Monday, September 20, 2010

SPEAK - In Support of Laurie Halse Anderson

Apologies for how long this is. But I feel there is nothing here that I can cut.

Wesley Scroggins, a Christian academic based in the US, is calling on parents to take action against the book Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. On what grounds? The main character in the book is raped. Ergo, Mr. Scroggins believes the book should not be read by teenagers, as it is immoral.

I am delighted at the number of intelligent, thoughtful Christian bloggers who have spoken out against Mr. Scroggins's remarks. Myra McEntire and Christine are two I have read so far and their posts impressed me.

I agree with Myra that a blog should be free of politics, sex and religion unless you set out to blog about those issues. I blog about writing and I enjoy connecting with others who blog about writing, particularly those from different backgrounds. But I'm going to break my personal-life-stays-off-the-blog rule here so I can comment on this issue - and its wider implications, which mean a lot to me.

I am not a practitioner of any religion. My mind is open and I respect the faiths of others.

I was raised as a Catholic (Irish readers will know that this phrase can cover anything from 'yeah, my parents baptised me to get presents. . . how many esses are in 'Jesus'?' to 'daily Mass, hair shirts and regular fasting') in a deeply Catholic society. Divorce was legalised in 1996, when I was 12 years old. The year divorce was legalised, our local priest took a vote in my class to see if we would pass the divorce referendum. Of 26 children aged 12, only 7 agreed that a man or a woman should have the option to end a marriage. I should point out here that we had had legal separation for a long time. Remember this for later.

Abortion remains illegal, but studies suggest that up to 19 women a day travel from the Irish Republic to Britain to obtain legal terminations (doesn't sound like much, but our population is small). Essentially, we know that women terminate pregnancies. We know that women born and raised in Holy Catholic Ireland terminate pregnancies. And we don't put many resources into stopping them doing it - we're very fussy about who gets to adopt children, and we have rules about who is allowed to put a child up for adoption. But we just don't want to think about any of this unpleasantness, nor do we want to address it, so we export the problem.

So how is any of this relevant to Laurie Halse Anderson and Wesley Scroggins? Because like Anderson's main character, Ireland has a long history of not speaking. We have one of the worst histories of clerical sexual abuse. We have a truly astounding suicide rate per head of population, and the most common victims of suicide in Ireland are men of roughly my age. I'm not blaming all of this on our Catholic history, although that certainly plays a major role (Ireland's relationship with the Church was heavily tied up with our sense of nationhood, so it was always an unhealthy one. I am not criticising religion per se at all). There were also social issues, post-colonial mindsets and poor communications contributing to it.

But for whatever reason, this most locquacious nation doesn't speak.

And look what it leads to, when we try to pretend that difficult and unpalatable truths aren't there.

In the midst of an argument with my father many years ago (I was probably fourteen and angry with everything), he said that in his day, young people didn't insist that their problems be addressed - they knuckled down and they got on with things, and by and large they grew out of their problems. I snapped back that the only things his generation had given mine were Charlie Haughey and institutional sex abuse, which wasn't at all fair (I never said I came across well in this anecdote). But political corruption and hushed-up abuse were two very profound and damaging consequences of a society that couldn't speak, and we are dealing with the consequences every day.

And now it's exported abortions and a high suicide rate, even years after we shook off the worst of Church domination of secular matters. We are still a society that can't speak.

I would go beyond saying that it is good to speak about our experiences, even when they are unpleasant, and to create art from the dark side of human life. I would argue that we have collective responsibility to speak about these things. Not a personal responsibility - I'm never going to knock on the door of the victim of any trauma and inform them that they owe it to society to talk about it - but a collective one. Example: I suffer from panic attacks, and among friends, I talk about them as openly and freely as I can bear to (incidentally, if any bloggers would like to talk to me about that - firstname dot lastname at gmail dot com). I choose to do so because that makes it easier for the next person. If a friend of mine feels they can ask me about panic disorder, the next time an ashamed panic sufferer confides in that person, they're more likely to get the response they need. I feel every person who has shared an experience with me (whether through sharing a true experience or expressing something in fiction) has given me a gift - the gift of knowing them better, or in the case of an artist, of knowing people better.

Art is a critical player in bringing issues into a public arena. Laurie Halse Anderson's book is fiction, and Mr. Scroggins is not seeking to suppress a personal account of a trauma. But he is calling for the suppression of material that deals with a social reality. He is calling for us to only expose ourselves and our children to nice books, nice stories, nice people.

