Sunday, February 7, 2016

Reflections on Stubblefield

In the NYTimes, Daniel Engber reflects on the final testimony as Anna Stubblefield was sentenced:
The most extensive statement came from Anna herself. Her five-page jailhouse letter, written in meticulous longhand, recounts the background of her love affair with D.J.: the deep commitment of her parents to the cause of disability rights and her own lifelong pursuit of the same ideals. By age 11, she said, she was already working with her mother to help a teenage girl with cerebral palsy communicate using a computer. “Thus, when I met [D.J.], I saw him as someone I could potentially help as a friend,” she wrote. “And then something happened that took me by surprise — we fell in love.”
D.J.'s brother had a very different take:
 He began by saying that his family had been told that D.J. wouldn’t live to see his third birthday and that 34 years later D.J. was a beautiful brother and a beautiful son. Then he recalled the moment at the end of Stubblefield’s trial, when the verdict was announced and Anna cried out, “Who is going to take care of my daughter?” It was as if the question had only just occurred to her, Wesley suggested. It was as if only then had she considered the meaning of the bond between a mother and her child. How else could you explain her actions — “the rape of my brother, the harassment of my family, her condescending attitude toward my mother?”
“She tried to lay claim to him and rename him,” he said of Anna, breaking into sobs. Early in Anna’s relationship with D.J., she started calling him by a nickname — one she said he asked for in his typed-out messages. In her view, this was an act of self-determination. But to Wesley, it was a way of taking ownership, with all the echoes of slavery the word implies.
As an academic — and Wesley’s graduate-school professor — Anna had been a scholar of racial ethics; in one paper, she even wrote that well-meaning white people like her “all too often invade or destroy the space of nonwhite people.” Now Wesley called her out for what he saw as that very behavior. She had tried to overlay her values and her views, he said, on the people she pretended to be helping. “She tried to supplant [D.J.’s] life — a life steeped in the history and culture of his God-fearing, Southern-rooted, African-American family — with some version of life she thought was better.”
It’s time to stop thinking of this case as being “simply strange,” he continued, and imagining Anna as some kind of “tragic she-ro.” (He may have been referring to my article, which was published under the headline “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield.”) If the genders were reversed, he said — if D.J. were “Diana” and Anna were “Anthony” — then the details would seem more mundane: a tragic tale of sexual abuse. “Anna is not Sandra Bullock, and this is not ‘The Blind Side,’” he said to the judge. Then, directly to his former teacher: “An able-bodied woman raped a disabled young man that could not consent to sex. You were wrong, Anna. You committed a crime. There is no gray area.”
Wesley is wrong in that last: most human actions fall into a gray area, admitting of multiple, true characterizations. That's why we rework them in fictional form (and according to Engber, a film and an opera (!) might be in the works. Is this a rape story or a love story? Is this a case of clear-eyed exploitation or delusional mental dysfunction? All of the above?
It is also a black and white rape case---we shouldn't neglect the racial dynamics any more than the rape dynamics, and race is a subtext of this whole horrible business. So yes, it is a black and white case, in that sense, and a rape case, involving unbalanced power dynamics and exploitation of a position of trust. But a core ambiguity, the gray area, is not whether the sexual activity violated the law, but the story Stubblefield told herself, and what she was capable of acknowledging.Even as she wrote the letter to the judge, she was constructing her current narrative for a course of events that must perplex her now, perhaps even then. The other ambiguity, the more important,  is what DJ wanted, experienced, understood, then and now. 

Read Engber's piece here.

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