The Ms. Q&A: Chessy Prout is Reclaiming Her Narrative—as a Survivor and an Activist

“Rape is not a punishment for poor judgement.”—I Have the Right To

Chessy Prout may just be 19 years old, but she brims with eloquence and fortitude. The young activist published her memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, last month, which she wrote with Boston Globe investigative reporter Jenn Abelson.

In 2014, when Prout was just a freshman at an esteemed boarding school in New Hampshire, a senior sexually assaulted her as a part of a school ritual known as the “senior salute.” As she and her family sought justice and healing, her attacker, who was convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, endangering a child and the felony of using a computer to lure a minor, was lauded as an athlete and a student by the boarding school—and ultimately acquitted of rape.

Prout initially maintained anonymity during the criminal trial, but after facing down online trolls and backlash from her own school community, the teenager came forward to share her story on Today in August 2016. She subsequently started the #IHaveTheRightTo social media campaign, in which participants came forward to claim their rights, and she has spent the past year, since graduating high school in May, building the campaign into an official organization of the same name. In her powerful memoir, Prout recounts not only the horrific event itself, but also the aftermath—and expands the important conversation she’s been sparking for two years.

Prout’s ability to transform so much of her pain into action and hope for not just herself, but for so many other survivors, is incredibly empowering. Her book, full of honesty and reflection, provides profound insight into one teenager’s path to finding her voice—and serves as a roadmap for friends and family who want to support the survivors in their lives.

Ms. spoke with Prout about the pain of the writing process, the impact of the #MeToo movement and the power of teen activists.

Chessy Prout (right) with her younger sister and father at the Women’s March. (Simon & Schuster)

Congratulations on your book coming out in March! It was really interesting and inspiring to read the entire extent of your story—all of the ups and downs of the last few years for you. In 2016, you decided to shed your anonymity with your Today Show interview—what pushed you to take your story further and to write a book?

There’s so little that people can garner and understand from media coverage when it comes to the human being behind the headline. And I felt that people were not taking into consideration my humanity and how the crime was affecting my life—people in general. So, I wanted to really outline what life’s like for a sexual assault survivor—just one of us, one sexual assault survivor—and help ease people’s minds and realize that the PTSD that I’m experiencing afterwards is normal and I can get through it and I can find a light at the end of the tunnel.

When did it first occur to you to write a book?

It was during a panel that I did [with] Yale Law School and Quinnipiac Law School for the resolution dispute program. The members were gasping at things I was saying that had become so mundane to me, just everyday things that I had to deal with, and my aunt’s best friend from high school and college was in the audience, and she happened to be a book agent, and she told us: “This has to be a book. You have to put all of this down.”

That was in the fall of 2016. But I didn’t feel comfortable about writing a book until the springtime, when the proposal came out, because I didn’t know that—I didn’t know if my book would help anybody. And that’s the only reason why I wanted to write a book in the first place—was to help save somebody from the confusion and the blame and shame that I felt before I came forward.

What shifted your perspective?

I just remember wanting to be a lighthouse for survivors—for people, for boys and girls in my school who were looking to stand up and fight back against this sort of rape culture that exists in so many places. I wanted to be the person that they could come to and say: “How can I help? How can I stand up? Let’s fight this together.” If they needed help or support or love and belief, I would want them to come to me and know that they can come to me as a source of comfort. So I think that kind of set everything in motion, and in coming forward I did have so many people come up to me in public, on the Internet, old family friends, family members, tell me their stories and talk to me about it. I hope that I could guide them to find some sort of peace as I was trying to find my own as well.

What was the writing process like? 

It took three months for Jenn and I to write the book—which I still kind of look back and think, how did that even happen? We started in May, before I graduated high school—two weeks before I graduated high school. And then we finished it on September 1, we handed in the final transcript, and then the editing process took longer afterwards, of course. But Jenn and I spent every day of last summer working together. We would sit at my house or at the house she was staying at in Florida, and we would talk for hours and Jenn would transcribe everything onto a document, and she would use primary source documents, notes, my journal—anything to sort of bring color and light to my voice to a chapter. And then I would edit it and I would add or delete things and then I would give it back to her and then we would let my parents read it.

