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.
And I can remember my grandparents, and the world that my grandparents grew up in, which was basically late Victorian era. And really, I’m looking at my peers, my generation of parents in the eye when I say this. We have to suck it up and be the adults in the room and talk about something that our parents couldn’t talk to us about.
Following up with that, do you feel a greater sense of responsibility in portraying these issues because of the fact that you’re writing for a teenage audience?
Absolutely. Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when I was revising Speak before I turned it in to the publisher, I toned down the scene in which she remembers her assault. Because if I’d written the book for adults, I probably would’ve made that more graphic. Btu I wanted this to be accessible and appropriate for younger teens. If you go on the RAINN website, they have the best source of sexual assault statistics in the world. But I think it’s more than half of the women who are raped are under eighteen, and of that group, a staggering number of girls are raped before they’re fifteen. And so, these are topics that if we start talking to seventeen year olds about it, we’re way too late. We have to be talking to eleven year olds about this. twelve year olds, thirteen years olds.
And that’s in keeping with the main character of Speak, Melinda, she gets raped before entering high school.
Yeah, yeah, the summer before ninth grade. And her story is not what happened to me, it’s not a memoir at all, but the emotional journey that she goes through is very much the emotional journey that I went through. When I was researching the book, one of the things that really struck me is I talked to some emergency room nurses and doctors, who are often the first medical people that assist a sexual assault victim, and they told me that young teen girls in particular are so vulnerable because if they hadn’t had any kind of sexual experience at all, what will happen is they will go into shock. They cannot process what’s going on. And it’s because they are completely unprepared. So you know, a pretty thirteen year old girl shows up to a party with seventeen year old guys who’ve been drinking, that’s never a good recipe for anybody.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month, and you’ve partnered with RAINN to raise awareness about that. Would you mind just giving our readers a breakdown of what the month entails and what your involvement with it is?
I’m so excited. You have no idea. i’ve always just been in awe of RAINN. I came to the organization years ago because one of my favorite musicians, Tori Amos, was one of the founding women who put this organization together. Whenever I am in touch with sexual assault survivors, I always put them in touch with RAINN to get help. They have an online support network, they have a toll-free telephone support network. So what we’ve done with my publisher MacMillan is that we are trying to fundraise this month, and for every dollar that we can get raised htrough the RAINN website, my publisher’s kicking in a dollar too. It’s a great way to raise money for what I consider one of the best causes in the country, and to get the conversation going so that we can talk to paren’ts generations, kid’s generations, make sure that our young men and young women understand what the law is, and what the code of moral behavior is. You don’t touch people’s bodies without their permission. And for anyone who has been hurt, they deserve help, and RAINN is there to give it to them.
Obviously, part of the importance of an organization like RAINN is that it gives survivors a place to tell their story. How do you think Melinda would have benefitted from the services that RAINN offers today to victims of assault?
You know, that’s such an interesting thing to think about. I found myself actually journaling a couple of pages when the Stubenville verdict came through. And I sort of daydreamed a little bit about what if Melinda was a journalist covering that story? How would she react to it? If she had been able to get that hotline number, that’s the phone number she would have called to very quietly start telling her story. There’s a lot of kids who don’t feel like they, obviously in the perfect world you would hope that people could tell their parents, but the sad truth is that a lot of kids can’t. What if the person who raped you is your mom’s boyfriend? Or your grandfather? I know women and young girls who went and told what they thought was a trusted family member and they ended up getting slapped in the face. This is the one place you can count on twenty-four hours a day where somebody will listen to you, and where somebody will help you. Help you find whatever resource or support that you need.
Laurie also had a sweet shout-out for HelloGiggles:
I love your website! If you guys need anything else from me ever about any of the other topics I’ve written about, or you just want a loudmouth mom’s opinion on something, let me know and I’d be happy to contribute.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual assault, it’s never too late to get help. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected to your sexual assault service provider, or visit online.rainn.org to chat one-on-one with a RAINN staff member.
Image credit: Macmillan Publishers