TRIGGER WARNING: Here, there be talk of sexual violence and rape against a minor. You have been warned.
I realize I am at least twenty years late talking about this book, but no matter. Speak is one of the most acclaimed YA novels of all time because it tackles pretty heavy themes for a teenage audience. I imagine that if I had read this book at the intended age of fourteen, it would have stuck with me long into adulthood. Though, I suppose it will still stick with me now as an adult. As a story like this should.
When I was an English adjunct teacher, I was required to educate my students on our campus’s resources for reporting sexual violence. I also had to complete required faculty training for if we ever encountered sexual violence on campus. No surprise, it was heavy-duty stuff and I kind of dreaded talking about it because it presented the horrifying possibility that this could happen to any one of my kids, or even me.
Fortunately, I heard of no such thing ever happening to my kids, but that doesn’t lessen the horrifying reality of sexual violence. Which is a conversation that, to my knowledge, Speak helped spearhead in literature.
Melinda Sordino is starting her freshman year of high school on the completely wrong foot. The previous summer, she snuck out to a party but wound up calling the police after a traumatizing experience with her classmate Andy Evans. Now, she has little to no friends, is suffering academically, and has basically stopped speaking. If Melinda is going to finally break from her shell, she’ll have to face what happened to her at the party and find the courage to stand up for herself.
Something troubling about this book is that it’s based on events in Laurie Halse Anderson’s life. She was sexually assaulted as a young teenager and suffered severe trauma afterward. It’s little wonder how blunt and honest Melinda’s voice is, considering that the book is basically Anderson’s way of healing from the experience.
As a grownup reading this story, I feel pulled right back into that awkward, delicate stage of high school when you were just trying to live your life, and grownups everywhere tried to tell you what to do with it. How could you maximize your potential? How could you get excited about school spirit?
At that age, you’re not really concerned with any of that. Day to day, you’re just trying to figure out how to navigate around your classmates.
Melinda’s school magnifies the little annoyances of high school. For one thing, the school board cannot decide on which mascot is the most politically correct. The student subgroups have to speak their piece in every class. The teachers are all either crazy or downright cruel and egotistical. The cliques wear the exact same clothes and act the exact same way. In a school like this, it’s no wonder Melinda has no spirit or academic enthusiasm.
Not to mention Melinda’s home life.
Her mom is a neurotic, workaholic store owner and her father is an insurance salesman with a bit of a temper. Either way, they’re not the most understanding of parents. Time after time, Melinda sits with them in a guidance counselor office where they berate her without really pausing to listen to her side.
At one point, Melinda’s father complains to the counselor that Melinda used to be such a sweet girl and then promptly, and heatedly, blames the school for doing something to her.
All without even addressing Melinda, who is sitting right beside him. All without ever bothering to ask her what her story was.
It’s heartbreaking to imagine this poor, scared, depressed girl slowly getting silenced by everyone shouting at her, pulling her in so many directions, calling her names. And never, ever stopping to just listen to her.
In fact, my imagination cast a monochrome grey over everything, since that’s how Melinda seems to see it. Nothing really holds any joy for her, and there is always this creeping fear at the back of her mind when she recalls the party.
Oh, lord, the party.
When it’s finally revealed what happened to Melinda that night, you cannot believe the audacity everyone has to shame and humiliate her. Everyone believes Melinda intended to bust the party, when actually she was just a scared rape victim calling for help. Her trauma merely prevented her from explaining in the moment what actually happened to her.
It’s enough to make you cry and wish you could hug the poor, dear girl. After which, you would go out and castrate the monster that hurt her. And then maybe kill him, but hey, that’s just what I think a person who knowingly and willingly hurts a young, innocent, non-consenting girl deserves.
Sexual violence is a triggering conversation topic, even for those who haven’t directly suffered it. Yet, witnessing those stories of people who try to speak up, who try to get away, but somehow get attacked against their wishes, is a deeply sickening thought. But something about children and young teenagers becoming victims is much more troubling and disgusting, especially because not everyone at that age knows what’s happening to them until it’s too late.
Melinda’s case is especially unfortunate because she was also drunk during the event. She could not have fully known what was happening to her, except that she did not like it. And it was not conscious consent, which makes it far worse.
I’m not really reviewing the book at this point. I’m just thinking through all the awful things that happened to Melinda: how she did not have a safe space to talk about her trauma; how people assumed the worst of her without knowing the full story; how everyone just pretty much gave up on her after she nearly stopped talking; how everyone thought her not talking was just a childish ploy for attention.
There’s a particularly sad scene where Melinda confesses her rape to one of her old friends, who, incidentally, is dating the boy that raped Melinda. She thinks she’s found solace at last…
Only for the friend to spit back in Melinda’s face that she is a liar and a jealous freak! The audacity! The selfishness!
No lie, I grit my teeth and nearly threw the book across the room at that point.
See, this is part of why victims are scared to come forward. Because they might be afraid that people won’t believe them and they’ll take the rapist’s side over the victim’s.
I’d best move on before I go on a rant about how unfair it is that sexual violence victims have to live with their trauma for so long from fear of not being believed or that no one will take it seriously.
The long and short of this review is that, at times, this is a hard book to get through. You might have to stop and shed some tears before moving on, but certainly, it will stick with you in the end.
The imagery sprinkled throughout of Melinda working on an art project involving trees has some interesting symbolism, which is conveniently spelled out at one point. Like cutting off the dead branches of a tree in order for the tree to grow, so too must Melinda cut off the dying parts of herself in order to move on.
Anyway, the moral of the story, guys: no means no. And keep the conversation about sexual violence alive so action can be taken when people need help!