Prout memoir offers unfiltered look at life since St. Paul’s sex assault

  • Chessy Prout HEATHER DONLAN

Monitor staff
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Nothing could prepare Chessy Prout for the morning of Aug. 30, 2016 – the day she introduced herself to the world as a sexual assault survivor.

Sandwiched between her parents on the couch, she watched NBC’s Today show with apprehension, questioning whether shedding her anonymity as the 15-year-old victim in the St. Paul’s School rape case was the right decision. Her mom offered a few comforting words, but Prout just nodded, unable to articulate a response.

The ringing of her dad’s cellphone broke her silence. The screen lit up with the name of St. Paul’s Rector Michael Hirschfeld.

Prout quickly grabbed the phone from her dad’s hand and offered Hirschfeld a few choice words. She was surprised at her ability to stay calm – and yet be direct – despite two years of pent-up anger.

Hirschfeld stammered as he blamed the lawyers for how he had responded in the aftermath of Prout’s 2014 assault by senior Owen Labrie. Prout never gave Hirschfeld the chance to say goodbye before hanging up the phone.

In her highly-anticipated memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, Prout gives readers an unfiltered look into her assault, the high-profile criminal trial and her decision to go public. The memoir, which will be released Tuesday, takes readers on an emotional journey through Prout’s childhood in Japan, her freshman year at St. Paul’s and her advocacy work.

“I’m a normal teenage girl. I’m the 1 in 6 girls to be sexually assaulted before we turn 18. My story is all too common,” Prout, now 19, said in an interview with the Monitor. “I hope that my voice and telling my story can be a voice to other people, young and old, wanting to tell their story.”

Prout’s decision to reveal her identity on national television came less than a month after St. Paul’s objected to her family’s use of pseudonyms in a civil lawsuit, which has since settled in federal court. Prout details in her memoir that she was tired of being a faceless, nameless victim and wanted to reclaim the narrative.

While she had considered going public for some time, the St. Paul’s motion was “the final nail in the coffin,” she told the Monitor.

“I am no longer going to let an institution bully me into silence,” she said.

Her journey from victim to a young survivor helping lead a movement for change began just weeks after her May 2014 assault in a mechanical room on the St. Paul’s campus. During the summer following her freshman year, she flew a few hundred miles south from her home in Naples, Fla., to an orphanage on Cat Island, a remote stretch of land in the Bahamas. The youth missionary trip introduced her to 7-year-old Mark, who was attached to her hip and “stole my heart immediately,” she wrote in her memoir.

Prout also heard deeply personal stories of other volunteers to whom she ultimately disclosed her sexual assault. The mission trip was a “defining moment,” she said in an interview, noting that she realized for the first time that telling her story could help others and empower change.

“The main reason why I stood up and told my story in the first place was to show the humanity behind the word ‘victim’ and ‘survivor,’ ” Prout said. “I wanted to let other young people know that our voices matter, and we deserve to be heard.”

Through the sharing of journal entries, Facebook exchanges, emails, text messages and photos, Prout lets readers behind the scenes and into some of the most private aspects of her life and her thoughts. She also shares letters written to her by members of the St. Paul’s community, sexual assault survivors and strangers who offered their support during her three days of testimony at Labrie’s August 2015 trial and following her interview on the Today show one year later.

“It was important for me to share my vulnerabilities, because there is no perfect victim,” Prout said.

By writing a memoir, Prout said, she hoped to not only aid her own healing process but to encourage other people to be more introspective. Prout said by turning a terrible experience into something positive, she found her purpose.

While writing her memoir, Prout read The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, which follows three friends who resolve to take action against unpunished sexual assaults and the rape culture at their high school. She said the book inspired her because it was about girls her own age standing up against injustice in their school, just as she had set out to do.

Prout said the movement is bigger than her voice or her story, but that her experiences can add so much to the ongoing conversation, both in small communities and at the national level.

“I’m excited to help propel the conversation about how we can teach kids younger about the concept of consent,” she said. “I’m glad to be able to travel around and push that conversation further in the different places that I’m going.”

One of the stops along her book tour is Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on March 18. Prout said returning to Concord is a bit of a “strange” experience because it is where she spent some of the hardest days of her life, but the city is also at the center of many wonderful memories with friends and family.

Prout returned to Concord in April 2017 for the first time since the trial to participate in a panel discussion at the University of New Hampshire Law School with U.S. congresswoman Annie Kuster, who has also come forward as a survivor of sexual abuse. Prout details in her memoir how the return trip was emotionally draining and difficult, but also an important step in reclaiming her story and her identity.

“I believe that it’s our time to really stand up and fight for our rights and to fight for our own respect and dignity,” she told those gathered at the law school. “I’m tired of being silenced and ashamed.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)