Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Defense of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Today I found out that Wesley Scroggins, a professor at Missouri State University, wrote a piece in which he called for the banning of (among others) Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak from his community's schools, likening it to "soft pornography." Here's an excerpt from the article.

"This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes." --Wesley Scroggins

As a writer and lifelong bibliophile, I find the concept of book banning offensive on principle. It encourages ignorance and denial hidden behind the trusty veneer of "protecting our children." But Speak's appearance on the chopping block is particularly painful.

The summer before I started high school, my aunt gave me a copy of Speak. It became one of my favorite books and one of the most important I've ever read. It's the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman who survives a brutal rape and suffers in silence for months, hiding deep inside herself while keenly observing the absurdities and cruelties of high school life. It's a terrifying, darkly funny, and incredibly moving book, one I feel everybody should read, particularly every teenage girl as she prepares to start high school. I've read it many times since that summer. In my junior year of high school, I suggested it be added to the curriculum (I'm not sure if it was). In my senior year, I used selections of it as part of my piece for forensics (speech and debate, not CSI). Everybody can relate to Melinda's pain and isolation whether or not they are victims of sexual assault or rape. It's an invaluable book and I'm grateful to Laurie Halse Anderson for writing it.

Yes, it does depict the rape of a teenage girl. It's horrifying but it's not pornographic. I find it disturbing that Mr. Scroggins used the words "soft pornography" to describe it. Maybe he's trying to stir up fear and misconceptions about it for those who haven't read it. Maybe he doesn't know what "soft pornography" actually means. Yes, the idea of sexual assault and rape is disturbing, but it happens. One need only look the overwhelming statistics to see that. One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. And those are just the crimes that are reported. Families are dysfunctional, teachers are as human as the rest of us, and teenagers have sex. Yes, these facts are icky but they are facts. They are a part of reality. Banning Speak won't change that. It will only deny potential readers the comfort and awareness it can provide. Mr. Scroggins uses his Christianity as one of his reasons for fighting this book. I'm also a Christian, but I don't use my faith as an excuse to hide under a rock and write off brutality as "soft pornography." This is fear mongering and ignorance, plain and simple. If Mr. Scroggins wants to improve his community, he should work to raise awareness about sexual assault and rape, not fight to take away a book that can help people.

Here's a link to Mr. Scroggins's letter:

And here's a response by Laurie Halse Anderson

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