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Quick Review of Speak Along With a Few Thoughts on Sex and Censorship

September 22, 2010

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published by Speak, April 1, 2001

Melinda starts her freshman year of high school as an outcast. At the beginning of summer, she went to a party with her best friend Rachel. A horrific thing happened to Melinda that night, something she’s buried and never spoken of. She called 911, causing police to raid the party. This is a sin for which her peers won’t forgive her.

Melinda carries the burden of her anger and depression alone, and she flounders through the school year in silence, rarely saying a word. This silence blends seamlessly with her home life, where she and her parents, coping quietly with their unraveling marriage, communicate intermittently through Post-It notes. The only thing that wins their attention is Melinda’s disastrous report cards.

I loved Melinda, and I felt, at every moment, what it was like to be in her skin. As she silently goes through life, it’s a privilege to be inside her mind; she’s intelligent and perceptive with a wicked sense of humor. And the way Laurie Halse Anderson reflects those dark, raw parts of adolescence, the ones few of us want to remember, is dead on.

It’s no mystery to me why teachers encourage students to devour this book. It has those elements that made us fall in love with reading, and isn’t that what all educators want for their students? It offers lovely writing, humor, sadness, and an author who respects her young audience enough to let her narrator tell them the truth as she sees it. It also has transparent symbolism running throughout the novel which is explicitly defined near the end. I think this is wonderful preparation for books students will later encounter where the symbolism is more subtle.

Because of the quality of the writing, the wonderful narrative voice, and the difficult topics it gently explores, Speak is one of my favorite young adult novels. I am well above the age of the intended audience, and I didn’t want to put it down.

Many book bloggers have been writing about a bit of controversy surrounding Speak. Rev. Wesley Scroggins wrote an opinion piece titled “Filthy Books Demeaning to Republic Education.” He expressed concern that publicly schooled kids are getting too much information, too early in sex education courses and that they’re being exposed to inappropriate literature. He singles out Speak along with Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler.

“Speak” … is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page.

Speak is told from the perspective of a smart, edgy, and very unhappy 14-year-old who is naive about physical intimacy. I am fairly confident that her comment that “this is what high school is supposed to feel like,” after being touched by a boy she met at a party, was not meant to be taken as gospel. Similarly, her comments on the promiscuity of cheerleaders are exaggerated and actually quite funny, albeit in a dark way:

My parents didn’t raise me to be religious. The closest we come to worship is the Trinity of Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. I think the Merryweather cheerleaders confuse me because I missed out on Sunday School. It has to be a miracle. There is no other explanation. How else could they sleep with the football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday? It’s as if they operate in two realities simultaneously. In one universe, they are gorgeous, straight-teethed, long-legged, wrapped in designer fashions, and given sports cars on their sixteenth birthdays. Teachers smile at them and grade them on the curve … In Universe #2, they throw parties wild enough to attract college students. They worship the stink of Eau de Jocque. They rent beach houses in Cancun during Spring Break and get group-rate abortions before the prom.

By the way, this is closely followed by one of my favorite quotes from the book:

If I ever form my own clan, we’ll be the Anti-Cheerleaders. We will not sit in the bleachers. We will wander underneath them and commit mild acts of mayhem.

If students are confused about the fact that these comments are made from a character’s perspective, and aren’t meant to provide a model for how the universe should work, it’s a good time to discuss point of view and maybe hyperbole. We writing teachers love talking about that kind of stuff!

Scroggins suggested this book “should be classified as soft pornography.” I’m here to tell you, folks, if someone picks up Speak hoping for a “dirty book,” she’s going to be sadly disappointed. This novel wouldn’t have twanged my naughty-meter when I was twelve. And I was justly accused of being a naive teen.

I read this novel — every word — and there is no sex. People talk a bit about sex. There is a rape scene (rape isn’t sex; it’s an act of violence). However, it’s very understated. It’s sad and disturbing, as it should be. But it is neither prolonged nor graphic.

Why talk about rape in young adult literature at all? And why write about a depressed teen in a dysfunctional family? Because for many teens, this is life. And believe me, there are hundreds of thousands of teens living with much worse that what you’ll see in this book. Literature fills many roles, but one of the most important is offering this message: You are not alone. Books saved my life when I was in the dark parts of adolescence, and I’m sure my experience is far from unique.

Also, we are sadly miseducating our teens about acquaintance rape, and about sexuality in general. In an interview, Laurie Halse Anderson has said this: “I have gotten one question repeatedly from young men. These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused. They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.”

Is your mouth hanging open? Mine was about the first twelve times I thought about that statement. We’re raising a generation of young men, guys who are dating our daughters, who apparently confuse an act of violence with an act of sex, think women “like” rape, or at the very least, assume that suffering a sexual assault is not a big deal.

How did this happen? I have no idea. But clearly adults aren’t talking to kids about these issues. And we’re served up a bunch of sexual images in the media which seem to send the message that sex always happens spontaneously, and each party always *knows* it’s what the other wants — they don’t talk about it beforehand. No one talks, in advance about how they feel and what they want from a sexual encounter, or from a relationship. No one fumbles for a condom. And nobody talks about the fact that real intimacy is complicated, carefully nurtured, and hard won. We’re setting the stage for a lot of confusion about sexuality, not to mention irresponsible choices, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. And it probably sets the stage for date rape, as well.

