Laurie Halse Anderson broke new ground in young-adult fiction in 1999 with her bestseller “Speak,” told from the perspective of a high-school freshman raped by a popular senior boy at an end-of-summer party.
Melinda, the protagonist, faces bullying and ostracism at school after she calls the police to the party. But she tells no one about the rape. In fact, she barely speaks at all.
Nearly 20 years later, Chessy Prout’s powerful “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope,” written with Boston Globe reporter Jenn Abelson, tells a similar story, of another freshman girl who was attacked by a popular senior.
This time, though, the story is true. Prout’s YA memoir, by turns a heartbreaking and infuriating account of her assault and its aftermath, offers profoundly troubling evidence that not much has changed in either rape culture or high schools in the two decades since “Speak” was published. Survivors still find it difficult to talk about their assault. Teenagers still bully and shun those who report. And many high schools still fail abysmally to support and protect victims.
Prout’s case received widespread news coverage, in part because the incident took place at the elite St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., a bucolic haven steeped in privilege and tradition.
On May 30, 2014, the evening before senior graduation day, Prout, then 15, accepted a “Senior Salute” invitation for a date with 18-year-old Owen Labrie. She knew that the salute was a covert tradition and competition among the senior boys, who set out to ”slay” as many younger girls as possible before graduation. But the definition of “slay” was vague, at least to Prout, and Labrie was popular and attractive.
Against the advice of her older sister, a senior at the school, she accepted, convinced she could control the situation.
Prout recounts that Labrie, using a stolen key, took her to a secluded “mechanical room” in a school building, where he aggressively rushed her into forced, painful sexual intercourse, despite her repeated attempts to push him off and the multiple times she said no.
When he overpowered her, she writes, “[I] felt myself float above my body. . . . This person, who was not listening to me, was violating me in the most intimate place, and I was lifeless.”
Prout recounts the assault and the time around it with a level of detail and candor that shows remarkable courage, particularly when she quotes from the flirtatious messages she exchanged with Labrie before and after.
“francesca you’re an angel. much love, owen” Labrie e-mailed her after the attack.
“you’re quite an angel yourself but would you mind keeping the sequence of events to yourself for now?” she wrote back, confused about how to respond.
These are the kinds of details that endlessly haunt many assault survivors, unjustly making them feel responsible for what happened to them. They’re also the kinds of details that delight defense lawyers and give prosecutors pause about advancing cases.
Though the criminal justice process extended Prout’s trauma in many ways, she acknowledges that she had advantages not available to many survivors. She had a determined prosecutor who believed her. She also had strong support from her family, who possessed the means to stay on top of the criminal case and pursue a civil case against St. Paul’s.
Prout’s relative privilege did not, however, cancel out the tremendous costs she and her family paid for her decision to report the assault. One of the heaviest came when Prout insisted on returning to St. Paul’s for her sophomore year before the trial. In the saddest chapters of the book, she describes how most of her former friends shunned her and made her life miserable, until she decided to leave.
With the trial came one of the biggest disappointments of all when the jury acquitted Labrie of the most serious felony rape charges. But, splitting the decision, the jury found him guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault of a minor and other crimes. Labrie was sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to register as a sex offender, but has appealed his conviction to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
In 2016, the Prouts sued St. Paul’s in federal court, saying the attack was a “direct result of [St. Paul’s] fostering, permitting, and condoning a tradition of ritualized statutory rape.” The school responded, in part, by demanding that Prout’s name be made public.
“So, basically, St. Paul’s thinks they can shut me up by threatening to reveal my identity?” Prout asks her parents. “Well then, they’ve completely underestimated me.”
No kidding. Prout outmaneuvers St. Paul’s by going on NBC’s “Today Show’’ to reveal her identity and launch her #IHaveTheRightTo campaign to empower women. She begins working with PAVE (Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment) to promote awareness of what consent means.
As admirable as Prout and her advocacy work are, it must be said that the book is not without flaws. At times the language is overwrought, and there are repetitions and strained similes: “The tears I’d been holding back fell like sheets of rain,” for instance, or “. . . I hollered back, with poison darts shooting from my eyes.”
Then again “I Have the Right To” is written in a teenage voice for teenagers, especially those who find themselves navigating the dangers and confusion of rape culture. With the #MeToo movement gaining power, and young advocates like Prout speaking out, that culture might soon be changing.
I HAVE THE RIGHT TO:
A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope
By Chessy Prout with Jenn Abelson
Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster, 416 pp., illustrated, $18.99
Joanna Connors, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is the author of “I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her.”
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