some boys talk about being abused by men
of becoming a locker room target
of never using the bathroom in school
not even once in four years
As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I was already prepared to encounter moments of painful and even relieved recognition in Shout, Anderson’s account of her own experience of sexual assault. But I wasn’t prepared for this level of … specificity.
Attending a Catholic all-boys school in the Deep South, I never once used the restroom. Not once. I was a constant target of bullying, almost always with a homophobic thrust, which was at times seemingly condoned by some of the faculty. Many teachers — not all, but many — just turned away from the abuse I suffered, perhaps believing that an effeminate kid needed to be toughened up. Growing up in this atmosphere of permissive abuse, and given that the bathroom stalls had no doors, I wasn’t going to take my chances. I could too easily be accosted at a moment of vulnerability.
It was the 1980s, a different time and a far different place from where I currently live, Southern California. I now recognize such bullying as a form of sexual abuse, and I see in my development of an inordinate and unhealthy bladder capacity an attempt at self-defense, self-preservation. And self-harm. I’ve only recently become comfortable in gym locker rooms, and public restrooms are no longer triggering for me. What I didn’t know is that my experience — “never using the bathroom in school not even once in four years” — was shared by others.
Part of the power of Shout — perhaps the most significant contribution of any memoir of childhood sexual assault and abuse — lies in its ability to provoke this kind of recognition among some of its readers. Sure, Shout will be useful reading for those who were fortunate enough not to be abused by parents, siblings, teachers, priests, pastors, counselors, and others. It will give them some insight into what it’s like to be so abused, to live in the aftermath of assault, to grapple on a daily basis with the self-contempt that arises out of a deep questioning, prompted by the experience of abuse: Did I deserve this? Did I somehow ask for this? Have I called this pain upon myself?
But Shout will mean the most, I think, to those who recognize ourselves in its pages. And cultivating that recognition — sharing her story for others to see themselves in it — has propelled Anderson to write for most of her career. She’s told remarkably difficult stories so that readers can know they are not alone, that others have suffered as they have, particularly when family, friends, and the larger culture have so frequently not wanted to hear about the sexual abuse of children and young adults.
Fortunately, that unwillingness is slowly giving way to a recognition, at least in some quarters of our culture, of the difficulties of talking about such abuse and a respect for those who are coming forward with their stories. Laurie Halse Anderson is in no small way responsible for that emerging recognition and respect. Shout is appearing 20 years after the publication of Anderson’s first young adult novel, Speak, which was released in 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Speak was among the first YA books to deal frankly and respectfully with sexual assault and the fallout for its victim.
The novel, a National Book Award finalist that is now considered a classic of YA fiction, is narrated by young protagonist Melinda in terse fragments that cover her life during freshman year, slowly revealing the devastating effects of her sexual assault at a party the previous summer. Melinda questions herself relentlessly, particularly after friends turn against her for having called the police, who broke up the party. She doesn’t know how to talk about what’s happened to her, so she runs away before the cops get there, and then has to live with her self-hatred and shame throughout the year, sinking into depression and ultimately self-harm.
Comfort, much less understanding, is nowhere to be found. Teachers harass her for her listlessness in class, her parents chastise her for her lowering grades, her friends turn away as she becomes increasingly uncool. She finds solace in reading, especially Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a book that recounts its own author’s childhood sexual assault, and she’s encouraged a bit by her art teacher, who seems invested in his students’ self-expression. True relief, though, comes only when she sees, scrawled on a bathroom stall, the name of her attacker and warnings from other girls to stay away from him — a graffitied whisper campaign. This validation that she has experienced assault becomes the turning point for Melinda — as it has been the turning point for many of us who wondered what to do with the feelings bequeathed to us by our abusers.
Anderson knows this dynamic deep in her own psyche, and Shout builds, one poem at a time, into the story not only of her own sexual assault (which roughly parallels that of Melinda’s) but also of her attempt to deal with its emotional and somatic fallout. Anderson tracks how she came to write about her date rape through the character of Melinda, relates her book’s growing fame, and then painfully recounts her realization of how many readers have recognized themselves in her character — and who can now, in Shout, recognize themselves more fully in Anderson herself.
