Speak, written by Laurie Halse Anderson, is a story about rape, recovery and healing. Labeled a “Problem Novel” in the Young Adult genre, the book tackles uncomfortable topics and doesn’t shy away from real life problems. Speak speaks out against violence and victimization while teaching us about trauma, empowerment, patience, compassion and the power of words.
After being raped at a party by a popular senior named Andy Evans, 14-year-old freshman Melinda Sordino calls the police but is suddenly unable to verbalize what happened. When the police arrive and break up the party, Melinda is blamed for it and later ostracized by her peers. Unable to process, admit or discuss what happened to her, Melinda nearly stops speaking altogether. She withdraws at home and starts skipping school, nonverbally expressing herself through body language and self-destructive behavior, like biting her lip until it bleeds and even cutting herself. As her grades slip and her silence becomes deafening, her parents realize something is wrong but, distracted by their own problems, they accuse Melinda of acting out for attention. Because she isn’t getting the support or help she needs, Melinda’s depression deepens.
I found Melinda’s story to be a realistic depiction of a young girl’s journey from rape to recovery. While the novel touches on other young adult issues, like fitting in, popularity, finding one’s identity, grades, status and relationships, those issues were overshadowed by the trauma and recovery themes—and rightfully so. After all, this mirrors what would actually happen in real life. While life keeps on moving and the world keeps spinning, anyone who has survived a tragedy or trauma knows that the life of the victim becomes saturated by those experiences.
On page 52 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going says: “In Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, she writes: ‘What happens to characters—how they suffer and celebrate, how they meet challenges, overcome obstacles and find redemption—is the heart and soul and spirit of story.’” Going continues: “Our personalities reveal themselves through our speech, actions and body language… Watching what a character does or does not do can reveal what she wants and help create a fuller sense of who she is both physically and emotionally. This is especially true when we reveal the reasons behind her actions.”
Melinda wanted desperately for this experience to somehow go away and her brain’s defense mechanism was to try to repress the rape. She prayed that if she didn’t speak about it, then it would magically disappear. This, too, is common in real life traumas and tragedies.
I imagine some readers will say that Melinda should have immediately spoken up and sought justice against her attacker, and I admit I had those thoughts, too. But then I tried to put myself in Melinda’s shoes. Rape is nearly impossible to process as an adult, but Melinda is a 14-year-old girl and trying to process something this traumatic at such a young age is both scary and challenging beyond words. Not only was Melinda raped, but this was also her first sexual experience. And she said it herself—she wasn’t even scheduled to learn about sex until her junior year. How can we expect her to feel comfortable speaking about something that no one has taken the time to discuss with her? Add that to the fact that sex and rape are often considered taboo topics. Victims of rape often feel ashamed and even responsible for what happened to them.
This week’s lecture states: “The real-lives of teens do not always have to be dramatic. A story of a teen driven to exhaustion by pressures of getting into the right college may connect more than stories about teens in drugs or gangs. The essence of the problem is only that it is realistic.”
Rape is a tricky theme and traditionally stories about rape involve dramatic and horrific rape scenes, backlashes from victims telling their stories and horrendous public trials. Speak was nothing like that. While it was indeed dramatic in its own way, the rape scene was dealt with delicately through flashback. And rather than focusing the story on the rapist getting what he deserved, this story focused almost entirely on the victim. To me this was realistic. Real people recovering from real traumas may be too afraid, embarrassed, confused or scarred to speak up.
At school, Melinda hides in a janitor’s closet to avoid people. While this seemed silly to me at first, I couldn’t escape the closet’s obvious symbolism. On page 50, Melinda says: “I know my head isn’t screwed on straight. I want to leave, transfer, warp myself to another galaxy. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to someone else. There is a beast inside my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, straining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.” Similar to homosexuals who are “in the closet,” a term used to describe those who have not yet come out to their friends and family, Melinda did absolutely nothing wrong and yet she is overcome by guilt and fear and shame.
