“A nuanced addition to the #MeToo conversation.” —Vice
A young survivor tells her searing, visceral story of sexual assault, justice, and healing in this gutwrenching memoir.
The numbers are staggering: nearly one in five girls ages fourteen to seventeen have been the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. This is the true story of one of those girls.
In 2014, Chessy Prout was a freshman at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, when a senior boy sexually assaulted her as part of a ritualized game of conquest. Chessy bravely reported her assault to the police and testified against her attacker in court. Then, in the face of unexpected backlash from her once-trusted school community, she shed her anonymity to help other survivors find their voice.
This memoir is more than an account of a horrific event. It takes a magnifying glass to the institutions that turn a blind eye to such behavior and a society that blames victims rather than perpetrators. Chessy’s story offers real, powerful solutions to upend rape culture as we know it today. Prepare to be inspired by this remarkable young woman and her story of survival, advocacy, and hope in the face of unspeakable trauma.
About the Author
Jenn Abelson is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Before joining The Washington Post, she worked as a journalist for The Boston Globe Spotlight Team. Her investigations have exposed sexual assault at prep schools, doctors secretly performing two surgeries at the same time, and the widespread mislabeling of fish in the restaurant industry. In 2015, she was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work on “Shadow Campus,” a series about dangerous off-campus college housing. Jenn grew up in New York, attended Cornell University, and lives in Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
I Have the Right To ONE
March 11, 2011
Ihad only one question on my mind as I walked toward my sixth-grade math class: Which bedsheet would make me look like a real Grecian goddess?
Later that night was the annual Bingo fund-raiser at our all-girls school in Tokyo, and this year it was a Greek-themed event. You’d never seen Bingo like this: the entire gymnasium and cafeteria filled up with students, parents, and teachers who pounded their fists on the tables in frenzied excitement.
Some of my friends were already wrapped in exquisite togas. I was twelve and loved any excuse to dress up, but was holding out until I found the perfect sheet. In the meantime, I wore my regular school uniform: navy knee-high socks and a white button-down shirt tucked into a thick polyester blue-and-green-plaid skirt.
I hoped Mom would let me borrow one of the nicer sheets that shimmered in the light. She was chair of the silent auction and had been working on the Bingo fund-raiser for months. Maybe I’d even thread leaves into my blond hair like the wreaths worn at the ancient Olympic Games.
As I made my way into Mr. Martindale’s room on Friday afternoon, I noticed some girls giggling as they climbed under their desks, pretending there was an earthquake only they could feel. Nothing was moving.
In Japan, earthquakes were pretty routine. Sometimes we had one every week, and we had just felt one on Wednesday. I’d lived in Tokyo since I was six months old, so I barely noticed the small quakes anymore. But new kids at my school, the International School of the Sacred Heart, usually freaked out at the tiniest tremor.
Just before the bell rang, I was knocked to my knees. Windows rattled back and forth and books tumbled off the shelves. This was no pretend earthquake anymore: it was the biggest one I’d ever felt.
I squeezed under a cluster of metal-legged desks for safety with five of my classmates. My head banged against the hard bottom of the desk as I was tossed around like a rag doll. Mr. Martindale stood by the sliding doors and grasped the frame to steady himself. White geometric cubes rained down from the windowsill as the tree branches shook angrily outside.
I locked eyes with my best friend, Annie. I thought we were going to die. My eyelids shut like I was trying to avoid the scary part of a movie. I didn’t want to see how this ended.
When the tremors paused, the loudspeakers blared: “This is an emergency.”
“Get up,” Mr. Martindale shouted. “We’re evacuating.”
The clock at the front of the room read 2:54 p.m. Thumbtacks fell from the bulletin board, sending a poster of Albert Einstein to the floor. We hurried past blue lockers in the hallway and filed out the side emergency stairs. Students streamed out of every door of the building, turning the hilly driveway into a sea of shivering white togas.
We always gathered outside for earthquake drills in case buildings collapsed. But it didn’t feel any safer there. Electrical wires swung like vines in the jungle. A gray building towering over Sacred Heart moved across the blue sky as if it were a cloud.
