By Ashlen Renner
Coming from a journalism background, I always enjoy reading books that use research to unravel powerful systems that shape our society — and perhaps wrong us. It gives me hope to see how one good writer can expose what has been previously silenced. Lacy Crawford did just that with her book Notes on a Silencing.
The memoir follows Crawford through a tumultuous high school career at the elite New England boarding school St. Paul’s, where she was sexually assaulted on campus. Instead of supporting her, the school proceeded to cover up Crawford’s assault as well as many others, prompting a state investigation into the school in 2017.
With its vivid descriptions of boarding school life and Crawford’s uncovering of her own buried documents, Notes on a Silencing is one of the best books I have read over the past year. I was so excited to speak with her about the book and how she coped with making her “ deepest, darkest, most shameful secret from high school” very public.
We at Phoebe are honored to have Crawford as our Spring Contest Issue judge for nonfiction.
Ashlen Renner: For people who haven’t read your book Notes on a Silencing, how would you describe it in a couple of sentences?
Lacy Crawford: Notes on a Silencing is my reckoning of my experience of sexual assault as a 15-year-old student at a prominent New England boarding school back in 1990 and my subsequent involvement in a 2017 state investigation into my boarding school. That uncovered a lot of information related to my experience that validated what I had lived through and revealed the extent of an institutional cover-up that I had sensed but not allowed myself to believe, and certainly hadn’t been able to understand back when I was 15, 16, but could really take the full measure of as an adult.
AR: When I was reading the book, I remember there was just this expansive amount of time that went by from when this sexual assault happened and when you’re now reckoning with it. What was that like, reaching back in time like that? What was the process like?
LC: I spent several years in my teens and twenties following the assault and the cover-up — which I am careful to keep in the conversation because I think that was the more damaging by far, my community’s response to the violation itself — trying to find ways to write about and understand what had happened. I worked on it in the context of completing a Masters degree in English Literature, working on rape testimony and literary theory at the University of Chicago, I spent a couple of years working on a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about this material that went nowhere. By the time I turned thirty, I had decided that there was nothing that I could learn from what had happened to me, and there was no healing to be found there, and the best thing to do was to simply stop thinking and talking about it. I built my life such that I did not really interact with communities that I had known in boarding school or communities that are in the same circles as New England boarding schools. I lived overseas and then I moved to Southern California. I married a man whose experience of American society and culture was very different from mine.
When I joined the New Hampshire state investigation into my boarding school in 2017, I did so very privately. I wrote to the investigators following a public call for information or experience. I told only my husband and my therapist, and to be honest, I had no interest in talking publicly about what had happened to me. But I did wish to share with investigators the experience that I had had because, with the hindsight of adulthood, of the #MeToo movement, which was just then really picking up steam, and as a parent myself, I was really realizing how extraordinary my experience had been and that nobody had ever been called to account for it. So, in many ways, I had put away the memory of those years of my life as if for good. After I gave up writing about these things and talking about these things in my twenties, going back into it was excruciating, but I had the good luck of working with detectives in the state of New Hampshire who got a hold of my student records from my boarding school and discovered documented evidence of the cover-up that I remembered exactly as I had described it to them, which is kind of a mind-blowing thing if you imagine that your deepest, darkest, most shameful secret from high school was actually documented and really happened and wasn’t your fault. In fact, other people were breaking the law and you were just a girl. It was a remarkable moment of validation, a kind of accountability of the universe if that makes sense. But I still was unable to use that information because, for various reasons, the state, the Attorney General’s investigator did not wish to include my file in their investigation into my school. And so I was very, very angry. So I will say that I was buttressed going back into those old and excruciating memories by, on the one hand, physical evidence that I had in my possession, and the accompaniment of investigators who believed me and had reason to believe me, and then on the other hand by my rage — just pure rage, realizing with the perspective of adulthood what had been done to me when I was young.
AR: I remember reading the second half of the book where you’re going through this information and revealing what the investigators are revealing to you. While reading it, the reader can really feel that rage with you, and I really admired that.
So, this book was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and one of the NYT 100 Notable Books of 2020. What has it been like for you to have this transition from a very private thing that you only revealed to investigators to a very public book?
LC: The exposure was painful but not for the reasons I thought it would be. I was not embarrassed or ashamed to have those details of my experience in the public domain. I would have been when I was younger, but I had come to see that I was the victim of a crime — multiple crimes — and that there was no reason not to say what had happened the same way I would if I had been mugged in a dark alley for my wallet or someone had carjacked me. The violation was to my body. This is what happened and this is how my school handled it. There was something very powerful about being matter-of-fact about that information.
