Monday, May 9, 2011

The Guts to Speak

I finished my book: "Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson.
And when I finished, I cried a little and thought a lot. I didn't fall asleep for a while.
It is on my mind, and I want to share.

(I describe the book in spoiler style; back off if you must, but I trust it would be just as beneficial a read if you knew the story. It's that kind of book)

You only suspect what's happened at first; you don't get the whole story of why Melinda is suddenly very unpopular and hated by her once best friend. She's become a reject, and on top of that, she's become very withdrawn--to the point that she doesn't talk to anyone about anything. All you know is that Melinda called the cops and busted an end-of-school party she was lucky to attend. But you learn later that she wasn't calling the cops for that. She wasn't calling to tattle on the seniors' drinking. She was raped, and she was so afraid and confused that she couldn't even say anything to the woman on the phone after dialing 911 in an automatic reaction. She snuck out of the party unnoticed and walked home alone.

The school year goes by, Melinda fails her classes, makes a mild yet desperate attempt to make a friend or two, and freezes in terror every time she sees the guy she thinks of as IT. Andy Evans. The guy who raped her, a guy who roams the school halls with a carefree smile, flirting with the girls and being so nonchalant as to twirl Melinda's ponytail if she's in range.

I'm not shocked by rape, not by its existence I mean. This book didn't "teach" me anything, it just opened a typically closed door into a very sad world to which I offer much sympathy. What did shock me was coming to a point in the book where Melinda suddenly wonders "was I raped?"

I gasped. Oh, this question. The fact that a girl is left to doubt. A girl will think that unless she was superwoman and managed to drop-kick the guy across the continent, maybe it was her fault. Maybe it didn't count because she wasn't clear enough in her plea. As if saying "no" isn't enough. Melinda had only been able to choke out a whispered "no" before the guy smothered her mouth with his palm. She couldn't conjure a scream.

Guys can be too good at convincing the girl she misled him. They can be very persuasive in their argument that they thought she wanted it, that they didn't understand. Even a small "no" is a no, but I believe there are so many girls who feel that because their defense was weak, it didn't count. They think that if they brought it up, the guy would win the case. IF they brought it up.

Melinda finally gears up the courage to write a note to her once-best friend in the library. She finally tells her friend the real reason she made that call at the party. She tells her friend because there's a sudden, new urgency--IT is dating her friend. Melinda is left crying in the library when her friend lashes out in disbelief, claiming that Melinda is jealous. Just sick and jealous.
In further desperation, Melinda writes on the wall in the privacy of the girls' bathroom:
Andy Evans

And at the end of the year, she discovers an endless list of agreement from various anonymous girls in the school. They didn't add names, they added comments and paragraphs and exclamations. And Melinda feels like she could fly...she no longer wants to hide.

There's an abandoned janitor's closet Melinda used all year to disappear to when the need for solitude grew too strong. She returns to the closet a last time to clear it out, leave it untouched, "unclaim" it and be done with hiding.

That's when IT finds her. The girls in school have started talking about him, and he hates it. He knows she started it because the anonymous rumor of his attack on a 9th grade girl at a party is not so anonymous to him. He's just as bad as before, locking the closet door behind him. But this time, Melinda pushes through her strangling fear to scream. To fight. She breaks a mirror and grabs a shard of glass as a convincing weapon to convince IT to finally back off. A passing hockey team still in the school pounds on the door, comes to the rescue. And Melinda's free. Hurt, still healing, but free.

(Guess what? That kind of resolution is rare. Revenge on the rapist? Hardly ever happens. Just like girls hardly ever speak up. Girls trap themselves in the past with the what-if cycle, wishing and wishing and wishing they could alter history).

Rape is ugly. That's no reason not to talk about it, though. I'm grateful among all the information that managed to break through to me as I grew up, what impacted me the most was the fact that so many women say nothing. I grilled it into my head that if anything, anything like that happened, I would speak up. I would talk, I would tell.

But I still know the feeling of withdrawing into a silent world. The damage is an awful kind. I have not been raped. And isn't that put it even as "vaguely" as that. But as with any abuse, there's an undercurrent of spiritual damage that can be so crippling. It's so hard to get past it. It separates you from feeling normal anymore, and you want to be invisible. It's too frightening to be noticed by men because suddenly you understand that danger could be anywhere, anyone. Even if a girl is left with her virginity intact, her virtue is sensitive enough that being forced or hurt at all leaves her sense of virtue in a fragile, vulnerable state. The instinct is then to protect. And the instinctive way to protect? To hide. It's easy to let life become a layered existence, working behind a mask that feels like a shield.

