Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
I don’t remember exactly when I picked up this book. I’d put it anywhere between senior year of high school and second year of college. I was reading a lot of young adult novels back then, mostly because they were fast reads, and it was nice to just take a break from reading all that textbooks and English novels for class.
The reason this book stands out to me so much is the subject matter. A very traumatic moment happens to the main character, Melinda Sordino, and for months afterward, she stops speaking. People began to scorn her, rumors abound, and still she doesn’t speak up. Melinda begins to lose her friends, as one by one they drift away because of her weirdness. It is through her art class, and her caring art teacher and the students there, that she begins to find a safe place to release the inner pain and turmoil.
However, throughout all of this, she is tormented by seeing the person who had violated her, the guy who haunted her dreams and even in the halls of school. She tries to hide from him and others, but eventually, she reaches a point where the pain is too much, the fear is too unhealthy, and so Melinda tries to speak up for the first time in months. The moment where she tries to stand up for herself and tell her story as it is was incredible, terrifying, and transforming moment in the book. It triggers an avalanche of events, that ends with a confrontation with the one who violated her, and her using her voice to once again speak up and bring justice down upon him.
That’s a powerful story. Incredibly powerful. When I first read it, I wept through the last few pages of the book. When I read it a second time, a few years later, I decided to follow the narrator’s example. To speak up to my loved ones about what had happened to me, to break the silence that had kept my own traumatic night a secret to all for so long, and it was a terrifying moment, but just as it helped Melinda step onto the path of healing, it did the same for me as well.
As a survivor, this book was incredibly hard to read because I related to it so incredibly much. It is often very bleak at times, yet, even in her darkest hours, there is still this tiny shred of hope, that maybe things will get better. It perfectly captures the essence of a survivor’s journey and how society victimizes us again and again. It also shows that we can triumph over our trauma and that healing is possible. It shows that by speaking up and facing it, we empower ourselves and those around us.
We don’t have to live in silence. This book taught me that, for I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
I am not surprised to see it was banned in some areas for a few years, but at the same time, I am sad for it because this is really a fantastic gem of a book. In fact, I think it should be taught within classes, to have students really dig into it, and most of all to provide a chance to educate people about sexual assault and domestic violence and how to react in a way that affirms the victim and denounces the abuser/rapist. We need to stop protecting the rapists and abusers; we need to stop painting them as poor souls that messed up briefly — especially if they came from positions of power. We need to show rapists and abusers that what they did was wrong, and they must face justice.
Most importantly, we need to reach out to the survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and rape and let them know that it’s not their fault. They are not to blame. Their abusers and rapists are the ones to blame. We need to stop teaching ‘how to prevent rape’ and instead teach ‘how to not rape.’ We need to dismantle our culture of rape, and create instead a culture based upon respect, empathy, yes meaning yes, and no meaning no.
As a little aside, Catalyst by the same author, references Melinda, when the narrator walks by her and some other students creating an art sculpture. The narrator sums up her story as brave and leaves it at that.