Archive for Laurie Halse Anderson

Fighting Rape Culture: Steubenville, Activism, and Children’s Books

Laurie Penny calls Steubenville’s “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.” As she says, “The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated.”  In calling it the “Abu Ghraib moment” for rape culture, Penny says, “It’s the moment when America and the world are being forced, despite ourselves, to confront the real human horror of the rapes and sexual assaults that take place in their thousands every day in our communities.”

I hope she’s right. I hope people do confront it. To create a change in a culture that condones rape, we need more than hope. We need to act. Here’s what educators might do.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak1. Teach Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or other young adult novels that address rape and its aftermath.  (I know there are other novels that would fit the bill, but this is the one I always teach.)  And teach these books to high school students.

Anderson’s Speak is a sensitive, thoughtful examination of rape and its aftermath. It also has many moments of dark humor: The book’s protagonist, Melinda Sordino, has an incisive wit. It’s hard to imagine a teenage male (or, really, anyone) reading this book and continuing to think that rape is somehow “OK.” That said, I realize that it’s a lot to expect a single book to change rape culture.  So, we should also…

2. Debunk myths about rape. When I teach Speak, I always tell my students the following, often framed by the comment that they probably already know this. But, post-Steubenville, I realize I cannot take that knowledge for granted. Indeed, just last week, a local weekly in Manhattan Kansas (where I live and work) published some breathtaking stupidity on the subject of rape.

So, then, here is what I do. I ask them to define rape, and we debunk the myths.

I ask: Define rape.  What is it?

  • rape myth: the person fails to say “no,” and so silence means “yes”; or “no” may mean “yes” if it’s said in a certain way…
  • rape: In fact, no means no.  Rape is sexual intercourse with someone without that person’s consent.  If you have sexual intercourse with someone and you do not have their consent, that’s rape. Two very good examples from the novel: Melinda remembering the party, back in August (133-36); Melinda imagining receiving counsel from Oprah et al (164).
  • rape myth: that men are at the mercy of their sexual drives and therefore rape when they are overly frustrated or when the opportunity arises.  That’s false.
  • rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  Rapists often speak not of their sexual arousal or attraction to their victims, but of their desire to hurt or dominate them.
  • rape myth: Rapes occur on dark deserted streets between strangers.
  • rape: In fact, a majority of rapists and victims know each other.  Rapes often occur in the home.  Many women experience date rape or acquaintance rape.  In other words, you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know.

Or, as Mallory Ortberg writes in response to CNN’s (truly bizarre) representation of the rapists as victims, “For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime.”

3. “Feminist” is not a dirty word. If you support equal pay for equal work, if you think women deserve equal treatment under the law, if you believe women deserve the right to vote, then congratulations! You’re a feminist! So. Stop apologizing for being a feminist. Stop using the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but….” And when someone uses a phrase like “feminazi,” call that person out. Feminism offers a critique of the power relations between the genders, and argues that there should be a balance of power. This is a good thing. It’s not fascist. It points out that women are human beings — a basic fact which the Steubenville rapists evidently did not know. Their lack of knowledge has now landed them both in jail.

4. Teach Women’s Studies in high school. As punk-rock legend Henry Rollins writes in response to this case, we should “Put women’s studies in high school the curriculum from war heroes to politicians, writers, speakers, activists, revolutionaries and let young people understand that women have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages and they are worthy of respect.” He also suggests that high schools teach sex ed, and explain to students what rape is and is not.

I read the other day of a college administrator saying that Women’s Studies should be cut because it doesn’t help students get jobs. I’ve no empirical evidence that his claim is true (and neither did he), but consider this: Women’s Studies can help keep you out of jail. It can make you a better human being. A sense of human decency and lack of a criminal record would be welcome in many places of work.

5. Teach books — fiction, non-fiction — with smart, interesting, strong, three-dimensional female protagonists, and books with thoughtful, considerate male protagonists.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is at least a start.

