There are a few reasons I decided it was time to reread and finally review Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month, and Anderson is doing a fundraiser with RAINN. I also read an interesting interview with her. And I recently read about a fascinating study that looks at how Speak has been used in classrooms to help dispel myths about rape.
Trigger warning: This review contains spoilers which include discussions of rape and self harm.
Speak is the story of Melinda’s freshman year of high school. From the first day, she’s isolated—her friends have turned against her, she has no group where she fits, and she’s not particularly close to her parents. We soon learn that she called the cops while she was at a party where there was a lot of under-aged drinking—this is why everyone seems to be upset with her.
Through the course of this brutally honest book, we learn the whole story. Melinda was raped at the party. Her rapist walks the halls, and he remembers her—occasionally whispering in her ear, purposefully leaning against her and playing with her hair while he flirts with another girl. Unable to figure out how to talk to anyone about this, she slowly sinks into silence. Her grades slip until she’s nearly failing everything. She cuts class, makes herself a safe place in an abandoned janitor’s closet.
She barely talks to anyone in her life, but she has so much to say to the reader. Her observations are keen and scathing. She sees right through parents, teachers, the school, the school board, her classmates, her former friends—nothing escapes her. Although I never found myself in her situation, her pain and how she deals with it is very easy to identify with. Her cynical views of high school feel true even (especially?) in retrospect.
This isn’t an easy book to read. But it’s an important one. This topic isn’t one we can afford to ignore, and reading Speak, having your kids read it, and talking about it together is a great way to start a difficult discussion.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Let’s just start off with the big one. Melinda doesn’t explicitly mention the rape until about ¾ of the way through the novel. Until then, she can’t admit to herself what really happened. It’s not a graphic memory—scattered visuals, fear, a sense of being overpowered—but it is effective.
Even after this memory, it takes her a while to fully come to terms with the fact that it was rape—it wasn’t her fault. He definitely forced himself on her and that’s wrong, even if she had trouble clearly saying “No” at the time. The definition of rape is pretty clearly spelled out as Melinda imagines what day time talk show hosts would say to her about it.
In her mind, he’s IT. And then he gets a name—Andy Evans. And then she refers to him as the Beast.
Once she finally manages to speak up to her former best friend, her rapist confronts her. He yells at her for ruining his life. He claims he’s not a rapist. She wanted it. He doesn’t have to force people to have sex with him. She’s just jealous because he didn’t pay attention to her afterwards. He then attacks her again in the janitor’s closet that used to be her safe place—he still views this as giving her what she wants. She fights back—she screams “NO!” and she hits him and struggles and eventually breaks a mirror and cuts him with it. That’s when it seems to finally sink in that she actually really doesn’t want to have sex with him. The girls lacrosse team hears her and comes to her rescue. Now it’s the rapist who is discredited—Melinda goes from outcast to hero, for she wasn’t the only one who had problems with Andy.
At the party where the rape occurred, there was a ton of under-aged drinking. Melinda had three beers and was feeling pretty out of it when the handsome senior singled her out, danced with her, and eventually raped her. It is made explicitly clear that this in no way makes it any less a rape.
There was a lot of drinking at prom, including kids getting their stomachs pumped. There’s no question that many kids are drinking, often a lot. The possible negative repercussions of this are there, but really not the point of this book and therefore only touched on.
Lots of the adults drink, too. Melinda’s dad seems to need “booze” in the evening to deal with the stress of life. He doesn’t seem to get drunk, though.
Reactions to Trauma
Melinda routinely chews her lip until it bleeds—her lip is scabby. When she finally admits to herself that she was raped, she bites her lip through and thinks she’ll need stitches. She chews her nails to the quick until they bleed. She purposefully scratches her wrist with a paperclip until it bleeds, and in a stressful moment she repeatedly lets her head hit the wall behind her. Pain in some ways helps her cope. She mentions but never seriously considers suicide.
