The Stanford Letters

Heroes, for now, do not swim.

Jo Ann Callis, Untitled. 1976. Courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica, CA.

Believe women is an easy commandment to strike down as politically correct. It’s more like a political corrective, and like any corrective in a discourse, it has to risk being taken as the last word. Literal readers don’t trouble me, but some of my own readings do: like that believe women means believe women when they are victims, as if women are best as victims or vice versa, or as if women announced as victims aren’t consistently the most believable people we hear speak.

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’s account is like an episode of Law & Order: SVU with the victim’s face and body blurred out and her voice turned up. Given that she remembers nothing between midnight (when she wandered away from the party) and 4:15 AM (when she woke up at the hospital), she can’t tell us how the violation felt, which weirdly works in her favor: men rape women so often that rape stories start to feel plagiarized. Instead, she gives a description of a rape test as sickening as a description of rape: a Nikon “pointed right into my spread legs,” a “long, pointed beak” of a speculum, the “cold, blue paint” of forensic dye, “multiple swabs inserted into my vagina and anus.” (Didion’s cruelest line about the liberated woman, “raped . . . raped . . . and raped finally on the abortionist’s table,” has an odd resonance for any of us whose abortions left us emptiest, and who have not gone to hospitals willingly since.) She does not think rape victim until she sees it on the forms she has to fill out, and she is given the word assaulted by a deputy police officer — one of the five or six cops, all men, who were sent to the Dumpster to check on her, inspect her, photograph her, describe her “black, skin tight dress” and her “panties.” It’s in reading the police reports that I wish, however perversely, that she had been allowed to feel out on her own time whether or not she was raped. “She deals with things privately,” writes Deputy Carrie DeVlugt, the first female officer to see her, taking down her statement the next day. “What happened to her is upsetting to hear.”

A week later, scrolling through the news, Doe first hears of Brock Turner at the same time she hears he’s been inside her. Turner is the freshman swimmer who allegedly raped an “unconscious intoxicated woman” in public, and she is the unconscious intoxicated woman. She learns it was a “digital rape,” meaning he penetrated her vagina with his fingers and without her consent. “I don’t even know this person,” she keeps thinking, as if someone has to know you to rape you — a funny thought, though statistically it’s true. Speaking to a boy who can’t imagine being named on a sex offender registry and a judge who thinks a boy with so much to lose — his swimming scholarship, swimming titles, enrollment, and reputation — is a statistical exception, she is not asking to be believed, but remembering that she couldn’t believe it herself. If you were inclined to doubt her, now you can share in her incredulity and end up on her side just the same.

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. Directly addressing one’s victimizers renders one heroic, like Christ on the cross, and Doe’s citing of Jesus-freaky author Anne Lamott’s line that “lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining” helped the letter’s believability inasmuch as we like to see proof of faith. Terry Eagleton, in The Rape of Clarissa, writes that Samuel Richardson’s heroine “is no Lady of Shalott but a saint and martyr — that is to say, one whose life has been lifted out of the merely private arena into the public sphere, in an exemplary liturgical action whose end is to involve and transform others.” The overwhelming and only possible reaction to a letter as exemplary as Doe’s was to lift her up with praise, and the sum analysis of it has echoed Doe’s sentiments at a cathedral-loud pitch.

It is not his talent that made this sentencing a watershed. It is hers.

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Clarissa was written in the 18th century, when one of the fastest ways for a woman to prove she was raped was to die of, presumably, a broken hymen. We have come an uncertain distance. What doesn’t kill us now is supposed to make us stronger. 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.

Turner said on the stand, as he did not say at the police station last January, that the victim gave verbal consent, the kind where nothing means yes except yes. But if yes is the only word spoken, it can also mean nothing. Even in “this strange new story,” sounding almost “like a poorly written young adult novel,” writes Doe to the judge, “I only said a total of three words, yes yes yes, before he had me half naked on the ground.” Then, to Turner: “Future reference, if you are confused about whether a girl can consent, see if she can speak an entire sentence.” Her written voice is unforgettable enough that if she had said anything to Turner besides “yes,” he — and we too — would know, or so we must think.

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.

Longer attempts to communicate or defend his truth come in letters to Judge Persky from Turner’s parents, his ex-girlfriend, and three dozen others, all saying more or less that he has never been one to hurt a soul and is therefore in unprecedented pain — that he, too, is suffering more than inconvenience, more than the damage to his reputation that Doe compares with damage that is “internal, unseen, I carry it with me.” Turner tells us what we already know from the newspapers:

I’ve lost two jobs solely based on the reporting of my case. . . . I’ve lost my chance to swim in the Olympics. I’ve lost my ability to obtain a Stanford degree. I’ve lost employment opportunities, my reputation and most of all, my life.

His own life appears to be a mere order of magnitude away from his reputation and career, rather than a whole world apart. His repetition of “lost” no more creates a clear and deep meaning for loss than his repetition of “trying” suggested much meaningful effort. These sentences are unrelatable factoids. Doe’s are exact specifications:

While you worry about your shattered reputation, I refrigerated spoons every night so when I woke up, and my eyes were puffy from crying, I would hold the spoons to my eyes to lessen the swelling so that I could see. I showed up an hour late to work every morning, excused myself to cry in the stairwells, I can tell you all the best places in that building to cry where no one can hear you. . . . I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately.

Absence here makes pain evident and potentially everywhere, since an acute listener will wonder how many more women who look healthy and clear-eyed, who are never heard crying, are always crying. Once again, Doe works with and not against the disbelief of women that says victims are lying to get attention: what she says is that she was lying to escape it, which is another way of saying she is not even remotely the kind of person who would make this up. “ ‘No’ means ‘yes,’ ” that beloved and counterfactual adage of rapists, is no match for the plausibility that “ ‘I’ve been running a lot lately’ means ‘I have lost weight from stress.’ ” Turner, meanwhile, has lost appetite, as his dad, Dan Turner, explained in his letter to the judge:

[Brock] will never be his happy-go-lucky self with that easygoing personality and welcoming smile. His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite. Brock always enjoyed certain types of food. . . . I was always excited to buy him a big rib-eye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him. . . . Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist.

Whether or not this is true, it is so badly expressed as to be laughable. Pity the kid — any kid — whose father’s best attempt to humanize him in the face of imprisonment consists of “my son liked some foods more than others.” It gets worse a sentence or two later, when Mr. Turner refers to the assault as “twenty minutes of action.” This action is not a slang word for sex, but a nod to the necessity of a plot he cannot comprehend; he cannot even think in terms of conflict, of stories with more than one side.

This story has more than two. Carleen Turner, in her melodramatic and far less widely mocked letter, calls her son’s conviction a “death sentence” (who does she think is the Clarissa here?) and does not mention the 23-year-old victim, an absence for which she has been criticized. It was not an omission. There’s no Emily Doe in the mother’s letter because in the letter the mother is the victim. Mrs. Turner writes about what has happened to their home during the course of the trial — a move, a downsizing, an emptying-out — and offers a more believable picture of loss than the men in her family can conjure. “I have not decorated the house nor have I hung anything on the walls,” she writes. The words have a near-biblical cadence, a metaphysical gloom. They’re like the words in a letter from Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law: “There has not been a day, Child, that I’ve not thought of you, nor have I shut my eyes upon a summer night.” Syntax is not the only likeness. Dickinson does not sound so sentimentally different from Mrs. Turner, who articulates her loss of happiness as a loss of the evidence of happy memories.

In solidarity with her son, the mother whites out her interiors. She leaves the family photos in boxes, and she cries for that family, saying: “We will never be happy again.” She is not being realistic. Do I believe her? I can see the house now.

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