I stood on my toes while my class descended the giant hill leading down to the parking lot. I searched frantically for my older sister, Lucy, a freshman at the high school, and my four-year-old sister, Christianna, who attended the pre-K program. It was close to pickup time for the younger kids, which meant Mom was probably close by. I spotted her across the parking lot with Christianna, and I waved wildly. Relief washed over me. Thank God they were safe.
“Mom, I’m okay!” I shouted over the commotion, and threw my fist in the air with my thumb pointing to the heavens. Hot tears filled my blue eyes as I wove my way through a knot of cars, parents, kids, and teachers. I flung my arms around Mom. I wiped away the wetness before anyone saw. You didn’t show signs of weakness in Japan. Being stoic and humble were the most admired qualities.
But sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Lucy was a teenager—fifteen—and better at keeping things buttoned up. She had dark hair and hazel eyes and looked more like Dad, who is half-Japanese. I had the all-American looks from Mom’s family.
We found Lucy with the rest of her class farther up the hill. She was sitting on the ground in a daze, hugging her knees.
“This is so cool,” she mumbled.
Aftershocks forced us to crouch defensively on the hill. My sisters and I huddled together and listened to the crescendo of rattling windows to our right, looking fearfully at the large poles with dangling electrical wires to our left. Mom worried that cars parked along the steep driveway would start rolling sideways if there was another jolt.
I just wanted to go home. The principal eventually allowed students to leave if their parents were with them, so we began our climb up the hills through the University of the Sacred Heart, which is next to our school.
We made it to the top of the second hill, grabbed our bikes from the rack, and walked them up the third hill. I thought about taking my handlebars and running, but Christianna wouldn’t stop crying while we wound our way through the ancient university gardens.
As we trudged through the eerily abandoned streets, shards of glass from broken streetlamps littered the cracked sidewalks. We arrived home less than an hour after the earthquake.
The color returned to Mom’s face when Dad finally called. He had had trouble finding a cell signal in central Tokyo, where he worked as CEO of Invesco Japan, a division of the American company Invesco.
“I’m okay, I’m safe,” he said. “But turn on CNN.”
In stunned silence, we watched thirty-foot tsunami waves wash over entire coastline towns ninety minutes east of us. People, real people, were drowning before my eyes. I couldn’t blink. News anchors reported that the quake had a 9.0 magnitude, the largest ever recorded in Japan. I grabbed Christianna’s hand, trying to soothe her as much as me.
Dad called again a few hours later. “I’m going to stay to make sure everything is fine with the business. Is it okay for some employees to sleep at the house tonight if they can’t get home?”
“Of course, whatever you need,” Mom said.
Mom grabbed everything she could find in the cupboards and cooked like she was feeding an army. A somber haze enveloped our apartment as news anchors switched between the tsunami waves and dire concerns about radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. I staggered around the apartment, unable to form words.
It was amazing how much could change in twenty-four hours. The night before, our home had felt like a party after Lucy received her acceptance to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire.
Lucy was three grades ahead of me and president of her class. She had that angsty I’m-too-cool teenager thing going. But when the St. Paul’s acceptance email flashed on the computer screen, Lucy cried and pleaded, “Can I go? Can I go? Can I hit accept?” She was so excited she literally ran out the front door and sprinted around the neighborhood at nine p.m.
Dad had attended the prestigious New England prep school as a scholarship student back in the 1980s, and he secretly hoped that we would follow his path. A huge smile spread across Dad’s face whenever he talked about his days playing baseball and basketball at St. Paul’s. He made lifelong friends there and still kept in touch with his basketball mentor, who taught him the importance of integrity and compassion. Dad was especially proud that the boarding school had started a Japanese language program at his request.
I wanted to be happy for Lucy, but I was devastated at this news. Lucy was my best friend, and the thought of her leaving me ripped a hole in my chest. I couldn’t believe that she would go so far away to boarding school. We had our typical sister fights: she tried to get rid of me during sleepovers with her friends, and I loved “borrowing” her clothes. But at the end of the day, our bond of sisterhood ran deep.
