Book Inspired by Stanford University Sexual Assault Case Examines Trial From Defendant’s Perspective

Can a normative person become a rapist? Author Karine Tuil's new book, ‘Human Things’ - inspired by the People v. Turner case - is trying to answer that

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Author Karine Tuil. 'As a child and teen, I tried to hide my femininity.'
Author Karine Tuil. 'As a child and teen, I tried to hide my femininity.'Credit: Patrice Normand / leemage via AF
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

For two years, French-Jewish novelist Karine Tuil sat in courtrooms watching rape trials. This was the basis for her book "Les choses humaines" (“Human Things”). “I wanted to understand what causes that ‘upheaval’ – the ‘break’ that leads to violence,” she says in a telephone interview.

The book has won two important literary prizes: the Prix Interallié (for a novel written by a journalist) and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (granted by a select jury and young readers). It topped the bestseller list in France and filming is already underway on a movie adaptation titled 'The Accusation'. Yvan Attal is directing, and it stars his partner Charlotte Gainsbourg and their son Ben Attal.

The novel centers on the Farel family: The father, Jean, is a respected political analyst on television; the mother, Claire, is a prominent author and feminist activist, and their son Alexandre is a student at Stanford University. But behind the family’s glamorous image, the couple leads a double life that is about to be very publicly shattered when their son is accused of raping Mila, who is the daughter of Claire’s lover, Adam.

An ugly battle of accusations is unleased on social media, in the press and the courts. Alexandre claims that everything happened with consent, while Mila claims she was raped. In the midst of it all, Jean and Claire have to look their loved ones and rivals right in the eye and, for the first time, start to speak the truth.

Karine Tuil. Her book 'Human Things' is based on the People v. Turner case.Credit: Francesca Mantovani / (c) Galli

Historic precedent

The novel is based on a famous case that happened in the United States in 2016. Stanford student Chanel Miller filed a complaint in January 2015 that another student, Brock Allen Turner, raped her. “During the trial,” Tuil says, “the defendant’s father said something that shocked me: That wrecking a student’s brilliant career ‘was a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.’

“There was no reference to the victim, to her life that was ruined. Turner was sentenced to six months in jail, and served just three months. Yes, this was before #MeToo, but the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case [the IMF boss settled a civil action case with a hotel maid who accused him of attempted rape] was still in the air and President [Bill] Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky wasn’t forgotten either.”

The cover of the French edition of 'Human Things.'Credit: Gallimand

French-Jewish lawyer and feminist activist Gisèle Halimi died in late July. In 1978, three men stood trial in Aix-en-Provence in a highly publicized case, accused of raping two Belgian tourists on a Marseille beach. Halimi said at the trial: “A society cannot exist in which the relationship between a man and woman is based on physical strength. I call this fascism.”

Singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg at Cannes in 2019. Will play in the movie adaptation of the book.Credit: JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/ REUTERS

Thanks in part to Halimi’s testimony, the three were given lengthy sentences and a historic precedent was set. In 1980, rape was legally recognized as a serious crime in France rather than as a minor criminal offense, as was the case until then.

Did you have Gisèle Halimi in mind when you were writing the book?

Tuil: “Definitely. She was a pioneer who put rape at the center of the debate. I also quote her in the book: ‘Society’s cultural codes need to change regarding rape.’ I chose to focus on what causes a normative person to become a rapist. I thought about Meursault, Camus’ hero in ‘The Stranger,’ who commits murder because he was momentarily ‘blinded,’ lost control and doesn’t understand why he killed.

Paris' Mayor Anne Hidalgo speaks with French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti at the end of the annual Bastille Day military ceremony on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, July 14, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

“France’s new justice minister, criminal defense lawyer Éric Dupond-Moretti, spoke about the vulnerability that exists in every person and enables them to ‘plummet,’ and I share that view.”

Earlier this month, Le Monde published an autobiographical novella by Tuil called “Leftovers.” In it, she gives a first-person account of a sexual assault her mother experienced 60 years ago when she was 11. “I based ‘Human Things’ on the Stanford case,” she says, “but the trigger for writing was really that ‘female vulnerability,’ the crisis I experienced because of my mother’s story,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I was a mother myself that she told me that she was sexually assaulted by a neighbor when she was a child. But unconsciously and wordlessly, she conveyed the ‘female fear’ to her daughters – a fear so real you could almost touch it, a vague fear of sexual assault, of rape, of hurt that could be caused by the other.

“As a result, as a child and teen I tried to hide my femininity,” Tuil says. “My sister and I would sleep in boys’ pajamas. My mother said it was because of Jewish tradition. I lived with the weight of the ‘female fear’ without being able to explain it, until she finally told me the truth. In my book, Mila’s silent fear is based in part on my mother’s story.”

In this 2016 photo, a group of California lawmakers joined women's rights advocates in urging a California agency to take action against the judge in the People v. Turner case.Credit: Eric Risberg / AP

Tuil was horrified by the reports about last week’s suspected gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Eilat. “It shocked and frightened me,” Tuil says. “Twenty years ago, there were similar things happening in France that were called ‘rounds’ – gang rapes that mostly took place in cellars and shocked the public, but didn’t receive much in the way of a practical response. What happened in Eilat proves once again how deeply rape ‘culture’ is entrenched.

