Discussion Questions

The Lovely Bones

By Alice Sebold
Rape, trauma, grief, coping and healing

  1. When the school principal tells Lindsey that he was “sorry to hear of your loss,” Lindsey responds petulantly: “I wasn’t aware I had lost anything.”  The principal contrasts this response with another girl’s, Vicki Kurtz, whose mother had died the year before.  When he had expressed sympathy, Vicki welcomed it and sobbed into his arms.  He feels it had been an “artfully handled crisis,” whereas Lindsey Salmon “was another thing altogether.  She was gifted…”  Do you think Lindsey’s is the more advanced way of coping?  Are there ways of coping that are “more advanced”?  The principal seems to imply that because Lindsey is gifted, she copes with grief alone.  Could complex, intelligent, and gifted people react in the same way Vicki Kurtz did, leaning on other people to help get through a crisis?  Would this be a weak way of coping?
  2. Susie’s father pours the Scotch down the kitchen sink when he hears about Susie’s death because, he says, “I’m afraid I might drink it.”  The day of Susie’s funeral, Grandma Lynn encourages him to drink.  Do you drinking as a way of coping is a good idea?  By writing Grandma Lynn as a strong-willed, independent woman who holds up well in crisis (who drinks) and Susie’s father as a sensitive, vulnerable man (who doesn’t drink), what does the author seem to be saying about alcohol as a coping mechanism?  Do you agree?
  3. Jack Salmon refuses to allow Buckley to use Susie’s clothes in his garden.  Is he allowing himself to be swallowed up by his grief?  Susie observes that “The living deserve attention, too.”  Does Jack’s grief increase his family’s suffering, or is there something admirable about his holding on so tightly to Susie’s memory and not denying his profound sadness?  Is there a point where he should have let go?  When is the “right” time to let go? Is there a “right” or a “normal” timeline for grieving?
  4. Does Buckley really see Susie, or does he make up a version of his sister as a way of understanding, and not being too emotionally damaged by, her death?  How do you explain tragedy to a child?  Do you think Susie’s parents do a good job of helping Buckley comprehend the loss of his sister?
  5. In The Lovely Bones, adult relationships (Abigail and Jack, Ray’s parents) are dysfunctional and troubled, whereas the young relationships (Lindsay and Samuel, Ray and Susie, Ray and Ruth) all seem to have depth, maturity, and potential.  What does the author seem to be saying about young love?  About the trials and tribulations of married life?
  6. Discuss the way in which guilt manifests itself in the various characters: Jack, Abigail, Lindsey, Mr. Harvey, and Len Fenerman.
  7. Susie’s father seems overwhelmed by his grief, and finds solace from his memories of Susie and his family, while Susie’s mother wants to escape her grief by pulling away from him and, to some extent, her children too.  If she and Susie’s father had had similar coping mechanisms, do you think their marriage could have survived? 
  8. Traumatic events can put people into reflective phases where they tend to examine what is and is not working in their lives.  This may highlight the flaws in relationships, sharpening rather than smoothing the rocks relationships are foundering upon.  Given Abigail’s discontent with the wife/mother life she felt stuck in, and the intellectual persona she felt she had sacrificed, do you think her marriage to Susie’s father could have lasted had the trauma of Susie’s murder not created such tumultuous circumstances?
  9. Can Abigail’s choice to leave her family be justified? 
  10. Why does Abigail leave her dead daughter’s photo outside the Chicago Airport on her way back to her family?
  11. After Susie’s rape and murder, the pain of their loss coupled with people’s changed behavior toward the family creates a sense of alienation for Susie’s parents and siblings. How do they each experience loneliness and solitude after Susie’s death?
  12. Why does the author include details about Mr. Harvey’s childhood and his memories of his mother?  By giving him a human side, does Sebold get us closer to understanding his motivation?  Sebold explained in an interview about the novel that murderers “are not animals but men,” and that is what makes them so frightening.  Do you agree?
  13. Susie is not the first girl Mr. Harvey had raped or killed.  He describes his first rape on p. 292 as the “muffled rape of a school friend.”  She switched schools shortly after and he never saw her again.  Why do you think this girl didn’t report his crime to the police?  Do you think that if she had, it might have prevented the many rapes and murders that came after? 
  14. Predators target vulnerable people (children, women, elderly, disabled) to maximize their sense of control over the act and minimize the odds of getting caught.  In fact, 75 percent of all survivors know their attackers and 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault survivors know their attackers.  Why do you think predators choose to attack people they know?  Why do you think Mr. Harvey chose Susie?
  15. Susie followed Mr. Harvey into his hole.  Do you think that if she had done anything differently, she may have lived?  Often, survivors of sexual assault bare the brunt of the blame for their attack, because it helps others to believe that by avoiding that same behavior, they can avoid being vulnerable and bad things won’t happen to them.  Can you remember a time when you were vulnerable?  Maybe when you were sick, or tired, or sad, or desperate, or lonely.  Is it possible to completely avoid vulnerability, or is this something that makes us human?  Watching her community memorialize the one-year anniversary of her death (p. 206) Susie says, “What had happened to me could happen to anyone.”  Do you agree? 
  16. Susie’s rape and murder takes place in an American suburb in the 1970s.  Some would argue that in the years since, our world has become more fast-paced and atomized, breaking up our sense of community.  Do you think the atomization of our culture facilitates crime by allowing for the anonymity of criminals?  Hal worked through his network of biker friends to track George Harvey down.  Could this kind of social networking happen today?
  17. Susie is killed just as she was beginning to see her mother and father as real people, not just as parents.  Watching her parents’ relationship change in the wake of her death, she begins to understand how they react to the world and to each other.  How does this newfound understanding affect Susie?
  18. How does Susie’s view of sex change in the course of the novel?  During her own life, she exchanges an almost chaste kiss with Ray.  After her rape, she has the opportunity to observe her parents, Lindsey and Samuel, as well as her mother and Detective Fenerman.  Is Susie’s impression of sexuality altered by what she observes?  How does her experience with Ray and Ruth fit in?
  19. Ray and Susie’s final physical experience (via Ruth’s body) seems to act almost as an exorcism that sweeps away, if only temporarily, Susie’s memory of her rape.  What is the significance of this act for Susie, and does it serve to counterbalance the violent act that ended Susie’s life? 
  20. Alice Sebold’s book is also about how out of tragedy also comes healing.  Susie’s family fractures and comes back together and a town learns to find strength in each other.  Do you think that good can also come of trauma?

