by Laurie Halse Anderson
Melinda is the young star of Speak. Since she's also the narrator, everything we learn about the other characters is filtered through her. Melinda is very perceptive and bright, but her vision is sometimes clouded by her suffering. She's only fourteen-years-old, and she's dealing with one of the worst things that can happen to a person: rape. High school senior Andy Evans rapes Melinda at the end-of-summer party just before Melinda starts 9th grade. She calls the cops to report the rape, but leaves before they show up. The party is busted and everybody thinks Melinda got them in trouble on purpose.
The novel begins on Melinda's first day in high school. Nobody at school will talk to Melinda, including Rachel Bruin, who's been her best friend forever. Worse, just about everyone bullies her. She wants to explain why she called the cops but she can't find the words.
Melinda doesn't stop talking altogether, but says only what seems absolutely necessary. As her secret weighs on her more and more, she talks less and less. Eventually she decides that talking is necessary to protect others from Andy and to find personal relief. Speak follows Melinda through her first year of high school, from the depths of her isolation to the beginnings of her renewal.
Put enough pressure on a character and all the strengths and weakness come tumbling out. Melinda is under extreme pressure. She's living in a nightmare. Her rapist is a guy at her school, and he's stalking her ex-best friend. We know little about what kind of person Melinda was before the rape. We don't know how she viewed her peers, or how other people thought of her. We don't know if she was talkative, or already on the reserved side.
However, we do know that the rape changes Melinda. Teen years are usually a time of constant change, as our bodies, our interests, and our understanding of the world shift. The rape forces change on Melinda through violence. It changes her physically and mentally, setting off a string of transformations – some of which probably wouldn't have happened if she hadn't been raped.
Melinda probably wouldn't have become withdrawn and isolated. She probably wouldn't have started chewing her lips, and scraping her arms with paperclips. She probably wouldn't have so much trouble talking. Yet, these changes are temporary. They don't define her character. She is able to recognize the harm in these actions and change again. What does define her character is the strength it takes for Melinda to fight to repair her life. The pressure of her situation reveals her own strength to her.
Melinda and the Talk Shows
Who better to ask for help on learning to talk than from the professionals? When Melinda gets her daytime talk show on, she finds some answers she needs. Melinda is sick and stays home from school the day after she learns that her ex-best friend, Rachel Bruin, is dating Andy. This is in spite of the fact that Melinda sent Rachel an anonymous note warning her that Andy is dangerous.
While watching talk shows Melinda imagines specific advice that Oprah, Sally Jessy Rafael, and Jerry Springer would give her if she were on their shows. This is an important moment in terms of Melinda's growth, and in the readers' understanding of her experience.
Melinda uses what she's heard on talk shows to make sense of her life and to answer a very specific question: "Was I raped?" (76.3)
Though Melinda described the rape much earlier in the novel, it's not until this moment that we realize that Melinda isn't sure whether she was raped or not. This is because it falls into the category of date rape. Melinda isn't sure if Andy's raped her because a) she was drunk; b) she was attracted to Andy and was dancing with him, and; c) she even fantasized about starting school with him as her boyfriend.
Oprah explains that because Melinda said "no," and because Andy went as far as to put his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet, it was rape. Being drunk has nothing to do with it. Being initially attracted to him has nothing to do with it. Sally tells Melinda it's not her fault, and that Andy needs to answer for his "attack" (76.5) on Melinda. Jerry's contributes to the discussion by telling Melinda to "Speak up" (76.6) about the rape.
This scene emphasizes the way Melinda draws on everything around her to find solutions to her problems. It also gives a nod to talk show hosts who get serious issues before the public eye. And gives you a chance to explore your feeling on talk shows as sources of information about touchy subjects.
Keeping Quiet, Speaking Up
Melinda's reasons for not talking about being raped aren't a hundred percent clear – to us or to Melinda. Her feelings are confused, but she seems to be scared and ashamed, and not even sure if it technically was a rape. She thinks maybe it was her fault.
On the other hand, Melinda's main motivation for finally revealing the secret is clear, and it says a lot about her character. When she sees that Rachel, the friend who betrayed her, is in danger of becoming Andy's next victim, she is compelled to speak. This shows us that Melinda is loyal to their past history, and that she cares about the safety of others.Timeline