When we were younger, we’d wake up and spend hours together with our Barbies. We still loved playing hide-and-seek with the other kids in our three-story yellow-brick apartment building. Lucy had a secret hiding spot that she wouldn’t tell me about. All I knew was that I could hear her voice from inside the beige hallway walls.
Our life in Tokyo revolved around a few square blocks that Lucy and I could navigate with our eyes closed. Our neighborhood in Hiroo was filled with both Japanese and gaijin (foreigners) like us. Each morning we greeted the stoic guards at our school, who had watched my sisters and me graduate from strollers to bikes. I knew some Japanese, but we mostly spoke with them in broken English with hand motions and head nods. After school, Lucy and I rode our bikes to the local sushi shop, where the old lady knew my daily order: a toro and scallion roll, ikura nigiri, and inarizushi, marinated tofu skin wrapped around rice.
Almost every weekend, our family brought in dinner—usually udon noodles or hamburgers and shakes—and we played karaoke on Wii Nintendo in the living room. Mom had a beautiful voice and always belted out a song from her favorite band, Earth, Wind & Fire. I loved all music, from Taylor Swift to Run-DMC. Christianna, Lucy, and I had spontaneous dance parties that spilled from room to room, growing in energy and tempo. We liked to jump on Dad’s black lacquer coffee table, which he’d bought when he was a bachelor. It was low to the ground, and we used it for everything, from stage to dinner table to game station to dance floor.
“Come on, Christianna, let me twirl you,” I’d say, spinning her tiny body around on the table. “Now follow me.”
“Okay, Chessy,” Christianna squeaked, copying my dance moves.
Dad would cheer us on from the couch. Even though he worked long hours at his job, family came first on weekends. And Dad was a staple at our sports games and other school events at Sacred Heart, always clapping the loudest.
On Sundays our family walked together to church in Omotesando, and I devoured curry doughnuts at Andersen’s bakery on the way home. I loved those fluffy dough balls so much I dreamed about them in anticipation: they were soft and crunchy at the same time and filled with curried minced meat, potatoes, and carrots.
Our life in Tokyo was perfect. This was our home, where we—all five of us—belonged.
And Lucy was leaving all this behind, leaving me behind to attend St. Paul’s.
On the day of the earthquake, nobody was leaving. The subway and train systems shut down in Tokyo, and hotels were mobbed with businessmen and stranded tourists. Dad waited until nearly all his employees had found a place to stay and then began the long trek home with several others past the Hotel Okura and through the streets of Roppongi.
I emailed my best friend Annie to see how she was doing:
Are you guys ok??? Are you home?? Im sooo worried!! :( I hope you all got home safely . . . Lots of aftershocks . . . we r watching cnn and all the tsunamis and lots of fires. ohmygosh. Sooooo scary . . . all covered in black debris. Email me back when you are home or safe!! I hope you all are ok and prepared for the other shocks. :(
Annie wrote back a little while later:
Omg I’m not okay!! :( everyone is so frantic here!! My house is so BAD I’m Serious!!! Everything fell!! I’m so sad n scared. please help! I’m not even sleeping in my house!!! :((((
I wished I could bring Annie and my other friends home so we could protect each other; safety in numbers. My friends at Sacred Heart were my second family. But now we were separated, and I couldn’t comfort them. I watched the devastation and loss of life on TV. All these people were dying, and there was nothing we could do to save them. I felt terrified and helpless. But mostly I was numb.
Lucy moved into my pink butterfly canopy bed so Dad’s employees could sleep in her room. We curled up together and listened to the wooden shoji screens shake with every tremor. I tried to lie perfectly still, as if that would stop the aftershocks, and prayed, “Please don’t get bigger, please don’t get bigger.”
Mom was supposed to host a baby shower for my piano teacher on Sunday. She loved throwing parties and knitting together new friendships. I always looked forward to our massive Halloween bashes, when Mom and Dad would lead dozens of kids on candy hunts through the neighborhood. I learned from Mom the importance of building community, and I tried to welcome new girls to Sacred Heart and invite them to my birthday parties and sleepovers.
