Sanctuary, Soul, Wind, and Breath in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak

 Mr. Freeman turns off the wheel and grabs a piece of chalk without washing his hands. “SOUL,” he writes on the board. The clay streaks the word like dried blood. “This is where you can find your soul, if you dare. Where you can touch that part of you that you’ve never dared look at before. Do not come here and ask me to show you how to draw a face. Ask me to help you find the wind.” (10)

His name is Mr. “Freeman.” In a story about a girl who feels decidedly trapped or enslaved by her past and silenced by her status as an outcast, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak isn’t merely about a traumatized fourteen year-old rape survivor, Melinda Sordino, finding her voice. It’s about her finding her soul—her animating life force (nephesh = soul)—and thus, becoming “free.” She will find it through the process of artistic creation, the making of a tree (of life, if you will).

Mr. Freeman, a few paragraphs earlier, has welcomed everyone to “the only class that will teach you how to survive” (10). But by the next page he is promising that art can help you learn to “breathe” (11); to breathe is to live and to fail to breathe is to die. He doesn’t want them to learn how to draw faces. He wants to help them find the wind.

Soul. Breath. Wind. In Genesis 1:1-2 we are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and earth, and that the ruah (which means “breath,” “wind,” “spirit,”) of God hovers over the waters. In Genesis as well, it is the breath of God that gives life to dust and clay, both of the animals and those who bear the image of God, human beings.

Mr. Freeman’s dirty hands pick up dusty chalk and write “soul” on a chalkboard that drips with wet clay streaks resembling blood. The biblical imagery here piles up, not by way of allegorical parallel, but through a series of associations that invite the careful reader to take notice. Soul, clay, blood, and even chalk (dust). The teacher who will refuse to tell his students how to draw a face will instead offer to help them find the “ruah”—the wind—the very “Spirit of God.” And he suggests that this wind can be found by becoming a creator, by making art. And his name suggests the liberating power of artistic creation.

Freeman laments on that first day of class that his freshmen have already had their imaginations and creativity—defining attributes of the creator whose image Genesis tells us they bear—beaten out of them. He gives them all a word, and our narrator draws “tree,” which has powerful Christian resonance, from the tree of life and tree of knowledge to Calvary’s tree. He tosses them balls of clay (for crying out loud!!) and welcomes them to the journey (12), inviting them to begin creating.

All this in a chapter called “Sanctuary”—not merely a place of safety (a sanctuary is a safe haven), but in this case, a “holy place” or “temple.” It will be little surprise to us as readers of the novel that the speechless Melinda will likely find her voice in a novel called Speak, but what we might want to be on the lookout for is whether or not she finds much more than this—if Mr. Freeman’s sanctuary can help her find the “wind” and teach her to “breathe” and give her a soul.

 

  • Am I talking crap here or do you think the author, in a book for teens, is aware of the many biblical and theological associations evident in this short chapter she calls “Sanctuary”?
  • Does making art—creating things and using our imaginations—help us to survive? Does artistic creation help the silenced to speak? Does reflecting God’s image by creating good things help us find the “wind” (God’s spirit)? Give us souls?

Issue Fiction, YA, and the Story Laurie Halse Anderson Cannot Tell

Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel Speak deals candidly the sexual assault of Melinda Sordino, the novel’s narrator. Speak is the kind of  YA novel that sometimes gets called “issue fiction.” There’s a fair body of this in the YA genre, and Anderson is good at producing it. She has written novels about sexual assault (Speak), eating disorders (Wintergirls), alcohol abuse and PTSD (The Impossible Knife of Memory). Other YA authors have written on a host of teen “topics”—from bullying, to self-harm, to child abuse, to suicide, to sexting. In interviews, Anderson embraces the role her novels play in sparking honest conversations about sensitive subjects—conversations we often avoid but need to have in order to both help the wounded heal and to prevent further tragedies.

Speak gives us life in the aftermath of a terrible sexual assault—a school year through the eyes of the rape victim, the 13-14 year old Melinda, now friendless and silent after what a boy named Andy Evans (IT) did to her during a high school drinking party in August, three weeks before the start of school. Melinda is “outcast” because she made the phone call to the cops that busted the party after Andy raped her. She has told no one what really happened that night, and the novel concerns her finally finding the capacity to “speak” about it.

We get to know Melinda and her world through her eyes and voice in diary like entries.  Stereotyped, clichéd, and cynically humorous as the high school world looks from Melinda’s perspective, the story of her journey toward some kind of healing unfolds in fairly intimate detail over the course this nearly 200 page novel. Long story short, we watch Melinda begin to find her voice and courageously stand up for herself and other actual and potential victims of Andy Evans.

