Benedict, Helen 1952-

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Benedict, Helen 1952-


Born November 5, 1952, in London, England; daughter of Burton (a professor of anthropology) and Marion (a writer) Benedict; married Stephen O'Connor (a writer and teacher), May 10, 1980; children: Simon, Emma. Ethnicity: "White, half Jewish." Education: University of Sussex, B.A., 1975; University of California, Berkeley, M.A., 1979.


Home—New York, NY. Office—Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. Agent—Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management, 521 5th Ave., 26th Fl., New York, NY 10175. E-mail—[email protected].


New Wings, Novato, CA, managing editor, 1979; Independent and Gazette, Richmond, CA, reporter and feature writer, 1980-81; Columbia University, New York, NY, professor of journalism, 1986—. Delacorte Center, director of Magazine Career Institute, 1986; University of California, Berkeley, visiting lecturer, 1991. Writing instructor at Paris Writer's Workshop and Auvillar Writer's Workshop.


PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.


Fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 1986, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, MacDowell Colony for Writers and Artists, 1987, and Cummington Community and School of the Arts, 1988, 1989, and 1990; included among "best books of the year for teenagers," New York Library, and "best books for young adults," American Library Association, both 1988, and citation as one of the "best books of the decade" by Booklist, 1989, all for Safe, Strong, andStreetwise; grant from Gannett Foundation National Research and Publications Program for Journalists in Education, 1989; Lowell Mellett special citation, 1994, for Virgin of Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes; best book selection, New York Public Library, 1997, for Bad Angel; fellow of Yaddo, 2008; James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, 2008.



A World like This, Dutton (New York, NY), 1990.

Bad Angel, Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.

The Sailor's Wife, Zoland (Cambridge, MA), 2001.

The Opposite of Love, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.


(Coauthor) Women Making History: Conversations with Fifteen New Yorkers, New York City Commission on the Status of Women (New York, NY), 1985.

Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault for Women, Men, Teenagers, Their Friends and Families, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1985, updated edition, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Safe, Strong, and Streetwise (young adult), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.

Portraits in Print: A Collection of Profiles and the Stories behind Them, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Work represented in anthologies, including Fiction Writer's Market, Writer's Digest Books, 1984; Conversations with Bernard Malamud, edited by Lawrence Lasher, University of Mississippi Press, 1991; Transforming a Rape Culture, Milkweed Editions, 1993; The Writer's Home Companion, edited by Joan Bolker, Henry Holt and Co. (New York, NY), 1997; and The Practical Writer, Penguin (New York, NY), 2004. Contributor to periodicals, including Antioch Review, Columbia Journalism Review, Fordham Law Review, Glamour, Ms., New York Times Book Review, New York Woman, Ontario Review, San Francisco Examiner, and Writer's Digest.


Helen Benedict is a professor of journalism who has received attention for her writings on rape and sex crimes. Among her earliest works is Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault for Women, Men, Teenagers, Their Friends and Families, which she derived from extensive interviews with rape victims. Benedict once told CA that she still "receives letters in reaction to this book to this day." She also wrote Safe, Strong, and Streetwise, in which she advises young adults on safety and well-being.

In another book, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, Benedict exposes the sexism that she perceives as inherent in the coverage of sex crimes against women. She denotes the manner in which female victims are seemingly cast as either unrealistically innocent or sexually reckless. Benedict reported to CA that Virgin or Vamp "has broken new ground: no other book has been written about how the press covers sex crimes, even though these crimes are such popular fodder for the press." A critic for the New York Times Book Review commented that Virgin or Vamp "makes a powerful case for reform in the way the daily press approaches its coverage of sex crimes." Columbia Journalism Review correspondent Susan Rieger wrote: "On its surface, Virgin or Vamp is an exercise in press criticism. In its heart, it's a book with a mission. While its ‘first and foremost’ purpose is to look at the ways newspapers perpetuate the myths and stereotypes surrounding rapes and other violent crimes against women, its ‘purpose’ is ‘ultimately to show reporters and editors how to cover sex crimes without further harming the victims.’" Rieger concluded that the work "makes an airtight case. It's not only the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Navy brass who ‘just don't get it.’ As Benedict makes very clear, most of the media haven't a clue."

In 1990 Benedict produced her first novel, A World like This, which she described to CA as the story of "a teenager in prison and what happens to her upon her release." Set in England in the mid-1970s, the story follows a troubled heroine named Brandy as she commits a frivolous crime and winds up in a Borstal, a prison for young offenders. The opening of the novel concerns Brandy's stay in the prison and her relationship with a guard who becomes her lover. Once released, Brandy has not been rehabilitated or redeemed by her experience, but she still compares it favorably to the poverty-stricken outside world from which she came. "The ironic subject of A World like This is the impossibility of maintaining goodness and innocence in a grim world that has little use for either," noted Bill Kent in the New York Times Book Review. Kent further stated that the novel "offers such a brutally unsentimental view of England's underclass that, like Brandy, we begin to long for the cruel simplicity of the Borstal."

