Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Speak and 13 Reasons Why and Why This Affects You"

I had the privilege of reading my paper "Speak and 13 Reasons Why" at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL. Because the content relates to April being Sexual Awareness month, I thought I would share my thoughts about two young adult novels and my own life with the wider world.

"Speak and 13 Reasons Why"

     What’s the worst action one human can do to another? An action so terrible it brands your mind, lives inside you, and defines how you ever after see your world? I don’t know what you think, but I think rape and molestation of body, mind, and spirit are the most invasive actions one human can force upon another’s life, altering that life, and I think it is the greatest thievery of another’s right to freewill.

     I have chosen to make an argument against rape and molestation of body, mind, and spirit by analyzing two well-known young adult texts: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. I also chose to argue this topic because of the sex culture America is steeped in and because it happened to me in a middle class, small town, church going society.

     I believe it does not matter what a person’s title is, what their job description is, or where that person spends most of their time. I believe what does matter is what that person is inside because what people think leads to their actions. Thinking can change, while an action, once it’s done, can never be undone. Writing about my experience in relation to these two texts matters because someone’s thinking could change or someone could be thinking as I think and be comforted in the fact that they are not alone in feeling the way they feel. I want to make those who do not understand what unwanted sexual attention can do to a person’s life feel how troubling this issue is without having to experience being a victim themselves.

     I think the issue of sexual purity should matter to you because sexual discrepancies are a symptom of a culture that has forgotten how to love, how to be satisfied, and how to have boundaries amongst each other. In writing about these two novels and myself, I want lives to matter to you. When a person experiences such an invasive trauma, even the time one lives in is experienced so differently than it did the day before the trauma. If the terrible event happened twenty years ago, it does not mean the victim experiences or feels the hurt with twenty years of time gone by. The victim could feel the event as if it happened yesterday because of a dream the night before or could experience the trauma in a new way because they saw a school yearbook picture of the predator.

     The concept of how victims of a sexual trauma can experience time differently comes across through the written pages of Laurie Halse Anderson and Jay Asher’s novels. I will give you a short summary of Speak by Anderson followed by my interpretation and analysis, then move on to Thirteen Reasons Why by Asher followed by my interpretation and analysis.

     Speak begins with new freshman Melinda Sordino as she starts her first day of high school. No peers seem interested in her except for a brand new student whose family moved to the area in recent days. As Melinda goes through class and times of day at home, the reader learns of an event which occurred the previous summer that she is silent about causing all her friends to misunderstand her. David Petrakis, a fellow student, and Mr. Freeman, the art teacher, are the only two people who reach out to her. It is through David’s boldness in class, speaking out for what he believes in during class discussion, and Mr. Freeman’s encouragement to draw a more artistic tree which opens Melinda’s voice to speak about the rape that happened the summer before freshman year.

     As I skim through the pages of Speak, I notice Melinda’s concept of time alters since she is narrating her story post-rape. She explains her bedroom as the following: “My room belongs to an alien. It is a postcard of who I was in fifth grade” (Anderson 15). She also talks about where and when she takes breaks from her life. At home it is in this bedroom of her girlhood: “I have this halfway place, a rest stop on the road to sleep, where I can stay for hours. I don’t even need to close my eyes, just stay safe under the covers and breathe” (Anderson 16). At school it is the old janitor’s closet no janitor goes in anymore since the new lounge was put it: “This closet is abandoned—it has no purpose, no name. It is perfect for me” (Anderson 26). I interpret these observances of her space and time as the viewpoint of a person who feels lost and lonely and does not know who to reach out to or who would even understand.