Children’s Picture Books and Graphic Novels

    • Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)
    • Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow (1943). Yes, I realize that the protagonist is a snowplow, but she’s a she and a hero.
    • Ian Falconer, Olivia (2000) and its sequels.
    • Florence Parry Heide, Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated, illus. Lane Smith (2009)
    • Ellen Jackson, Cinder Edna, illus. Kevin O’Malley (1994)
    • Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)
    • Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand (1936)
    • Suzy Lee, Wave (2008)
    • Suzy Lee, Shadow (2010)
    • Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess, illus. Michael Martchenko (1980)
    • Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Midnight Giant (2012)
    • Antoinette Portis, A Penguin Story (2009)
    • Antonio Ramirez and Domi, Napi (2004), Napi Goes to the Mountain (2006), and Napi Makes a Village (2010)
    • Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach (1991)
    • Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls (2011)
    • Bernard Waber, Ira Sleeps Over (1972)
    • Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny (2004), Knuffle Bunny, Too (2007), Knuffle Bunny Free (2010).
    • Jay Williams, Philbert the Fearful, illus. Ib Ohlsson (1966)
    • Jay Williams, The Practical Princess, illus. Friso Henstra (1969)
    • Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace (2008)

Children’s Novels and Graphic Novels

    • Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
    • Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes (1999)
    • Beverly Cleary, the Ramona books (1955-1999)
    • Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988)
    • Barry Deutsch, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010)
    • Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964)
    • Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)
    • Virginia Hamilton, Zeely (1967)
    • Michael Hoeye, the Hermux Tantamoq series: Time Stops for No Mouse (1999), The Sands of Time (2001), No Time Like Show Time (2004), Time to Smell the Roses (2007)
    • Polly Horvath, The Canning Season (2003)
    • Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
    • Hilary McKay, the Casson Family series: Saffy’s Angel (2001), Indigo’s Star (2003), Permanent Rose (2005), Caddy Ever After (2006), Forever Rose (2007).
    • Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005).
    • Katherine Patterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978).
    • Sara Pennypacker, Sparrow Girl (2009).
    • Tor Seidler, The Wainscott Weasel (1993). Seidler’s male characters tend to be introspective, & thoughtful.
    • Siena Cherson Siegel, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel, artwork by Mark Siegel (2006)
    • Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)
    • Roderick Townley, The Great Good Thing (2001)
    • Jean Webster, Daddy Long-Legs (1912)
    • Vera B. Williams, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (2001)

Young Adult Novels and Graphic Novels

    • Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-1869)
    • Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak (1999)
    • Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990)
    • Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! (2002).  A graphic novel.
    • Kristin Cashore, Graceling (2008), Fire (2009), Bitterblue (2012)
    • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
    • John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
    • James Kennedy, The Order of Odd-Fish (2008)
    • Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (1957)
    • Linda Medley, Castle Waiting (2000).  A graphic novel, repr. with an intro by Jane Yolen (2006).
    • L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels.
    • Terry Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching books: The Wee Free Men (2003), A Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (2006), I Shall Wear Midnight (2010).
    • Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1998), The Amber Spyglass (2000). Lyra is a great character, but so is Will.
    • Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now (2004)
    • Sara Ryan, Empress of the World (2001)
    • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003).  A graphic novel.
    • Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
    • Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer (2002)
    • Jacqueline Woodson, The House You Pass on the Way (1997)
    • Jane Yolen, Briar Rose (1992)


    • Marlo Thomas and friends, Free to Be You and Me (1974)
    • Jack Zipes, ed., Don’t Bet on the Prince (1986)

As I say, this list is not exhaustive — it’s just a starting point.  So, you should feel free to add other recommended titles in the comments section below.

6. Rape culture is a massive social problem. Changing it requires action at all levels of government, and all levels of education. If your senator or representative voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, publicize the fact that they are part of the problem. For example, in the state of Kansas, Senator Pat Roberts, Representative Tim Huelskamp, and Representative Mike Pompeo all voted against the Violence Against Women Act. We might phone their offices and ask them: Why do you support violence against women? Why do you enable rape culture? How often do you beat your wife? Why do you think spousal abuse should be encouraged?