The resonance of her titles — Speak and, now, Shout — marks an important shift: the difficulty, 20 years ago, of acknowledging, much less talking about, sexual violence against children and young adults, and the increasing need — the demand — to talk about it now. Horrifying revelations about the numerous abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the shockingly large number of school and workplace incidents that women have suffered have confirmed the reality of systemic abuse, as well as highlighting the grotesque attempts to cover it up. They have also provided opportunities for others to come forward and share their own stories, as evidenced most recently and powerfully in the #MeToo movement.
The hope is that narrative will counter trauma, perhaps leading to a shift in how the culture at large understands the vulnerability of some bodies to the whims of others, especially those in power, such as priests, teachers, employers, and older family members. If we start talking about our abuse, we will reveal how pervasive such abuse is — and that should, we hope, create change. It should, as we say, raise awareness. It should empower more victims to come forward, more abusers to be charged, more opportunities to question the kinds of structures that subject vulnerable children and young people to the perverse “care” of predators.
And yet, someone accused of sexual predation and assault sits in the Oval Office. Someone whose own language reveals how he has thought of women’s bodies as needing to be grabbed holds the highest position of power in what we used to call the “free world.” I do not wonder why Laurie Halse Anderson is now shouting.
If Shout only shouted, it would be sufficient as a memoir, one that is regrettably still needed today. These stories need to be told — and heard. But the book does so much more. Anderson’s choice to render her narrative through poetry challenges our sense of what is appropriate subject matter for such heightened language. We were once taught that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility and that literature represents the best that has been thought and said in our culture. Anderson knows, however, that some experiences cannot be rendered tranquilly, that some of the things we absolutely must think and talk about do not represent the “best” of what we are. But she also believes that poetry is a flexible enough medium to bear the weight of the difficult, the disturbing, the challenging things we are tempted to turn our attention away from. She uses the pared down language of her poems to focus our attention sharply on the painful dimensions of abuse and its aftermath. She offers rich metaphors and language play to explore how someone can work through that pain — never forgetting it, never not feeling it in some way, but acknowledging it, and recognizing it in each other.
Shout joins the work of other YA writers who have used poetry to explore difficult topics, such as Ellen Hopkins’s Crank (2004), about drug abuse; Jacqueline Woodson’s verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), about racism; and Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down (2017), about gang violence. The challenge of such work is its assertion that these topics deserve to be considered, not just through the reportage of prose, but through our most sophisticated and artful forms of language, the kind once reserved for epics of creation and tragedies of human blindness. In a way, the use of poetry in YA fiction is a democratization of stories about both creation and tragedy — a claim that our youngest and most vulnerable are living lives of pain and possibility worthy of our culture’s highest art forms.
But before we can work with that pain, much less that possibility, we have to confront the difficulty of talking about sexual violence against young people in the first place, of even acknowledging that there is a story there — a difficulty that lies at the heart of Anderson’s memoir. Indeed, the pain Anderson deals with lies not just in the specifics of her sexual assault but in the inability of her family to support her because of their own trauma, their own damage, and their own silences about that damage. Her father was scarred from experiences in World War II, having been witness to Nazi atrocities in the camps. He doesn’t know how to talk about his memories, the pain of his past, so he becomes an alcoholic and abuses his wife, who retreats into herself as he battles the “ghosts in his head.”
But Anderson was paying attention:
I learned then that words
had such power
some must never be spoken
and was thus robbed of both
tongue and the truth.
The power of silences, of the transmutation of the unspoken, the unspeakable, into harmful action, such as a fist across a mother’s face or the self-harm of alcoholism, becomes a powerful theme in Shout. Anderson registers the pain she feels as she sees adults turn away from confronting kids who bully other kids, young people who are already using gender and sexuality to taunt, harass, and harm. And then, after her own sexual assault, she recounts how she remains quiet, punishing her body with her inability to talk about what’s happened to her:
I didn’t speak up
when that boy raped me, instead scalded
myself in the shower and turned
me into the ghost of the girl
I once was …
With such context as background, Anderson brings to the fore again and again the devastation that silence about sexual abuse can cause. The hauntings of her own assault, and the failures of family and school to provide opportunities to speak about it, manifest increasingly on her body:
The stench of the injury attracts maggots
which hatch into clouds of doubt and self-loathing
the dirt you feel inside you nourishes
anxiety, depression, and shame
poisoning your blood, festering
in your brain until you will do anything to stop
feeling the darkness rising within
Anderson offers an etiology of self-harm and suicidal ideation as the pain of her experience searches for expression. Ghosts of the unspeakable haunt this book: histories of sexual violence seeding nightmares, frightening her in unexpected ways, engendering neurotic tics. We might understand Shout as an exorcism that recognizes the damage done as a way to cleanse it. But such cleansing, like the scalding water of Anderson’s shower, is often painful, if it can ever amount to true cleansing at all.
