Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Should Have Been a Review but Turned More Personal

It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new books, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache. [1st paragraph of Speak]

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Penguin, 1999
Fiction (YA); 198 pgs

This is Banned Books Week. It is a week designed to bring attention to the many books that are challenged and banned; the books that some people would attempt to silence because they may offend or cause discomfort. I have strong feelings against censorship and wanted to join in this year's celebration of our freedom to read what we want to read.

Last week Twitter was all a buzz with the news that yet another person is seeking to ban Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. Something about a rape scene and an attempted rape scene being soft porn. Also, the unfavorable light the authority figures (parents and school staff) were painted in. Tell me I shouldn't read something, and I only grow more curious to see for myself.

That isn't the only reason I decided to read Speak in honor of Banned Book Week, however. It seems a fitting choice. Censorship is the silencing of voices. And wanting to ban a book like Speak is like trying to silence the voices of many teenagers who find themselves in similar situations as Speak's protagonist, Melinda Sordino.

Melinda is a freshman in high school, ostracized by her friends and peers because she called the police at a summer end party. She keeps the real reason she called the police a secret, feeling ashamed and as if no one would believe her. Melinda was raped by a senior. An outcast, Melinda has a difficult time adjusting to high school after what happened. She is afraid to speak about what happened and often refuses to speak at all. She falls into a depression and those who care about her are at a loss as to what to do. They do not understand what she is going through.

I have read more intense novels on the subject of rape and depression and found this one not quite as much so in comparison. I guess that is what surprises me most about the fact that this book was singled out for censorship. Just the same, Speak is a powerful novel and one I would encourage parents and teens to read. The author tells the story from Melinda's viewpoint and captures perfectly the voice of her teen protagonist. Melinda feels alone and isolated. She has no friends and little support. Her parents are always too busy, wrapped up in their own issues. She doesn't feel she has anyone to turn to. My heart went out to Melinda and, in many ways, I could relate to her. Her desire to forget; her hope that not speaking about it would help her forget; and the depression that came with it.

It's not something I ever talk about. It's like a dark secret that I keep hidden away. I don't know exactly why. Not anymore. I have come to terms with it as best one can. I take pride in the fact that I am not so much a victim, but a survivor. And yet. I don't talk about it. Until now.

I was sexually abused when I was six years old by a babysitter. The details don't matter. I knew it was wrong at the time, and even told me parents. Sort of. What I told them was that he "wanted to". My parents, in their innocence, told me that they hoped I said no. Their response was enough to silence me. I had done something wrong.

We moved. I never saw him again.

The chronological order of events during the next seven years are fuzzy. I remember bursting into tears when a particular song came on the radio at my uncle's house. We both loved Bruce Springsteen, but the words of the song, struck me cold--still do. For years, I had to leave the room or turn the radio off when the song came on. I would start shaking when I heard it, sometimes cry. I may have told my mother then what happened. I'm not sure. Whatever I did say to explain away my sudden sobs didn't really help.

Then there was a slumber party. It wasn't a big party. Just three of us. I told my friends what happened. I will forever be grateful to them for speaking out for me. They did not just sit on the information or forget about it. They talked to a school counselor who in turn spoke with me. It was a freeing moment and yet also a very scary one. I was finally able to deal with it in the open.

My parents were told. They didn't understand. I was told to put it behind me and move on. And as part of me struggled with the fact that it wasn't that simple, to just be able to get over it, the other half felt exactly that. Why couldn't I? More reason to feel ashamed.

I don't blame my parents in any way. It wasn't something they ever imagined they would have to deal with nor did they know how to react. They fell back on what they knew and went from there. In a way, they were victims too.

I blamed myself for many years. If I'd just said no. How stupid would someone have to be to let something like that happen without putting up much of a fight? That's what I believed for a long time.

I went to therapy. Joined a support group. I read; I wrote; I had long conversations with God. I played scenarios in my head about confronting the guy. I carried a photo of myself at the age of 6 to remind myself that a girl that young could not be to blame for what happened to her. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that I actually was worth it--worth caring about and loving. It took me a while, but I eventually found a confidence and strength I didn't know I had. And I realized that he no longer had power over me.

To say "I'm over it" would be a bold faced lie. Can anyone truly be over that kind of experience? Sure, I have moved on in many ways. I now know it wasn't my fault. I no longer feel the shame. And yet, I don't ever talk about it. It will always be a shadow in the past, affecting me in the slightest of ways. There is a stigma associated with being a victim, one that is not so easy to shake.

I may not have been a victim of rape like Melinda was, but I do know the pain of living in near silence, of the stigma, self-doubt and blame that goes along with it. It's a terrible weight to carry. One that in the perfect world would never have to be carried because sexual assault of any kind would not exist.