Courtesy of Mother Jones, here is a list of the senators and representatives who voted against reauthorizing the act. All Democrats voted for it — except for Texas Democrat Rubén Hinojosa, who abstained. All Republicans voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act — except for six, who abstained from voting.

160 Republicans Voted Against the Violence Against Women Act

Here is a full list of every representative who voted against this legislation, with links to contact information:

7. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) has two ways you can get involved.  1) Donate to the #Speak4RAINN campaign, which helps rape survivors get the help they need. 2) Students can enter the “How Speak Spoke to Me” Contest. The prize? A visit to your class from Laurie Halse Anderson herself.

[Added point no. 7 & the above video on 5 April 2013.]

Related links:

Related content on this blog (Nine Kinds of Pie):

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Why Meghan Can’t Read

stack of booksIn an op-ed piece that the Wall Street Journal published as an article, Meghan Cox Gurdon criticizes contemporary young adult fiction for its darkness. As she writes, “it is … possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”  In other words, reading about troubled teens may not help console the troubled, but may in fact create more troubled teens.

Rebutting this claim, one Meghan Cox Gurdon wisely notes, “Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.”  In other words, reading about troubled teens will not create more troubled teens.  Since Gurdon makes this point earlier in the same article, one wonders whether there are two Gurdons at work here — say, Gurdon (who deplores darkness in lit for teens) and Gurdon Prime (who recognizes that darkness need not beget darkness).

Gurdon Prime makes a strong point. Representing anorexia, bullying, rape, racism, or any of the host of challenges that teens face is different from endorsing any of those things. For this reason, Gurdon misses the mark when she accuses the “book industry” of using “the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into … children’s lives.”  As Gurdon Prime knows, representation is different from endorsement. Since Gurdon does not appear to be in as close contact with her (former, I presume?) collaborator, I’d like to amplify Gurdon Prime’s point with a few tips on how to tell the difference between representation and endorsement.

1) Which characters does the novel represent sympathetically?  With which ideas do those characters seem aligned?

2) Since detecting sympathy seems a challenge for Gurdon, here are some literary terms to keep in mind:

A. Point of view.  Whose points of view does the book represent?  If it is a third-person narrative, does it tend to align itself with particular characters?  Which ones?  When?  Why?  If it is a first-person narrative, is the narrator reliable?  Or do the narrator’s perceptions and interpretations of events fail to coincide with the implied opinions and norms of the author?  If a book gives you reason to doubt the veracity of its narrator, then you have an unreliable narrator — and you’d be wise to view this character’s words with skepticism.

B. Diction, which is a fancy term for “word choice.”  The words an author chooses convey tone, a term for the speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse.  If, for instance, Gurdon Prime suggested that Gurdon were “a narrow-minded, nattering nitwit,” one would feel compelled to note the sarcasm in such a choice of words.  The alliterative pleasures of that repeated “n” aside, this would be an ad hominem attack on Gurdon — personal and needlessly hostile.  And such diction might make us interpret Gurdon Prime as mean-spirited, even cruel.  On the other hand, what if Gurdon Prime instead said that Gurdon were “guilty only of her concern for young people, a concern which sometimes manifests itself in language that conveys passion more than it does an ability to read critically”?  In addition to suspecting Gurdon Prime of harboring an academic affiliation, we might also note the sympathy manifest in phrases like “concern for young people” and in the politic nature of the criticism: in this claim, “language” is the culprit, not Gurdon herself.

C. Narrative structure.  Who gets the first word in the book?  Who gets the last?  What impact does structure have on point of view?

3) There are of course many other literary features to consider here.  And many novels are ambiguous, requiring the reader to think about where to place her or his sympathy.  If Collins’ The Hunger Games (one of the books Gurdon cites) invites criticism of the violent spectacle in which Katniss and other tributes must participate, how do we evaluate those moments where the novel seems to invite us to root for Katniss, hoping that her acts of violence allow her to survive?  Is Collins’ novel complicit with what it strives to critique?  Or is she hoping to make the reader uneasy, by engendering in her or him the very feelings that the novel exposes as dangerous?

