To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.
An essay about rape and male privilege that’s been widely circulated lately got my attention for sure. Not because so many women have been Weinsteined by Harvey who had gatekeeping power or raped by everyday men who were intimidating. But because I’ve been addressing similar issues in a book I’m writing. Several of the real-life murderers in my memoir got away easy just as Amber Rose Carlson’s rapist did. Amber Rose Carlson is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University who wrote the powerful essay about male privilege, retribution, and the need for adequate sentencing for rapists.
My story of white male privilege.
While I obviously wasn’t the primary victim of one of the murderers in my book—or even the next of kin of his victim—I was a victim nevertheless. I would not have been victimized had the murderer been truly rehabilitated, truly vetted for deceit when he came up for parole, or truly supervised by parole agents after he was given early release. As a secondary victim, I suffered—and still do—a wide gamut of trauma, doubt, and upheaval in my life because of a murderer benefitting from white male privilege. He should have had the book thrown at him as was generally the case for nonwhite male—and female—murderers back when he was sentenced. He should have been kept incarcerated way longer than he was to have prevented his subsequent misdeeds and crimes. Ms. Carlson similarly advocates for tough sentencing which keeps victim trauma front and center.
Amber Rose Carlson’s story hints at male privilege.
Let her eloquent words and impeccable logic speak for itself. The following are excerpts. The full essay is here. I’ve boldfaced the first line and an important paragraph in her piece. For those of us old-schoolers, a “natural life sentence” is the current term for “life without the possibility of parole.”
Imagine your rapist had been found guilty and sentenced in court. What would you want his sentence to be?”
This was the question asked to me in January 2016 by my therapist during a session of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (E.M.D.R.) — a treatment that researchers tout as one of the best remedies for severe trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I was raped repeatedly during a three-year span from age 13 to 16. I was also subject to physical and emotional abuse during that time. I’ve since undergone years of traditional talk and group therapy with trauma specialists, and I am more healed today than I ever thought possible. Still, recovering from trauma is a serious endeavor, and I hoped for more healing….
Is There a ‘Rational’ Punishment for My Rapist?
I’m not a proponent of the death penalty primarily because the flaws in our criminal justice system are egregious and increasingly well-documented. The thought experiment’s framing, however, circumvented my usual concerns about unjust sanctions. I know what my rapist did to me, so I know he is guilty. Worries about the inhumanity of capital punishment were also blunted in part because this was purely hypothetical and in part because of the inhumanity he exhibited those long years with his penchant for violence.
Although the death sentence seemed wholly appropriate, I still considered how I would feel if a judge gave my rapist a less severe punishment: a natural life sentence — a life sentence with no chance for parole without a successful appeal. In this scenario, my feelings were just as clear: I would be slightly disappointed, but I would still feel mostly satisfied. Anything less than a death or natural life sentence, I knew, would seem inadequate….
In February 2016 — only weeks after the thought experiments with my therapist — the philosopher Jennifer Lackey published an opinion piece in The Stone. In the article, she uses her experience teaching philosophy to inmates to argue for the irrationality of natural life sentences. Lackey bases her argument against natural life sentences on two reasonable claims: (1) people (criminals, specifically) can and do change in profoundly transformative ways, and (2) we cannot know the future.
For Lackey, the fact that we have good statistical evidence that criminals can and do change is especially problematic given our vast epistemic limitations regarding the future. “Natural life sentences,” she wrote, “say to all involved that there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal.” Citing the possibility of prisoner transformation, Lackey then puts her question about rationality directly: “How is it rational,” she asks, “to screen off the relevance of this information? How, that is, is it rational to say today that there can be no possible evidence in the future that could bear on the punishment that a decades-from-now prisoner deserves?”…
I read Lackey’s article very soon after the thought experiments with my therapist. I noticed that Lackey’s argument easily applied to the death penalty, and I realized that the sentences I desired for my rapist were precisely the ones Lackey condemns as irrational. Since nothing in her argument prevented me from applying her logic to my own desires, I had to wonder if her argument also concluded that I was irrational for desiring permanent punishments. If it is irrational for the state to prescribe a permanent punishment given our epistemic limitations and prisoners’ likelihood for change, wouldn’t it be similarly irrational for victims to ignore these considerations?
There are, of course, crucial differences between victim’s desires and punishments carried out by the state. While sometimes the criminal justice system considers the wishes of victims and their families, the criminal justice system’s central aim is to protect the interests of the state and the community. This aim does not always coincide with the interests or wishes of the victim. Admittedly, there are often very good reasons for the state to ignore the wishes of victims. But my concern is less about what the state should do in practice and more about what arguments that prioritize transformation say about victims who desire permanent punishments.
Here I will be blunt: it matters very little to me whether my rapist is transformed at some point in his life. It matters to me only to the extent that I will readily agree that it would be better if he became the sort of person who did not inflict violence upon others. I would be very happy hearing that no other women would be harmed by him. But in terms of the punishment that he deserves? Transformation does not matter to me. And this is not irrational: There are many carefully considered reasons one might want a natural life sentence for perpetrators of egregious and irrevocable harm.
Desiring death or a natural life sentence for those who inflict traumatic violence is a rational response because whether or not my particular rapist transforms is irrelevant to whether or not I will ever have the chance to be the sort of person I might have been. His transformation is irrelevant to whether or not I will be able to live the sort of life I could have were it not for the injustice done to me. I desire a death or natural life sentence for my rapist because that is what seems appropriate given the amount of damage he wrought in my life….
Although my attitude is in no way representative of all victims, epistemic arguments that prioritize criminal transformation must contend with the implication that they can be used to paint trauma victims irrational when they desire retribution. It’s certainly important to advocate for prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated and for those who were victims of the overzealous war on crime era. The injustices in our criminal justice system are too numerous and too serious to ignore. But criminal justice reform should not be so myopic that it compounds trauma survivors’ victimization. Those who manage to survive traumatic crimes have enough to battle without arguments that undermine their rational considerations. Advocates for criminal justice reform can, and should, do better.
I think besides being smart and brave, Ms. Carlson is right to feel the way she feels. Moreover, she’s not irrational to feel this way. She’s rational. I think her explanation of her “rationality” in the boldfaced paragraph above is spot on.
What would be your answer to the original boldfaced question? Would it address white male privilege? Would it address the Harvey Weinsteins of the world and their white male privilege?