“I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?”
As you may have guessed, I read a lot as a kid, and I was pretty indiscriminate about the books I picked up. So I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Speak but I feel like I was younger than the target audience – maybe 12 or so? Then again, Melinda, the main character, is only 13 at the party the summer before the story begins.
Where it begins is Melinda’s first morning at Merryweather High School. The story unfolds slowly. All the reader can tell at first is that Melinda is an outcast, abandoned by her previous friends. Then the pieces come together – she busted a party in the summer by calling the cops, because something terrible had happened, that she hasn’t told anyone, even her former best friend Rachel/Rachelle.
As it turns out, she was raped. The word rape doesn’t actually appear in the book until page 164, not far from the end, so I’m not entirely surprised that I remember spending much of the book confused the first time around. That it happened is certainly implied and then recounted earlier in the story, not in graphic detail but enough to get an idea of what happened. But to be honest I don’t know how well I grasped even the concept of rape when I first read Speak. This was likely one of my first encounters with the idea.
In a letter, poem and Q&A in the copy of the book I borrowed (shout out to libraries), author Laurie Halse Anderson says that she’s heard from countless students who “identify with Melinda’s struggle.” And she also notes that not everyone who identifies with Melinda suffered the same exact fate. I think part of what makes Speak relatable is that the book is about much more than the night Melinda was raped. In fact, as mentioned, the story officially begins after that happened. But the idea of recovering from an isolating experience, feeling like no one else understands so there’s no one to talk to about it, and how that pain can damage other parts of your life, is something a lot of readers, and young people especially, can understand.
I also think Melinda’s specific situation reflects reality for a large number of girls (statistics vary and are hard to assess because so many rapes go unreported, but there are estimates that as many as 1 in 4 girls in Canada will be sexually assaulted in their life.) As well, in Melinda’s case, she was drunk – which unfairly leads to questions about her culpability. A recent survey found nearly one in five Canadians believe that women who are drunk invite sexual assault.
Anderson addresses this to an extent in the book – Melinda asks herself at one point if she was raped. And through a fever-induced conversation with imaginary Oprah, answers the question pretty clearly: “You said no. He covered your mouth with his hand. You were thirteen years old. It doesn’t matter that you were drunk. Honey, you were raped.” The reality is, it wouldn’t have mattered if she was too drunk to SAY no. What matters is she didn’t say yes.
This book is a heavy one. It’s made the cut for the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for the 2000s decade, and reasons include its depiction of “soft-core pornography” and my personal favourite, “glorification of drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.” It’s totally laughable and equally heartbreaking that anyone could think this book glorifies premarital sex.
But I’ll leave Anderson to respond to those claims: “Censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them feel vulnerable.”