own witness. In a singular twist, Doe had two: Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, a pair of Swedish graduate students who are the ideal messengers of objectivity. Sober, intelligent, male, white but not American, Arndt and Jonsson were cycling by when they saw Turner on top of Doe and rushed to stop him. Neither trial nor letter is likely to have happened without “the Swedes,” who become another choice detail: Doe for a year has slept with two bicycles she drew herself taped above her bed, “to remind myself there are heroes in this story.” Witness her narrative control, her narrative’s impact, as Vice President Joe Biden writes in his “Open Letter to a Courageous Young Woman,” published on BuzzFeed a week after Doe’s, that “I do not know your name — but thanks to you, I know that heroes ride bicycles.”

Heroes, for now, do not swim. In his own eleven-page letter to the judge, delivered in advance of the sentencing, Turner says he wishes he “never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford” so “the newspapers wouldn’t want to write” — and people wouldn’t care — that he’s a rapist. Most people who know him as a villain were introduced to him not by the news around the trial, but by the international news event of Emily Doe’s letter, months later. It is not his talent that made this sentencing a watershed. It is hers.

American trials are based on the universal truism that the best or most believable version of the story wins. For Doe’s story to “lose” to Turner’s in the eyes of the judge, who all but let him off in his sentencing, is the injustice no one is quite talking about. “I thought things were going fine with [Emily Doe],” Turner writes to Persky, despite having had a year to rethink that thought, “and that I just existed in a reality where nothing can go wrong or nobody could think of what I was doing as wrong.” Doe has spent the same year learning to articulate the lack of acquiescence — or conversely, the total and undesiring acquiescence — that is rape today. I have written before that I’m not interested in what motivates a rapist; I’m interested in what permits him. But I’m annoyed that so many young rapists lack interest in their own motivations, or are led to believe that an absence of real psychic motive will make the crime merely an act, when really it’s the uninterested mereness of the act that makes it feel, to some victims, so criminal. (...)

Here is Turner’s account of going to a party to drink with his crew:
Once I was there, I began consuming alcohol in the form of beer while socializing with the people at the party. . . . I felt comfortable and safe knowing that I was just one of many members on the swim team that were there. It felt as though my behavior with consuming alcohol was completely ordinary and what was accepted within my newfound family.
Now look at Doe’s account of doing essentially the same thing:
On the way there, I joked that undergrad guys would have braces. . . . I called myself “big mama,” because I knew I’d be the oldest one there. I made silly faces, let my guard down, and drank liquor too fast not factoring in that my tolerance had significantly lowered since college.
She has a nickname, a silly face. She acts as herself. He is ordinary on purpose, “just one of many members” in a faceless group. It’s his face we see — in the school photo, and later in the mug shot — and not hers, but it’s the purpose of speech to say what bodies can’t. Which of these two people sounds like she has an inner life, by virtue of which she requires some outer protection?

Turner’s reaction to his arrest the next morning is astonishment:
Someone came in after they had taken my clothes and swabbed my body for some reason. He told me that I was being charged with rape and I immediately responded with complete and utter shock. He then said to me that he agreed that it was a hard thing to wake up to and I just thought are you kidding me? . . . 
I thought that all I had to communicate was the truth — that in no way was I trying to rape anyone, in no way was I trying to harm anyone, and in no way was I trying to take advantage of anyone.
The repetition is certainly trying. What difference does it make whether or not he tried to rape her if he did rape her, and if he didn’t rape her, why doesn’t he say, “I didn’t rape anyone?” Who could “anyone” be, besides a code name for the secret that, to him, she could have been anyone at all? Charged with five counts — the two heaviest of which, rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person, were dropped — and sent to jail before being freed on $150,000 bail, Turner remains “in complete shock and disbelief.” Meanwhile, in the hospital, Doe recalls, a “deputy explained I had been assaulted. I . . . remained calm, assured he was speaking to the wrong person.” Again, she, too, can’t believe it. Then she is “asked to sign papers that [say] Rape Victim and I thought something has really happened.” She has been asleep the whole time he’s been awake, and yet it’s she who first adjusts to reality; it’s she whose memory is so strong that the loss of it amounts to full horror. Where Turner says “someone,” she says “deputy.” Where he says “for some reason,” she says how and where she was swabbed. And so when she lapses into the vagueness of something has really happened we can trust that she is not being vague in the sense of evasive, that whatever the something is it must be unspeakable, not just inconvenient for her.

by Sarah Nicole Prickett, N+1 |  Read more:
Image: Jo Ann Callis, Untitled. 1976