Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
Language and Subjectivity Rape and Culture Trauma Gender and Silence Adults Are Untrustworthy The Problem Novel Trees Cliques
Language and Subjectivity: Melinda Sordino’s subjectivity is constructed by the language of others. She has literally lost the ability to speak after being raped by Andy Evans. When Andy rapes Melinda, she is redefined as object. Andy sees her (and other women as well) as objects he can treat as he pleases. But the rape also causes Melinda to lose her own sense of self. She is no longer the teenaged middle school girl looking forward to high school with her best friends. Now, she is the school outcast, belonging nowhere in the social hierarchy. She observes of her first day that the school is divided into clans, but she is clan-less. She has entered high school with “the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, and the wrong attitude” (4) and doesn’t have anyone to sit with because she spent the last weeks of August at home, not going to the mall, the pool, or the lake or answering the phone. Melinda is in this state not so much because she called 911 after the rape, but because after doing so, she refused to speak and tell her story. When the operator asks Melinda what’s her emergency, she is mute, and so the dispatcher has no choice but to send the police out to investigate.
Melinda's silence permits others to define her. When she does not speak up about the rape, her friends are left to assume that she called the police at the party for the sake of perversity, an action which would make her socially toxic and dangerously unpredictable to be around. And when she is unable to speak easily on her first day at Merriweather High, Mr. Neck takes her silence to mean defiance and automatically classifies her as a troublemaker. Mr. Neck's actions are particularly amusing in light of the "debate" that takes place in his class later in the year. In this scene, he demonstrates that he views students who speak up as troublemakers too. As the semester wears on and Melinda's grades begin to plummet, the school guidance counselor and her parents label her as a sulky adolescent, a type of rebel without a cause. They view her this way in part because Melinda will not break her silence to contradict their opinion of her. However, Melinda's parents, many adults really, are more than likely have been predisposed by discourses of adolescence to see her as perversely oppositional.
But Melinda cannot speak after the rape because she is unable to comprehend what has happened to her both because of her youth and because of the ambiguous situation. Before Andy rapes Melinda, she has almost no sexual experience. She’s thirteen years old at the time, and has barely dated, so she doesn’t have any first-hand experience of what normally happens between two people who are attracted to one another. And because Melinda had been drinking before the rape, she is even less able to understand what is happening to her until it is too late. Also, in Melinda’s mind, and unfortunately in the minds of many other people, she is somewhat to blame for what happened since she at first willingly allowed Andy’s attentions. Usually when people think about rape, they envision a stranger entering a woman’s bedroom window in the dead of night in order to ravish her. However, it is far more likely that a woman (or children, or men) will be raped by an acquaintance than by a stranger. As you can imagine, acquaintance rape, or date rape, is also far more difficult to prosecute since it can lead to a he said/she said situation in court. For example, if the victim willingly dated the rapist, perhaps even willingly engaged in other sexual activities with him, then it’s difficult to prove in a court of law when consent was withdrawn and therefore rape occurred.
It is only when Melinda is able to actually say that she was raped that she can take charge of her life. She is finally able to admit that she was raped on p. 164, when she stays home with a fever and has an imaginary conversation with various daytime talk show hosts. Only after this moment can she actually face others and tell them that Andy Evans is a rapist. She first shares this information indirectly with Ivy when they're in the rest room. She puts the message on the bathroom wall, under the subject thread "Guys to Stay Away From" (175), and then she is finally able to tell Rachel what happened to her (184). Melinda's ability to understand that she was raped permits her to speak out in other ways. She just tells Heather to go away when she come crawling back to her for help with another Martha project, and later she is able to scream and put up enough fight with Andy Evans that others come to help her, and his true nature is revealed.