“The incident in Israel happened after #MeToo, after hundreds of articles, books, protests and discussions throughout the world,” she continues. “The suspects didn’t hear or learn a thing from this movement, which essentially calls for human dignity. For them, women remain ‘objects’ and the sexual act an exercise of predation, control and violence.

“The time has come for this to stop. The time has come for the laws and culture to change. The time has come for all of us to rise up and say: No more!”

Chanel Miller.Credit: PRESTON GANNAWAY / NYT

The main characters in Tuil’s novel are prominent members of society. “Each one of them has a hidden vulnerability,” she says. “Seventy-year-old Jean is fearful about aging and losing his professional standing, a fear that prevents him from openly living with the love of his life – a journalist his age – because she’s too old and it could hurt his image. He chooses instead to marry a woman 30 years his junior, Claire, who is famed for her feminist books but is living a false life. She is also vulnerable due to the breast cancer she survived but that left its scars on her. For the first time she finds real love, in Adam, a literature teacher, who comes from a religious Jewish background. And the son Alexandre, seemingly a promising young man studying at Stanford, feels rejected by his parents and their fake public image of happiness. And of course there’s the vulnerability of the rape victim – 19-year-old Mila, Adam’s daughter, who was a student in the Jewish school in Toulouse where seven Jews, including three children, were murdered in the 2012 terror attack.”

Readers will be the judge

Brock Turner. Credit: Greene County Sheriff's Office

At her father’s urging, Mila accompanies Alexandre to a student party, but feels like she doesn’t fit the standards of the Parisian group. She drinks alcohol, which she doesn’t usually do, and agrees to go for a late-night walk with Alexandre.

For impression’s sake, she smokes a joint, but wants to do it somewhere indoors and not in public view. They go into a structure that houses trash dumpsters and there. According to Alexandre, Mila slept with him; according to Mila, he raped her. Later on, Alexandre tells Mila that he made a bet at the party with his friends: Whoever beds one of the girls at the party has to bring an item of her underwear as proof. When Alexandre shows her the panties, she bursts into tears. The next morning she files a complaint with the police.

In Alexandre’s case, it doesn’t seem like a momentary “break” or “upheaval.” It’s a demeaning and misogynistic bet by guys who want to “bed” Mila, who treat her like an object. Isn’t that rape?

Gisele Halimi.Credit: BOYAN TOPALOFF / AFP

“It’s for the reader to judge. I wanted to present the facts as they happened – and everyone can interpret it as they wish. It’s true that there’s a lot of talk lately about young women falling victim to horribly misogynistic bets on campuses, about a ‘point system’ on social media to rate their ‘performances,’ about appalling objectification.”

You bring up important questions like “It’s his word against hers.” Oddly, and this is actually quite hard to take, you seem quite sympathetic toward Alexandre.

“I tried to show the complexity of his personality and also of the situation. I want to place the reader on the jury and present the facts: Seemingly, Mila doesn’t resist during the sexual act. She’s an adult and goes with him voluntarily. But the facts are misleading. In court, I often heard them talk about the victim being in shock and experiencing a ‘freezing of the senses’ – during the rape, the victim detaches herself from her body and is incapable of expressing vocal and physical resistance. It’s only a few hours later that Mila realizes she has been raped. Alexandre believes the sex was consensual. She believes it was rape. When he sobers up the next day, Alexandre has the feeling that ‘there was something wrong there.’”

If this dangerous vulnerability exists in all of us, what’s to inhibit it?

“Just as there is vulnerability in all of us, there is also a safety net, a code of moral behavior. Alexandre may have ‘lost control,’ but Mila testifies in court that her life has been ruined: She’s depressed and can’t function. Claire’s situation is difficult, too – her moral and ideological outlooks suddenly collapse. Alexandre, meanwhile, is in total denial and doesn’t comprehend what has happened: ‘But she agreed,’ he thinks.”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn.Credit: Richard Drew / Pool AP / AP

How has the #MeToo movement influenced the justice system and social media?

“#MeToo was a formative moment for the feminine voice, a milestone for our society and the feminist struggle. Even my mother asked me if she could still file a complaint against the neighbor who assaulted her when she was 11. But #MeToo also gave rise to binary thinking – good or bad, black or white – and this kind of thinking obligates us to choose a side. We shouldn’t rush to judge the other person without giving him a chance to speak. On social media and in the press, we often see that a suspect is denied the right to defend himself and his reputation is permanently blackened. Media lynchings have become common. Yes, in the justice system ‘doubt’ plays in the defendant’s favor. But if it’s possible to prove his guilt and he is punished, there must also be the possibility of redemption after serving his sentence. Not so long ago, before imposing sentence, jurors would be taken to visit a prison so they could really grasp what imprisonment means. This was the idea behind Michel Foucault’s [1975] book ‘Discipline and Punish,’ which examines the penal system and its ramifications.”

Still, the voice of the victims isn’t heard enough in your book. You choose to contemplate the men who commit the rape. Women’s lives are ruined by this, they are traumatized forever.

“I chose to write the book from the defendant’s point of view. After many hours of watching rape trials, I saw that men don’t understand or don’t want to understand their actions. The voices of women, especially #MeToo, are being heard a lot more. Mila testifies about her condition in the hospital, to the police, in court. Alexandre’s voice is hardly heard.”

That’s a problematic angle in the #MeToo era.

“Yes, it’s not a popular angle and therefore the book is stirring debate. I’ve been glad to see that the young people I’ve met in discussions about the book are less extreme and binary in their judgment. They see more shades between black and white.”

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