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Young adult fiction books on display at an independent bookstore. Andrew Cline/

Controversial young adult novel offers insight into Kavanaugh hearings, sexual assault

The confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh should remind educators of the vital need to talk to young people about sexual assault, consent, underage drinking – and how the choices they make as teenagers can affect the rest of their lives.

One of the best ways to do that is through literature. One novel emerges as particularly adept in this regard.

The novel is “Speak.” Listed as one of the top banned or challenged texts, “Speak” centers around a 15-year-old high school freshman named Melinda who becomes withdrawn after being sexually assaulted at a summer party.

When “Speak” appeared in 1999, critics praised author Laurie Halse Anderson for her ability to produce a powerful book that could help young people grapple with tough subject matter, including sexual assault.

Anderson got a different reaction from many young men who read the novel.

“These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused,” Anderson recounted. “They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.

"The first dozen times I heard this, I was horrified. But I heard it over and over again,” Anderson continued. “I realized that many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman.”

Nearly two decades after “Speak” first appeared, there are still some who harbor a dismissive attitude toward accusers and sexual assault. For instance, in an interview about the Kavanaugh hearings, one woman asked “What boy hasn’t?” when it comes to sexual assault.

Such attitudes show why it pays to revisit Anderson’s cautionary tale, one that fosters discussion both hard and completely necessary for 21st-century teens.

Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Saul Loeb/AP

Fading and foggy memories of friends

A first unmistakable parallel between Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the novel is the all-important idea of corroboration – something that is often absent in cases that involve rape and sexual assault at parties.

Leyland Keyser, Ford’s lifelong friend, was reported by Ford to be at the party in Maryland. But Keyser wrote that she doesn’t remember the party, any assault or even Kavanaugh. Ford has a simple explanation: Nothing happened to Leyland, and she was downstairs when the assault took place.

The same lack of awareness proves true in “Speak,” where the main character, Melinda, is lured away from a summer party and assaulted in a field.

Just as Ford describes in her testimony, Melinda’s friends have no idea that Melinda has been assaulted. And just like Ford describes, the fog surrounding it all leaves the main character of the novel alone, struggling in school, and never revealing her trauma until much later.

Freshman year starts for Anderson’s characters, life goes on with the rapist in their midst, and Melinda is left unable to speak.

Her friends don’t know, her parents don’t know, and the fog grows thicker. “Why don’t you just tell someone?” is the logical but hopelessly impossible question here, one that plays out precisely the same way both in the book and in Ford’s testimony.

Caring and clueless parents

A second parallel is the disbelief, for some, that this type of assault could happen to a nice girl with nice parents who would simply know their daughter, know about the tragedy and get help.

President Trump said as much in a Sept. 21 tweet: Loving parents don’t let their daughters get hurt.

Except Ford’s parents did nothing because they knew nothing. As she tells it, Ford decided at 15 that it was bad for a 15-year-old to be at a party with underage drinking. This kind of thinking is portrayed in “Speak”: Melinda tells her parents that she is staying over with a friend. Knowing she doesn’t have permission to be around boys or booze, Melinda sneaks back home after the assault and loses her will to speak – about anything.

Melinda’s parents see her failing grades and her sullenness as the onset of adolescence. Simply put, Melinda doesn’t tell them differently, and her parents do not know about the rape. As thousands of survivors have attested in the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag that followed Trump’s tweet, many caring adults don’t either.

Embedded in the parallel is the reality that, to a developing young adult, confessing about your underage drinking is somehow harder than living with a sexual assault. The trauma goes deep, and educators should use this opportunity to talk to teens about how vital open communication on extremely common teenage problems can be.

The coincidence of doors

Finally, one of the most interesting parallels between Ford’s testimony and “Speak” is the role of doors.

Ford recounts first opening up to her husband about the details of her assault when the couple renovated their home and she insisted on two front doors – an odd request that speaks to her alleged trauma. “Speak” also hinges on a door, a bathroom stall where Melinda finally gets the courage to scrawl a warning with her accuser’s name. In one of the most powerful scenes of the book, Melinda returns to the stall to discover more scrawlings: “Different pens, different handwriting, conversations between some writers. … It’s better than taking out a billboard. I feel like I can fly.”

That powerful scene is a beautiful metaphor for the #MeToo movement that would come decades after “Speak” was published.

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