An alternate version of the Brock Turner sexual assault story has been spinning in my imagination since last January, when I first heard of his arrest.
In my version, he recognizes that what happened on Stanford’s campus behind that dumpster last year was rape. He comes to understand that intoxication is not consent. He takes responsibility for his violent “action” that irreparably harmed another human being, instead of blaming it on alcohol. Rather than spending a year and a half honing his story, making excuses and lawyering up, he pleads guilty. He looks his victim squarely in the eyes and says: “I’m sorry. I had no business putting my hands on or in you after you were no longer able to give consent. I should have helped you to safety instead of running and lying about why I did. I will do everything I can to spare you any further pain. I will spend the rest of my life educating young people about consent and sexual violence.”
Then he serves his punishment, perhaps a sentence mitigated by his understanding of the crime, his taking responsibility, even his character references — because he gets it. He bears the weight of his guilt and in doing so eases the burden of his victim.
But that’s not what happened. And because I live in the community that spawned Brock Turner, I have known on some level for many months that my version would never be reality.
Oakwood, Ohio, is about as idyllic a Midwestern town as one could imagine. The streets are tree-lined, the houses charming. The kids walk to school and go home for lunch. The schools are nationally recognized. In fact, the local nickname for Oakwood is “the Dome,” so sheltered are its residents from violence, poverty and inconvenient truths. I have lived here for more than 20 years.
Communities like this one have a dark side, though: the conflation of achievement with being “a good kid”; the pressure to succeed; the parents who shrug when the party in their basement gets out of control (or worse yet, when they host it) because “kids are gonna drink”; the tacit understanding that rules don’t necessarily apply. The cops won’t come. The ax won’t fall.
Yet now it has.
Invariably, when I tell someone who knows the Dayton area that I live in Oakwood, they assume that I am rich, narrow-minded, a Republican or some combination thereof. If most residents were just the stereotype, though, I would not have been happy here as long as I have. For the most part, I have loved raising my kids here. But I have struggled, too. My closest friends and I have a long-standing joke about needing to remember to “lower the bar” around here — about not falling prey to the pressures to conform and compete, not buying the line that the schools or the kids are special. Most of us understand our privilege and good fortune. Many do not.
There is an Oakwood in every city; there’s a Brock Turner in every Oakwood: the “nice,” clean-cut, “happy-go-lucky,” hyper-achieving kid who’s never been told no. There’s nothing he can’t have, do or be, because he is special. Fortunately, most kids like this will march into their predictably bright futures without victimizing anyone along the way. Many will do good in the world.
But it’s not hard to draw a straight line from this little ’burb (or a hundred like it) to that dumpster at Stanford. What does being told no mean to that kid? If the world is his for the taking, isn’t an unconscious woman’s body? When he gets caught, why wouldn’t his first impulse be to run, to make excuses — to blame the Fireball or the girl or the campus drinking culture? That is entitlement. That is unchecked privilege.
When the news of Turner’s arrest broke a year and a half ago, it was met in this community with a fair amount of shock and denial. Before the details emerged, the whispered sentiments at Starbucks and in the aisles of the local grocery were compassion for his parents and hopes for a fair trial. In light of his conviction and sentencing, though, I find that I’m hiding from social media and avoiding conversations on this subject, lest I have to listen to someone defend him. I don’t want to hear anyone start in about the nice family or the good kid. My kids went to high school with him. I ran the community-center swim team he was on. No, I don’t “know” Turner like his friends or neighbors do. But I do know what he did, and so do we all, based on the unanimous verdict of a jury and testimony from two witnesses.
We now also know exactly what his victim suffered, and we know that he doesn’t own any of it. Neither do his apologists. Letters of support — his father’s and at least one of his friends’ — made the rounds online, and they were shockingly tone-deaf. His father blamed alcohol and promiscuity. His friend said, “Rape on campus isn’t always because people are rapists.” That either of these letters cut ice with the judge is just further proof of how broken the system is.
I thought the outrage over this story would start before now, but it took the victim’s statement going viral to bring it the attention it deserved. At every turn, I’ve thought of how things could have gone differently. I’ve wondered if all of this was the attorney’s doing — whether Turner and his family were manipulated into denial because their lawyer told them there was no alternative. But his father’s letter and his own lame “apology” make it seem clear that they truly believe that bad timing and alcohol — not Turner himself — were to blame.
Ultimately, there is no happy ending to a story like this one, not in the version I imagined months ago or in the one that actually came to pass. I take some solace in the fact that the victim’s brave, eloquent statement has brought more attention to rape culture than any single indictment or verdict could.
It’s cold comfort, to be sure.
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