The novel has had an enthusiastic following, selling more than a million copies and spawning a mountain of fan mail in Anderson’s in box, which it appears she responds to with admirable levels of empathy and grace. Clearly the book has touched a nerve with teen readers. One thing I particularly like about the novel is how Anderson presents the novel’s world through the eyes of Melinda in a voice and with a perspective that I want to believe but know is clearly limited and inherently flawed. For instance, what she sees of her English teacher, Social studies teacher, principal, parents, fellow students, school, world, etc. is necessarily perspectival and in some cases crudely stereotyped. Just as she has placed herself in a labelled category (“outcast”), she has placed pretty much everyone and everything else in labelled categories as well. I find her descriptions of the world and people she encounters believable not as representations of how things really are, but as how Melinda really perceives them. I know that I have an incomplete, solipsistic perspective of the world, and I also know that when I was fourteen, my perspective was even less complete and solipsistic. I trust that the world really looks to Melinda the way she describes it. Anderson captures this well.

Subtly, though, the author lets us watch Melinda begin to understand that she is not the only person with a complicated interior below the thin exterior, complete with secrets the world cannot know and pain she cannot share. Other people—just like Picasso’s art—have a lot going on “beyond what is on the surface” (119). Of Picasso she says, “Amazing. What did the world look like to him” (119)? While Melinda doesn’t exactly make explicit the connection between this observation about Picasso and the people she’s presented to us as clichéd types, she does later on express surprise at the kind of car her art teacher, Mr. Freeman, drives (Volvo, not a VW van), it’s lack of art supplies everywhere, his quiet classical music on the radio.  Melinda may realize there’s more to him than meets the eye.

But Melinda (like many of her readers) is fourteen, and she never does come to the point where she articulates this knowledge about others. The main thing going on in the story is her coming to express herself, to “speak” of the terrible thing Andy Evans did to her. She finds the ability to do this in part because she has realized, through an anonymous “threaded discussion” she started on the bathroom wall, that she’s only victim of Andy Evans’s unwanted and unprovoked sexual advances. Other girls have secrets they’re willing to share anonymously on the bathroom wall, too. She’s not alone; not completely outcast.

The only way the novel can work as Young Adult “issue fiction” intended to inspire silenced victims to “speak” and heal is if Anderson leaves Andy Evans as an “IT.” He cannot become a “thou”—a fully realized character, conflicted himself, with a back story of abuse or violence inflicted on him by some aunt when he was six or whatever. Information like this about Andy would complicate the story, take some of the focus off of Melinda, and turn it into something else.  I’ve no interest is arguing that Anderson SHOULD have written the story another way.

I AM suggesting that if her intent was to write YA fiction, s absolutely COULD NOT write the story in a way that humanizes, rounds out, and complicates Andy Evans.  This is a necessary limitation of this kind of YA “issue fiction.” Literary fiction for adults could do this, and often has. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a completely different sort of character than Andy Evans. He is still a hateful villain, but by making him the narrator and by making him extraordinarily sophisticated, complex, funny, brilliant, and at times almost likable, Nabokov complicates the reading experience and our reactions to him. We might almost forget the horrible thing he is doing to Dolores Haze (Lolita).  But the mature reader never does.

Andy Evans is flat as a pancake as a character. He is attractive enough that he keeps getting dates, somehow, but we know nothing of his back story that could allow us to empathize with him. I don’t think Anderson is allowed, in a YA “issue” novel, to give us any of that. But even the Andy Evans’s of the world, monstrous as they may be, have a story to tell, have something beneath what we see on the surface. We might even wonder of them: “Amazing. What did the world look like to him.” It’s not Melinda’s job to report that to us. But it is the job of mature readers to realize that such characters (and people) have a world “beyond what is on the surface,” painful as this may be for us to have to admit. It’s easier to simply discard them mere caricatures of evild.

One wonders how many young readers of this novel are sophisticated enough to realize that even Andy Evans has a “beyond what is on the surface,” and then also realize that realizing this in no way lets Andy Evans or those like him off the hook for the evil they perpetrate.

THE FACEBOOK SONNET

by Sherman Alexie

Welcome to the endless high-school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however kind or cruel.
Let’s undervalue and unmend
The present. Why can’t we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let’s exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let’s play all the games
That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one’s search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.
Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.