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Rape and Culture: Another factor making it difficult for Melinda to process what happened to her are cultural ideas about men. Too often, women are convinced that men need sex, or that men cannot fully control themselves when excited. This “fact” leads to the idea that a woman’s body is a mirror for desire, making her responsible for the rape rather than the rapist who committed the violent act. Another “fact” is that rape is the act of a sexually frustrated man who is unable to obtain sex in any other way. According to this logic, someone like Andy Evans could not possibly be a rapist because he is handsome and wealthy, factors that would ensure that he could have any number of willing girls to satisfy his sexual urges. In reality, rape is an act of violence, not sex. Indeed, a good many rapists are unable to achieve orgasm through their violence since they are unable to sustain an erection. Rape is about humiliating the victim, forcing her to submit, rather than the sexual gratification of the rapist. Perhaps a better way to think about rape would be to describe it in legal terms: sexual assault. This term better conveys the violence of the act.1
Andy continues to try and control Melinda by invading her personal space in subtle ways that would not be readily seen by others as threatening. For example, when he sees her in the cafeteria sitting with the Marthas, he leans over and talks to the other girls while toying with a piece of Melinda's hair. If the others even see what he's doing, it does not look threatening at all, but instead, like a continuation of the playful flirtatiousness that's happening. But Melinda and Andy both know all too well what is going on. Others invade Melinda's personal space in this ambiguous way too. For example, during the pep rally, when Melinda is recognized as the girl who called the police during the party, people keep kicking the back of her seat, and when it is time to leave, she is shoved down several rows of bleachers. While these acts are more unambiguously violent, their timing and placement are calculated so that they can be disavowed in front of teachers. In a tight space, feet can also innocently kick the back of someone's seat, and when everyone is trying to rush out of the gym, it is possible for someone to be pushed down several sets of bleachers just by the rush of the crowd. Nevertheless, all of these acts are calculated to make the victim feel the attacker's wrath, and in many ways are more effective than outright confrontation because they disorient the victim.
Andy Evans is also guilty of statutory rape. Statutory rape occurs when someone above the age of consent has sex with someone below this minimum age. In the state of Louisiana, the age of consent is sixteen.2 So if, for example, a seventeen year old boy were to have sex with a thirteen year old girl, he would be guilty of statutory rape, even if she consented to the entire act. We have statutory rape laws in the first place because someone below the age of consent is seen to be intellectually incapable of comprehending the consequences of her actions, and is therefore unable to give legal consent to have sexual intercourse. Someone above the age of consent, however, is in a position to know better about what happening and therefore able to exploit the victim’s ignorance. Hence, we have laws against people having sex with those that are defined as being legally too immature to make an informed decision about whether or not to consent. This in part describes what Andy did. Part of his attraction to Melinda on that night was her youth and inexperience, which made her so easy for him to victimize.
Melinda's poster of Maya Angelou in her closet hiding space is significant because Angelou herself was a rape victim. Raped at age 13 by a family friend, Angelou was so traumatized by the experience that she didn't speak for nearly a year.
Trauma: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association defined trauma as something that is “an event that is outside the range of human experience” until its most recent edition Thus, while war and torture might be seen as outside the range of human experience since people don't normally experience these events, rape and incest and sexual harassment happen all too frequently and so are not viewed as trauma under this definition. Also, women's traumas (such as rape and incest and sexual harassment) tend to occur in private and away from others who might bear witness, so the assault is usually not observed as all, and for that reason is not seen as traumatic. The way we describe experiences is important in helping people come to terms with what is happening to them. If rape is not sufficiently outside of human experience to be thought of as traumatic, then what does it mean to be a rape victim? Does this mean that the rape was the victim's fault, or that she is some how defective for suffering as a result of it rather than just getting over the experience? Was she even raped? If there is no word to describe what happened, then officially the trauma did not occur, though its effects persist like shrapnel in the conscious mind of the victim.
