Speak Summary

Laurie Halse Anderson


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Speak Summary

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Written in the form of diary entries telling the tale of a high school girl’s recovery from sexual assault, Speak explores difficult themes such as trauma, sexuality, and teenage friendship. The story begins with Melinda Sordino anxiously attending her first day of high school and watching her former best friends abandon her to join new cliques. Melinda’s only friend now is an outcast named Heather, and her only positive experience is an art class in which the supportive, passionate, and creative teacher, Mr. Freeman, assigns projects based on randomly selected words. Melinda selects the word “tree” which she thinks is both boring and too easy.

When a fellow student confronts her, the reason for Melinda’s unpopularity is revealed: over the summer break, Melinda had dialed 911 while at a party, and the police had arrived and broken up the gathering. Melinda struggles to explain why she did this, and her fellow students become increasingly hostile. In response, Melinda becomes more withdrawn and depressed, avoiding speaking to others whenever possible. Troubled and distracted, her grades begin to suffer, and she gets in trouble with her teachers and her parents. Her only real sanctuary is an abandoned janitor’s closet that she uses as a secret hideaway. When Heather manages to find her way into a clique that Melinda calls “The Marthas,” Melinda feels even more isolated, especially when she overhears the Marthas insulting her. Her misery is made worse when she sees a student she calls “IT” in the corridor. Although it is not explained why, the experience is extremely distressing for Melinda, and when “IT” winks at her, she feels like vomiting.

As time goes on, Melinda’s grades get worse and she finds it increasingly difficult to speak, an experience that takes on physical symptoms in the form of lips that are sore from anxiously chewing on them and a constant burning pain in her throat. Her janitor’s closet remains a sanctuary to her, and her artwork becomes a source of solace and release, as does her admiration for her fellow student, David Petrakis, who bravely speaks out against the unfairness and unprofessionalism of their teacher, Mr. Neck. Otherwise, however, Melinda’s time is largely unpleasant, with her parents and teachers (except for Mr. Freeman) all failing to understand or support her. Although Melinda still feels unable to tell others what happened to her, her narrative does reveal more about the events of the party. The reader learns that there was alcohol at the party and several seniors, and that one of the seniors, now known to Melinda as “IT,” attacked her. Later, the reader also learns that “IT” is actually Andy Evans, a handsome, popular boy with a reputation for womanizing. Andy sometimes makes “flirty,” harassing gestures towards Melinda which she finds traumatic and terrifying.

Melinda continues to struggle at school and frequently skips classes. At a meeting, her parents, her guidance counselor, and the principal all attempt to get her to speak without success, and all fail to understand what Melinda is going through. Melinda even struggles with her art, until Mr. Freeman introduces her to Picasso’s Cubist paintings and encourages her to express her emotions through her artwork. As she expresses herself more, Melinda feels happier and more in control of her life. With this improvement, she is also able to look more openly at the events of the party, and the reader finally learns that, while she was too drunk to defend herself, Andy forced her to the floor and raped her, covering her mouth when she tried to scream. Afterwards, profoundly traumatized and unsure what else to do, she had called the police but had not been able to explain why.

Admitting to herself that Andy raped her is a release for Melinda, and her mental state continues to improve. She even manages to reconnect with her old friend, Ivy, who helps her with her art project. However, when her former best friend Rachel starts going out with Andy, Melinda is extremely worried. Inspired by a poster of Maya Angelou, she decides that she has to warn Rachel, even though it is hard to speak about what happened to her. Initially, she writes an anonymous note to her former friend and then writes a list of boys that should be avoided on the wall of the bathroom, putting Andy’s name at the top of the list to warn other girls. Finally, she speaks directly to Rachel by swapping notes with her in the library. When Melinda explains that she called the police to the party because she had been raped there, Rachel is supportive. However, when she names Andy as the perpetrator, Rachel angrily calls her a liar.

Although Melinda is initially upset by Rachel’s response, she recovers when Ivy shows her that lots of girls have added to her graffiti in the bathroom, reporting how Andy had hurt them too. Later, Melinda hears that Rachel split up with Andy at the school prom. Deciding she no longer needs her janitor’s closet hideaway, Melinda goes to clean it out but is attacked by Andy who is furious about her telling Rachel. However, Melinda manages to smash a mirror and threaten him with a piece of broken glass. News of Andy’s attack and Melinda standing up for herself soon spreads around the school, and Melinda is suddenly popular, with students reaching out to express their respect and support. In the novel’s closing moments, Melinda receives an A+ for her art project and finally feels confident enough to open up and tell Mr. Freeman the whole story of what happened to her.

Although some conservative voices have called for the book’s mature content to be censored, Speak has largely been well-received. Not only has it won multiple awards and been adapted into a graphic novel and a Hollywood movie, it is also widely celebrated as an effective way of teaching young people about sexual assault and helping teenagers talk about, and recover from, their own traumatic experiences.