What was very, very difficult was the number of disclosures that then came to me, and this continues almost daily. Every event, every reading, every day in my e-mail, over all social media platforms. At first, there were dozens upon dozens from people who had gone to my boarding school, sharing with me their own stories of harassment, abuse, or assault on the campus, or the stories of people very close to them on the campus. And then people, of course, who had gone to other boarding schools or no boarding school at all — people telling me about what had happened in their family, or during their time in the military, and their time in the church, and on and on. I found myself completely overwhelmed because I know how it feels not to be heard, and I never wanted to make someone feel that way. And I am honored to receive a disclosure, every time – it is a mark of trust and respect when someone shares their experience. But over time, I found I did not know how to hold that much pain. I did not know what to do with it. It made me so angry on the part of so many people, survivors, but it also really exhausted and frightened me sometimes. I’m not a clinician, not a journalist, not in law enforcement – I find myself casting about for tools to offer pragmatic support, and coming up empty.
AR: That’s really difficult to hear that this is such a widespread problem across so many places, not just boarding schools.
Shifting gears to how the book was conceived, it must have required a ton of research into not just what happened to you, but the system of the school in general. What was the research like and how did you go about starting it?
LC: [The research] was not as significant as it might have been because I had lived with this experience for 25 years. So, I didn’t get an idea and then start to explore it. I had been wrestling with it, consciously and unconsciously, for most of my life. What I needed to do was determine exactly what could be documented about what I remembered. That included getting police records. That included getting medical records that magically still existed and could be faxed to me from my old pediatrician’s office. That included running the manuscript by two good friends who were there with me at the [boarding school] so I could say, “Oh my God, did this thing really happen?” and they would say, “Oh my God, yes, it did!”
But then I also needed to find a way to ground the reader in the place at a boarding school that is a sort of exemplary institution of power in American society. How do you make a boarding school seem real? I mean, it’s not Hogwarts, and it’s not a sort of bananas fun place where all the girls are having sleepovers every night. It was a deadly serious place with a lot of money and a lot of power at stake, and even though we were young and spoiled out of our minds, we knew that. You were aware that this was bloodsport, and that you were also very, very lucky and you’d best make the most of that time. I needed to understand how to locate the campus in a small sliver of American history so that the significance of my problems might matter to a reader who wasn’t there.
I maintain that what happened to me doesn’t matter because it happened to me. Things happen to everyone all the time, and often they’re horrible things. The documentation I have permits us to see how institutional silencing functions in a lot of ways, in a lot of places across all strata of American life.
AR: I think what really made the campus real for the reader was your descriptions and how you placed yourself in the scene. I distinctly remember a scene where you pushed a dresser drawer against your door because the doors didn’t lock.
LC: We had no locks on the doors! No students had locks on their doors.
AR: Which in the context of today, that just seems bonkers! To get into any building, any dorm at any university, you have to key fob in. But yeah, that scene was incredible to me that that lack of safety was going on.
LC: It’s a perfect example of entitlement, the sense that nobody needs locks here. Everybody has everything they could ever need, and nobody would come after us. Nobody would steal anything. Nobody would invade. We are safe because we are special. Which was true, right? In the grand scheme of things, we were very, very safe kids. They told us that it was for fire reasons, that, you know, they needed to be able to come in and get us all out in the event of a fire. But, I mean, any one of us could have dropped out a window and kids were lighting fires left and right in the rooms all the time, so the priorities were a little left of center. But they’ve remedied this, at least, and have locks on the doors now.
AR: At least that’s comforting. So, now that the book is published, has Saint Paul’s School responded to your book in any way?
LC: Yeah, they did. There were a couple of lines of response. The new head of school, who was the first woman to lead the school in its history, had just taken over her role when Saint Paul’s got a hold of a copy of the manuscript. I had intended to send it to them before publication. I wanted to approach the head of school woman to woman, frankly, and say let’s be in an open conversation. I wasn’t bringing a lawsuit against the school. I was telling the truth about what happened there. It seemed to me there was an opportunity for the school to demonstrate what true accountability looked like and that we could do that in a non-combative fashion. That was my hope. That might have been naive, but I don’t regret that I had that hope.
The school got a hold of the manuscript before it had completed legal review. I hadn’t yet had my parents read it. I was alerted by people who were affiliated with the campus that the school’s lawyers were reading it and the faculty was passing it around. This was about 8 months before publication. I didn’t eat for a couple days. It felt so sinister to me that somewhere in the production process, the manuscript leaked. It signals something about the power of the school and its reach that they got a hold of the manuscript. So, the head of school contacted me first. She was out on the West Coast, and we had lunch and we talked. I eventually got a formal public apology from the board of trustees. I had a private apology from the chairman of the board of trustees that was written to me. And for a time, I was in conversation with the head of the school and the chairman of the board about the disclosures that were coming in to me and ways I thought the school could change. Those conversations broke down, and we are no longer in each other’s lives in any way. I don’t have any contact with the school at all, now and going forward.