Society doesn't exactly make it easy for victims of rape or abuse to speak out. I do think that there is an effort out there to change such backwards thinking, but it has a long way to go. Authors like Laurie Halse Anderson are helping to make that change one book at a time, and their voices should not be silenced. Girls and boys who have been victims of sexual assault need to be heard--and, as cliche as it sounds, to know they are not alone.
Most censorship I see is fear-driven. I respect that. The world is a very scary place. It is a terrifying place in which to raise children, and in particular, teenagers. It is human nature to nurture and protect children as they grow into adulthood. But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in darkness and makes them vulnerable. [excerpt from statement by Laurie Halse Anderson about censorship, included at end of Speak]
Books have been my friends through many ups and downs, helped me to see the world through different eyes as well as take a closer look at my own life. We can learn so much from books, find reassurance and hope. We are able to face new challenges and view the world from many different angles. Books give us that and so much more.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. In some ways I think society has moved forward but in a lot of ways I dont think it has. These sorts of reports are usually greeted with a degree of scepticism.

    I am sorry you went through what you did, but glad you have not let it hold you back.

  2. Wow, Wendy. You are one strong lady with an amazing spirit.

  3. Well, that certainly brought tears to my eyes. How amazing, truly, for you to bare your soul to us Wendy. That took some serious courage. I was also touched by your friends' support at the slumber party. I've not read this book, but I have it. Books like this should never ever be banned. It is important to make the world more aware of such tragedies. Thanks so much for doing this..

  4. Wendy,
    posting about your personal experience was very brave, thank you for trusting us enough to share that with us. I am very saddened to hear about what you went through, and I can imagine that it must have been one of the hardest things in your life to get past. I agree that these types of books need to be out there for teens who are looking for answers or those who feel alone with their experiences. It is crazy to me that there are people out there who want to take these books away, that little group of busybodies really need to find something useful to do with their lives and make an effort to become a little less close-minded. Thank you for opening up and sharing your story with us.

  5. What a horrific thing to have happened. This is just why books like Speak are so important. Thank you so much for sharing that story.

  6. Wendy, I'm so sorry you had to deal with this alone. My daughter is 6, almost 7 and I kept thinking of her as I read your story.

    The fact that you survived such a thing, at such a young age, confirms to me what I already knew. You are a very strong and special person.

  7. Couldn't read this and not post. Thank you for speaking out and sharing your story. I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

  8. It's one of the most frustating moments I ever have with my job - that moment when I tell a young woman that what happened to her was not her fault and I see in her eyes that damage that will never be completely gone. Yes, it can heal but it never goes away.

    You did an amazing job telling your story, Wendy. Simple yet powerful words.

    Thanks for sharing them. Perhaps, by doing so, you'll help another girl or young woman.


  9. My heart goes out to for having to experience something like that. You did a great job of talking about it though and in doing so you drove home the reason of why books like this (or any book really) should not be censored. I'm so glad you were able to come to terms with it and find joy in life.

  10. Your story made me cry and I applaud you for sharing it. It's stories like yours that just prove how important it is to keep books like Speak on the shelves for those who need them.

  11. Well said! Thank you for your courage and your trust.

  12. You are very brave, Wendy. Thank you for this post.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story, it took a lot of courage. You are indeed a very strong person. You have my deepest admiration for coming through this the way you have.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Wendy - I can't imagine how difficult it must have been, both throughout your life and writing those words. You've so perfectly emphasized why books like Speak should be available freely, so others know that they are not alone and it is not their fault.

  15. I'm extremely moved by the way you spoke up here, Wendy. You don't always reveal so much about yourself, and I'm glad you trusted your readers enough to share this with us. You've truly shown why this particular book is so important. (And now I understand why you feel the way you do about that Springsteen song - it's not one of my favorites, but I don't know if I'll ever hear it the same way again.)

    Thank you.

  16. I have not read Speak, but I hope to sometime soon. I just wanted to leave a comment and say that I admire you so much for sharing your personal experience! I imagine that that might have been difficult..

  17. You are a courageous woman. To persevere despite what you have been through is admirable. I’m so glad your friends listened to you and did the right thing by telling the counselor. Your story is a perfect example of why books like Speak need to be available.

  18. I can imagine how hard it is for you to write this post, Wendy, but what a courageous post it is! I've yet to read this book but I will soon.


  19. What a powerful testimony.

    You are absolutely right when you say that you never get over it, but you do the best to get on with life. Those experiences shape who you are, and so become part of who you are, how you interact with people etc, so you can't really get over it as such.

    You persevere with the love and support of those around you. How lucky that your friends were there when you needed them.

  20. Thank you so much for bravely sharing your story!

  21. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm so sorry for what you've been through, and I admire your courage.

  22. Wendy my heart goes out to you. Thank you for having the courage to share your story with us. Sending you hugs!

  23. Now your secret doesn't hold the power over you. You are a brave woman Wendy and if I could hug you right now I here's a cyber hug (((hug))) and applause for being so strong and allowing us into your private world.