I was excited about the baby shower, but in the hours after the earthquake, no one could think about celebrating life to come when there was so much death and destruction in the country we called home.
Sacred Heart closed school indefinitely. Dad heard from friends in the US military and Japanese government that the nuclear crisis was far worse than it was being portrayed. Mom and Dad huddled together and came up with a plan. Instead of our family heading to Okinawa for spring break at the end of the month, Dad enlisted the help of a friend to get Mom and us girls on a flight out of Japan. Dad needed to stay behind to take care of the business.
We tearfully said good-bye to Dad in the driveway. I flung my arms around his waist and refused to let go. Yeah, he was the head of a company, but he was our dad first. He should have been coming with us. The earthquake had already done so much damage; why did it need to tear apart our family, too?
Mom promised we’d return to Japan in a few weeks when things got back to normal. We were just taking a short trip to our vacation home in Florida. We’d spent every summer and winter break in the United States, hopscotching between family and friends in New England, New York, and Florida. Lucy dubbed us “vagabums” because we lived out of suitcases. I tried to convince myself that this was another journey to America. But the feelings of doom would not recede.
I passed out on the long flight, exhausted from the fear that had been marathoning through my body for the past three days.
Suddenly I was jarred awake. I looked over at Mom, who was trying to buckle in a wily Christianna before we began the descent into Chicago for our connecting flight. We walked into the terminal and camera flashes blinded us. Journalists pushed microphones into our faces. Somebody mentioned that we were the first flight from Japan to land in Chicago since the earthquake.
Before I said anything, Lucy told me my teeth—newly without braces—were now stained yellow from the curry udon I ate on the plane. I kept my mouth shut.
I loved playing in our apartment in Hiroo with Lucy, Christianna, Mom, and Dad. I’d dance around in my school uniform before heading to International School of the Sacred Heart.
My family enjoyed taking trips around Japan, including visiting Aunt Fueko (above). We wore matching robes during a visit to a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn (first image, above).
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope
By Chessy Prout and Jenn Abelson
About the Book
The numbers are staggering: nearly one in five girls ages fourteen to seventeen have been the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. In 2014, Chessy Prout was a freshman at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, when a senior boy sexually assaulted her as part of a ritualized game of conquest. Chessy bravely reported her assault to the police and testified against her attacker in court. Then, in the face of unexpected backlash from her once-trusted school community, she shed her anonymity to help other survivors find their voice. This gutwrenching memoir is more than an account of a horrific event; it takes a magnifying glass to the institutions that turn a blind eye to such behavior and a society that blames victims rather than perpetrators. Chessy’s story offers real, powerful solutions to upend rape culture as we know it today. Prepare to be inspired by this remarkable young woman and her story of survival, advocacy, and hope in the face of unspeakable trauma.
Discussion Questions/Writing Prompts
These questions can be used as targeted questions for discussion and reflection or, alternatively, they can be used as writing prompts.
1. In the introduction by U.S. Congress member Ann McLane Kuster, Kuster suggests we are at a cultural tipping point in regard to sexual violence against women and the often unstated expectation that survivors remain silent. She goes on to ask the critical question: “What are we going to do about it?” How does Kuster’s admission of her own personal experience as a survivor of sexual assault frame Chessy’s story? What can readers gain from this knowledge in better understanding the scope of sexual assault?
2. Kuster encourages Chessy and all survivors to “rock the boat.” What do you believe she hopes they will do? Why is this action so important? In your opinion, in what ways does Chessy accomplish this?
3. In the prologue, Chessy provides readers with an overview of her experiences on the night she was sexually assaulted, and closes with the advice given to her by Dr. G., who tells her, “Call your mother. How you handle this will inform the rest of your life.” How does Chessy’s choice to reach out to her family ultimately change the course of her life?
4. From your initial introduction to Chessy as the book opens, what are some of your impressions about her as a young teen? In what ways is her life similar to your own? How is it different?
5. Early in the book, Chessy shares her memories of growing up in Japan, including the earthquake and its aftermath that eventually causes her family’s move back to the United States. How does her life there seem different than what she experiences in Florida and eventually at St. Paul’s?
