April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and author Laurie Halse Anderson has teamed up with RAINN to fundraise to support the effort to help and heal survivors of sexual assault. The result is the #Speak4RAINN campaign. Every dollar donated by the public will be matched by Macmillan, the publisher of Laurie’s best-selling book Speak, up to $20,000. Just ten dollars supports a victim who seeks help on RAINN’s hotline.
I had the opportunity to talk with Laurie Halse Anderson about the project, the lasting impact of Speak, the Steubenville rape verdict, censorship of her books, the difficulty of adolescence and the work the RAINN is doing. She is passionate about the cause, and eloquent in her analysis of rape culture in the U.S. today. Read on to hear her talk about Speak and so much more.
What was your inspiration for writing Speak?
At the time I wrote it, my oldest daughter was in sixth grade. I have four kids. She was going through the wonderful joys of middle school. and so, as a mom, it was beginning to make me think about how vulnerable girls can be and all the pressures that adolescent girls face. And that’s what I thought was my inspiration, at the time. Of course, looking back, I had to acknowledge my own experience, which was, a month before ninth grade started, I was sexually assaulted. And because of the dynamics of my family and what was going on at the time in our family life, I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t speak up for almost twenty-five years, when I wrote the book. So I came to it as both a young woman in my heart and as a mom, and the story took off from there.
That’s an amazing experience to share with people. What are some of the most memorable reader responses or interactions you’ve had with people who’ve read Speak?
Oh my gosh, there are so many, thousands of them. Boy. You know, I’ve spoken a lot. Somebody calculated I’ve spoken to over a million teenagers in high schools in the last decade or so, and every time I’ve ever given a presentation, I’ve had somebody come up to me afterwards in tears because they really feel like for the first time it’s safe for them to talk about what happened to them. I was just talking at lunch to somebody from RAINN, and I told them the story of I was up in the country, up north, and I spoke at a school, and a girl came up to me in tears afterwards, not because it happened to her, but because her sister had been raped, and afterwards fell into that spiral that happens to so many women, of depression, which then leads to drug use, and so many bad things happen if you don’t get the support and help that you need. And I talked about my experience, and she was confused because she said to me, “I didn’t know that it was possible to be okay after that.” And there was a women, and older women in her seventies that spoke to me when the book came out, talked to me about her experience. She was raped by some older boys when she was twelve, and her parents married her off to the next traveling salesman that came through town.
Oh my gosh.
Right? So, you go from that three generations ago, you know, to the experience that we’re still all talking about to that girl in Stubenville Ohio, and it’s very clear that however much we think that we as a nation have progressed, there’s still some very basic things that we have to find the courage to speak up about.
Exactly. Those things are still happening just as much now, if not more –
All the time. And possibly, in some ways I wonder if it’s happening more.
You’ve also written books dealing with other “heavy issues,”
Such as Wintergirls, which centers around a girl’s struggle with an eating disorder. What draws you to these types of subjects?
My adolescence was pretty painful. My family… I had a great childhood, and then my parents hit some really rough patches for a variety of reasons, and my adolescence was so confusing, and really ugly in a lot of ways. And I was very fortunate, very blessed, with people in my life, other adults, who were really good, guiding lights, and helped me dig my way out of the darkness. But I really, you know, I’ve had a great life. I’ve got great kids and friends, a husband and a career. But I really remember what it feels like you know, to be fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, to be confused, and hurt, and angry. and I know that for me at that point, books are where I found truth. My parents weren’t explaining things to me, so I would turn to the library and turn to books to try and figure out the world. So that’s what I try to do.
Have you encountered criticism due to writing books that deal with these intense subjects?
Oh, yeah! Yeah, there’s a reason American parents don’t talk about rape, it’s because they’re uncomfortable with it. I’ve actually been called a pornographer,
Yeah, there was this dude in Missouri, there are lots of very nice people in Missouri by the way, but this one guy had the book pulled out of his school and wrote an op-ed for his newspaper calling speak pornography. And uh, you know, that’s just so indicative of people who, I’ve seen that there’s two kinds of censorship with my books. Sometimes there’s censorship coming from parents who just don’t know how to talk to their kids about these kinds of things, you know, and they maybe are a little bit ignorant about how they’re not protecting their kids. In some ways I think if you censor this type of information from your children, you’re failing as a parent because you’re not teaching them what the world is like. And then, of course, I’m from a kind of conservative family so I understand that approach to the world, and I know conservative, good-hearted people, who have been manipulated by politicians who have taken advantage of that attitude, and so they jump on the censorship bandwagons cause they’re trying to get contributions for their political causes. I try to make it simple for people, I say, when you have small children, you know that your job as a parent is to teach them to look both ways before they cross the road. When your kids enter adolescence, you job as a parent is to teach them the realities of sexual assault, especially teaching your boys, so we can finally stop things like Stubenville from happening.
Where they said that they didn’t know that was actually considered rape.
Exactly! Exactly. And whether or not you agree about it, your kids, all children in America, are submerged in this culture where sexuality is omnipresent. It’s everywhere. And testosterone is a powerful chemical. and if you don’t sit your boys down and talk to them honestly about not only the moral codes but the laws regarding sexual assault, then you’re failing your sons. And you’re not doing your job. The same way you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t teach them to look both ways before they crossed the road.