     When she goes to school the other students seem to place Melinda only in the context of last summer’s party when her tragedy happened. She cannot force herself to speak up to them about her hurt. Her friends and other students, at this point, do not know of the atrocity that occurred but they do know the police were called at the party causing their summer night to end early. “Sordino? she asks. You’re Melinda Sordino?...Aren’t you the one who called the cops at Kyle Rodgers’s party at the end of the summer?...Another girl chimes in…”My brother got arrested at that party. He got fired because of the arrest. I can’t believe you did that. Asshole” (Anderson 26-27). I interpret these attitudes to portray Melinda as always that jerk freshman who busted everyone’s fun. Melinda is at a loss for now, as she cannot contradict their thoughts out loud.

     With her parents and principal, Melinda is compared to her eighth grade self. She is still in middle school time in their minds. Consider the following dialogue: “Principal: Melinda. Last year you were a straight-B student, no behavioral problem, few absences. But the reports I’ve been getting…well, what can we say? Mother: That’s the point, she won’t say anything! I can’t get a word out of her. She’s mute” Father: Well, something is wrong. What have you done to her? I had a sweet, loving little girl last year, but as soon as she comes up here, she clams up, skips school, and flushes her grades down the toilet” (Anderson 114-115). I interpret this meeting to show her parents and principal are aware of a difference but they are not handling her change well. They are simply not asking the right questions because they are assuming the wrong answers. Melinda is not speaking so nothing is changing.

     Another time turner is the rapist, himself. He alters so much of Melinda’s reality from the moment he does his unjustly deed. Melinda constantly refers to him as “IT”, “Andy Beast”, and his full name when written down “Andy Evans”. The first time she sees Andy post rape he is described as “IT”: “I see IT in the hallway. IT goes to Merryweather. IT is my nightmare and I can’t wake up. IT sees me. IT smiles and winks” (Anderson 45-46). The next time “IT” appears he is a memory brought on by the sight of blood: “The sharp edge of the flap cuts my tongue. I taste my blood. IT’s face suddenly pops up in my mind. All the anger whistles out of me like I’m a popped balloon” (Anderson 74). IT continues to haress Melinda at school. On page 86, he is whispering “freshmeat” in her ear and on page 118, in study hall; he is blowing in her ear. I interpret Melinda’s encounters and reactions to her rapist as fearful and frozen. She moves and thinks in slow motion.

     Time is finally released for her when her best friend from eighth grade, Rachel, starts dating “Andy Beast”. Melinda reveals to Rachel her rape by writing back and forth on a notebook paper and finally writing the name of her rapist: Andy Evans (Anderson 184). With this small step of writing his name come bigger steps even to confronting the house where the party was held and the deed was done. Andy gets the cold treatment from Rachel at the prom and he stalks Melinda into her safe closet space at school one afternoon to rape her a second time for telling. He accuses her of wanting him that night because she didn’t cry out. Time goes in slow motion again and Melinda becomes frozen until she remembers: “He fumbles to hold both my wrists in one hand. He wants a free hand. I remember I remember. Metal hands, hot knife hands. No. A sound explodes from me. NNNOOO!!! …I said no” (Anderson 194-195). I interpret this as Melinda realizing she does have a say in who touches her and who does not. She acquires the courage to speak out when she is being violated.

     Thirteen Reasons Why is a different style of young adult fiction than I usually have read. The novel is told by two teenagers. The first one living and the second one already deceased. Clay Jenson is a haunted high school student, but not in the ghoulish sense. He receives cassette tapes in the mail with the recorded voice of recent suicide victim, Hannah Baker, the girl he had a crush on in school. On the tapes, Hannah takes 12 of her fellow students and 1 teacher on a guided tour of why she ended her life and why Clay may have been the only light in her dark world.

     As I skim Thirteen Reasons Why, I look at Clay’s reactions to time as well as Hannah’s. From the beginning of the book Clay makes mention of Hannah’s empty desk. As he listens to her tapes, his mind is trying to wrap around the whole of her story but he keeps the night they talked and made out at the forefront: “What was I doing, Hannah? Because I honestly have no idea. That night, if it’s the night I’m thinking of, was just as strange for me as it was for you. Maybe more so, since I still have no idea what the hell happened” (Asher 13). As Hannah’s voice takes Clay to various places in their town, such as friend’s houses, library, diner’s, and cafĂ©’s, Clay’s memories of other times and Hannah are evoked. I interpret this sense of space as retrospect in Clay’s mind as he is viewing them from a dead girl’s perspective. Time is essentially over for him and he is now looking at the setting for reasons of Hannah’s suicide.