What was it like working with Jenn?

Jenn would butter me up with cinnamon rolls when we moved back to D.C., and candy. And she let me look at puppies online to sort of take my mind off of things when things got too tough. But she really has become like a big sister to me. She knows so much about me, and I, in turn, was able to learn so much about her, and it’s just—it goes to show the beautiful friendship that can sort of happen when people are honest with each other and share their stories and connect in that way.

Did you find it all difficult to recount your trauma as you were writing this book with Jenn?

I do remember the day that she asked me if I was feeling up to talking about the assault itself. And I sort of just did not try to make eye contact, and I said, sure, yes, I’m ready, let’s get this over with. And it was nice because she used a lot of primary source documents like the testimony from the trial, my interview with the detectives. But I did go through it again, and, I mean, I had done it before—in narrative therapy with my therapist, a sort of therapy that helps survivors, or helped me, with my disassociation, being able to feel my arms and legs and know that okay, this did happen to me, I can accept that and I can move forward.

But it was pretty difficult. And so, my body took a toll. I did not feel up to exercising because my mind was so exhausted that I could not exercise my body, so I fell into the slump of watching TV and laying down all the time.

I can only imagine how difficult that was to process everything all over again. And you kind of mentioned this—in the book you include a lot of details, a lot of sometimes graphic details, especially with the sexual assault itself, and you talk a lot about your struggles with anxiety and depression. And for instance, you also include a scene during the trial section of the book where you have to leave the courtroom because you’re sick, you vomit. Why was that important to you to include all of those details, even if they were graphic at times—rather than just vaguely refer to situations or your feelings?

Because life is graphic at times. I mean—you can’t sugarcoat what people experience in real time, and I think that it’s important to be aware of these things, of the hard stuff that can happen and that it exists. And that people that you know or don’t know could be going through it, and to just keep that in mind.

I also wanted to clear things up with that scene in the courtroom, because later that day I saw tweets from the reporters who were live-tweeting from the back of the room saying, oh, the victim left the room crying. And I was like, no, I was not crying, I was about to literally blow chunks. We wanted to make that sort of clear—that there’s sadness that I felt, yes, but that was pure disgust. Outlining that was important to me because I wanted to show the brutal, honest truth.

And as much as it was hard to recount some of this, was writing empowering for you? Did it help you at all with your healing process?

It definitely was empowering for me, because the book ends in real time. The [last] chapter ends [with us] writing the book. I had just moved to D.C., and that was the end of the book. And so, I was realizing a lot of different things and coming to different realizations while outlining them, while writing them down, and we started the book before my boyfriend broke up with me on graduation night as well—so that was a change in the outline of the story, too. But it goes to show that life is life, and you can’t really predict different things. I mean, if I’ve been taught anything over the last five years, it’s that I really cannot make plans for the future—because they will change.

You said you finished writing the book in September, so where exactly was the book in the publication process when the #MeToo movement began?

We had handed in the transcript before the #MeToo movement finally caught fire, so we were wondering if we should add in something to the end of the book, if we should write another chapter. We just added instead in the acknowledgements in the back.

It was so inspiring to see the public finally stand behind survivors of sexual assault en masse, and to have that while I was going through the editing process of the book, through the—yeah, the editing process basically, which was a monster to take over—was depressing at times, to realize that so many other people out there have felt the same way I have and I can’t do anything to, like, help them. But at the same time, it made me realize that hearing other people’s stories are important. My story can be helpful. It can help shed light on this topic and it’s the people who tell us to shut up and sit down that really need to hear our stories.

I’m so grateful to Tarana Burke and the rest of the women and men who are spearheading this movement.

Did you feel more compelled to publish your book as all of the #MeToo stories were coming forward?

I think at that point I was just encouraged by the support for these people—the people who were sharing their stories—that I became a little less worried about the negative backlash that I would receive for writing my story. And I think it helped me in realizing the power of storytelling and telling your story and connecting with other human beings, because that is something that is extremely powerful.