6. I Have the Right To is a memoir told in first person. Do you think if anyone besides Chessy were telling her story, the reader would have the same type of experience? In what ways does reading a memoir impact you as a person? Does knowing that Chessy’s story is real make the experience more poignant?
7. How does Chessy’s father’s experiences at St. Paul’s initially frame Chessy’s opinions about the school? Why does learning that a stark contrast exists between expectations and the reality of the climate and culture at St. Paul’s prove to be difficult and painful to both Chessy and her family?
8. Chessy states, “Tabitha said she refused to be used by anyone ever again. She tried to make sure I didn’t either by calling me on my bullshit . . .” Do you believe Tabitha’s attitude and willingness to share her struggles with self-harm, anxiety, and overcoming sexual assault ultimately help Chessy? If so, in what ways?
9. After hearing details of the events with Owen, Buzz tells her mother, “‘Susan . . . that sounds like rape.’” Why does hearing this declaration impact Chessy so strongly? In what ways does Buzz help her understand what has actually happened? Do you believe Buzz proves herself to be an important supporter for Chessy during this time?
10. In what ways is Chessy’s relationship with Lucy typical for two sisters? Though Lucy struggles to deal with Chessy’s assault, what are some of the ways she ultimately shows she is an advocate for Chessy and other survivors?
11. Discuss St. Paul’s tradition of the Senior Salute and “slaying.” What about it did you find most disturbing? How does this impact your understanding of the idea of tradition? In your opinion, what are the best ways to defend against these types of misogynistic behaviors?
12. Other female students suggest that Chessy is attention-seeking when speaking about what happened to her. Why do you think this kind of attitude toward those who bring awareness to being victims of rape and sexual assault is often prevalent?
13. Though some girls admitted to knowing Owen was a predator, why did so many girls choose not to believe Chessy after she came forward about being sexually assaulted?
14. Chessy states, “Dad was my hero. He had literally dropped everything and risked his career to make sure I was supported and protected each and every day.” Why is having the support of her father and the rest of her family so critical to Chessy? Why can this battle be so difficult for survivors without family support systems? What advice would you offer to those who are suffering?
15. In I Have the Right To, fear both incapacitates and motivates Chessy and her family. Consider how each one deals with these emotions. In what ways do they acknowledge them? How are they able to turn to others for help? What are the consequences of their reactions?
16. How does learning that the parents of other St. Paul’s students raised money for Owen’s defense impact Chessy? What was your reaction to this knowledge?
17. Do you think Chessy’s experience is a unique one? Why might it take someone time to understand what’s happened to them? Why does Chessy refuse to be seen as a powerless victim?
18. Examine and discuss the significance of St. Paul’s faculty and leadership in perpetuating a toxic culture at their school. In your opinion, why would adults supposedly committed to the education and well-being of children choose to behave this way?
19. Given what you’ve learned in I Have the Right To, what elements about the criminal trial against Owen and the aftermath surprised you the most?
20. Regarding her mother, Chessy states, “She assumed that her daughters would be treated equally at St. Paul’s, that our bodies and voices would be respected. She’d never imagined that the most dangerous thing she could ever do was send us to boarding school.” How does Chessy’s mother ultimately deal with the gravity of what has happened to her daughter and her family? In what ways does her effort to help her girls state their rights impact each of them?
21. Discuss Chessy and her #IHaveTheRightTo movement. How does this hashtag become a catalyst for change within the framework of schools and communities, as well as with the survivors themselves? Do you think participants are better off for having joined forces instead of choosing silence, advocating for themselves as part of the team of survivors who speak up and out?
22. How does Chessy’s work with PAVE help her continue to find her voice and use it as an instrument of empowerment and good for all those battling to survive sexual assault?
23. Thinking about what you’ve learned from Chessy and her family’s experiences in I Have the Right To, what advice would you give to young women and men facing similar situations?
24. Explain the significance of the title, I Have the Right To. In what ways does it accurately describe the events and relationships portrayed in this memoir?