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Gender and Silence: Our culture tends to silence women far more than it does men, particularly discouraging them from expressing such "unfeminine" emotions such as anger, or from discussing their own sexuality. Part of becoming a woman often involves her learning to keep quiet, or hold her tongue. Also, while women are encouraged to share their feelings far more than men are, they are often taught to be silent, or misleading regarding their own sexualities. All too often, they (and men too) are guided by the idea that for a virtuous woman, no really means yes because if a woman were to actually blatantly state her desires, it would indicate that she is of questionable moral virtue rather than merely direct. Thus women are still unwilling to ask men for dates, and younger women are particularly unwilling in this regard. Instead, they must engage in elaborate rituals of indirect communication to indicate an ambiguous and indirect interest in a man at all levels. Melinda's silence is related to this sort of reluctance on the part of young women to speak directly about sexuality. Not surprisingly, Speak is not the only novel that deals with a young woman who stops talking. Patricia McCormick's novel Cut also has a female protagonist who stops talking, but for a different reason.
Those who are deprived of a voice are deprived of agency. Many people try to silence Melinda in this novel. Andy Evans tries to silence Melinda by intimidating her, getting too close to her in front of others in a way that does not seem to be frightening in the context. The teachers at Merryweather High often silence their students as well as part of a pedagogy that educator Paulo Friere would describe as the banking model of education. Students are empty vessels in this model, and the teacher fills their heads with deposits of knowledge. As a result, students must be silent, passive learners instead of active questioners who work with their teacher to make inquiries. Hairwoman tries to silence her whole class when she insists that they figure out THE symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. In her mind, symbolism is a secret code that can be interpreted the same way by everyone who just tries hard enough. Mr. Neck tries to silence all of his students, as we see during the "debate" in his class about immigration. David Petrakis actively fights Mr. Neck when he tries to shut down a classroom debate. Teachers such as Mr. Freeman, on the other hand, demonstrate an education model in which students are not passive learners, but are instead empowered. While his demand that Melinda draw a tree all year might seem overly rigid, it is actually an exercise in interpretation. To draw a tree, Melinda must first come to an understanding of what a tree is and how it is connected to her own life. During the course of the semester, she becomes a constructivist who comes to understand that "the knower is a part of the known." Mr. Freeman's teaching actually encourages Melinda to speak up. While he does not require her to talk in class, he tells her at one point that he thinks that she has a lot to say and he wants to hear it.
But Melinda also silences herself. She does not talk to her parents or friends about what happened, automatically assuming that they will not understand. And maybe everyone would not understand to the same degree, but not speaking deprives her of the support of friends and family, which could be a source of strength to her in this situation. Melinda fights Mr. Neck when he tries to make her speak in a way she does not wish to. Instead of presenting her report on the suffragettes to the whole class so she can get extra credit, Melinda chooses to stay silent and hand out copies of her report to the class. Melinda's ability to refuse to speak in this instance is empowering in one way: she is actively standing up to Mr. Neck. However, ultimately it is not an effective strategy for resistance. Melinda gets a zero for failing to give an oral report. And as David points out, the suffragettes spoke out for what they believed in, and if Melinda wants to communicate, she'll have to speak out too.
The poster of Maya Angelou in Melinda's office is a reminder of the effects of self silencing. Maya Angelou was raped by her uncle when she was 13, and as a result, she did not speak to anyone for over a year. She discusses this experience in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and her writing of this book in a way gives her some agency in that through writing and re-visioning she can better understand what has happened to her. Melinda too is giving herself a voice through the process of writing. Although she is not technically the author of the book, she tells her story in the first person. However, unlike an autobiography, the audience for her story is herself, and her telling of it has the feel of a draft in progress that she is continually editing as she makes her running commentary about her freshman year in high school. Melinda, then, is empowered when she tells her own story as she is developing her own voice through writing and re-visioning.
When Melinda sees Andy Evans going out with Rachel, she comes to realize the the fallacy remaining silent. Not speaking is what caused her to suffer, and continuing this way could get her former best friend Rachel hurt. It is only when she can tell Rachel what happened to her on that night that she can begin to heal. This initial revelation gives her the courage to “speak” further, by telling her "friend" Heather no when she wants to suddenly resume their relationship and get Melinda to help her decorate the gym, by writing on the bathroom wall what Andy Evans did to her, and finally, by screaming when he tries to rape her again. This scream not only summons help in the form of the girl’s lacrosse team, but finally permits her to confine her story in its entirety to a sympathetic adult who can help her. In the novel, that sympathetic adult is Mr. Freeman, while the film concludes with Melinda finally confiding in her mother. Mr. Freeman encourages all of his students to communicate on the first day of class when he tells them that by the end of the year, they should be able do more than make a competent rendering of the object they have been assigned; they must figure out how to make their objects "say something, express an emotion, speak to every person who looks at it" (12).
