In the last month, three female joggers — all of them white, all around 30 — have been murdered: Alexandra Brueger, a nurse in Michigan; Karina Vetrano, who worked at a restaurant in Howard Beach, Queens; and Vanessa Marcotte, a Google employee who was attacked while jogging on a bucolic stretch of wooded road near her mother’s home in Massachusetts.
Their deaths are horrifying, their families’ grief unimaginable, and they make me aware of my own vulnerability — as a jogger, I guess, but mainly as a woman and a human being with an innately fragile body. Their deaths also make me aware of the fact that I have a body — female, white, 33 — readily understood as vulnerable. They come at the end of a summer marked by other killings — Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sylville Smith, all black men, all shot by police officers who imagined they were threats — that make me aware of the ways in which my body isn’t vulnerable at all. I have been pulled over for traffic violations plenty of times, but I have never been shot while reaching for my license.
In the American imagination, some bodies need to be protected, while others need to be protected from. But to have your body understood as vulnerable is a privilege that should be a right.
It’s impossible to talk about the figure of the vulnerable jogger in the American imagination without returning to the Central Park Jogger: an investment banker named Trisha Meili, 28 years old and white, who was raped and brutally beaten — allegedly by a “wolf pack” of black and Hispanic teenagers — in Central Park on April 19, 1989. During most of the media frenzy, Ms. Meili was simply known as “the jogger”: “Teen Gang Rapes Jogger”; “Female Jogger Near Death.”
Ms. Meili was called “the jogger” to protect her anonymity, but the relentless recurrence of the title also affirmed the narrative the media had spun around her, which presented a character defined by youth and health, by ambition and upward mobility, by her desire to claim Central Park as a space of leisure — despite assertions that it wasn’t safe after dark, especially above 96th Street — and by her refusal to capitulate to fear, by her determination to jog anyway. “The jogger” had been exercising a kind of willpower people admired, but her willpower had been viciously punished, and people were hungry for more punishment in return.
The boys accused of assaulting Ms. Meili — Kharey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, Jr. — were convicted on the strength of contradictory confessions coerced under duress. After an incarcerated serial rapist named Matias Reyes eventually confessed to the crime more than a decade later, a claim confirmed by DNA evidence, their convictions were vacated in 2002.
In the early pages of her 2003 memoir, “I Am the Central Park Jogger,” a moving account of her recovery, Ms. Meili resists the standard first-person and refers to herself as “the jogger” instead: “It is astonishing that the Jogger is alive,” she writes about her own body, found in the woods north of the 102nd Street transverse, where she was hypothermic and barely breathing, gagged with a white shirt soaked red. She had lost 75 percent of her blood.
Her third-person narrative is an elegant testimony to the fact that she still has no access to her own interior experience at that time — no memories of the night of the attack, nor the six weeks that followed it. She cannot remember being “I” in those moments. It’s almost as if she is telling her story through the lens of the public’s obsession with it: “The rape of a slim, seemingly frail, innocent woman,” she writes, “seems a rape of the city itself.” She acknowledges the ways her vulnerability was part of her public image (“frail”) but also resists understanding herself wholly in terms of this frailty (“seemingly”).
The lead prosecutor in her case was a jogger as well: Elizabeth Lederer, a white woman in her 30s who ran the same Central Park trails as Ms. Meili. In her cross-examination of Mr. Salaam, trying to dispute his claim that he’d gone into the park that night to “walk around,” Ms. Lederer asked: “Did you have jogging clothes on?” She said: “You weren’t going there for a picnic, were you?”
Ms. Meili describes the fantasies of invulnerability that brought her to the park to run: “I was indestructible, omnipotent. Comfortable. I could run and run and nothing and no one could harm me.”
But fantasies of invulnerability — even ones that get punctured — have never been democratically available. In “Cross Country,” the poet Roger Reeves speaks as a black man running, a man who feels “the making and unmaking of my body” as he runs. “What name must I carry above the dust / of this field?” he asks. The poem was inspired by a morning run in Austin, Tex., when Mr. Reeves was trailed for a quarter-mile on Guadalupe Street by a white man who followed him yelling: “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” That’s the name his poem’s speaker carries above the dust, as he “makes” his body through exertion and feels it “unmade” by hate.
The Central Park Five had their own fantasies of invulnerability: They believed that because they were innocent, they wouldn’t go to jail. They thought if they said what the police wanted them to say, they would go home. But instead they went to prison — where their own bodies, already vulnerable, became even more so. Kharey Wise was beaten up in the TV room at Rikers Island. Even after he was released, Raymond Santana still showered with his boxers on.
What is it about the imperiled silhouette of the young female jogger that grips the collective imagination with such force? I think it has something to do with the wholesomeness of jogging — the way it suggests capability, self-improvement, female autonomy — and the horror of witnessing its virtues violated.
But it’s more than that. As Ms. Meili points out in her memoir, there were 28 other rapes and attempted rapes in New York City the week of her assault. In the weeks that followed, several particularly brutal rapes — including that of a black woman who was thrown from the top of a roof in Brooklyn — received much less attention than hers. “These are the times that try my black woman’s mind,” wrote Lisa Kennedy in The Village Voice in May 1989. “If I accept the premise of the coverage, that this rape is more heartbreaking than all the rapes that happen to women of color, then what happens to the value of my body?”
During the same two-week period in which three female joggers were killed this summer, three other women were murdered whose deaths got much less coverage: Skye Mockabee, in Cleveland on July 30; Erykah Tijerina, in El Paso on Aug. 8; and Rae’Lynn Thomas, in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 10. They were all young (26, 36, 28), all transgender, all minority women. Ms. Thomas’s murder marked the 19th transgender murder of the year, and the sixth murder of a minority transgender woman over the summer.
This has been a summer of vulnerable and brutalized bodies, a summer of unjust violence once again carried out in the guise of justice, a summer of fear and fear mongering. Our Republican presidential nominee is the same man who put out a full-page newspaper ad in 1989 calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the aftermath of the Central Park Jogger’s attack. “I want them to understand our anger,” he wrote, about the boys whose guilt he assumed. “I want them to be afraid.”
They were afraid, and their mothers were afraid, and each one of them came of age behind bars, for a crime he didn’t commit.
In the documentary “The Central Park Five,” Angela Cuffee, the sister of the defendant Kevin Richardson, says: “Patricia Meili, my brother, all the boys, all of our families — all of us are victims.” She doesn’t conflate the experiences of the jogger and the boys persecuted in her name, but she does ask us to recognize their violations as part of the same story: We responded to unjust violence by demanding more of it.
Rape, Race and the Jogger LESLIE JAMISONAUG. 25, 2016