Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a young woman who begins high school as an outcast. Raped at a party by a senior named Andy Evans, she called the police, and as such earned the reputation as a narc when the cops broke up the party. Ostracized by her best friends and ignored by her parents, she is unable to confide in anyone and left to handle the enormity of the trauma by herself.
For such dark subject matter, Halse Anderson’s narrator is reliably witty, accurately skewering high school and its inhabitants even as she struggles under the weight of feelings that she doesn’t know how to express. She watches as her best friend Rachel first snubs her and then becomes a complete douche, eventually going on to pursue the man who raped her, Andy Evans. She finds herself friends with a transplant from Ohio named Heather, who eventually leaves her for a group of overachievers called the Marthas, telling Melinda that she is too depressing to hang out with. And in the meantime, she takes up art.
Melinda’s classes with Mr. Freeman make up the artery of the story, because it is only there that she is told that her feelings are valid, and given agency to explore them. This is perhaps a bit too contrived, as on occasion is the character of Mr. Freeman, her art teacher. Even so, the slow burn of her feelings as they make their way onto the page (or, in some cases, a linoleum block) are undeniably affecting, as is the rekindling of her friendship with Ivy, one of her former friends.
Andy, or “IT,” makes occasional appearances throughout the story, and it is through these sudden pop-ups that the reality of what happened to Melinda is gradually explained. By the climax, when she faces down Andy and is finally vindicated in the eyes of her schoolmates, she has not only managed to remember the event, but to confide in her former best friend, and to warn her, when she begins to date Andy. Rachel at first refuses to believe her, but ends up walking out on him during the prom. After Melinda’s showdown with Andy, more and more girls come out with similar stories of their own.
Herein lies my problem with the book. Let me preface this by saying that I think Speak is a great book for its demographic, and possibly should even be required reading among the Judy Blume set. Laurie Halse Anderson took on a big subject, and finds a relatable and trustworthy narrator in Melinda. However – and this is a big however – I think it sets up some pretty unrealistic expectations. Melinda is raped, but by the end of the book experiences the catharsis of standing up to her rapist, and having everyone in her life believe and validate her. This is just not something that happens to most rape victims. Most rapists go free, and their survivors are never able to face them down in the way that Melinda does. Perhaps even more damagingly, in a situation like Melinda’s, it is perhaps more likely that Rachel or anyone else would have refused to believe her over the testimony of Andy, a popular golden boy. Oftentimes a rape victim is forced to deal with not only her own trauma, but the ostracization of her peers, not because they didn’t realize what happened, as in Melinda’s case, but because they know what happened and either don’t believe her, or blame her.
This isn’t to say that Laurie Halse Anderson was wrong to write a book that painted a different picture of a girl who is courageous enough to eventually face down her rapist and warn off other girls. It’s just that I worry that this book sets up unrealistic expectations for girls who might be going through similar situations – that their friends and classmates will believe them and support them, when that is sadly not always the case. The answer to this, however, is not less books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s, but more. Sadly, this isn’t all that likely either. Halse Anderson’s book faces constant censorship from school boards who believe the content is too controversial. But hopefully, more and more writers like Halse Anderson will feel compelled to come forward and Speak, like Melinda, and someday we will live in a society where women aren’t shamed for crimes committed on them.