Part of what makes Shout so compelling is that Anderson gives voice to her own assault — and her attempt to recover from it — at the same time that she implicates a larger culture of patriarchal sexism in enabling such assaults. She uses historical contextualization in startling and powerful ways, such as when she marks the year of her first period — 1972 — with a shocking list of the sociopolitical realities that governed women’s lives at the time. Her “first blood” occurred when husbands could forcibly have sex with their wives, when bosses could grope their female employees with impunity, when women could legally be fired because of pregnancy.
Socioeconomic status forms the necessary background for understanding some of the silences and inequities Anderson experienced. She recounts how “[o]ur school was organized by income brackets, with the kids who skied in Colorado over winter break at the top and the dirtbags at the bottom.” Who was paying attention to such kids, the dirtbags at the bottom? Who would have listened to them if they came forward with a difficult story? Reflecting such inattention, no one in authority was talking about the threat — or even the possibility — of sexual assault or violence against young people, much less the pleasures that could be had from consensual sexual encounters. Sex education was impoverished, causing more harm through what it failed to discuss. As Anderson puts it:
The school board barred
as much practical education
as they could.
I remember such limited sex-ed myself, my Catholic school only showing us pictures of aborted fetuses, a stark and bloody warning not to get a girl pregnant.
But perhaps schools aren’t the best places in which to experiment with voicing the narrative of one’s abuse and trauma. Even when Anderson goes to college, she’s confronted with predatory adults, men who view her and her peers’ bodies as their meat:
Young flesh perfumed with trust
smells like fresh meat
to stalking professors
dreaming of the feast
it happened to me
One professor, when Anderson wouldn’t comply with his desires, even prevented her from obtaining a scholarship that would have helped her pursue her studies of translation. Creepily, such predation didn’t have to result in actual physical contact; sometimes, as in the case of an anatomy instructor, mere lascivious looks could be violating:
He never fondled, never hit
on any of us students, that old man,
we left his class
feeling a little dirty.
Anderson renders succinctly, in stripped-down verse, the complexities of sexual violence. Over and above physical and verbal assaults, a propensity for sexual objectification permeates our culture, with men and women, the old and the young, scripted into roles of hunter and hunted. Interrupting such roles — and the stories of predation and abuse that play out as a function of them — becomes part of Anderson’s larger project, from Speak to Shout, but also in her other novels, such as Twisted (2007), an examination of the constraints of masculinity from the perspective of a young man, and Wintergirls (2009), a novel about the difficulties of confronting and surviving eating disorders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in Shout Anderson also becomes a reporter, covering the story of a young girl who was raped — a story painfully similar to her own. Telling someone else’s story helps Anderson confront how difficult such narration can be. On the one hand, the abused must deal with the accusation that she was asking for it, or that she was a willing participant in her own assault:
she dressed to look good
she wanted it, she followed him
liked it rough
On the other hand, even when someone’s story is heard and believed, reminders of the ongoing possibility of sexual assault abound. Anderson recalls a creepy scene in which she spots the man who assaulted the young girl she wrote about as a reporter:
Years later, walking in the mall
with my daughters tall and gangly
I saw him again, that rapist
only that time, he didn’t look bored
he was hunting
And yet, she persists. Working from others’ stories, she starts writing about her own assault in the middle of the night, exploring her wounds, touching her damage. Out of such late-night soul searching comes first Speak, and then other books, stories, appearances.
