By Leslie Lindsay
Compelling and haunting memoir of epic proportions of one young woman’s sexual assault, the lies, the cover-ups and fall-outs.
~MEMOIR MONDAY| ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
When the elite boarding school, St. Paul’s, in New Hampshire was recently under investigation following extensive reports of sexual misconduct/abuse on campus, Lacy Crawford thought her past there was behind her. Detectives asked for victims to come forward, and though it had been decades, Lacy threw her hat into the ring. NOTES ON SILENCING (Little, Brown: July 7 2020) is exactly that–a plea to have one’s tender, vulnerable voice heard.
Lacy’s criminal case is reopened. She sees, for the first time in decades, evidence that corroborates her memories. That horrific experience involving two senior athletes and 15-year old Lacy in the boy’s dorm after-hours wasn’t just a figment of her imagination. It happened, it was cruel, and every attempt to cover-up or ‘sweep it under the rug’ was made.
Lacy wasn’t a ‘legacy’ at St. Paul’s. Her parents were wealthy, but they hadn’t attended boarding school. Attending St. Paul’s was a privilege for Lacy, who worked hard in academics, athletics, and music. Plus, the school had a highly prized reputation to uphold with scores of influential, powerful, and elite alumni.
Now, she’s a mother and wife and writer with questions and worries: why is it okay for the rich and privileged to commit heinous acts and be protected? How can a young woman *not* speak up when something so vile happens to her? How can a smart, hard-working girl find herself in this kind of ‘trouble’ in the first place? And how are we as young women socialized to agree with those in power and authority? Why do we default to the male for answers?
These are just a few of the questions Lacy grapples with in NOTES ON SILENCING. While there aren’t exactly any answers, we come away from the narrative with a sense of duty: to expose and protect.
NOTES ON SILENCING stirred so many emotions and gut-wrenching reactions. I was equally sympathetic and appalled by the tension in the book. I wanted to protect Lacy and the other girls at St. Paul’s, I wanted justice. This is a tale about those in power refusing to believe, then shaming, and finally, attempting to silence.
Let this be a call, a rise to end this abuse.
But first, please join me in welcoming Lacy Crawford back to the author interview series:
Lacy, welcome and thank you so much for chatting about this very personal and heart-wrenching time. We first talked in 2013 about your debut, EARLY DECISION, a novel about the college admission process. Both of your books have academia in common, but really, underneath lies wealth and privilege. Can you talk a little more about your inspiration for your writing?
I’m always writing, but I had no intention of writing about my experience at St. Paul’s until I joined the state investigation in 2017 and learned (or had confirmed, really) what had been done to me. If I can look back at both books, they’re quite different, and come from very different places, of course. But I think it’s interesting that for so many years I had this side gig working with high school students who were trying to tell the truth about their lives. The college essay is hardly a robust vehicle for that sort of thing, but it’s a rite of passage. I was working year after year to help people find their own voice before, in a sense, I could find mine.
“(A) studied, vulnerable, and maddening account of her near-undoing and the school’s absolute obstruction of the truth”
~ Booklist (starred review)
In NOTES ON A SILENCING—a very apt title, by the way—I am struck by the audacity of the school’s response. This vile history runs rampant throughout the history of the school. In fact, an investigation ensued for similar allegations between 1948-1988 and then again in the more recent years. Chessy Prout, an alumni, penned a memoir about her experience with the “Senior Salute.” But this school—well—they have a reputation to protect. John Jacob Astor attended, so did Vanderbilts, Kennedys and Kerrys. I think there’s so much fear, here. Can you talk about that, please?
I believe that the sort of assault and silencing I experienced are common across institutions—companies, churches, schools, etc.—and not unique to privileged or so-called “elite” spaces. But it is clear to me that legacy institutions, which pride themselves on their history and, specifically, the relationships between current and former students, can be particularly dangerous in that they create an expectation that anyone who has trouble, who stumbles or is weak, does not belong. If you weren’t born to the place, you damned well better demonstrate your fitness. Getting raped is not a way to do this. It’s much easier for an alumni community to assume that there was something wrong with the girl than that there are rapists in their midst—in this way, they expel or silence the “weak” and protect a certain fantasy of strength. And in the case of a school like St. Paul’s, they do have deep and prominent connections to every industry you can imagine, including politics and the media. There are people in positions to block stories getting out, if they want to, and in the past, this has happened regularly.