I suspect that Gurdon Prime understands all of the preceding points.  Here’s hoping that Gurdon is willing to listen to her erstwhile writing partner — indeed, here’s hoping that they collaborate again.  Together, they might produce some lasting work.

You might also be interested in:

Image source: “Summer Reading,” on Howdy!

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Book-Banners Hurt Young People

Banned Books Week 2010 posterAs I look at the American Library Association’s lists of Banned and Challenged Books, one recurring theme emerges: most (though not all) depict difficulties faced by children and teens. Though the motive for banning books is protection, restricting access to these books hurts the children and teens who are most in need of them.  Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings both addresses the aftermath of rape. Harry Potter tells of a child who thrives despite the active neglect of his foster parents. Rudolfo Anaya‘s Bless Me, Ultima depicts the experience of facing peers who ridicule you for your culture and of facing parents more invested in their dreams than your own.  Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers‘s Fallen Angels depicts how war shapes a young psyche.  Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three shows that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too.  Alex Sanchez‘s Rainbow Boys depicts the challenges gay teens face.

Children in vulnerable populations need to read books that help them make sense of their experiences.  As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. … Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to. … They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end” (189).  Or ,as Holden says earlier in the novel, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author was a friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18).

Many of the books that have been banned or challenged are exactly the books that can be the friend to the young person who desperately needs to know that she or he is not alone, that other people have faced similar struggles.  Though there are many such teens, I have been thinking a lot about the high suicide rate among gay teen-agers.  (And, yes, Given Holden’s anxiety about “flits,” The Catcher in the Rye may not be the book to which gay teens turn.)

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project has strikes me as particularly effective because it lets GLBTQ youth know not only that they’re not alone, but also that the traumas of high school do end and life can be good and even wonderful at times.

David Leviathan, Boy Meets BoyOf course, I’d much rather that young people lived in the world of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, where teen-agers are allowed to express their sexual preference without fear of bullying.  But we don’t live in that world.  In the past three weeks, bullying has led to the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and others whose deaths have not made headlines.  It’s extremely hard for teen-agers to realize that life can get better for them. Videos like this can help.

I think that books can help, too.  In my Literature for Adolescents class, I teach Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World.  I teach the former for its frank depiction of sexuality, but also its magical realism, its lyrical prose, and its influence on later writers… such as Sara Ryan, who alludes to Weetzie in her novel.  I teach her Empress of the World because — in addition to being a well-written narrative — I find that my students are more likely to teach it than Weetzie Bat.  They’re able to appreciate Weetzie Bat as art, but the conception of Cherokee Bat makes some uncomfortable.Sara Ryan, Empress of the World Since many will go on to be high school teachers, I want them to have a book about gay teens that they feel comfortable teaching.

(Incidentally, I’m definitely open to other suggestions for other gay-friendly books for that “slot” on the syllabus.  Each time I teach the class, I change it a little, swapping out some books, adding new ones, and so on.  So… if you have suggestions, please place them in the comments below.)

High school can be a difficult time — especially if you’re a member of any group that’s mocked, bullied or ridiculed for being “different.”  It’s hard enough growing up knowing that, say, your government believes that your sexuality makes you unfit to serve your country in uniform.  Or growing up knowing that you need to keep your love a secret, lest you be the victim of a hate crime.  If you’re taught to feel ashamed for who you are, you may not be inclined to talk to other people.  A library is one place where you might find the books that can talk to you, and to help you know that you’re not alone.

Teen-agers of all types (different genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, body types, religions, etc.) need access to books that help them make sense of what they are going through.  Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk.

