Laurie Halse Anderson remembers the moment she decided to “Shout.”
Anderson already was a best-selling author of young-adult novels, including her 1999 breakout “Speak,” which centers on the aftermath of a high school freshman’s rape and was a finalist for the National Book Award. While her later works delved into historical fiction — “Chains” also was a finalist for the National Book Award — “Speak” continued to command attention at her school presentations.
“Those students didn’t need me to talk about metaphors and themes. They wanted to know what had happened to me,” explained Anderson, who was raped at 13. “I had to model what a survivor looks like for these kids.”
Then came the spike of #MeToo, after Hollywood amplified the movement launched by activist Tarana Burke.
“What fired me up was the immediate misogynistic backlash, and not believing women, and rape mythology writ large. I was done. The time had come,” she says. “I was in New York City for a publicity thing and I was walking up 11th Avenue and I read some news piece and just, ‘Aaaagh!’ … I was incandescently angry. Steam and fire was pouring out of the ends of my hair.”
She called her editor and said the novel she was working on wouldn’t be coming just yet. Instead, she penned “Shout” (Viking/Penguin, $17.99), a memoir in free verse that is a searing portrait of how she coped with the aftermath of her attack as well as an incisive look at her beginnings as a writer.
Anderson will be in Austin on Friday to discuss “Shout” with former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who famously filibustered against a proposal to restrict abortions and now helms the nonprofit Deeds Not Words.
Like “Speak,” “Shout” focuses less on the actual rape than surrounding events, from the often-rocky home life that fed her silence post-attack to a dip into substance abuse and rebound via high school athletics: “my I’m fine! mask fit snugly/I only took it off at home.”
She spotlights her own #MeToo moments — the professor who casually suggested they drink wine and have sex, then blocked the door when she tried to leave — and how trauma-fueled anger would resurface unexpectedly, like when a courts-shift reporting assignment put her at a sexual assault case.
“Years later, walking in the mall/with my daughters tall and gangly I/
saw him again, that rapist/only that time he didn’t look bored/because/he was hunting.”
“Shout” is full of such raw honesty, which Anderson says she’s reinforced over the years in her many presentations on “Speak.”
“I see how powerful it can be to stand in your truth, to explain what happened without being ashamed, especially in a culture still trying to value the silencing of victims,” she says. “I’ve had countless experiences of owning my truth in front of strangers and watching that strengthen them so that they can then stand in their truth.”
In 20 years of events, Anderson says, she’s never had one where at least one audience member didn’t come up to her afterwards ready to share their own story of assault. A key to breaking the cycle is comprehensive and sustained sex education, she adds.
“This is not one conversation,” she says. “Every parent I know, you start talking to your kids years in advance about driving — you point things out, say, ‘Wow, that was really dangerous, look at how that guy cut off the other car,' because you understand the gravity of driving a vehicle and everything that can go wrong. Just giving one lecture doesn’t cut it. … You lay the groundwork for conversations about sexual consent and healthy sexuality over time.”