You—and others who were affected—feared, too. You worried that all you had worked for would be stripped away, others would think differently of you, and perhaps you would not be allowed to excel. Can you describe this a little more? Also, along those lines, the idea that women are socialized to ‘go along with things,’ or that they ‘exaggerate.’ Oh, how I loathe those phrases.
Truly, I think it’s as simple as this. When the boys assaulted me, they stole from me. They stole my health, my privacy, my sense of safety, my self-esteem. I did not want to give up one thing more. I did not want to let them hurt my parents, which meant not telling my parents. I did not want them to take my advisors’ confidence in me, which meant not telling my teachers. And I sure as hell didn’t want to let them take my school. Why should they get to graduate when I did not? Much of keeping quiet was, I think, a not-fully-conscious sense that I would only lose more if I spoke up. And I was right. The moment my pediatrician reported the crime, the school began working to remove me from its community.
And when you finally did say something—how did your parents and close friends respond? My daughters are 13 and 15 years old, nearly the same age you were at the time. That horrific experience caused such angst in me; I kept thinking of my redheaded girls being assaulted this way; it’s reprehensible.
I’m sorry about the age resonance. That is tough. My parents did the very best they could. This was thirty years ago, almost, in a different world, and they did not have the information that I have now. We’d have had to hire a lawyer and go to war, and the school had promised to take me apart on the witness stand. Who would choose to go through with that? I wanted to go back to being a high school kid, go back to being normal. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen, but I wanted to try. It’s also fair to say that my parents experienced a terrific amount of shame related to me and my choices, and that was devastating to me. My own shame was already so deep.
There are other examples like this, unfortunately. And while the stories are different, the experience is the same. What kind of healing can we impart? What can young women do?
I think every survivor has her own needs and will determine her own path to “healing,” whatever that might look like for her, whatever might be possible. What is helpful, I think, for all of us, is if we can advance this conversation about power and silencing in institutions of all kinds, because often some of the greatest pain comes from those well-meaning members of a community who are upset but say nothing. To a survivor, silence is the same as assent to attack. If you know what happened to me, and you say nothing, I am likely to think that you either don’t believe me, or think there was nothing wrong with what happened to me. I’d like to think that we can move toward an understanding of power structures that allows us to value the quality of our discourse around assault more than we value the (pretend) absence of assault. What if authenticity and transparency were our goals? How might that change things for all members of a community—not just women, but anyone marginalized, anyone at all? What if we gave up on the fantasy that bad things don’t happen, and instead worked to understand what does happen, and why?
Lacy, thank you so much for sharing such a traumatic experience. I want to leave on a positive note, so can you talk about three things you’re looking forward to?
Yes! First off, my littlest boy is due to start kindergarten in the fall. I don’t think that’s going to happen, or at least not in the way we all might have hoped. But I am excited for him to start proper school, because he will love it; and I’m looking forward to learning what life is like when I have from 9 to 3 to work.
Second, I have a conversation planned with Kathy Giles, the current rector of St. Paul’s School, on July 21. She is the first woman to lead the school in its history, and she and I are half a year into a careful, candid conversation about institutional change. I look forward to trying to model what progress might look like.
Third, I am energized by the work of social and racial justice advocates and educators who are providing the understanding and history to support the BLM movement and push for larger awareness of structural racism and social inequality. I believe that there is a new energy now, and a new receptivity among those of us who could, for so long, remain blind. And I’m very eager to see how we can create change. This feels like a critical and exciting moment. I’m hopeful for my children’s generation, for the nation they might create.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook.
For more information, to connect with Lacy Crawford via social media, or to purchase a copy of NOTES ON A SILENCING, please visit:
I was reminded, in part, of the work of Alexandra Robbins (THE OVERACHIEVERS, PLEDGED, and FRATERNITY), but those stories are more narrative nonfiction driven/journalistic whereas NOTES ON A SILENCING is memoir. In terms of fiction featuring boarding schools, Carol Goodman‘s work came to mind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
LACY CRAWFORD is an author of fiction and nonfiction, including the satire EARLY DECISION (Morrow, 2013) and the forthcoming memoir NOTES ON A SILENCING (Little, Brown, 2020). Her literary journalism includes profiles of Frank Conroy, Reynolds Price, and Shirley Hazzard. Lacy’s other jobs have included high school English teacher, human and environmental rights campaigner, co-convener of a high-level international conference on pandemic influenza, Girl Friday to an English Lord, and Director of the Burberry Foundation. Lacy lives in California with her husband and three children. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPRoFpnO2-c
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Dewey Decimal Media and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook]