For every sexual assault survivor who speaks out, Laurie Halse Anderson knows there many others remaining silent. "If there was a way for every victim of sexual violence to come forward on one day, I think the world would stop spinning for a day," she says.
It's been 20 years since Anderson's groundbreaking novel Speak was published — it tells the story of Melinda, a freshman in high school who stops speaking after a sexual assault.
In her new memoir, Shout, Anderson reveals that she was raped when she was 13, and it took more than two decades before she could find the words to talk or write about it. The book begins: "This is the story of a girl who lost her voice and wrote herself a new one."
When Anderson speaks to student groups about sexual assault and consent, she finds young survivors will often open up to her about their own experiences. Though this surprised her at first, Anderson says she does not feel weighed down by their accounts.
"It strengthens you," she says. "If you can bear up underneath the weight, it makes you stronger."
On writing Shout in free verse
I've been writing poetry since I was a little girl. ... When you're talking about a marrow experience — like an experience that touches your bone marrow — you want to use the strongest platform you can, and for me, that was poetry. ...
It also made the writing ... a little bit healthier for me. Just like the reader can take a breath in between poems when they are reading a book, as a writer, I was able to step back sometimes and put the work aside, go for a long walk, and not have to worry about losing the narrative through thread.
On how long it took her to talk about her own assault
I was raped when I was 13 and it took me exactly 23 years. The person I told first was my therapist. ... I was kind of a mess and I recognized that I was not being a great mom to my children. It's funny how it's easier sometimes to get help in order so you can help somebody else. It took a couple of months of conversations with my therapist before I felt safe and secure enough with that relationship, and then my life changed the day I opened up and started to speak about what happened.
On how hard it can be for survivors to communicate their experiences
[Survivors] don't have access to the words. ... That's why we turn to stories — to look for models of how to do things. And I didn't have a model of what it looked like to talk about ... what at the time felt so shameful and so hidden. ... It was easier to be silent. The thought of opening up to somebody about that was more terrifying than staying silent.
On how Melinda's story came to her
The story kind of has its roots in me as a mother watching my daughters begin to enter adolescence and realizing that I had to come to grips with everything. We moved once just before my oldest daughter entered sixth grade and she was miserable. ...
Shortly after that I had a nightmare that was so realistic. I woke up startled in bed thinking that my daughter was sobbing but it was actually a nightmare — one of those really vivid ones — just a teenage girl sobbing in my head.
And I did a free writing because I couldn't go back to sleep. And what came out of my pen in that free writing later became the opening to Speak — a girl who really, really hurt and couldn't talk about it.
On teens confiding in her about their own experiences of sexual violence
It's a gift, because it shows me that this person trusts me, and that I've written or said something that is allowing them to find their voice. Everybody's always hungry for authentic connections with people, right? I've just been so graced with all these moments of real interaction with people, who might be strangers as they walk up to me, but when we're done wiping our eyes ... they're friends when they walk away. My heart is so full from those wonderful encounters.
On her "secret hope" for the book
My secret hope is that if people enjoy it that they'll find an older relative of theirs and share it with them. ... Although we are beginning to create the ability to speak up, I think it's a younger generation phenomena and I know how many millions of ... older people who have their own stories to tell — their old wounds that are still seeping. And they need the opportunity to talk, too. ... Silence can be a great survival tool, but I think it's nice to open the door to those kinds of conversations.
Dana Cronin and Samantha Balaban produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is the story of a girl who lost her voice and wrote herself a new one. Those words come from the opening of Laurie Halse Anderson's new memoir titled "Shout." It's the origin story, in a way, of Anderson's groundbreaking novel for young adults titled "Speak," which came out 20 years ago, a novel narrated by a teenage girl named Melinda who is a survivor of sexual assault.
Now in "Shout," Anderson recounts her own experience of being raped at age 13 and her path toward finding the words to talk and write about it after many years. It's a memoir written in free verse, a collection of short poems. And Laurie Halse Anderson joins me now from our studios at WHYY. Laurie, welcome to the program.
LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: Oh, thank you so much. Thanks for having me on.
BLOCK: Well, connecting these two books - first, "Speak," and now "Shout" - of course, is the question of language and silence and the power of voice. How long did it take you to tell anybody about your rape?
ANDERSON: I was raped when I was 13. And it took me exactly 23 years. And the person I told first was my therapist, who I had gone to not to talk about what happened to me as a kid, but because I was dealing - I was very depressed. I was kind of a mess. And I recognized that I was not being a great mom to my children. It's funny how I - it's easier sometimes to get help in order so you can help somebody else.
ANDERSON: It took a couple of months of conversations with my therapist before I felt safe and secure enough with that relationship. And then my life changed the day I opened up and started to speak about what happened.
BLOCK: Talk about Melinda, the character in "Speak." Your poem "How The Story Found Me" describes how she came to you. And you write, she couldn't speak, and she needed an interpreter.
ANDERSON: (Laughter) Yeah. That's when I...
BLOCK: That was you.
ANDERSON: Right. It's funny. For a while in college, I thought I was going to become a translator. And I made some choices that that didn't work out that way. But now I translate. I translate imagination onto the page.
The story kind of has its roots in me as a mother, watching my daughters begin to enter adolescence and realizing that I had to come to grips with everything. We moved once just before my oldest daughter entered sixth grade. And she was miserable because we had moved, right? We had ruined her life.
And shortly after that, I had a nightmare that was so realistic, I woke up startled in bed, thinking that my daughter was sobbing. But it was actually a nightmare - one of those really vivid ones - just a teenage girl sobbing in my head. And I did a free writing because I couldn't go back to sleep. And what came out of my pen in that free writing later became the opening to "Speak" - a girl who was really, really hurt and couldn't talk about it.
BLOCK: You have talked to many, many teenagers since "Speak" came out. It was hugely successful. And you've traveled to a lot of schools to talk about sexual assault and consent. And you've had so many victims confide in you, tell you their stories - weeping on your shoulder sometimes, the way you describe it - which strikes me as being such a gift in a lot of ways, but also must be a really, really heavy burden to bear.
ANDERSON: In the beginning, it surprised me. And what I realized - that it is actually a gift. It's a gift because it shows me that this person trusts me and that I've written or said something that is allowing them to find their voice. And everybody's always hungry for authentic connections with people, right? So I've just been so graced with all these moments of real interaction with people who might be strangers as they walk up to me. But when we're done wiping our eyes and, you know, our noses after the encounter, now they're friends when they walk away. My heart is so full from those wonderful encounters.
BLOCK: We should be clear, of course, that victims of sexual assault are not purely female. And you've heard from plenty of boys about their own experience with - experiences with sexual assault.
The image that keeps coming back to my mind is when you describe being on the set for the movie version of "Speak," and an electrician - a male electrician - comes and approaches you. You describe him as a big, square guy with a head like a paint can, hands the size of catcher's mitts. And he wants to tell you something.
ANDERSON: Oh, that was quite a moment. He very quietly looked at me, and he said, I am Melinda. And I - and he had to say it again because I wasn't sure what he was saying. And he said, a lot of us working on this movie had been through the same thing. And it took my breath away.
And I realized at that point that victims come in every kind of person - not only male or female, but transgender, genderqueer, people who identify outside the binary. They're particularly vulnerable, especially in college. If there was a way for every victim of sexual violence to come forward on one day, I think the world would stop spinning for a day.
BLOCK: I'd like to end by having you read one of the poems in your memoir. It's called "Shame Turned Inside Out."
ANDERSON: Oh, this is an angry poem. This is - you asked me earlier about, is it a burden when I hear all of these stories? The other way to look at a burden is that it strengthens you. If you can bear up underneath the weight, it makes you stronger. And this is one of those poems that came out of listening to all those stories.
"Shame Turned Inside Out." (Reading) Sisters of the torn shirts, sisters of the chase around the desk, casting couch, hotel room file cabinet, sisters dragging shattered dreams, bruised hopes, ambitions abandoned in the dirt, sisters fishing one by one in the lake of shame, hooks baited with fear always come back empty. Truth dawns slow when you've been beaten and lied to, but it burns hard and bright once it wakes. Sisters, drop everything. Walk away from the lake. Lean on each other's shoulders when you need the support. Feel the contractions of another truth ready to be born. Shame turned inside out is rage.
BLOCK: And rage, I suppose - a force that can empower, it could also destroy.
ANDERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And maybe it's time to destroy a few things.
BLOCK: That's Laurie Halse Anderson. Her memoir is titled "Shout." Thanks very much.
ANDERSON: Thank you.
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