I’m not saying we should ban these kinds of movies and T.V. shows or forbid teens to watch them. I’m just saying we should make sure these aren’t the only messages they’re getting. We need to keep talking, and a risque scene in a movie is a great springboard for a discussion about intimacy and decision-making.

How are we — as a society — responding to all these confusing messages teens are getting? We restrict their access to books and other information, and try to keep them away from contraceptives. Seriously, trying to avoid premature sex by restricting contraceptives is a bit like trying to prevent pneumonia and ear infections by banning antibiotics.And shrouding important topics in silence only breeds loneliness, misunderstanding, and ignorance — not the ingredients for healthy sexuality and meaningful relationships.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2010 9:13 pm

    Fantastic post & I couldn’t agree more with what you said about educating young adults. If we give teens information regarding sex, contraception etc it means that they are able to make informed choices when it comes to their own life. If people think that you can stop teens from having sex by not telling them about it they are crazy – you’re just leaving them open to teen pregnancies & sexually transmitted diseases. Likewise just because a teen reads about sex doesn’t mean they’re going to go straight out and try it. The more you can educate them the easier it will be for them to make the right choices for themselves.

    I’m absolutely flabbergasted that Laurie has had guys ask her why Melinda was so upset about being raped. Surely that just goes to show how much a book like this is needed! Keeping teens in the dark about issues like rape isn’t going to make the problem go away. We need to teach them that no means no and if something bad happens to them then it isn’t their fault. They need to feel that they can speak up if they experience something bad and that they won’t be judged for it but will be offered help and understanding.

    I’ve not yet read Speak but I’ve already ordered my copy & will be reading it as soon as it arrives

  2. September 22, 2010 9:18 pm

    Great post!! This book has been really on my radar lately (well with all the controversy how could it not?) and I really want to read it. It is surprising but shocking how little teens sometimes know when it comes to sex.

  3. September 22, 2010 9:18 pm

    I haven’t read the book Speak (though I plan to), but I have seen the movie, and I must say it was excellent. Have you seen it, or do you plan to? Even though the movie was great, the book sounds so amazing, I’m afraid you might be disappointed by the movie in comparison.

    Your post is a really good and clearly thought-out discussion of a sensitive topic.

    • September 22, 2010 10:45 pm

      Thanks, Kathy! I do plan to see the movie, and I doubt I’ll be disappointed. I don’t expect a movie to be just like the book.

  4. September 22, 2010 9:48 pm

    Well-written, well-thought out post! Scroggins should read this – if he’s not hiding out somewhere from all the cyber flack he’s gotten. I am absolutely amazed that anyone would ask why Melinda was so upset about being raped?! You’re right – that means we as a society – parents, teachers – have not done our job if young men are honestly asking this.

    • September 22, 2010 10:46 pm

      *LOL* I bet he’s surprised at how much cyber flack he’s been getting. And that Midwestern newspaper where he published his opinion? I bet their web site has never gotten so many hits! 🙂

  5. September 23, 2010 12:40 am

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. This is brilliant. You’ve left me speechless. It’s all so well worded, and I hadn’t heard that quote, and it is shocking! Thank you for this!

  6. September 23, 2010 6:56 pm

    Wow. Yes. My mouth is indeed hanging open. It seems like no matter how many books I read about the necessity of educating young men about rape (i.e., not doing it), I never cease to be astonished with the low level of awareness about rape. Just because it’s something women have to be aware of all the time. Admittedly I am a high-anxiety person, but I can’t imagine being unaware of that possibility.

    Great post, seriously. The editorial was idiotic, but I’m loving seeing the blogging world’s response to it.

    • September 24, 2010 3:16 pm

      I hadn’t thought about it that way, Jenny. Since we’re raised to be aware of the possibility of sexual assault, maybe women just assume guys “get it” too. I don’t know. I’m still flummoxed. The only thing that’s clear to me is that, as a society, we’re doing a deplorable job of communicating with our kids.

  7. September 23, 2010 11:50 pm

    A great post and a great review of “Speak”, a book I found personally inspirational. I was appalled by Dr. Scroggin’s comments, and insulted by the way he presented them. Either he’s not a very astute reader, or he intentionally made an unfounded and inflammatory analysis of the book; I’m not sure which is worse for a man with a Ph.D. You quoted the items he pulled out of context, like Melinda’s impressions of the cheerleaders. Her words were clearly tongue-in-cheek, not the author’s understanding of how these girls live their lives.

    His declaration that her family was highly dysfunctional bothered me as well. As I read it (from the perspective of a “former teen” myself :), and current mother of a few more), her parents were doing the best they could under the circumstances. When a child is working very hard to keep their feelings bottled up, there’s not much the parent can do to get them to talk. What’s dysfunctional about that? At least she had two parents, still married to each other, and trying their best.

    My only comfort in all this is that his diatribe has spurred all kinds of renewed interest in this book!

    • September 24, 2010 3:14 pm

      Wonderful comment, Maria! I absolutely agree about the cheerleader comments being clearly tongue-in-cheek unless, of course, you were just skimming through the book looking for “offensive” material.

  8. September 24, 2010 2:59 pm

    Great post! You’ve done such a wonderful job here of combining book review with social commentary that I need to send my students over to read this. They still think discussing a book means summarizing it. 🙂

    • September 24, 2010 3:02 pm

      *LOL* In a way, I’m relieved to hear that college students are still struggling with the transition to more complex academic writing. I don’t need to worry about my students so much. 🙂

  9. February 12, 2011 3:28 am

    I can see that.

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