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is an autobiographical work that focuses on the early years of Maya Angelou’s life.  Angelou is a poet and her lyrical use of prose and her flowing style add to the pleasure of reading her work.

Possible Discussion Points:

  • What role does race play in this work?
  • Maya’s parents speak a very different English than her grandmother, what role does class play in the novel and in how people are respected?
  • Maya’s grandmother commands a certain level of respect and also endures a level of discrimination, how is Maya’s grandmother’s role in society similar or different to that of her mother in the city?
  • There is a reported rape of a white woman in the novel that leads to the hiding of Uncle Willie, what does this scene show about the town’s reaction to a white woman being assaulted? Contrast this to the reaction of Maya’s own experience.
  • What role does vigilante justice play in the novel?  Knowing that very few reports of sexual assaults or rape lead to convictions, why might vigilantism hold an appeal?
  • What role does fiction and literature play in the Novel, and what role does it fulfill in Maya’s life?
  • Maya describes a desire to feel loved and a desire for closeness that she uses to justify being victimized.  Do you feel that this is a common sense that children might blame themselves for a sexual assault because of a wanting to feel loved or be close to an adult?
  • Maya suffers two experiences, one of rape the other of knowing her rapist was killed (hinted that family and friends carried out this action), which of these do you believe Maya is most traumatized by? Why?
  • Maya stops talking for a time after her experience, what are your views around this action and the reaction from others, her school teacher and grandmother in relation to this silence?
  • What role do Maya’s early encounters with sex and sexuality play in her views of sex as a young adult?  Draw on her sexual assault as well as her views around her brother’s early escapades.
  • How does this influence Maya’s decision to “try” sex and her pregnancy that follows?
  • Does Maya develops trust and love at the end of the book, or does she just realize she has always had the gifts and just needed confidence to use them?
  • This book is often filed in the biography section, do you agree with this classification, or should this be considered autobiographical-fiction or just modern literature?