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The Problem Novel: Speak is yet another example of a problem novel where a protagonist has a problem similar to one experienced by many of the readers. The problem novel is a subset of Young Adult literature. Problem novels are didactic in nature in that they are supposed to help readers better understand how to deal with their own similar situations. Similar to other problem novels, Speak concludes with the protagonist ready to confront her problem head on. Melinda finally does speak about what happened. However, we see her actions getting immediate results, which is not always the case in the problem novel. When Melinda speaks, Andy Evans is outed as the rapist that he is and subsequently reviled. Criminal charges more than likely won't be pending since the evidence of the rape is gone, but at least fewer Merriweather High girls will be willing to date him and become potential victims. Melinda's speaking also helps her relationship with her parents. Once they know the source of her odd behavior, they can talk about it and hopefully help her.
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Adults Are Untrustworthy: Melinda’s year-long muteness is more than just a somatic manifestation of the rape. It is a testament of to what degree those institutions tasked with protecting and regulating adolescents—law enforcement, the school, the family—are unable to help her. When the police arrive to break up the party, they only find some drunken teenagers. Melinda is long gone, and even if she had remained, in the ensuing pandemonium it’s doubtful whether or not anyone would have noticed that she’d just been raped. The teachers at Merryweather High are a bit more culpable since they come into contact with Melinda more frequently, and as educational professionals, should be able view Melinda's silence, suddenly plummeting grades, and the sores on her lips as warning signs of some sort of disturbance. Instead, the school is the embodiment of how these institutions fail to be helpful to those they serve. Some of the First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School include “we are here to help you” and “guidance counselors are always available to listen.” True, some teachers and administrators are alarmed by Melinda’s behavior, but they are unable to help her. Mr. Neck frequently notices Melinda’s absences and refusal to speak in class, but sees these as signs of her willful defiance of authority rather than as manifestations of a far more profound problem.
When the guidance counselor and the principal finally do attempt to intervene with Melinda’s parents, all that is accomplished is some rancorous finger pointing. The guidance counselor blames Melinda’s parents for her academic and social problems and expresses a desire to “explore the family dynamics at play” (114), whereas Melinda’s mother believes her daughter is “just jerking us around to get attention” (114) and her father lays blame squarely on the shoulders of Merryweather High, as his daughter didn’t have similar problems in middle school.
The response of Melinda’s parents during this meeting demonstrate to what degree they are similarly oblivious to her problems. Instead, they are more involved in their own lives. Melinda’s mother is busy managing a clothing store, and her father is similarly occupied by his job as well. The family, consumed by the pressures of modern life, is reduced to communicating via post it notes on the refrigerator. When Melinda returns home from school, instead of finding her mother waiting for her with a plate of freshly-baked cookies (the way she might if she lived in a 1950s sitcom), she finds a $20 clipped to the refrigerator with a note suggesting that she call out for pizza for supper. Family holidays are no better. Melinda's mother wants to spend time with the family and do what her culture tells her she should be doing on this day, cooking a celebratory turkey dinner, but she lacks both the time and the culinary skills to accomplish this task. Thanksgiving morning finds mom swearing like a rap star going over her store's figures, since the day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year and she has to be ready. In between pounding on her laptop, she tries to thaw the turkey and cook it. Melinda's dad spends Thanksgiving watching football, and then trying to take over with the turkey after his wife has failed. But he is no better. Christmas is a bit more pleasant. The family exchanges gifts, but the presents they give one another demonstrate to what degree they are all strangers living in the same house.
