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Because She Asked Us To: A Discussion of “Speak” and Censorship

September 20, 2010

As the clunky title suggests, this post will be a serious one.

This morning I noticed a hashtag on Twitter called #SpeakLoudly, and after clicking on it, realized that there was a lot of brouhaha about book censorship happening. And then I opened Jezebel’s page, and saw a guest article written by Laurie Halse Anderson, none other than my favorite author from  childhood/adolescence (other than Sharon Creech, holla!) and the scribe behind a book that actually changed my life as a young one, called Speak.

To say this book was amazing is to do it no justice. The short summary is that Melinda Sorvino, the book’s main character, goes to a high school party a few weeks before her freshman year, gets drunk and hangs out with a senior, who takes her into the woods and rapes her. She calls 911 for help, and the cops show up to bust up the party and arrest or cite some of the partygoers for underage drinking. Melinda tells no one what happened or why she called 911, so the other students spend a good deal of time pissed at her for getting everyone into trouble. This coupled with the sexual assault sinks Melinda into a depression and leads her to withdraw from pretty much everything until she eventually gets the courage to tell her story to her favorite teacher.

I should note that this book has run into controversy before. Given its intensity of subject matter, a few people have said that the book  has no place among the young adult audience it was written for. Halse Anderson responded to this herself in a reissue of the book in 2006, saying that the censorship of the book (and of books in general) did a grand disservice to the children that would miss out on messages meant to educate them about the world rather than shelter them from what would be, for some of them, hard eventualities.

This time, an associate professor at Missouri State University named Wesley Scroggins is claiming, in an opinion piece he wrote for the Springfield News Leader, that Speak (along with Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer) is a “filthy book” that demeans education in schools. He summarizes the book rather flippantly, noting the two rape scenes featured in both the book and the movie as if they were included to convey some positive feelings about sex and sexuality rather than tell a harsh story of one girl’s very real traumatization. He notes that, “In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography,” before going on to summarize this book and two others.

Halse Anderson has already addressed why this piece, instead of being forgotten and overlooked by the masses, needs to be answered, most notably:

“My fear is that good-hearted people in Scroggins’ community will read his piece and believe what he says. And then they will complain to the school board. And then the book will be pulled and then all those kids who might have found truth and support in the book will be denied that. In addition, all the kids who have healthy emotional lives but who hate reading, will miss the chance to enjoy a book that might change their opinion.” (From Jezebel, “This Guy Thinks Speak is Pornography.”)

I completely agree. I won’t rehash the main arguments she makes because she speaks/writes quite eloquently for herself, but I will add something rather anecdotal, because the end of Halse Anderson’s post asked readers to respond in their own ways. I read Speak for the first time in eighth grade, right around the age of the main character Melinda. I identified with her inability to effectively communicate with her family and sometimes her peers, and was very deeply moved by the book’s description of isolation and “outside peering in” sensibility. The rape incidents in the book did not traumatize me when I read about them. On the contrary, they made me understand Melinda’s character a bit more, and served a clear background to her psychology as she sank further into depression. These are things I had no real grasp upon at that age, and I was thankful for the honesty and the explanation. The book doesn’t glorify sexual activity as something to partake in as soon as possible. In fact, all of the instances of sex in the book are negatively connoted, because either the participants are unwilling and later scarred (as Melinda is) or are too free with and ignorant of sex and its repercussions (like the cheerleaders who pretend to be chaste but are really screwing just about anything with male sex organs).

My point is, this book did not make me want to run out and have sex with anyone. This book made me think seriously about sex and its repercussions, and about the consequences of getting involved in sex (and other risky behaviors) before understanding the potential outcome. I learned a lot when I read this book, and perhaps most meaningfully, felt a lot less isolated, strange, and  foreign in my own body afterward. I shared a kinship with Melinda that many other readers shared with her, too. It’s a well-written window into a difficult time of adolescence and deserves to be read. Scroggins is just one person with a problem with the book, and there have been others in the past and there will surely be more. But, as Halse Anderson states, I really hope that his opinion piece doesn’t go unchallenged, that parents don’t just read that and argue against something with which they are unfamiliar, or try to get it banned because they believe it glorifies sex when it doesn’t. This book, like few others I read at that age, helped me. It moved me forward. In short, it did what a book is supposed to do. I worry that kids like myself, who loved reading but could never find something that quite “fit” at that age, or kids that don’t actually like reading that might be convinced otherwise by reading a book with very “real life” applications, will miss out on this book because their parents panicked before they allowed better judgment to win out.

And as one Jezebel commenter noted, “What’s next? Catcher in the Rye?” Seriously, people. We’re all better than this. #SpeakLoudly.

[In lieu of a video posting, please read Laurie Halse Anderson’s 2005 interview with about the importance of addressing serious issues in young adult fiction.]

“Being a teenager usually sucks. It’s hard and confusing and few adults have the guts to talk about it honestly. That’s my job.” [Source]

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