That's why I felt shocked yet again when I read through the author's Q&A section at the end of the book.
"Have any readers ever asked questions that shocked you? 
     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.
     The first dozen times I heard this, I was horrified. But I heard it over and over again. I realized that many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman. They are inundated by sexual imagery in the media, and often come to the (incorrect) conclusion that having sex is not a big deal. This, no doubt, is why the numbers of sexual assaults is so high.
     I am also shocked by adults who feel that rape is an inappropriate topic to discuss with teenagers. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 44% of rape victims are under the age of 18 and 46% of those victims are between the ages of 12-15. It makes adults uncomfortable to acknowledge this, but our inability to speak clearly and openly about sexual issues endangers our children. It is immoral not to discuss this with them."
If we won't talk with our children about it, where will they turn? Likely nowhere. Perhaps a peer can listen with some sympathy, but they're likely as helpless as the victim feels (catch that please--feels, not is). I would mention here, in case a silent observer has found this, that the Rape, Abuse & Incest  National Network ( comes highly recommended as a source of help for victims who have been assaulted, both recently or long ago. Especially if they're holding back from talking about it.

I think one reason girls don't want to talk--(it happens to boys too, I recognize, but I would rather use the word "victim" less often because it sounds so helpless)--is that people rarely want to hear it. Doesn't it make you uncomfortable? When a girl begins to launch her story, doesn't it make you cringe, ducking into your seat? You don't want to know. Because rape is ugly.

Another reason, like Laurie Halse Anderson said, is girls are afraid of being brushed off-- with that very painful evidence of boys not understanding what the big deal is. That was my main reason for shedding some quiet, rough tears last night. Boys...oh, boys. You uneducated boys. I suspect they don't even mean to be insensitive-- they probably posed their question with deep honesty: What's the big deal? I don't understand.
It's all wrapped up in a person's agency (appropriate substitute word in clarification here: rights) and chastity (beyond virginity--though I believe a great percentage of rape victims are virgins, less apt to grasp the situation or know how to react in the horrifying newness of what's going on).

What's been lost in the sexual media avalanche is the fact that sex is an intimate, private thing. It ought to be the exclusive (and wonderful) right of a married couple, yet here it is for the world to devour as a pleasure activity common like dessert. Uncomitted like a vacation. Shared like a phone number, and sometimes even less guarded than that.

There are all sorts of problems rape could trace back to. It's not all pinned on the media. But for an average teenager who hasn't had to deal with family problems, pornography, abuse or even the growing confusion of gender roles, the outrageously incorrect message is still being broadcast that sex is not a big deal. The matter of consent or age plays only a side role in media attention. That's the yucky side, so no one wants to hear about it. It's usually presented as soap opera scandal if it's ever addressed--overdramatized and nicely resolved so that you can forget about it when it's over.

Don't get me wrong: I am grateful that "Speak" presents a closing that involves hope, because hope is why victims are not helpless. If they can dig out of the overwhelming despair long enough to simply believe hope exists, that's all the access they need. I don't think resolution would be possible without the Atonement. In fact, I know it. That kind of spiritual scarring is not eraseable with a self-help book or classes in yoga. No amount of positive thinking and deep breathing will do any good without the healing love of the Savior, the very one who knows your heart through the core. Because He understands (perfectly) and because He loves (purely), all victims of rape or abuse have someone who can lift them up and make their spirits whole.

It's not easy (can someone say DUH?). It's not exciting or desireable--a lot of soap operas give drama-hungry girls the idea that rape is a thrilling, awful tale to add to your list of what makes you an interesting person. Rape usually has the opposite effect, making its victims withdraw from life and abandon confidence.
In fact, even with remarkable healing, rape leaves stubborn scars. Those scars burrow deep into the brain. They're ugly, and they don't go away without a fight.

Is there any way to further convince those uneducated, confused boys that it's a BIG DEAL? If they only thought a little harder, allowed some room for sensitivity, wouldn't they see that? Are they really so blind that there's no hint in their minds of the seriousness of it all?

As much as it has the potential to "get old" in assembly halls of high schools like abortion and drug abuse, the effort has to keep moving on. It takes bravery, it takes guts, to talk about it as it really is. To say WHY, not just WHAT. They all know what rape is. But how is it they don't all know why it's a big deal?
I think of the title of this book as more than just an action. It's an order.



  1. Wow! I really appreciate your thoughts. Its so true that parents need to protect their kids by teaching them and preparing them. What a difference it would make if there were more screams, more defense, if youth could recognize the signs. Of course, avoiding drunken parties eliminates a lot of potential problems...

  2. Oh Q. That was a really well written and heart felt post, I liked it. I read that book a long time ago and thought it was a good story with an important point to make, but I don't remember the author saying that boys asked her why it was such a big deal. That's so sad. I like how you said sex is treated as dessert, a vacation, or a phone number. It's true there's sexcess in the media... an excess of sex... and it's damaging for sure. Stupid media. It's so powerful but it does so much bad... Anyway, aren't you glad we were raised to know that we don't have to put up with that crap? And that the Atonement can heal us from any scars we might have? I love you Qait. You're so sweet. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Wow- truly powerful post! Thanks for sharing.


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