AR: Wow. It seemed like there was this pressure that there was this big system hanging over your head while writing the book. How did that feel knowing the people from the school were going to read it?
LC: Yeah, there was, and my agent, Sarah Burnes, who I would take a bullet for, was very familiar with that world and understood. She understood that if, for example, the manuscript went out on wide submission, there was a very good chance it would end up in the hands of the school before it was as final as I wanted it to be. There were all sorts of steps that we wanted to take to make sure that what went into the world was exactly what I wanted it to be, and that I could stand behind it. And it was tricky to find the right editorial relationship without jeopardizing the privacy of the project, and for the most part, we managed to pull it off. Things kind of went off the rails once we were in production, but that’s to be expected when a book is being sent around in galleys, of course. That was very frightening because [the boarding school] could do anything from suing me to halting publication if they felt they had grounds to do that, to trying to get out ahead of me in the public sphere. I don’t know what would that have looked like — slandering me again? A woman in her forties with three kids who is writing the story of her rape and what you did to her? I worried that they would do something that made me so mad that I would, you know, blow up the entire state of New Hampshire. I’m not a violent person, but I just thought, my gosh, they might not let me tell my story again, and I don’t know that I can survive that. So that was really frightening, and it kept me up a lot before the book came out.
AR: Yeah, that is very frightening. What advice do you have for writers who are taking on similar issues, perhaps in whistle-blowing endeavors, or anyone who’s going against large systems that have wronged them?
LC: Well, there’s sort of psychological advice, self-care advice, and then there’s kind of hard-bitten, real-world legal advice.
Be well supported — that’s a horrible thing to say, but I am married to an attorney, I mean, my husband is not a practicing attorney, but he has a law degree. We have a network of friends who are successful and intelligent lawyers. I was able to secure a personal lawyer who could read consistently for me, and check over the notes and journals that I was using — all of the documents as they came in to make sure that the allegations that I put on the page were defensible legally. You know, publishing laws are particular, and it’s very hard to be told that you can’t say a certain thing that you know is true. But sometimes, for various reasons, you need to find a different way to say the thing that you know is true. As I put the manuscript together, I went through and I footnoted every single thing that I could reference. So, if I described a stained-glass window, I included a hyperlink to a photograph of the window itself currently on the website. If I included a mention of something that had happened to me with regard to my healthcare, I included a hyperlink to a medical record that I had uploaded where you could see the dated note of the physician back in the fall of 1990. So, every single thing was supported as much as I could. I did that after I wrote because I don’t think you can do both at the same time. You can’t be on an episode of Law and Order and also, you know, sit down and write your memoir simultaneously. But I needed to make sure that if somebody pressed on any detail at all, I could give them an authentic, honest, and well-grounded explanation for why I believed that was so. That’s not easy to do, but it also forced me to make some craft choices that I think I would otherwise not have seen, so I think it made the writing better.
Now, regarding self-care: my husband was saying, “Go for it. I don’t care what happens. If we have to leave the country, we’ll leave the country.” That’s a joke, but there is a kind of devil-may-care thing that one has to have because people do get really, really angry, and you can’t always predict who’s gonna get really angry and who’s gonna write you and say, “Oh my God, congratulations. You’re amazing.” I was surprised on both counts. So, it really is important to have people very close to you who on the one hand can protect you legally and on the other hand, can protect your heart.
AR: That’s such a good point. So, what’s next for you? Have you got any projects in the works?
LC: I do! Not nonfiction right now. I’m a little burned out from that. So, I’m plugging away at a couple of projects and raising my boys. I will say that the impact of putting a book like this into the world had some latency to it. Even though the book was published coming up on three years ago, it has been very busy, and in many ways very painful to be put in this space. It’s empowering, and I am in a position to work as an advocate, to speak as an advocate, and to be part of communities of healing and change makers. That’s extraordinary, but it also carries a time burden and an emotional burden.
And then I’m trying to patch up a girl. I’m trying to patch up a 15-year-old girl who nobody listened to for a very, very, very long time. And then all of a sudden, a lot of people listened to her, and that was wonderful and lucky. But it still sort of blows a hole in your To-Do list. I’m writing, and if I manage to pull something off, that would be great, and I’ll let you know.
AR: I would love to hear it! Well, thank you so much, and I’ll just leave you with one last question. Since we’re talking about healing our inner child, what’s your favorite thing to do for self-care?
LC: This is going to sound annoying. I’m a runner. I’m not a fast runner. I have never been fast. I’m very slow. That’s part of what I love about it, that all I have to do is keep doing it. It’s a thing I don’t have to do well because I can’t — I literally never will. And I have a big shepherd dog. She’s the third in a line of big shepherd dogs, and she and I go for a run. I live on the edge of a canyon in Southern California and I listen to really bad 80s music and I run with my dog really slowly. And that’s a thing that remains sacred and safe.