     Clay continues to hide his emotions through each of Hannah’s reasons until she gets to Cassette 5 Side A: Clay Jenson. From Hannah’s viewpoint she liked Clay as he liked her and felt she had a connection to him. However, it wasn’t deep enough to reveal the pain eight other people had already induced upon her. During her enjoyable kiss with Clay she thought of her first kiss experience: “And that’s when I thought of you, Justin. For the first time in a long time, I thought of our first kiss. My real first kiss. I remembered the anticipation leading up to it. I remembered your lips pressed against mine. And then I remembered how you ruined it…Could you feel what I was going through, Clay? Did you sense it?...I shut my eyes so tight it was painful. Trying to push away all that I was seeing in my head…everyone on this list. Clay, your reputation was deserved. But…mine was not. And there I was, with you. Adding to my reputation” (Asher 215-216). Hannah asked Clay to stop and leave instead of pouring out her hurt past to him. Clay’s feelings of that night were as follows: “I didn’t know what to make of that night…We only had one night, and by the end of that night, it seemed like I knew her even less than before. But now I know. I know where her mind was that night. Now I know what she was going through” (Asher 219).  I interpret these viewpoints of one night to mean that some people with past experiences will retreat in time in their head. They may seem like really confused people but if you knew the stories they are not saying, a new dimension might open up to you.

     Clay learns from that night and at the end of the novel, instead of passing by a girl who has all but retreated from her classmates with a casual “hi”, he follows her and calls her name. He is affected by Hannah’s empty desk of two weeks and as he says: “empty…for the rest of the year” (Asher 288). I interpret Clay’s response as how he will see his time “for the rest of the year” and on till his time ends. He will always think of Hannah and use his memories to help others.

     Hannah Baker’s life ends in a total different response. From her first kiss with Justin, we learn he enhances the story and a rumor is spread about Hannah being easy. Next progression, her name is put on a list of who’s hot and not by the student body. By the time we hear her words on the flip side of cassette one, a male classmate is acting on what he has heard: “First his words—then his actions. Statement number one: ‘I’m playing, Hannah.’ Translation: Your ass is my play-toy. You might think you have final say over what happens to your ass, but you don’t. At least, not as long as ‘I’m only playing’…Let me back up and say that this guy had never grabbed my ass before. So why now? My pants weren’t anything special. They weren’t overly tight. Sure, they were slung a little low and he probably got a hip shot, but he didn’t grab my hips..” (Asher 51). I interpret Hannah’s first experiences as terribly misinformed on the part of the school mates. Her classmates judged her on what they heard from one another and what they read on a student made list. Rumors and lists are remembered and are talked about at class reunions.

     Hannah assessed her viewpoint on what students and former friends thought of her: “It’s a punch in the stomach and a slap in the face. It’s a knife in my back because you would rather believe some made-up rumor than what you knew to be true…What about you…did you notice the scars you left behind” (Asher 68)? I interpret Hannah’s questions of her peers with another quote from a book by Cormac McCarthy “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. The events that cause them can never be forgotten, can they” (McCarthy 135)? Those who have scars think in another time and look at other’s actions through their interpretation of that past time.

     Person after person’s impact on Hannah is replayed over as Clay listens to the cassette tapes. I interpret this as how these moments replayed over and over in Hannah’s mind until she dies, affecting how she used her time in life. Male students constantly try to make her sleep with them. She forcefully tells them no. Female students use her reputation to get into better parties or to tell a juicy story. By the end of the tapes, Hannah has gives herself willingly to a sketchy male student. She wants out. She seeks help from the school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. He gives her two options: “One, you can confront him. We can call him in here to discuss what happened at this party. I can call you both out of….’You said there were two options’…Or two, and I’m not trying to be blunt here, Hannah, but you can move on…’You mean, do nothing’?...It is an option, and that’s not all we’re talking about…you need to consider the possibility of moving beyond this” (Asher 277-278).  Hannah leaves the office abruptly and the counselor does not follow her out…you know the end of Hannah’s story.