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We Were the Mulvaneys

  1. After the rape, Marianne keeps repeating, “I am as much to blame as he is.” Does the narrative back this assertion up in any way? How much does Oates actually reveal about what happened that night?
  2. Both parents reject their daughter after the rape. Why? How are their reasons different? Are we meant to condemn both of them for their cruelty to Marianne? Or is their action somehow understandable and forgivable?
  3. What role does the farm play in the life of this family? Is Oates making some larger point about the difficulties and tragedies of the family farm in American society?
  4. Why is it Patrick - the scientist, the cold rationalist - who acts to “execute justice” on Marianne’s rapist?
  5. Animals are at the heart of the Mulvaney family - they not only love their cats, dogs, birds, and horses, they love each other and communicate with each other through their animals. Is this a family strength, or does it reveal something skewed in the family emotional dynamic? Have they in a sense glorified their animals by playing up their “cuddly” loving qualities and overlooking their darker instincts? Does their connection with the animals change after Marianne is raped?
  6. Darwin and the theory of evolution are discussed at several points in the novel. What point is Oates trying to make with this? How does Darwinian evolution relate to the central incident of the book?
  7. Marianne is a Christian and Patrick is a rationalist - yet theirs is a bond that remains most intact after the rape. Are their worldviews more closely related than either of them believes? Or does the rape and its consequences somehow reconcile them not only emotionally but intellectually and spiritually as well?
  8. If Marianne’s rape happened today instead of in the mid-1970s, would the impact on the family and on her life have been very different? What if the Mulvaneys lived in a big city instead of in a small town—would the rape have a different “meaning”?
  9. Does the novel’s ending in a joyous family reunion come as a shock after so much misery and heartbreak? Is this meant to be a lasting redemption?
  10. Does Oates encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of her novel? Or does she lead us to reexamine these very categories?

(c) Copyright—The year listed on the feature or review—Name of Article, Name of Website, The Book Report Network, New York, New York. Here is an example:

(c) Copyright 2007, ReadingGroupGuides.com, The Book Report Network, New York, New York.

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Plot Summary: A traumatized teenage girl begins high school after being sexually assaulted by a peer at a party the summer before. See more movie information on IMDB.

PLEASE NOTE: There is a brief graphic depiction of the rape in the middle of the film. 


Empowerment and the Importance of Speaking Out

  • How does the theme of “speaking” or communication between the characters show up throughout the film?
  • How does speaking up in other situations eventually help Melinda to talk about her rape?
  • How do you think speaking out about sexual assault can end this type of abuse?
  • What was the turning point for Melinda to finally begin to tell her story?

Survivors’ Use of Coping Skills

  • What does Melinda do to express how she feels before she is able to talk about it?
  • What is the significance of the subject she chooses for her extra credit history paper?
  • What is the significance of the hospital? Why does she go there?

Perpetrators and Power and Control

  • In what ways does Melinda’s perpetrator try to control and intimidate her after the attack?
  • How does Andy continue his abusive behavior in his other relationships?

Responding to Survivors

  • When Melinda tells Rachel about the rape how does Rachel respond? What could she have said/done differently?
  • Who supports Melinda speaking up for her self and who reinforces her silence? How do they do this?

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