Letters again in the news
IN THE NEWS
Sadly, the letter and uses of letters are once more in the news, having re-surfaced in the public domain over the last two weeks with regard to the case of sexual assault – aka rape – by the convicted ex-student Brock Turner at Stanford University, USA. Different kinds of letters written for different purposes have been issued and counter-issued and some have gone viral. The links to the main ones will be found below, so that they can be read in full; the URLs appear with some brief commentary on content.
What does this set of addresses/statements and counter-addresses/statements say about letters? There are (at least) three important points to comment on.
There is clearly a power, and a still widely recognised resonance, to something that is ‘a letter’ that gives it greater authority than it might otherwise have. It signifies something that in a very direct way coked from its author, whether it appears in writing or in speech or both, and this provides it with a sense of immediacy and personalisation. Regarding the examples discussed below, apart from the two last examples from the Stanford Student Association, it matters a very great deal who authors are, and who they are completely invests the contents and tenor of what they write or speak.
These said-to-be-letters demonstrate the complicated borders that exist between speaking and stating and writing and addressing a letter in circumstances of separation and absence. At basis here, the crucial matter concerns personal address, the sense that one named person is writing or speaking to others in a direct way, and that both ends of this recognise the importance and power of them doing so.
And, once out of the courtroom, the written addresses that were then issued following the two original letters (from the rapist, and from the young woman he raped) took on the mantle of letterness from them. Perhaps this tells more about the mass media and its oddities and frequent reliance on repetitions than it does about letters as such. That is, once a term or topic is used and finds ready audiences then, there are multiple mentions of the term or topic in the mass media until audiences stop responding to it.
Before he was sentenced, Brock Turner wrote defence letter – or at least such a letter appeared under his name – addressed to the court, and perhaps specifically the judge, suggesting that he should receive probation rather than a custodial sentence, and blaming his behaviour on the culture of alcohol that is said to have existed at Stanford. While harm to the victim is mentioned in it, this is very much in passing and in a perfunctory way. This is a letter as selfie – it is about him, his lost opportunities, his future, and is me, me, me. It appears to have no address at the start, and nor is it signed off at the end. Indeed, in many respects it can be seen as a statement, rather than a letter as such. However, otherwise its structure and content and its purposes are clear: he is a fundamentally good because high achieving person, he was not responsible for his behaviour, he has learned from his mistake, he should not receive a custodial sentence. It reads as a practised statement, it comes across as a highly motivated piece of writing designed for a specific purpose, crafted to present him in a good light and to propose that probation rather than custody is called for.
Statement/letter from the rapist (to the judge or the court): http://www.businessinsider.com/letter-brock-turner-wrote-to-the-court-2016-6
‘The Stanford Victim’, who for legal reasons is never named, wrote a letter that was read out by her in court following the sentencing of the convicted Brock Turner and subsequently provided to the press. It starts with an address to the judge, ‘Your Honor’, but it is mainly directed to Turner, although at points the address shifts so that Turner is referred to as ‘him’. It provides in considerable detail the graphic particulars of her ordeal, and also raises her fear of what might have happened to her had two postgraduate students not seen the rape and intervened and detained Turner when he attempted to run away. It is, hardly surprisingly, upset and angry and passionate and it concludes with an equally passionate address to other young women who might go through similar experiences. Its concerns are putting on record what happened and emphasising the absolute unacceptability of it. It also castigates the convicted Turner’s failure to accept responsibility for his behaviour and say it was wrong: as she points out, it places the blame on Stanford and its culture of alcohol use and barely acknowledges any harm to her. There are various different audiences who in turn its content is directed towards, including the judge, the convicted Turner, people more generally, Stanford University, and young women. However, perhaps its key is that it was given as an address, rather than being a letter as such.
Statement/letter from victim (to the rapist, court, public, young women) https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.fvW0D6e1ZJ#.vuJpdoD9mV
The proliferation of references to letters seems to have happened almost immediately after Turner’s letter was made public, then the young woman’s letter, followed by the next letter for discussion, written by Turner’s father and also addressed to the judge in the case. This is judge Aaron Persky, subsequently much criticised for the leniency of the sentence he gave Turner.