25. Using the phrase “This is a story about . . . ,” supply five words to describe I Have the Right To. Explain your choices.
1. Empowering sexual assault survivors to stand up for themselves and each other is a hallmark of I Have the Right To. Can you think of other rights, causes, or issues to which you could apply the phrase “I Have the Right To” in order to assert your rights and your vision for a more just community or world?
2. Using the Internet and databases available from the library, research survivor-related organizations, clubs, and societies, especially those that are organized by teens. What are the biggest benefits of such organizations? What are the particular challenges faced by organizers? If you were to engage in a similar activity, what information from both your research and Chessy’s memoir would you utilize to help guide your work?
3. Organize a group and watch one of the documentaries noted in the Resources section of I Have the Right To. After watching, discuss what was learned from the film and focus on what can be done to further help others in need. What would your next steps be? How would you convey to others the importance of speaking up and sharing stories?
4. The #MeToo movement has also empowered sexual assault survivors to speak up and out regarding their experiences. Using the hashtag as a search term, investigate specific ways this platform shares similar efforts and results with the IHaveTheRightTo campaign.
5. Create a campaign slogan and logos for a support group like Chessy’s. Alternatively, use a variety of mediums to create an original piece of artwork that is symbolic of one of the major themes of I Have the Right To.
6. While what Chessy shares in I Have the Right To is her personal journey through the experience of sexual assault, her story is sadly not a unique one; similar events have happened in schools and universities across our country. Investigate other court cases where teen or young adult perpetrators have gone to trial for sexual assault crimes. What are the common themes in these cases? After your research, write a reflection of what you’ve learned and your response to this knowledge.
7. There are a number of national and local resources that can help provide support to rape victims and their families. Select one of the organizations from the resource list below and learn more about the services provided by considering the following questions:
Who runs this organization?
How long has it been in operation?
How is it funded?
What are the stated goals?
What do they offer those in need of assistance?
Hotline Support for Survivors
National Sexual Assault Hotline:
1-800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org
En espańol: rainn.org/es
National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-422-4453 and childhelp.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 and suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Loved Ones of Survivors
Paving the Way for Parents: pavingthewayforparents.org
Love Is Respect: 1-866-331-9474/ Text “loveis” to 22522 and loveisrespect.org
Break the Cycle: breakthecycle.org
Join One Love: joinonelove.org
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual
The Anti-Violence Project: 1-212-714-1141 avp.org
LGBT National Youth Talkline: Hotline 1-800-246-PRIDE (7743) and glbthotline.org/chat.html
Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project: 1-800-832-1901
The Network La Red: 1-800-832-1901 and tnlr.org
Transgender Survivors and Loved Ones
Forge: 414-559-2123 and forge-forward.org
1in6: Online chat support and peer support group: 1in6.org
Male Survivor: malesurvivor.org
School Sexual Assault
Stop Sexual Assault in Schools: www.ssais.org
Military Sexual Assault
Safe Helpline: 1-877-995-5247 and safehelpline.org
Protect Our Defenders: protectourdefenders.com
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 and ndvh.org
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence State Coalitions: ncadv.org/stay-connected/state-coalitions
SurvJustice: 202-869-0699 or survjustice.org
National Crime Victim Law Institute: firstname.lastname@example.org or https://law.lclark.edu/centers/national_crime_victim_law_institute/about_ncvli/
It Happened to Alexa Foundation: ithappenedtoalexa.org
Office of Victim Services: www.jud.ct.gov/Publications/vs030.pdf
Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment:shatteringthesilence.org
It’s On Us: itsonus.org
No More: nomore.org
Survivor Love Letter: survivorloveletter.tumblr.com
Joyful Heart Foundation: joyfulheartfoundation.org
Engaging Boys and Men to End Sexual Assault
Men Can Stop Rape: mencanstoprape.org
Consent Is Campaign: consentis.org
This guide was created by Dr. Rose Brock, an assistant professor in Library Science Department in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University. Dr. Brock holds a Ph.D. in Library Science, specializing in children’s and young adult literature.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.