Melinda thinks that her parents would have been divorced by now if it wasn't for her, and that "it's a shame we can't just admit that we have failed family living, sell the house, split up the money, and get on with our lives" (70). While Melinda's parents probably don't think she's the huge disappointment she believes she is to them, they do seem to be held together by convention more than out of affection, particularly Melinda's parents. And on the night Melinda is raped and comes home late, she expects to have to sneak by her sleeping mother and father in order to go to her room undetected. Instead, she comes home to an empty house, and sees her father, and then later her mother, return separately just before dawn. Clearly there is something seriously wrong with the Sardinos’ marriage, something not fully explored in the novel.
However, the adults in Melinda’s life aren’t to blame completely for her problems. With the exception of Mr. Neck, they are not malicious, just human and unable to read the subtle clues before them, particularly since the victim is struggling to remain silent. And it’s not surprising that the only person who can help Melinda is her art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who encourages her to express herself. At the beginning of the novel when Mr. Freeman tells his students that his is “the only class that will teach you how to survive . . . because it is the only class where you can find your soul if you dare” (10). And Mr. Freeman is correct. His class is the only one that ultimately teaches Melinda how to survive. It is in his class that she is able to piece together into a coherent whole her fragmented self, which in turn finally gives her the courage to speak.
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Trees: It is a coincidence that Mr. Freeman makes Melinda draw a tree all semester. Many therapists use art therapy with their clients, and in particular, they ask them to draw trees in order to assess how they feel about themselves at the moment. A bare, dying tree represents wounded sense of self; a small, immature tree represents a sense of self that is vulnerable and perhaps lacking in resources to deal with a particular problem; full grown, leafy tree with many branches represents a sense of self that is healthy and thriving and has many resources for dealing with adversity. The trees that Melinda draws throughout the year, as well as the trees she thinks about in her mind, represent how she feels about herself. Melinda begins by painting trees that have been hit by lightening and are nearly dead (30), but ends the term drawing a tree that has both healthy new growth and birds in its branches, but old diseased branches too (196), representing how her concept of her self has been transformed throughout the year. She begins by feeling blighted like the tree struck by lightening that she draws, but ends feeling that she will be able to deal with the experience of being raped and move on. She is a tree that has diseased branched, but also healthy growth, and so can continue to live.
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Cliques: Cliques and other sorts of social groups are also very important in this novel. Melinda and her peers are desperate to belong to some sort of group because being "clanless," as Melinda puts it, means that one does not have access to social capital. Heather highlights the stupidity of wanting to join a group with her desperation to get into all of the "good" groups in Merriweather High, particularly the Marthas. Her desire to belong is so powerful that she will humiliate herself to be accepted by them. Melinda's running commentary in her head derides Heather's desire to belong to a group, but part of Melinda's problem during her freshman year of high school is that she is clanless. Her former group of friends won't speak to her after she called the police at the party, and she has been fairly unsuccessful at making new friends at school as well. The students who do better in this novel are the ones who not only belong to a clique, but belong to more than one clique. Examples of these types of students include David Petrakis and Rachel/Rachelle. Both belong to several groups, which gives them a good deal of social capital, but also gives them a flexibility that is lacking other students who are defined wholly by one group, or through their complete outsider status because they belong to no group.
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 Although I am using male pronouns to describe rapists, and female pronouns to describe their victims, I don’t mean to imply that all rapists are male, that all victims are female, or that all rape occurs between people of the opposite sex. However, since Speak is about a girl who is raped by a boy, I have opted to discuss sexual assault with these pronouns to avoid some confusion.
 The state of Louisiana wisely understands that often there can be teenaged couples where one is above the age of consent and the other below, but that the range in age is so small that no real imbalance of power exists. Thus, a rapist must be at least two years older than his under-aged victim before he can be prosecuted for statutory rape. So, for example, a seventeen year old boy couldn’t be prosecuted of statutorily raping his fifteen year old girlfriend, since the range of age between the two is not so great that he has a huge advantage over her. On the other hand, a thirty year old man having carnal knowledge of a fifteen year old girl would be seen as grossly abusing her.