The father of the rapist is Dan Turner. His letter to the judge is a ‘model’ letter in the sense that it has a very conventional structure, beginning with its direct address to the judge, with well-structured sentences and paragraphs, and also having a conventionalised sign off. It never mentions the young woman who was raped, it is focused on his son and what a nice son he was and the impact of the events on his son. Its concern is demonstrating, as the letter puts it, the quality of Brock Turner’s character. This is a character in which there was no rape, but instead a culture of alcohol use at Stanford into which his son fell. Among a number of contenders, perhaps its most remarkable and terrible sentence is that he ‘has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of January 17th, 2015.’ It too proposes probation as the proper sentence. The emphasis on character, sporting prowess and at basis blamelessness is put across in ways that are very similar to how his son’s letter does this.
Letter from rapist’s father (to judge): http://heavy.com/news/2016/06/brock-turner-father-dad-dan-turner-full-letter-statement-stanford-rapist/
Dan Turner’s letter clearly caught many readers on the raw and appalled them. The journalist John Pavlovitz was one. His letter in response – which he refers to as a post – is written as also the father of a son and it emphasises to Dan Taylor that his presentation of his son as the victim in the case is completely unacceptable. Two things particularly rouse Pavlovitz’s ire. One is a companion statement by Dan Taylor that his son should not be blamed for ’20 minutes of action’, made elsewhere in his comments. Another was the emphasis on alcohol, rather than the underlying devaluation of women and avoidance of responsibility for sexual violence and rape. This post from Pavlovitz quickly went viral – trying to load the webpage took a considerable time for there were many hundreds of responses made to it also posted on the website.
Letter from a father of a son (to rapist’s father): http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/06/06/to-brock-turners-father-from-anotthe her-father/
Next on the scene was an open letter issed by Vice President Joe Biden, a long-term campaigner against inadequate responses to sexual assault and rape, in particular recently as occurring on college campuses. It is headed as an open letter, ‘An Open Letter to a Courageous Young Woman’, it is composed mainly by ‘paragraphs’ which are short single staccato sentences, in a way familiar to readers of bite-size political statements. It is though no less supportive of the young woman’s letter or statement made in court for that. It is fully supports the young woman’s stance and emphasises the inadequacy of responses both to her and also sexual violence more generally. It also emphasises the importance of speaking out, and that her statement or letter will have enabled others also to speak out. The terms he uses are ‘words’, ‘write’, ‘speaking out’, ‘your story’, and then in the final paragraph ‘your letter’, so it would seem the multiple characteristics of the court document show their traces in his response.
Open letter from Vice President Joe Biden (to the victim): https://www.buzzfeed.com/tomnamako/joe-biden-writes-an-open-letter-to-stanford-survivor?utm_term=.fyWvJlzy6m#.nyB35QVADy
Stanford University did not make any statement on the case until in effect it was forced to by a barrage of critical comments. And Turner resigned from the student body, no action was taken to expel him. Many of the criticisms came from its own students. The next document to appear is part letter and part petition, though referred to as the former. It spells out the main facts of the case and is directed towards asking the University to put in place various measures to support both this particular young woman and also others in similar situations that occur on university premises. In addition, it directs the reader to ‘Please read the full letter’ with a URL link.
Stanford Association Of Students for Assault Prevention – petition: https://www.change.org/p/letter-to-stanford-university-in-support-of-survivor-of-brock-turner-case?recruiter=86353774&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=autopublish&utm_term=des-md-action_alert-no_msg
The URL link is to an ‘actual letter’. It is addressed to Stanford University, it sets out its case in clear sentences and well structured paragraphs framed by numbered points of request, and it is signed ‘Sincerely’ with the names of two people who, as its founders, represent the Stamford Association of Students for Assault Prevention.
Letter to Stanford University (from Student Association petition signers): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1EtscS1DUF8umFbZkFC7FZa8kr9fpqPQDhXHIloN5_c0/edit?pref=2&pli=1
And by way of a sort of PS, the online Guardian newspaper then published a report that the judge had been removed from trying a case with similar features.
Last updated: 16 June 2016