With the unexpected success of her first novel, Anderson goes on tour. She talks about sexual assault and rape to many kids in middle and high school. At times, too often, she is prevented from talking, told that her topics are too sensitive, too inflammatory. And yet, she hears from kids so many times (so many fucking times) that they can relate to Speak, that they too were assaulted, raped — young women and young men. She begins talking more and more about sex education, how it isn’t sufficient, and how young men aren’t really taught much at all about their sexuality, how it’s not enough to tell them just not to get a girl pregnant. She confronts the censorship of Speak by well-intentioned adults who are actually harming young people by withholding difficult stories and topics from them. She connects her narrative to the #MeToo movement, noting how
She feels that rage. She feels others’ rage. She bears witness to the long-lasting damage done by men who assault and abuse children and young people. She feels even for the women who aren’t able to help each other, whose own victimization has prompted them to turn away, out of fear and self-loathing, from helping each other.
Perhaps most poignantly, Anderson wants to reach the kids who aren’t being reached — the dirtbags, the kids at the bottom. These are the readers Anderson writes for — the kids whom our school systems, our judicial systems, our predatory culture often ignores. She talks about meeting Walter Dean Myers, author of numerous books about the experience of urban black kids, another group of young people who are often ignored. Both Anderson and Myers share a goal — an overtly political goal — in crafting their fictions. As she puts it:
he and I wrote for the kids
who didn’t have those people [to care for them]
children with scars
inside and out, kids whose childhoods
disappeared in the rearview mirror
a long time ago
She and Myers want not just to speak to these kids but also to hear them: “[W]e celebrated writing for the kids / the world doesn’t want to see.”
Reaching the end of Shout, I wanted to celebrate such kids and such writing with Anderson. Her book is a powerful testament that bears witness not just to her own pain, and the pain of others similarly abused, but also to the power of speaking persistently, time and time again, about topics that most people don’t want to hear. In our persistence, we can connect with others; we can share our pains; we can create poetry out of difficulty; we can challenge the predatory status quo.
In my own scholarly work, I have called the development of rich languages and discourses about sexual experience, identity, intimacy, and power the creation of a “sexual literacy,” and I have generally agreed with Anderson that what’s needed most in our culture is a franker, more honest, and more sophisticated way to talk about the diversity of our sexual experiences and identities, however joyous or painful they might be. And indeed, late in Shout, Anderson shifts just a bit, offering a sex-positive poem built around the joys of exploring bodies consensually:
yes the truest test
the consent of yes is necessary
If anything, I would have wished for more of this in Shout — not to take the place of the necessary and difficult telling of painful stories of abuse, but to offer additional ways to think about, to feel, to experience sexuality in all of its intimate, befuddling complexities. I wanted more of the poetry of creation, not just accusation, however necessary the latter is. To be fair, such a balancing act might not be appropriate yet; too much corrective work still needs to be done. But for me, as victim, survivor, and reader, the primary formal tension in Shout lies in the contrast between Anderson’s rich and artful language and her need to shout about the experience of sexual assault and abuse. The poetry here can sometimes drift into rant:
This is not
a resting bitch face.
This is a
Perhaps such tonal slippage, the vacillation between carefully chosen metaphors and the ranting of outrage, speaks most poignantly and evocatively to the situation we are in — our struggle to articulate, however fumblingly, the complexities of intimate terror and personal trauma that arise out of sexual assault. But the use of poetry also speaks to possibilities latent in a language of generation, of not just recovery but beauty — a language not necessarily of tranquility, but of becoming better than we have been.
Shout makes a powerful claim that more honest talk about our sexual experiences can only help. I don’t know if such poetry will shift our culture from sexual predation to celebration of the multiplicity of intimate bonds and possibilities. I suspect it will not do it alone. Poetry has become such an interior art, a lyric documentation of private struggle. Writers like Anderson are trying to use it to turn very public attention to pains that have too long been understood as primarily private. Perhaps this is why the poetry in the book needs at times to shout — to connect intensely private experiences and pains to the systemic cultural forces that enable predation and abuse. At the very least, the poetry of Shout joins many other voices that are questioning, that are probing, that are frankly demanding to be heard. Enough is enough.
I note that Anderson was once speaking; she’s now shouting. #MeToo is shouting. More and more people are shouting. Abused women and men are shouting. Are we listening? Are we collectively paying attention? Is our culture ready to account for itself and make the necessary changes to protect more people? Are we changing curricula, challenging patriarchal belief systems held and practiced by religious institutions, asserting that it’s unacceptable to be governed by people who have insufficiently addressed accusations of sexual assault? No, not yet. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).