“After mining a summer party by calling the police, Melinda Sordino begins her freshman year as an outcast. The truth is she was raped, and because of the trauma, she barely speaks. The teen’s struggle to find acceptance and her voice is compelling and illustrates the cruelty of peer pressure and high school cliques” (Ralston, 2003).
Speak tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a ninth grader with a dark, painful secret. After calling the cops at an end-of-summer party, Melinda has become a pariah at her new high school. Her old friends refuse to talk to her, her new friend constantly takes advantage of her, her grades are slipping, and her family is in complete turmoil. All of this stems from the events of one horrible night, when Melinda was raped by a boy she has taken to calling “IT.” Although the title of the novel is Speak, it seems that Melinda can do just the opposite; she keeps the memory of what happened to her bottled up, refusing to talk about it with anyone. Throughout the novel, Melinda is slowly able to find her own voice, and discovers the immense power that her words can hold. Speak is witty, humorous, and full of dark realism; it shows us the troubling realities that can often accompany high school.
I’m not going to lie; this book made me angry. It’s not that it was a bad book; on the contrary, I found it to be witty, thoughtful, and well-written. No, I think my anger towards this book came from the story itself. Though I have never personally had to deal with rape or sexual assault, the very concept that a woman could be forced into having sex (or engaging in unwanted sexual contact of any sort) against her will has always incited a blind rage inside me. Throughout the book, I felt so awful for Melinda, whose inability to speak meant that she had to lose the support of friends, family, and even school officials. I wanted so badly for her to stand up for herself, but I also know that doing so in real life often means being judged and called a “liar.” In today’s world, it’s more important than ever that we talk about these issues, as this continues to happen to real men and women on a daily basis. If we are silent or refuse to talk about it, the consequences could be devastating. This book not only tells an honest, heart-breaking story, but reminds its readers that speaking up is one of the only ways to address the issue and help prevent sexual assault from happening to more women in the future.
According to Michael Cart (2010), young men and women are often afraid to speak up about sexual violence because of the stigma that is often attached:
“Why the reluctance to go to authorities? Because the consequences of going to authority can sometimes be dire… When Anderson’s protagonist, incoming high school freshman Melinda, calls 911 to report that she has been raped at an end-of-summer party, she winds up a virtual outcast, because her assailant was one of the most popular boys in school” (p. 148).
Unfortunately, as Cart mentions, this is not only something that could happen in fiction; it happens almost every time a woman comes forward with rape accusations. Although this book was originally written in 1999, the issues she brings up in Speak are still entirely relevant today. Take, for example, Kesha, the popstar who recently came forward to accuse her producer, Dr. Luke, of repeatedly assaulting her. Though she garnered quite a bit of support from other women (celebrities included), she was unable to end her contract with her alleged rapist, showing that victim-blaming is still a real problem in our society. We tend to tell girls that it is their responsibility to cover up, and to avoid walking alone at night. We do not, however, teach boys that it’s not okay to rape, to the point where many young men and women do not understand the importance of consent. Because this is still such a huge problem, I absolutely think that this book should be shared in high school classrooms (and I’m happy to say that it is often taught in English classes to this day). While there are some who believe that rape is not something that should be discussed in high school classrooms, the fact that so many under-age girls and boys are sexually assaulted every year is proof that it’s something that needs to be talked about. This book opens up a dialogue about peer pressure, the importance of consent, and speaking up for your own rights. It does so with witticism and humor, speaking to teens on their own level rather than from an adult’s perspective.
There were many quotes in this book that I really enjoyed, but I think the most powerful quote comes at the very end of the book:
“IT happened. There’s no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding… I look at my homely sketch. It doesn’t need anything. Even through the river in my eyes I can see that. It isn’t perfect and that makes it just right” (Anderson, 1999, p. 197).
In this scene, Melinda is finally able to reflect on what happened to her and come to terms with it, something that allows her to begin the process of healing. I think this is so important for teens to understand, especially if they’ve had to endure something similar. They need to understand that it’s not their fault, and that they have nothing to be ashamed of. The imagery of the tree here (Melinda would probably hate that I’m calling it “imagery,” since she doesn’t see the point of analyzing books) represents that healing process; her drawing is not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. This book’s message, in my opinion, is that our scars can strengthen us and make us more beautiful, both inside and out. Though nothing like what happened to Melinda should ever happen to anyone, the reality is that it happens all the time too far to many men and women. The most important thing we can do is start a conversation about these issues, letting teens know that consent is important and that rape and sexual assault are never okay, regardless of the situation. While Speak might not “speak” to everyone who reads it, it certainly spoke to me; I would gladly recommend it to anyone whose personal traumas have ever made him or her feel unworthy of love and understanding.
Anderson, L. H. (1999). Speak. New York: Square Fish.
Cart, M. (2010). Young adult literature: From romance to realism. Chicago: ALA.
Ralston, J. (2003, October). Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. School Library Journal, 49(10), 99.