Melinda starts to find her voice through artistic expression in Mr. Freeman’s class. Meanwhile, Melinda’s ex-friend Rachel starts dating Andy Evans and Melinda fears Rachel will get raped, too. Melinda tries to warn her but Rachel ignores her and accuses her of being jealous. Still it is Melinda’s warning combined with Andy’s aggressive behavior that leads to the breakup at prom. Melinda’s urgency to help others (shown through bathroom graffiti and through her courageous warning to Rachel) along with her artistic expression slowly helps Melinda acknowledge that she was raped and empowers her to finally speak up and stand up against her attacker. Once the truth comes out, the students no longer treat Melinda like an outcast. In the end, Melinda tells her story to Mr. Freeman and the truth finally sets her free, so to speak, to move on and to heal.
There were certain things in the story which I found unrealistic or hard to believe at first but those things were explained away by the diary style in which the story was told. For example, I struggled with Melinda’s recount of the scene where Andy attacks her at school and she fights back. To me, it seemed exaggerated but then I thought it doesn’t matter what I think because these are Melinda’s memories. She is a 14-year-old girl recovering from a trauma so her point of view as well as her fears and insecurities are painted over everything. Not only do teens have a tendency to exaggerate the good and the bad but her exaggeration doesn’t make her a liar.
This class inspired me to dig out a bunch of my old diaries and journals (as I got older I started calling them journals) and I can’t believe how much I exaggerated back then. The experiences were always true but back then everything was a big deal to me and my words reflected that.
What happened to Melinda was a very big deal. That in addition to the fact that she is a teen and teens have the tendency to exaggerate, we must keep in mind that Melinda is also the victim of trauma. Some of her actions may seem odd to someone who hasn’t gone through what she’s been through but from a psychological standpoint everyone recovers differently from trauma.
I’m obviously not a psychologist but I think it’s pretty clear that Melinda could have been suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. According to the National Center for PTSD, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something terrible and scary that you see, hear about, or that happens to you, like combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attack, sexual or physical assault, serious accidents, natural disasters… Children age 12 to 18 have symptoms similar to adults: depression, anxiety, withdrawal, or reckless behavior like substance abuse or running away.” Rape certainly qualifies as a “traumatic event.”
Prior to the rape, Melinda struck me as any typical teenage girl; she was excited, naively optimistic and enthusiastic. Just moments before the rape, she fantasized about her popularity and about having a boyfriend. But, as is the case with most victims, Melinda’s world suddenly shattered. As a direct result of being traumatized and raped, such a vibrant young girl became ashamed and afraid of everything and everyone.
Melinda’s PTSD is further revealed through her inability to speak and through her actions and body language. For example, she freezes in fear every time she sees Andy Evans. She refers to him as It because she doesn’t want to think of him as a person and since she can’t bring herself to say his name. Melinda slowly befriends her lab partner, David Petrakis, who eventually encourages her to speak up for herself. Even though she perceives David to be a good person, Melinda cannot overcome the fear that he might hurt her too so she avoids being alone with him.
There were moments when I struggled with the pace of the novel and how slowly some of the obvious elements were revealed. But then I thought about Melinda’s mother, who clearly suspected something was wrong but wasn’t sure what. Then I thought to myself: What if Melinda was my child? What if I was in the dark but somehow sensed or suspected something traumatic had happened? Would I be in denial? Maybe. Would I ignore the problem or, worse yet, would I blame my daughter for it? I hope not. It would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to do, but I would want to be patient with her and let her tell me in her own time and in her own words and on her own terms. Even though it was often hard to watch, that’s what Melinda did and this novel demanded a certain level of patience similar to what is required from a loved one.
On page 52 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “If your audience invests in your characters, whether that investment comes in the form of love, hate, or morbid fascination, they’ll keep turning the pages and follow the story until the bitter end.”
Even though I found the novel to be predictable in many ways, I found it impossible to put down. I needed to know Melinda’s fate and I needed confirmation that she was going to be okay.
The lesson is in the title: Speak. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about what happened to Melinda or anyone else, male or female, who is a victim of rape. Once Melinda found the courage to speak up against her attacker, she found her strength as well as her desire to help and protect others against having the same thing happen to them. Once she spoke up, others wanted to help her, too, and the healing process was able to begin. This novel shows the trauma and devastation of rape but it also empowers the victims to speak and teaches the rest of us to listen.