Speak (Review)

THE FIRST TEN LIES THEY TELL YOU IN HIGH SCHOOL
1. We are here to help you.
2. You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.
3. The dress code will be enforced.
4. No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
5. Our football team will win the championship this year.
6. We expect more of you here.
7. Guidance counselors are always available to listen.
8. Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
9. Your locker combination is private.
10. These will be the years you will look back on fondly.


Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak was published nineteen years ago but it’s still a book we need to read today. Speak isn’t the only text that addresses sexual assault and harassment and not everyone will relate to it or the story of a young white girl’s trauma, but it certainly opens up a discussion in a demographic that is fully engaged in the #MeToo movement. Here’s a reading list for the #MeToo era that is intersectional and features multifaceted trauma narratives.

As much as I wish we didn’t need writing about sexual assault, young readers have more lived experience with sexual assault and harassment than we’d like to think. I had the privilege of working with grade eight students in ELA on my practicum this year. Each month, they have a period in which they go to the library and select new books for free reading time. Most students picked up John Green or The Hunger Games, but I saw four girls each checking out a copy of Speak and rapidly flipping through the pages. I’d already read the book and was surprised to see that they’d chosen four tattered copies of a book that was older than they were (that being said, another girl picked up Les Misérables for fun reading).

The next day, I chatted with the girls and mentioned that I’d read and loved the book. Testing the waters, I asked them if they knew what it was about. They said that it was about in a girl in high school who was unpopular because she called the police at the last party of the summer. I reread the book over spring break to refresh my memory and found it infinitely more difficult to get through this time around. The writing was still accessible, but I connected with the content in a different way than I did when I was fifteen. When the students and I discussed it after spring break, they weren’t shocked by the content. In fact, they’d each known someone that this had happened to.

 


“I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears?” 


 

Within the first few pages, Melinda’s voice is set so strongly (like in the above list) even though she doesn’t have any dialogue. She seems to be incapable of speaking further than grunts of agreement or dissent. By the end of the novel, we realize that Melinda was raped at the party and called the police, but found herself unable to speak when she picked up the phone which led to the police investigating and shutting down the party.

This isn’t a feel good book where Melinda’s friends rally around to support her through her trauma. Her first attempt at disclosure is shut down, she has to see her rapist at school every day and is physically confronted by him on multiple occasions (not to mention the silencing she imposes on herself as the result of a system that believes victims are lying until proven otherwise). I wish this book weren’t such an accurate depiction of the treatment of survivors, but it is. Anderson presents a complex and honest account of her own experiences with sexual assault and managed to bring these conversations forward before they had cultural cachet.

This book is definitely worth a read when you’ve got the capacity to process it. There’s also a beautiful graphic novel edition that came out this year and some interesting commentary from the author about the #MeToo movement.

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