     Speak and Thirteen Reasons Why have many comparisons as both have colorful lead female characters who are victims of sexual crime. Melinda and Hannah both experienced trauma from the hands of male and female peers, although the males induced their mental and emotional hurt through the physical/sexual while the female characters rubbed raw the wounds through mental and emotional means such as language and isolation. Both Melinda and Hannah had parents that loved them but did not understand them. Both had a male friend that they saw as protective and admirable. Melinda’s hero was David Petrakis because he could speak his beliefs. Hannah’s hero was Clay Jenson who had a good reputation…for real. Both Melinda and Hannah have the desire to be helped and found in their helpless and lost frame of mind. Both girls have a teacher mentor. Melinda’s is her art teacher, Mr. Freeman and Hannah’s is her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. Both Melinda and Hannah’s stories are told in a time frame. Melinda’s is by school periods. Hannah’s is told in a day and a half through cassette tape.

     Speak and Thirteen Reasons Why contrast in many ways as both are about two different results on two different people who experienced sexual trauma. Melinda’s predator is someone four years older than herself and he went out of his way to find her. Hannah’s predator is someone her age and she goes out of her way to find him because she has given up on the advances she has fought against him in the past. Melinda finds connections and ways to open up through her art class in drawing trees and in biology class in learning how trees grow. By the end of freshman year, Melinda is thinking: “I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears? I dig my fingers into the dirt and squeeze. A small, clean part of me waits to warm and burst through the surface. Some quiet ‘Melindagirl’ I haven’t seen in months. That is the seed I will care for” (Anderson 188-189). Hannah finds connections between people and actions but doesn’t find any answers to her questions, at least not the answers that will stop her from ending her life: “I was breaking. If only I’d talked to you sooner. We could have been…I don’t know. But things had gone too far by then. My mind was set. Not on ending my life. Not yet. It was set on floating through school. On never being close to anyone. That was my plan. I’d graduate, then I’d leave” (Asher 211). Melinda realized she could grow from her trauma and Hannah came to the conclusion her trauma only stunted her and made her unreachable.

     The real contrast between Speak and Thirteen Reasons Why, I believe, is the characters of Mr. Freeman and Mr. Porter. Mr. Freeman offers Melinda a chance to express her thoughts of growth: “No crying in my studio. It ruins the supplies. Salt, you know, saline. Etches like acid…You get an A+. You worked hard at this…he hands me a box of tissues…You’ve been through a lot haven’t you?...The tears dissolve the last block of ice in my throat. I feel the frozen stillness melt down through the inside of me, dripping shards of ice that vanish in a puddle of sunlight on the stained floor. Words float up. Me: Let me tell you about it” (Anderson 197). Mr. Porter offers Hannah two choices and expects her to pick one leaving her with no way out: “—I think there’s more we can talk about, Hannah. No, I think we’ve figured it out, I need to move on and get over it. –Not get over it, Hannah. But sometimes there’s nothing left to do but move on. –Hannah I don’t understand why you are in such a hurry to leave. Because I need to get on with things, Mr. Porter. If nothing’s going to change, then I’d better get on with it, right? –Hannah, what are you talking about? I’m talking about my life, Mr. Porter” (Asher 278-279). I interpret these two men as the chances to boost the female characters up or bring them down. These two teachers can offer hope or despair.