  24. I was very moved by your story - you are very courageous for sharing it. Thank you for your words and for speaking out against those who might prevent this book from being shared with those who need to read it!

  25. Oh, wow. That is by far the most powerful argument I've read against censoring/banning, this week. Thanks for sharing your story, Wendy.

  26. Wow. I can't imagine the courage it would take to share this with us. And like Bookfool said, the best argument so far to this whole crazy discussion.

  27. Thank you all for your thoughtful and kind comments. I can't tell you the number of times I wanted to delete the post and not publish it, including after it went up. It's not something that is easy for me to talk about as you can imagine, but I really felt the timing was right given the book and it's subject matter.

    I think it's important especially for parents to be aware of the signs of abuse and to really listen to their children, even when they are not speaking. What makes it even harder is that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone a child knows, someone the entire family trusts.

    Books like Speak do help both parents and young people who have experienced sexual assault. Sometimes they give voice to our own experiences that we are too afraid to talk about--they help give us courage and strength to accept that we are not to blame.

    Sorry for the rambling comment! LOL Anyhow, thank you so much for your comments. It means a lot to me, the support and kindness you've shown.

  28. Oh, Wendy, what a powerful story. Perhaps your life would have been different if your parents had known a better way to cope with what happened to you. Something they might have known had the subject not been so taboo. "Speak" does exactly that--it give voice to a situation that so many young girls find themselves in. And it give them the opportunity to start a dialogue they might otherwise have been afraid to start. Thanks for sharing your story and reminding us that this happens--it cannot be ignored.

  29. Thank you for sharing such a personal part of your life with us. I think one of the reasons books speak so powerfully for us is that they do exactly what this one does to you. And for me, it's the same too. I am particularly fond of stories with good romance and love, and I often tear up so easily because I find that it is something I yearn so much and yet do not have. I have experienced the same thing you had and I was also molested, but by someone in my own family. I had to pretend to be asleep and not feel anything but I was scared half to death at that time. Again, thank you for sharing, Wendy.

  30. Thank you, Lisa and Alice. And again my thanks to all of you who took time to comment and share your support.

    Alice - I am so sorry for what you had to suffer through. No child should have to go through that. I know it couldn't have been easy to share this with us here. I'm sending you big hugs. I completely agree with you about the power of books, especially the ones that speak to us based on our own experiences or needs.

  31. Kudos to you for speaking up about your abuse. I've not experience it but many people close to me have and I know it's not something you ever really get over. I'm glad your friends got you some help and you are comfortable enough to speak about it.

  32. I had to respond to this post.
    Kudos to you for talking about this and getting help that you needed to deal with it.
    I think things like this are more common than one thinks.
    I was a victim of date rape, and while it caused me to break up with the guy, I never did anything else about it. There was a part of me that said "You decided to date him, and therefore are somewhat responsible for the situation". But at least I DID break up with him.

  33. Wendy, it took tremendous courage to share such a personal and heartbreaking story with us. I'm glad you trust us enough to do that and I'm so terribly sorry that happened to you at such a young age. I admire your courage to move on and make a good life for yourself. I'm sending you a whole bunch of hugs my friend.

  34. Oh, Wendy, I'm so sorry this happened to you. I can only imagine the fear and blame the younger you felt and I wish I could give 6 year old Wendy a hug!

    You've made a strong case against censorship. I have to tell you, though, that I was really unhappy last year when my 11 year old's English teacher suggested this book for her= she was looking for a book to read out of the classroom library and the teacher handed it to her saying, "This one's good." I'd recently read it myself and did not feel it was appropriate for her. I made her take it back to her teacher with a note from me. Now if she'd been 13 or 14, a little older, or if she was dealing with similar trauma and the teacher thought it would help her, I wouldn't have had an issue. But that was obviously not the case.

    Anyway, I'm amazed by the way you were touched by this book and how you bared your soul. You're courageous and strong and I admire you greatly.

  35. Thank you for your kind words and support. It means a lot to me.

    Shonna - it is more common than I think most people realize, unfortunately. I am so sorry for your own experience. How terrible that you had to suffer through that. I am glad you broke up with him. It wasn't your fault and he had no right to do that, regardless of the fact that you agreed to date him. I'm sending a big cyber hug your way.

    LisaMM - As a parent, I think you should have a say in what is appropriate for your child, especially at a young age, to read and not read--you know your child best. I do think Speak would be too much for most 11 year olds. I'm surprised the teacher recommended it.

  36. I am a book blogger, and I stumbled upon this post when searching for "Bruce Springsteen" of all things. I couldn't just read what you wrote and move on. In fact, I have a feeling what you wrote will stay with me for a long, long time.

    You are so brave for sharing your experience, and I hope that someone who needs to, reads this and finds strength to share their own story.

    God bless you always...and KEEP WRITING. You have a gift!


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