Why do some parents want to deny young readers access?  I say “parents” because, according to the American Library Association, over half (55%!) of all challenges to books come from parents.  To put that in perspective, the next-highest group of challengers are patrons (13%), followed by other (11%), administrators (9%), and board members (3%).  I have to believe that, in seeking to deny readers access, these parents are acting in what (they think) is the best interests of their community.  And, certainly, the desire to protect one’s children is universal (or nearly universal) among parents — and for good reason.

But any individual young person will not match one parent’s idea of what teenage-hood (or childhood) “is” or “should be.”  There are as many different kinds of teen-agers (and children) as there are different kinds of adults.  Never do we hear an adult say, “This book is inappropriate for adults” or “adults will like this.”  Yet, if we replace the word “adults” with “teen-agers” or “children,” then we’ll see a phrase encountered far too often.  A grown-up resists generalizations about him- or her-self, but is often quite happy to generalize about younger people.  This (well-intentioned) impulse to protect young adults by upholding such generalized, abstract notions of “teen-ager” or “child” not only fails to prepare young persons for the sometimes cruel world they face, but in fact has a greater potential to make their lives harder.

I know that literature is not in itself a solution to the problems of homophobia and bullying.  But it can help diminish the effects of both. And for the friends and families of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and all the other young GLBTQ people out there, we need to support the freedom to read.

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Speaking Out

Laurie Halse Anderson's SpeakWesley Scroggins, Associate Professor of Management at Missouri State University, thinks that Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak (1999) is “soft pornography.”  Having read and taught Speak many times, I suspect that Mr. Scroggins either lacks some basic literary skills (such as how to detect tone) or is in need of psychological counseling. As an English professor, I’m not qualified to help with the latter, but I can help him with the former.  So, Dr. Scroggins, I’m dedicating this blog post to you.

In an editorial printed on Saturday, Professor Scroggins makes the “soft pornography” allegation and then writes the following about Speak:

This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Professor Scroggins has described some plot elements, but has not discerned the novel’s perspective on those events.  The above summary is akin to saying of Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) that it shows firemen as pyromaniacs who start fires instead of putting them out, and burn books, too!  The book does display these events, but it does so in order to invite us to consider them critically.

Speak‘s narrator, Melinda Sordino, uses a literary technique known as irony.  When we use irony, we’re deliberately creating tension between a superficial, literal meaning, and a different, deeper, intended meaning.  If, for instance, I were to speak of George W. Bush’s eloquence or Barack Obama’s pessimism, I would be speaking ironically: the former U.S. president is as famous for his misstatements (“Bushisms”) as the current U.S. president is for his optimism.  Similarly, Melinda is speaking ironically when she writes, “I think the Merryweather cheerleaders confuse me because I missed out on Sunday school.  It has to be a miracle. There is no other explanation.  How else could they sleep with the football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday?” (29).  Here’s how you can tell.  First, statements like “It has to be a miracle” and “There is no other explanation” are hyberbole: exaggerated statements.  Indeed, in context, both are so exaggerated as to make the reader doubt their veracity.  Second, the second half of the final sentence quoted contradicts the first half: it’s not possible both to “sleep with the football team” and to be a “virginal goddess.”  Indeed, depending on one’s religious beliefs, it’s doubtful that anyone can be a “goddess” (another example of the hyperbole that engenders doubt). We might characterize the tone (speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse) as sarcastic.  Sarcasm (which frequently involves deploying apparent praise as criticism) is a blunt form of irony.  The combination of hyperbole, contradictory statements, and a sarcastic tone helps us understand that Melinda is speaking ironically here.  Specifically, she’s criticizing the hypocrisy of a social order that endorses such a double standard in its treatment of women — treating the cheerleaders, as she says in the sentence following the one I quoted, “as if they operate in two realities simultaneously” (29-30).  Perceiving irony requires the reader to use context to detect tone.