What do you hope readers—especially other sexual assault survivors—take away from your book?

At the end of writing the book, I picked up Unslut by Emily Lindin, and I loved it because I could literally relate to certain phrases and sentences she said in her diary from when she was in sixth through eighth grade, and that’s the kind of thing that I would love for readers to grab from my book—that feeling, again, of “oh my god, me too!”

The power of the #MeToo phrase is so incredible. Reading Unslut made me feel less alone with what I went through in middle school, what I experienced in middle school, just being a kid. It helped me understand. It helped me understand what my younger sister, who is just starting middle school, might be faced with or might be going through. But I hope that [my book] makes people think about, you know, the people around them and what they might be going through—because a lot of the times you can’t see these scars on the outside when it comes to sexual assault and harassment and rape. It’s always important to remember that your words matter and that you remember that everybody deserves sympathy and belief and support.

What do you feel is the best way for someone to support and be an ally to sexual assault survivors?

Sexual assault is a crime of power and control, so putting the power and control back in the survivor’s hands is so important. So, I mean, just the basic support, belief, love and compassion is the basics that a survivor needs. And letting them make their own decisions and letting them come to terms with their assault on their own time by just being there for them. And helping them find justice—in whatever way, shape or form it takes, whether it be reporting it to the police, whether it be writing it down, whether it be telling a parent or a teacher—anything.

We seem to be in an era where a lot of teens, yourself included, are really getting involved in activism—like, for example, the Parkland students and the fight for gun control.

I think we’re getting tired of being told that things aren’t possible, that things can’t change. I mean, I was even told by my older sister about—she warned me about hook-up culture in college, and I said no, this is not how it’s going to be when I get there. I will change [it], I will make them realize that respect is necessary, I will make them realize that consent is necessary, I will make them realize that if I go talk to a boy alone in a room, that does not mean I consent for sex.

I think a lot of us are finally feeling empowered to stand up for what we believe in, to fight back and to really say, enough is enough and never again. I was so inspired by the [Parkland] kids who, right after such trauma, were able to stand up and speak out for something that affects them personally and deeply—and that affects a lot of the population in the United States.”

Do you think teens have a certain power that maybe older activists don’t have?

I think we have a lot of hope. I mean, I am starting to get a little jaded and tired in this fight from the people who send me mean messages, make terrible comments, ignorant comments. That does take something out of me. But I do look at them and say: “Okay, I wonder what they are going through that will make them lash out like this. I wonder how they’ve been hurt to make them act like this.”

But I do think that kids, younger kids, we have dreams and hopes and beliefs, and we have our whole lives ahead of us to do something about it, to make a difference. And I think that’s pretty cool for a kid to realize and to be able to grasp and understand at a young age.

What’s next for you? In the book you say you’re attending Barnard in the fall, right? Congratulations!

Yes, I am, thank you!

I know you said earlier that you can’t really plan so much for the future, but do you know what want you to study? Do you have any plans or ideas for what your future—for at least the next couple years—looks like?

Well, I am really looking forward to going back to school and being in New York City, a place that’s so rich in culture and the arts. I would love to continue in my mock trial studies and my legal studies. I would love to learn about our law in this country, even international law, too, to help survivors around the world to help amend the criminal justice system and make it more amicable to victims and survivors, and to make sure that perpetrators are rehabilitated properly and that they won’t commit crimes again.

I’m excited to be a kid again, but I do know that advocacy will follow me wherever I go. I want to be focused on the smaller human connections more than the grandiose, big sort of ordeals. When I go off to school, I want to be able to help my classmates navigate different things, have them help me through talking with each other—and again, I hope I can be a lighthouse for any girl or boy who is struggling with anything to come talk to me just to get something off their chest or whatever.

I’m mainly just looking forward to being a student again, going to school and learning—because I’ve got so much more to learn.

Maura Turcotte is an editorial intern at Ms.

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Comments

  1. YoMamaDrums says:

    So powerful. Amazing how a then 15 year old can change the culture. So incredibly grateful. What a difference she’s made.

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