Trauma and the Restorative Power of Speech
The trauma of the rape that Melinda experiences before Anderson’s novel Speak even begins influences the entire story. Because of that trauma, Melinda’s mental state continues to deteriorate as the story progresses. As she attempts to find, within herself as well as in the world around her, places in which to hide, she sinks deeper into silence. So many people disallow her a chance to reveal her inner fears, shame, and confusion. Her peers have already judged her and decide to ban her from their groups. Her parents do not have time or patience to encourage her to open up to them. Only Melinda’s art teacher perceives that something is troubling her. He is the only one who understands that sometimes words are either too difficult or too inadequate to express the deepest emotions. However, he also understands that in order for Melinda to heal, she must find a way to articulate her feelings. That is why he encourages her to speak symbolically through an art form. It is through art, the author suggests, that Melinda begins to unravel all the emotions that have entangled her mind. By working on her art project, Melinda begins to understand that she has no reason to feel guilty for what happened to her. Once she clears her mind, she is then able to think more clearly and in the process she informs herself of the truth of the rape. When she begins to speak out, she realizes that her role in the rape was that of victim not that of perpetrator, and thus the healing begins.
The theme of friendship runs throughout Anderson’s novel Speak. It is as if the author were posing questions about what true friendship is. Melinda, the protagonist, was once a fairly popular young girl. She had maintained friendships from elementary and middle school. However, because of one incident, she appears to have lost every friend she ever had. It was a big incident, but even still, why did no one bother to ask her side of the story? Why did everyone turn on her with one ex-friend going so far as stating that she hated her?
With friendship playing such an important role in high school, the loss of it, as portrayed in this novel, is almost as tragic as the rape that Melinda suffered. Melinda has no one to talk to, no one to sit with at lunch, no one to help her unravel the consequences of the terrible crime committed against her. The character Heather steps in as a pseudo-friend, but Melinda soon discovers that there is no authenticity involved. Heather, like Melinda, is lonesome. She is the new kid in town and finds that breaking in with a crowd is very difficult. Heather uses Melinda to develop her plan to become popular. When Heather believes she has succeeded, she tells Melinda the two of them have nothing in common. Later, Heather returns the friendship necklace that Melinda gave her, thus making the break very clear.
The closest Melinda comes to having a true friend is in her relationship with Ivy, who is in Melinda’s art class. The development of their friendship signals a turning point in the story. It is with Ivy that Melinda begins to express her fear and hatred of Andy, the boy who raped her. Melinda’s steps toward being David’s friend show signs of developing, but she is fearful of the thought of him touching her because of the rape. It is easier for her to start a friendship with Mr. Freeman, her art teacher. He is safer, in Melinda’s judgment, because he is like a father figure. It is with Mr. Freeman, at the very end of the story, that Melinda begins to open up. And with this her healing begins, signaling the possibility of new friendships.
Another important theme is that of identity. The author takes readers into the lives of teens who are developing a sense of who they are outside of definitions of who their parents and teachers believe them to be. There are many struggles in the process. These struggles are playfully exaggerated in the constant changing of the school’s mascot. As the school board tries on various rallying names for the school, from hornets to blue devils, so too the high school students try on different definitions of themselves. Rachel changes the sound of her name to Rachelle, making her appear more European. Heather joins a club whose identity is established through its members wearing matching outfits.
Melinda’s struggle for identity is more serious. She calls herself an outcast in the beginning of the story. She does this for two reasons. First, her friends have shunned her. More critically, Melinda has shunned herself. She is ashamed about what happened to her, believing that she was at fault. Because of this, she has a constant struggle to keep her real self buried deep inside of her. She does not want to consider how she truly feels because she believes she is a monster. She refers to her reactions to the rape as the beast. There once was the sweet girl, the good student, the young girl with a lot of friends. And then there was the rape. Melinda’s former identity no longer exists. What identity she claims now is uncertain. She cannot think straight. She would rather hide. It is not so much that she is hiding from the truth of who she is, but rather that she is hiding because she does not know the truth. To protect herself, Melinda has become a blank.
The lack of identity that Melinda experiences is exposed in her relationship with Heather. Melinda knows she has nothing in common with Heather. She dislikes the chores that Heather continues to talk her into doing. But Heather gives Melinda a hint of identity, so she clings to her. It is not until Melinda finally gains the courage to say ‘‘No’’ to Heather that she begins to reclaim her real identity. After that step, Melinda knows she must warn her ex-best friend Rachel about Andy, a step that exposes what has happened to her. Finally, Melinda also realizes that Andy was the culprit in the rape. She has nothing to be ashamed of. Once she begins to reclaim her identity, she is able to tell the whole story to Mr. Freeman and thus begin to heal.
Despite the silence Melinda displays by either never talking to anyone or having great difficulty in sorting through her thoughts inside her head in order to speak, Melinda has a lot to say. Many of her thoughts reflect the alienation that she feels from her fellow students, her teachers, and her parents. For instance, she gives her least favorite teachers unflattering names. This name-calling makes Melinda’s teachers a little less human in her mind. She can then create a bigger distance between them and her, which is what alienation is all about.
Melinda also creates a gap between herself and her fellow students. One way she does this is to put them down. In particular, she chooses the cheerleaders. She lumps the individuals together as a group and then tears into them. They all sleep with the football players, she states, and then come Monday morning they play their roles as goddesses. Melinda is obviously jealous of them, but rather than admit this human emotion, she alienates herself from them.
Melinda’s parents are often not at home. When they are, Melinda rarely talks to them. Both parents are very busy and never seem to notice that Melinda is suffering. They know she is quiet and is not doing well in school, but they take that as a sign of disobedience rather than asking what is troubling her.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Laurie Halse Anderson, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.