Here, for example, is the context for Melinda’s statement, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” (134).  Throughout the novel, Melinda speaks primarily to the reader and says very little to the other characters.  Just before she began her freshman year of high school, she went to a party, drank beer, and was raped.  The event traumatizes her.  She feels shame (survivors of rape often blame themselves), and doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened.  She says, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” just as she begins to recall the events leading up to her rape.  A “gorgeous cover-model guy,” a senior whose name she does not know, begins flirting with her, and kisses her.  A little drunk, she “couldn’t figure out how to tell him to slow down,” but believes that he is attracted to her: “Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss.  And I thought that just for a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me” (135).  In other words, the statement “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” describes her state of mind prior to the senior’s sexual assault.  Inexperienced with alcohol and inexperienced with dating, Melinda is unaware that the senior’s intentions are anything other than romantic.  We, the readers, know better.  We know she is talking about the party where something happened, the party to which she has alluded many times already.  We know that something painful is about to occur.

And it does.  Immediately after she expresses the thought that the senior (who, we learn later, is named Andy) will look out for her, the next sentences are “He kissed me hard again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe” (135).  And then “A cloud cloaked the moon.  Shadows looked like photo negatives” (135).  Several words here clue the reader into the fact that something is about to go wrong.  The darkness of the “cloud cloaked” and shadows, and the uncanniness of “photo negatives” convey that Melinda’s experience is taking a dark turn. So, too, does the repetition of the word “hard” (three times) coupled (twice) with sensations of pain or distress: “teeth ground hard against my lips” and “hard to breathe.”  If you’re more than just functionally literate, you should recognize this.

Dr. Scroggins does not seem to be more than just functionally literate because he classifies the next scene as “soft pornography.”  If he finds a young girl’s rape to be sexually exciting, then he is in dire need of counseling.  Indeed, were I his employer, I would remove him from the classroom until he had undergone such counseling: such a man is a potential danger to students and colleagues.  However, Psychology is not my area of expertise.  (I earned a B.A. in English and in Psychology, but a Ph.D. in English.)  So, let us assume that the issue is literacy and not pathology.  Here is the scene he describes as pornographic:

“Do you want to?” he asked.

What did he say? I didn’t answer.  I didn’t know. I didn’t speak.

We were on the ground. When did that happen? “No.” No I did not like this. I was on the ground and he was on top of me. My lips mumble something about leaving, about a friend who needs me, about my parents worrying. I can hear myself — I’m mumbling like a deranged drunk. His lips lock on mine and I can’t say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. There is a boulder on me. I open my mouth to breath, to scream, and his hand covers it. In my head, my voice is clear as a bell: “NO I DON’T WANT TO!” But I can’t spit it out. I’m trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down, and the ground smells wet and dark and NO! — I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s crimping my hair and glueing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up

and zips his jeans

and smiles (135-136).

The fact that the next thing Melinda does is call 911 should be a clue that the preceding experience was not meant to elicit desire.  If it aroused Dr. Scroggins, then let us assume he simply lacks sufficient literacy skils to perceive why this scene is disturbing.

Here’s why it is.  First of all, it’s a textbook case of rape: Andy (the senior) forces Melinda to have sex without consent.  He asks, “Do you want to?” Melinda at first does not reply, but then says (at the top of the long paragraph) “No.”  So, right there: rape.

Second of all, the words Melinda uses to describe the experience convey her pain, Andy’s coercion, and the subsequent trauma.  She says, “I twist my head away” — a sign of resistance.  She wants to move but cannot because he is more powerful than she is: “There is a boulder on me.” When she tries to scream, he covers her mouth with his hand.  These, not incidentally, are also signs of rape.  Rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  The moment when she thinks, “I’m not really here,” is a moment of dissociation, common when a person is experiencing trauma.  Finally, the repeated “hurts me hurts me hurts me” should give Dr. Scroggins and any reader a clue that this experience is not erotic, but painful.  It’s a crime.  It’s called rape.

If Professor Scroggins does not know the difference between rape and consensual sex, then he is a criminal waiting to happen.  If, on the other hand, he simply lacks sufficient literacy skills to read literature, then I hope that this blog posting may be of some help to him.

UPDATE, 9:00 pm.  There are many other interesting responses to this editorial.  Here are links to a few of them:

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