Lacy Crawford’s story is as common as a housefly. As a 15-year-old girl, she was sexually assaulted. Two older male students at St. Paul’s, the elite boarding school Crawford attended at the time, lured her to their room and forced their penises down her throat. Her abusers went unpunished. Even after they bragged about their assault. Even after Crawford told her parents and her parents told St. Paul’s. Even after she contracted herpes from the attack. Even after decades. Crawford was scapegoated, shunned. She absorbed the blame, became depressed, took Prozac. She was silenced: by the school, the law, her parents, threats, time. So what makes her story special? Its very ordinariness. (One in approximately six females is the victim of rape or attempted rape in the United States, most of which occur before the age of 25.)
In “Notes on a Silencing,” Crawford lays bare the impact of violence on identity. She navigates her trauma surgically by trying to establish the parameters of its lexicon — was it rape, assault, aggravated assault, aggravated felonious assault, intercourse, nonconsensual sex? — then interrogating the terms in which to define herself, as so many sexual assault victims do. Crawford pries open the underpinnings of her childhood, which operated in the taxonomy of wealth and privilege. “We were blessed with excellence and excellently blessed,” she writes, imbued “with the Calvinistic confidence that is actually a threat: if you do not become spectacular, it means you are not us.” Hers is a “goodly heritage” of “rigorously enforced manners” with blue ribbons pinned to a bulletin board of upper-class advantage. “Everything was coded,” she thinks, but she is still too naïve to know the codes. For her there is, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote and whom she began reading at the time, Huis Clos, “No Exit” for the existential crisis in which she finds herself.
To reveal the assault, she believes, will ruin a future she had just begun to see. She isn’t completely wrong. When she finally tells her parents from St. Paul’s, their reaction is swift. “We are going to bring you home,” they say, but Crawford protests. She wants to be unnoticed, take her final exams, and live up to the discipline she had lived all her life. Her parents comply.
The book underscores the complicated and oppressive machinations of a young girl’s sexuality. For the family holiday photo, her mother buys Crawford a black velvet dress “belted tightly at the waist.” When Crawford models it, her parents are agog at her body’s development, made evident by the fit of the dress. “Oh” her mother said with a pursed pause. “It’s just that it’s inappropriate for a girl your age to have breasts that large. Maybe we could try another dress?” Soon after, the family drives to St. Louis from Chicago to visit Crawford’s grandparents for Thanksgiving. Crawford brings her Walkman, a pillow, and the remains of her baby blanket “Nigh Nigh” along for the ride. “Much too old for that stuff,” her grandmother comments upon seeing the tattered cloth. When she carries her things into the house upon returning home, Crawford can’t locate Nigh Nigh. She never sees it again.
Crawford is made to feel simultaneously promiscuous and infantile, with no consideration of the liminal space she is actually in. This refraction is part of the same old tropes of women being expected to be both Madonna and whore, virginal and sexual all at once, or one or the other, while being slut-shamed or pedestaled for either role. This grab bag of expectations feeds into Crawford’s confusion and shame, so that when a male family friend gropes her in a predatory way, she’s unsure what to do. She begins to sense danger in every man.
When Crawford returns to school she is whiplashed by whispered scorn and ostracized by friends “giddy with hate.” In response, she leans into schoolwork and makes herself “as silent and as slender” as she can until her invisibility is almost complete. The rigor and elegance of Crawford’s sentences, even while writing about such painful things, lifts this memoir into literary heights. “I could do nothing about it except hoist up my book bag and walk away, sporting my freckles and a hankering for the Ivy League.”
St. Paul’s does not report the assault to the local police, which they are required to do. The boys’ varsity lacrosse coach asks the team to visit the infirmary if they were intimate with Crawford. In fact, the team knows about Crawford’s herpes before she does. Calls to St. Paul’s go unreturned and the school threatens her with unfounded and absurd accusations unless and until her family rescinds its claims. Even her injury — herpes — adds to the silencing, because it’s a lifelong secret you can’t see. Again and again and again, for as long as there is nobody to blame or to call to account, Crawford blames herself. Until she wrote this book: at last, the story of her own design.
For a place that carried many secrets, St. Paul’s had no locks on the dorm room doors, leaving its most valuable cargo — the students — exposed. But with the help of therapy, detectives, records she thought lost to time, and a new case brought to the fore, Crawford is forcing the unchecked power of an elite institution to answer for their violations and the victims they shoved into silent hallways of despair.
By Lacy Crawford
Little, Brown, 392 pp., $28
Kerri Arsenault is the book review editor at Orion Magazine, contributing editor at Lit Hub, and her first book, Mill Town (St. Martin’s Press), will be published in September.