We can choose which stories - again, real or fictional - we want to hear. No one forces me to buy the books I buy and listen to the stories of the people I meet. I can raise my hand at any time and say 'I'm sorry, this makes me uncomfortable. Is it OK if we talk about something else?' And if I'm mid-stream about Panic Attacks and Me, I will respect it if someone asks me not to talk to them about it.

But no one - no one - has the right to say that any story should not be heard at all. No one can say 'I am sorry, but your experience isn't valid. Your art isn't valid. Your thoughts are not valid.' Mr. Scroggins, just because a book refers to an immoral deed taking place, does not mean it should not be read. And no one has the right to impose their choice of when to listen on anyone else.

And come my next pay cheque, I'm off to Amazon to listen to what Laurie Halse Anderson wishes to say.


  1. Interesting to read the comments on the article -- most of which are against him. I grew up in Kentucky (a few states over from Missouri) and I've seen this before but what has always heartened me is that 1) regular people usually speak up against it and 2) the censors often come across as silly because they use inflammatory language and appear to be unfamilar with the work in question (I don't remember any of that stuff he describes, other than the rape, in SPEAK.)

  2. May good common sense prevail. I hope hope hope that Mr Scroggins will soon be forgotten and swept away by a wave of intelligence that I know is far stronger than ignorance.

    Take care

  3. Ellen, that was eloquent. Thank you. We all need to speak out against ignorance and not stop.

  4. Ellen this was amazing. Way to speak out and speak on your thoughts of this whole situation. I just learned about this very topic this morning over at Crystal Cook's blog and I have to say I went to my local library to pick it up, when I found that it wasn't available (due to several requests - 35 to be exact) I ran to the store to pick up a copy!

    For someone who has dealt with abuse such as this when I was a teen I would have loved a book titled Speak to be there to help me and others understand what someone like me or someone else has to go through. I have yet to read the book but I can tell you that I will be sure to share it with the world if it is fitting.

    This man has caused uproar because he's uncomfortable, well I have to say he has brought Speak to our attention, and we're listening, but not the way he thinks.

  5. Previous posters took the words right out of my mouth/fingers.

    Brilliant post, I'm delighted that for the most part most censor attempts in art tend to backfire and cause public outcries and a lot of wonderful free media for the author...

    I hope someone tries to censor one of my novels :)

  6. Laura, I definitely agree that when people call for a ban on books they often seem poorly-informed. Maybe because they focus on the content and not the context? I feel that how a plot element is handled makes all the difference.

    Kitty, I think common sense will prevail here. If not, at least there's nothing like banning a book to make people want to read it!

    Thanks for the compliment Tricia, and thanks for taking the time to read my long rant :)

    Jen, I'm sorry to hear you experienced similar things. I'm so keen to read the book myself, not just because of the controversy but because I love books that deal with the 'outcast teen' idea well. I was a very angry and sad teenager, and I internalised everything, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Speak handles the issues it raises. And I look forward to blogging about it and spreading the word if I decide I like it!

    Zoe, how about if we each create a fake online persona and agree to call for the banning of each other's books if and when we get published? I will if you will :)

  7. Firstly, so interesting to see something on this from an Irish perspective - and you're dead right.

    Secondly, 'Speak' is a terrific read. And sharply funny much of the time as well as dealing with a horrific experience.

  8. It's currently in my Amazon basket waiting until I hit the magic 'free-shipping' number. And payday, of course :)

  9. Well said and well done. I do rather like the name Mr. Scroggins though - sounds like some buffoon in a Dickens novel. Which is probably where the real one belongs ...

  10. Ellen,

    You've got an Irish girl over here that'll back those thoughts of yours right up! I agree with you 100%

    WooRah for you! I'm glad you spoke up!


  11. Thanks for this, Ellen. As you know, I think that the more people who talk about this kind of abuse and bring it into the light of day the better, and I agree about your point on collective responsibility. However, I see my own very personal response to the call to ban this book as part of that. As a writer I can use words to give myself a voice which may help others who do not have such a voice or choose not to speak because they just can't bring themselves to. Even if what I say is personally painful (and it was), the fact that it may add to the collective wisdom on abuse and help others overrides that for me. And anyway, it was incredibly freeing (in my case) to let all that bad stuff out from where it had been buried for so many years.

    Lucy Coats at

  12. Thanks for your comment, Lucy. As I said above, I would never argue that any individual should feel they have to speak up - it's a personal experience and a personal choice. But we should be creating a society where everyone feels they can, and what you chose to do is a step in that direction.

    I'm so glad that it was a positive thing for you personally.


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