     Initially, it is Melinda and Hannah’s choice so I end my contrast with their final words. Melinda: “IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away…Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me…And I’m not going to let it kill me. I can grow” (Anderson 197). Hannah: “I think I’ve made myself very clear, but no one’s stepping forward to stop me. A lot of you cared, just not enough. And that…that is what I needed to find out. And I did find out. And I’m sorry…The recorder clicks off” (Asher 280). I interpret Melinda’s response to be one of maturity and moving out of her slower time to get back in the world and give life another chance. I interpret Hannah’s response to be one of a downward spiral of thinking in her own perception of time and space and people and not considering the cost of losing her life to horrid acts by classmates.

     I want to conclude this paper on my two texts with my very own story in case I haven’t been clear on what I see sexual violation truly destroying: body, soul, and mind. I was five years old when I was molested by my babysitter. He came highly recommended by the small town my parents lived in and he watched my four year old brother and I. My whole life I grew up in a home that believed in the will of God and all things were under His control. I struggled for a long time with the Christian truth that God is present even in suffering and sorrow because of how the world looked to me. I felt pain every time I saw my predator. I felt sadness to the point of tears and biting my fingers so the hurting in my chest would stop. I would constantly find myself reliving different events involving men by way of nightmare, dream, or just zoning in class or church or wherever I was. I immediately became a scared five year old girl anytime a man showed interest in me or just had a conversation with me.

     When I was in junior high, I finally told my youth pastor’s wife what was going on in my head. My parents and pastor did what they knew to help by giving me Bible verses and prayer time with me. It was then I found out on my own Bible study and research this concept about suffering and freewill: God didn’t will trauma to happen to anybody; man imparted his will, whether for good or evil on other men at his choosing.

     That idea satisfied my thinking until I was 23 years old. I read the book Speak for the first time. I have always been fascinated with trees and Melinda’s success with coming vocal about her past gave me courage and hope. In the meantime, I started talking to a couple that had lived in my small town for over twenty years. I found out he was the pastor of a newer church that just started in my town. I told him and his wife my story. While my parents and childhood pastor did a good thing in feeding my mind truths from God’s Word, they erred in not informing the police of the event and I had erred in not being vocal about the infraction I had suffered.

    My new pastor’s wife took me to a counselor for sexually abused children who have become adults. Through much prayer and counsel and time at my new church I came to the following conclusion: “God didn’t cause suffering upon the earth. He created mankind because he wanted people to love willingly—that’s where freewill comes in—he wanted us to choose to love Him back. Instead, the first humans, Adam and Eve chose to love themselves and disobeyed God causing all humans to have fault and bringing suffering into the world. Because God so loves He gave His Son to die a bloody death to redeem us; Jesus then rose again to give us eternal life with Him. If you eliminate Christ’s suffering on the cross, you eliminate you and the whole world’s chance at life forever after death and condemn all to an eternal suffering. Rapes, molestation, murder, starvation, earthquakes, are horrible experiences but in light of hellfire and torture eternally, they are experiences that can make each person grow differently. Remove all pain and suffering from the world, how will we know if wrong is being done without regret? How will we know to stop doing something painful if there are no tears? How do we experience love and comfort if we have never known hate or loneliness?

     As a Christian, I see my suffering through the viewpoint of Christ’s words in John 15:2, 8 “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.” I interpret this passage of Scripture as talking about me, the Christian, as the branch in Christ. When I bear fruit, or display love, joy, and peace, to name a few, God uses suffering or a purging to show forth more love, joy, and peace because it brings glory to His name and shows He loves me through discipleship.

     I did not come to this conclusion until recently. Twenty years of my lifetime was spent in one event that happened when I was five. Be aware of sexual violence and if trauma has happened to you speak out and give yourself the freedom that is yours. You know what I think is neat? Speak uses trees to symbolize Melinda’s growth after destruction. My new church’s name is Branches after the Biblical symbol of a tree being Christ’s church. I also am connected to InterVarisity on University of Wisconsin’s Eau Claire campus which also uses a tree for their symbol. I am free and growing in Christ.




Works Cited


Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Penguin Book, 1999. Print.

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. New York:  Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1993. Print.

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