Benedict's other novels also feature young female protagonists in challenging situations. In Bad Angel, a Dominican-American teenager takes her rage out on her infant and in turn is beaten by her own mother. The Sailor's Wife, once again set in the 1970s, explores the difficult decisions a young American wife must make after her hasty marriage to a traditional Greek merchant marine. The Opposite of Love features a mixed-race teenager who kidnaps a child in an attempt to rescue him. New York Times Book Review contributor Katherine Ramsland called Bad Angel "an authentic account of hardship and faith in a violent, poverty-stricken … neighborhood." In his New York Times Book Review piece on The Sailor's Wife, Peter Bricklebank praised Benedict for "an intelligent look at belonging, duty and independence."

Benedict is also author of Portraits in Print: A Collection of Profiles and the Stories behind Them, which includes profiles on such writers as Joseph Brodsky, Bernard Malamud, and Susan Sontag. Accompanying these profiles, which appeared earlier in various magazines, are discussions of what Benedict considers "the ethical dilemmas inherent in interviewing people about their private lives."

Benedict once told CA: "I came to my current specialization as a press critic on a path that is natural to journalists. Unlike academic scholars, journalists tend not to specialize early in their career but to generalize until their experience and research lead them to particular subjects. I thus began my career writing about almost anything, but soon developed two main focuses: crime victims, particularly women; and literature.

"My interest in victims began, in a sense, as early as my childhood. I lived for several years in Mauritius and the Seychelles, islands full of poverty and disease. On returning home to England, where I grew up, I was much affected by the contrast between the haves and the have-nots and developed an early, passionate intolerance of injustice. This same passion later drove me to choose journalism as a career.

"My interest in literature, meanwhile, was almost a birthright. I grew up in the midst of London's literary world, wrote a ‘novel’ at the age of eight, a book about how to raise children at age nine, and another ‘novel’ at eleven. Journalism seemed the perfect career to combine my love of writing with my passion for justice.

"Once I reached college I majored in developmental psychology and, as part of my training, went to work as a volunteer in a prison for minor girls. Being only twenty-one and more interested in the downtrodden than the authorities, I befriended and studied the inmates and was appalled to discover that seventy percent of them had been raped by relatives. The tragedy of their plight led to my lifelong interest in rape and its victims, to my decision to become a journalist, and to my books on related subjects.

"At the University of California, Berkeley, I continued my interest in rape by interviewing victims about whether they should be named by the press. I also published magazine and newspaper pieces about rape.

"In 1979 I went to work as a feature writer for the Independent and Gazette in California, where I was able to write dozens of articles on rape, battered women, child prostitutes, and related subjects, as well as many pieces on authors and the literary world.

"Finally deciding I was more suited to long-form journalism than to newspaper writing, I left the Gazette and moved to New York City to freelance. After five years of writing on the subject of rape, I wrote Recovery. My next book, Safe, Strong, and Streetwise, appeared shortly after I was hired at Columbia University to teach magazine journalism. Teaching gave me the freedom to think more and write for money less, and thus I was able to finally combine my literary bent with my work in the prison and my interviews with rape victims by writing the novel A World like This. A year later I published Portraits in Print.

"As my experience teaching journalism grew, my two fields of specialization—literature and sex crimes—began to fuse. I found myself increasingly using a literary approach to journalism in the way I edited and analyzed newspaper and magazine stories with my students. I also found myself increasingly interested in the language used about sex crimes. I thus conceived of Virgin or Vamp."



Booklist, March 15, 1996, Mary Carroll, review of Bad Angel, p. 1238.

Columbia Journalism Review, October 15, 1992, Susan Rieger, "Raped Again?"

Library Journal, November 15, 2000, Jo Manning, review of The Sailor's Wife, p. 324.

Nation, October 11, 1993, Leora Tanenbaum, review of Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, p. 397.

New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1990, Bill Kent, "Borstal Girl," p. 29; November 22, 1992, Bill Kovach, "Writing about Rape"; April 14, 1996, Katherine Ramsland, review of Bad Angel; January 21, 2001, Peter Bricklebank, review of The Sailor's Wife.

Publishers Weekly, January 15, 1996, review of Bad Angel, p. 442; August 14, 2000, review of The Sailor's Wife, p. 324.


Helen Benedict Home Page, (April 23, 2008).

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Benedict, Helen 1952-

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