In 1990, when Lacy Crawford was a 15-year-old student at St. Paul’s — an elite New Hampshire boarding school whose alumni include John Kerry, Robert Mueller III, and the fictional James Bond — an 18-year-old hockey star lured her to his room, asking for help with a math assignment. Crawford had tutored another hockey player and was flattered to be asked.
She walked to his dorm room, where he and his roommate hoisted her through their window and onto a bed. Both men were naked, held her down, and after she pleaded, “Just don’t have sex with me,” they violently orally assaulted her. She didn’t cry out for help because the seniors lived near a faculty member, who could expel her for violating curfew.
“What they had done, I told myself, was not that bad,” Crawford writes. “I had gotten away without worse, without the worst. I was fine. But I was shattered. Why? What part of me was broken? I rehearsed it over and over: I broke school rules and went to the room of an older boy.”
She was sure she’d be blamed, and when she finally told someone months later, her instinct proved correct. The assault, which generated rumors and recriminations that shadowed her for decades, was a statutory crime, but back then she didn’t have the words to apply to what happened. Instead, the perpetrators and the institution that sheltered them applied their own words. As one school official told her father, “She’s not a good girl.”
To prevent Crawford’s family from taking legal action, school representatives threatened to expose her private life and falsely accuse her of being a drug dealer, which would scuttle her college dreams. St. Paul’s enjoyed political connections that helped quash similar accusations against teachers and students for decades; one young woman from St. Paul’s finally achieved a conviction for her rapist in 2015.
“Notes on a Silencing” is a horror story, depicting a prep school as a hunting ground. Crawford writes with clarity and rueful authority. She’s detailed and specific, and corroborates all her memories with medical and police reports and other written records. “Notes on a Silencing” is as much a work of meticulous investigative journalism as it is a memoir; Crawford writes like someone who’s used to not being believed.
This experience was so damaging to her developing brain that for years it was difficult for her to comprehend all its repercussions; at last she has pieced together an intricate story as an artist might fashion a beautiful mosaic out of shards.
In Jon Ronson’s insightful 2015 book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” he concludes that people who best survive a bout of public shaming are those who refuse to accept shame. In the examples Ronson cites, most survivors are shameless, utterly without scruples over their wrongdoing. But Crawford demonstrates another path to survival: elucidating, through a painstaking investigation and self-examination, how shame has been cast in the wrong place.
After those rapists savaged Crawford’s throat, leaving her with a deeply embedded herpes infection, she could no longer sing in her beloved school choir without pain. In telling her story 30 years later, she must sing alone, but she does so with a strong, clear, unimpeachable voice.
Jenny Shank’s novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. She teaches in the Mile High MFA Program and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic.
Notes on a Silencing
By: Lacy Crawford.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 400 pages, $28.