She did me the tremendous kindness of letting me borrow Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I have seen it listed on “banned books” lists for years, and just never gotten around to reading it, probably because the subject material is so dark and tragic that I did not want to interact with it. However, being given it finally pushed me to embrace it. I am so glad that I did. It is such an incredibly powerful novel, and I believe that every person who works with teenagers, and especially young women, should read it. Or why not anyone who interacts with young women? Or women in general?
I’m going to speak rather blandly about the plot, because it’s such a famous book. The story starts with a Melinda starting 9th grade, silent and unpopular. It’s written as a diary of sorts, as she progresses through the year, dropping hints here and there about why she is so unpopular in her new school, why none of her old friends talk to her. As an outsider, she makes astute observations of school social dynamics, and has a biting wit about the teachers and other adults around her.
Her humour has barbs, but she is silent. She does not speak. She does not communicate the pain she experienced and continues to experience. She was raped by an upperclassman at a party over the summer. Unable to tell anyone about it, she stops saying anything. What happens when someone stops talking? Stops communicating because they feel unheard? In this book, Melinda seems to lose track of who she is and where she belongs in the world at all.
Obviously, I am interested in communication and the effect of the spoken and written word, so the novel appealed to me there.
Her silence is her refuge, but it also calls attention to her – it scares the crap out of all the adults around her. Her teachers think she’s a troublemaker. Her parents think she has ‘attitude’. It’s funny to think how much her silence threatens the grown-ups. She has become unfathomable. Impossible to understand, to decode. She has become a wild card. Even if she is just sitting silently in the classroom, her silence emanates throughout. It speaks volumes.
Why do I think everyone who deals with young women should read this? I mean, it’s obviously good for understanding how an event like a rape could change a person so completely. It’s also just about power – about how young girls, who are old enough to be having sex (biologically, if not mentally) can be completely stripped of their ability to decide if they want to. They can have their decisions torn from them, not just by a drunk high school boy, but also by their friends. By the people who should be near them, helping them, and looking out for them. Sex aside, it’s important to know that there are power struggles that happen like this in school all the time. I’ve already heard one story from a colleague of a group of girls excluding a single girl, for no apparent reason. These moments have an incredibly deep impact on a young psyche, and they should be given full credit. A simple fight among friends will feel like the end of the world to a 14 year old girl, and the worst thing someone can do is be dismissive of those feelings. They may be heightened by hormones and youth, but they are valid and deserve to be treated as such.
Patrick Ness said – When you’re 15, one summer feels like an entire lifetime. This gives you multiple lifetimes to suffer, but also multiple lifetimes to pull yourself up and out.
I have to end this with a plea to people to speak. To talk to a friend or a family member or a therapist. There is always someone who will listen. Keeping things bottled inside is like shaking a champagne bottle and not expecting the cork to come flying off at some point. Things will pop in some way or other, and by speaking to other people, we are easing the cork off, rather than leaving the bottle to explode.