Chessy Prout receives strong show of support at Concord book signing

  • Chessy Prout applauds Rep. Annie Kuster before she is introduced to the crowd at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on Sunday, March 18, 2018. Prout, a survivor of sexual assault at St. Paul’s School, was in Concord as part of her book tour for “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Chessy Prout speaks to the crowd at Gibson’€™s Bookstore with Rep. Annie Kuster at her side on Sunday, March 18, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Chessy Prout gets a standing ovation as she finishes her talk with Rep. Annie Kuster at Gibson’s Bookstore on Sunday, March 18, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Alex Prout waits for his daughter Chessy to be introduced to the crowd at Gibson’€™s Bookstore in Concord on Sunday, March 18, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Emily Walker, 12, and her mother Theresa of Bedford look over Chessy Prout’€™s book before her talk at Gibson’€™s Bookstore on Sunday, March 18, 2018. The Walkers were in the store looking around and decided to buy the book and wait to hear Prout speak. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/18/2018 9:50:54 PM

Twelve-year-old Emily Walker nestled into a plush chair by the big windows in Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on Sunday to start reading sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout’s memoir. She read quitely as more than 100 people – including mothers, daughters, librarians, advocates and teachers – settled into chairs facing a podium where Prout would soon be introduced.

“I want to hear more about what actions she has been taking, and what she’s doing now to help survivors,” Emily, of Bedford, said before the start of the book talk. “It’s nice to see a young woman stand up for herself.”

Walker was in the city Sunday with her mother and grandma – who was car shopping – and decided to stop into Gibson’s to look around. When she learned Prout would be speaking, Walker said she immediately knew she wanted to stay.

Beverly Pietlicki, a Concord resident, also just happened to be in the bookstore with her daughter when they saw people filing in with Prout’s memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, cradled in their hands. Pietlicki said she wasn’t familiar with Prout’s story of sexual assault at St. Paul’s School, but after reading the memoir’s few-page introduction, written by Rep. Annie Kuster, she was drawn in.

“I am the director of the Stephenson Memorial Library in Greenfield, so I purchased a signed copy for the library,” she said, as she dove back into the last few paragraphs of Kuster’s written message.

For Prout, the decision to come forward as the survivor in the high-profile St. Paul’s rape case was about reclaiming the narrative; she was tired of being a faceless, nameless victim and of having others think they could intimidate her.

Following Owen Labrie’s two-week trial in August 2015, hate sites popped up on the internet with pictures of Prout and her friends in middle school, pictures of her youngest sister at age 4, pictures of her family’s home, in addition to rape and death threats.

“There were disgusting vulgar narratives written about me and my assault all over the internet,” Prout told the crowd at Gibson’s. “I wanted to reclaim the internet, reclaim my name, reclaim my story because I was tired of not having a say in any of this.”

Prout continued, saying that her decision to speak out wasn’t simply about stopping the online abuse, but about setting the record straight.

“I was tired of being painted as a flummoxed, naive 15-year-old girl, because obviously they underestimated me, obviously the school underestimated me and my family,” she said. “I am not weak; I was weak in a moment. I lost my strength and I lost my ability to move my body because of my trauma. But now, I am fighting that every single day – and part of my fighting that is coming back here to Concord.”

Prout and the memoir’s co-author Jenn Abelson, an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, were introduced by Kuster, who took to the podium near the bookstore’s big windows. Kuster told the crowd that when Prout shed her anonymity on the Today show in August 2016, her message was deeply personal and relatable. Kuster, who came forward as a survivor of sexual abuse, said Prout “spoke to me as no one had ever spoken to me before.”

“I’m standing with Chessy because this story needs to be told, and because it’s very difficult to speak truth to power,” Kuster said.

Prout’s visit to the Capital City this past weekend was her third since a jury convicted Labrie of misdemeanor sexual assault and of using the internet to lure her into the sexual encounter. Her first visit was last April when she participated in a panel discussion at University of New Hampshire School of Law with Kuster – an event she details in her memoir.

The event at Gibson’s on Sunday was one of the final stops on Prout’s eight-city book tour that began March 6, the day of her memoir’s release. Her father, Alex Prout, who was able to attend several of the events, said Sunday that what has been most tragic is to learn how many other families have been affected by sexual assault.

“While finding the courage to speak up in a public forum, these women have been able to have very personal, private conversations with Chessy,” he said. “It’s been a real reminder to our family about how important this advocacy work is that we’re doing now.”

In writing her memoir, Prout said, she wanted to lay everything out on the table and tell survivors that sexual assault is never their fault, despite the shame and blame they so often feel, her father said.

Abelson echoed that point during the roughly hourlong book talk, noting that there was never a day during the writing process that Prout said, “I can’t talk about this,” or, “I don’t want to do this.”

Many attendees of Sunday’s event spoke about the “courage” and “grace” that Prout has shown since coming forward.

Phillip Nadeau of Loudon, who grew up in the 1960s, said it’s refreshing and admirable to see a young woman speaking up about issues that have long been swept under the rug. He also said he hopes others feel empowered after hearing Prout’s story.

If victims don’t speak up, this type of abuse will continue to happen – and that’s not okay, said Ellen Hawkins of Dover. She said Prout is helping lead an important fight and challenging the status quo.

While Prout has taken that fight to the national stage, it first began in the halls of her Florida high school, where she went after St. Paul’s. There, she spoke openly with her classmates about the importance of healthy relationships and the meaning of consent. She recalled Sunday the conversation she had with a male student about a “consent is” wristband she was wearing, and how he offered his support for the campaign to prevent sexual violence and promote consent in schools.

That moment stood out to Walker, who realized those conversations were absent from her school’s health curriculum.

“In my health class, we went from girls learning about their menstrual cycle to pregnancy, and we skipped everything in between,” she said. “Consent is something that really needs to be spoken about more.”

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

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