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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