But memoirs like Lacy Crawford’s “Notes on a Silencing” remind us how little progress has been made. The problem persists, doggedly, but Crawford’s revelations about the insidious and systematic ways stories of assault are buried left me shaken, moved, angry. By the end, we all understand how rarely women are granted any kind of justice. The book, which chronicles her assault at a boarding school, is a reminder of how adults willingly and knowingly serve up children to trauma in exchange for maintaining their reputations.
As Crawford points out, “Notes on a Silencing” is not an unfamiliar story. But in its relentless exploration of power and hubris, it is a story that reminds us (because we apparently need reminding again and again) that women are still impotent against institutions and the men who run them. “I was assaulted in privilege. I have survived in privilege,” Crawford writes. This is not what propels her to write her memoir. Instead, what interests her is “the near impossibility of telling what happened in a way that discharges its power.”
Crawford opens with the incident itself, a late-night phone call from two male classmates pleading for help from Crawford, an insecure, newish student at the elite St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire.
What happens in that dormitory, the brutish, sickening act, is a specter over the remainder of the book; the sound of Crawford’s gym shoes hitting the ground after she climbed out of a window — forever changed, forever ruined — is the sound of lost youth. The shoes will break your heart. So will the security guards, Murph and Sarge, who “saw everything,” except, somehow, her.
The book returns repeatedly to the scene. She catches a sexually transmitted disease from one of the young men, and eventually she tells her mother — a priest who lives with Crawford’s father in a wealthy suburb north of Chicago. From there, systems are alerted. Detectives investigate, the school is summoned. Some of this Crawford is aware of, but much of it she learns only decades later. Like, for example, that St. Paul’s immediately dismissed the encounter as consensual and threatened to expel her. A member of the administration told her father, “She’s not a good girl.”
The school’s immediate rebuttal of her claim is galling. Even today, the St. Paul’s website offers only this bland advice: “If you believe that you have been the victim of sexual assault, the School encourages you to seek guidance and counseling.” (The school was investigated by the New Hampshire attorney general and is currently under state oversight until 2023.)
St. Paul’s is a place of abject privilege. Crawford writes, “Status was our first language.” And later, “Our entire mythology was founded on our chosen-ness.” She includes her own family in such privilege, though only just. She raises and then doesn’t explore the implications of race when we learn one of the young men who assaulted her was a person of color. It is the right decision. She neither contextualizes nor excuses his violence against her. He was, in his own way, a victim. But he is not her victim.
One of the more chilling moments in the book comes very late, when the young men, middle-aged now, with jobs and families, have very different reactions to a detective confronting them about the night of the assault. One cannot help but conjure the poised, careful testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and the sputtering, self-righteous rage of Brett M. Kavanaugh.
The book is a riveting, damning exploration of how a single moment can reshape an entire life. Crawford was victimized, but she does not remain locked in that room. She revisits the moment only when she can discover something new about it, some way to hold accountable those who refuse to take responsibility: the school, the young men, the lawyers and detectives, and indeed the very culture that creates these structures. “There is no escaping a primal culpability,” she writes.
Midway through the book, Crawford reads “Catch-22” in the classroom of a teacher who allegedly harassed girls at St. Paul’s for decades. “Catch-22” is a “labyrinth,” she writes, “a closing in.” It is also the key to understanding her own story, a labyrinthine quest to dispel the power of this “blueprint of patriarchal silence.” “What,” her teacher howls during a pivotal lecture on the book, “can you NOT ESCAPE?”
Crawford does what the best memoirists do: She reaches beyond a single story. She writes in what is arguably the post-#MeToo era. An era in which we tried, for a brief time, to have our stories change our institutions. Having an “uncomplicated relationship to institutions” is its own kind of privilege, Crawford writes, one in which women remain largely barred. The book is a stunning, audacious attempt to reassert power over her own story. After all, she writes, stories and power “are not the same things. One is rock, the other is water.” And water, Crawford says, wins every time. “What I want to know, even now, is: how?”
Rachel Louise Snyder is an associate professor at American University and the author of “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.”
Notes on a Silencing
By Lacy Crawford
Little, Brown. 400 pp. $28