She skips class, skips school, and doesn’t do what she’s asked to do. When her rapist plays with her hair, she runs to the bathroom and throws up. She can’t sleep—when she does, she thrashes and sleep walks.
During frog dissection, Melinda identifies strongly with the frog. Seeing the frog sprawled out with her arms pinned about to be attacked, Melinda has a flashback to her rape. She passes out and hits her head.
Several times, Melinda tries to speak. But after she calls the police at the party—to report the rape, not the party itself—she is overwhelmed by all the commotion. She runs into the woods and doesn’t report. She doesn’t know how to tell her parents. She doesn’t know how to tell her friends. Eventually she hardly knows how to talk at all.
When she sees her rapist outside of school and he moves toward her, she runs away and wonders, “Why didn’t I run like this before when I was a one-piece talking girl?”
Some high school kids have sex. Prom is the climax of the mating season. The cheerleaders score more than the teams they cheer for. There’s a throw away line about group rates for abortions.
The girls have learned to avoid the janitors’ lounge because of leering and soft whistles when they walk by.
A girl is called out as a whore on the bathroom wall, complete with a list of who, when, and where.
You Aren’t Alone
When Melinda finally starts to quietly speak up, she eventually learns that she’s not alone. Her former friend Ivy starts to talk to her again, and she mentions—without knowing what happened to Melinda—that Andy is trouble. Melinda writes on a bathroom wall “Guys to Stay Away From: Andy Evans.” Later, Ivy brings her back to see the wall—it’s covered with other girls talking about the bad things he’s done. She’s not alone.
Melinda’s friend Rachel starts dating Andy. Rachel, her best friend through middle school, turned on her after the party when she called the cops. But even so, Melinda feels she should warn Rachel about Andy. She tells her about the rape. At first Rachel is horrified for her friend, until she learns Andy is the rapist. Then she refuses to believe her, claiming that Melinda is just jealous. But at prom, when Andy starts to get too friendly on the dance floor, Rachel very publicly breaks up with him—now she realizes that Melinda was telling the truth.
Melinda’s family is a quiet kind of mess. She remembers her childhood when things were simpler and happier. But now they’re like 3 people living alone in the house. When they try to communicate, it often ends in fighting. She wonders why her parents aren’t divorced. So many secrets are kept in this house. Toward the end, they’re finally starting to patch things up, though. They all take little steps forward.
Many friends come and go as it’s convenient. Rachel turns against Melinda. Heather keeps looking for something better, and is kind of brutally honest about this. However, reading between the lines, I think Ivy and Nicole seem like they would stand by Melinda if she gave them half a chance.
Football is a celebration of organized violence.
One teacher goes off on an anti-immigration rant. A student sues because he’s not allowed to speak up in response.
Melinda wants Nicole to act like a bitch so she can just hate her. Nicole doesn’t oblige.
The school board is more concerned about appearances than education.
Lots of people do speak up, though, often eloquently. But not always with success.
This is probably a bit much for most tween readers, but your child should probably be reading this and talking about it before you really feel ready. My own 12 year old isn’t quite ready, I don’t think. But definitely within the year. And some of her friends are probably ready for it right now.
Perhaps even more importantly, I will talk about this with my son when he’s a bit older and encourage him to read it. (In case you didn’t already read the article, here’s why it’s so important for boys to read books like this.) The definition and the impact of rape is a conversation we must have with our children.
It’s not an easy book. In addition to the rape, it pulls no punches about how rough high school can be. In some ways, the confrontation with the rapist, where Melinda gets to loudly and physically say “NO” feels almost too feel good for this book. Real life seldom gives you a do over like that, and otherwise the novel feels so very painfully true. But that’s something a conversation with your kids can easily address.
I recommend Speak to all parents—it’s a good tool for figuring out how to talk about really tough but crucial issues with your kids. I’m sure they’d get a lot out of reading it on their own, but they’ll get even more out of talking about it with you.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published in 1999 by Farrar Straus Giroux
Read my personal copy