Book Review: Notes on a Silencing

By Linda Romano

Lacy Crawford’s memoir Notes on a Silencing speaks to the ways gender, privilege, and power silenced Crawford twenty-five years ago. When Crawford was fifteen years old, she was lured to a boys’ dormitory one night, pulled from beneath the night shadows, and sexually assaulted.

Crawford’s story is a familiar one. When psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford disrupted her life in the summer of 2018 to testify against Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the United States Supreme Court, she was harassed and forced to relocate from her Palo Alto home. Thirty years earlier at a high school party, she alleged, Kavanaugh had assaulted her and put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Ford and Kavanaugh were students at elite prep schools in Maryland: Ford attended Holton-Arms, a private all-girls school, and Kavanaugh attended Georgetown Preparatory, a Jesuit high school for boys, where alcohol and deviant sexual behavior were a common cocktail.

Like Ford, Crawford remained silent for years from shame, embarrassment, and fear that no one would believe she had not brought the experience on herself. When Crawford received a phone call in her dorm late one evening from a boy in her math class, she thought he sounded upset, almost crying. He was a senior, one grade ahead of Crawford, but a couple of years older. They both attended St. Paul’s High School, one of the top New England boarding schools in Concord, New Hampshire. Crawford, referring to herself in third person, wonders if it was her naiveté that made her gullible. She rushed over, convinced he needed her emotional support, even though it was after curfew. When she arrived, the boy and his roommate, already fully undressed, pulled Crawford into their room and assaulted her.

It was not rape, Crawford argued with herself when she returned to her dorm room, dodging security guards. It did not occur between her legs; her virginity was still intact. This was the first step of Crawford’s denial. Without a proper label, she initially buried what happened to her, until she couldn’t anymore when she was diagnosed with herpes several months later. In a school that groomed Nobel Prize winners, senators, bishops, and ambassadors, Crawford knew the odds were stacked against her. It was about character, she said, “what I would have been forced to give up, if I had gotten caught in the boys’ room … why I didn’t scream. I was trying to find my place in the moment.”

The Concord Police Department labeled what had been done to Crawford an “aggravated felonious sexual assault” because she was physically held down and the seniors were eighteen. But as Crawford points out, people get the meaning of rape, whereas sexual assault is vague. “It isn’t about sex at all, but cruelty exacted in domination and shame.” People are left guessing what was violated and what was done to prevent it. Including Crawford, who wanted to believe that “what happened to me didn’t really count.” She also took responsibility. “I broke school rules and went to the room of an older boy.” The school administration gave Crawford the choice not to return to school if she wanted to press charges and assured the Police Department and her parents they would conduct their own “internal investigation.”

Then came the humiliation in the hallways and the common room where students practiced their nightly proto-cocktail training with coffee or tea instead of alcohol. The boys who assaulted Crawford looked past her, but it was the others, the minions they bragged to, who further diminished Crawford, wanting a part of the action. “Threesome?” one of them offered. “I’m going to pop your cherry,” boasted another. “I can show you how to do it right.”

Crawford had arrived at St. Paul’s a year younger than most freshmen. As a naïve fifteen-year-old the night of the assault, she was not yet aware of the social rules and did not expect anything would happen to her. “To lure me in and silence me … the self-preservation my mind made when the boys pushed me down … was they had girlfriends.” But in the days and months afterward she learned the distinction between the girlfriends who had sex on the weekend trips to Martha’s Vineyard and the girls designated as “sluts.” The girlfriends used face cream at night and “practiced tying scarves to sit just above their prestigious bosoms.” Everyone knew who they were, who was with whom. The sluts were the assaulted no-ones, “the unstarred, striving and striving … shamed into silence … from dignity to disappearance.”

When Crawford read about a legal case against St. Paul’s High School twenty-five years later, she thought maybe justice would finally serve her. This was a couple of years before Ford stood before the Senate. Crawford was married with two sons and concerned more about protecting them than the little girl that was once inside of her. But she felt it her duty to speak up against the abuse that persisted and decided to come forward. “The linking of memory to memory felt violently interior … everything tethered to the same ugly gut.” Lawyers corroborated her statements with school and medical records. They tracked down the men who assaulted her. One had done jail time. “It was not only me [the school administration] failed,” Crawford observed. But both boys, now men, told the lawyers the assault had been consensual, and Crawford’s case was dropped.

As it happened, the same day the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office made an agreement with St. Paul’s to install a compliance officer in lieu of pressing charges, Ford’s letter detailing the sexual assault by Kavanaugh was forwarded to the FBI by a Senator from California. Crawford suspected Ford’s attempt to admonish Kavanaugh would fail like “concentric craters, giant blast zones we [can] not seem to climb out of.” Both cases at schools of the American elite, both cases dismissed in the power of patriarchal silence.

At the Senate hearing, Ford described the certainty of the event, “… just basic memory functions, the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that … encodes into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience is … locked there. Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. … [T]heir having fun at my expense.”

Notes on a Silencing bears witness “to that girl leaving the boys’ room on an October night, sneakers landing on the sandy path.” Buried in the hippocampus is the power to release the truth. “It is only when power is threatened that power responds.” The opposite of slut, Crawford states, is “not virtue but voice.”

Mindfully, Crawford details her experience of being sexually violated and the humiliation that followed her until she graduated. High school is the age when our experiences can determine how we live as adults. Crawford recognizes her story can sadly appear ordinary—another girl assaulted at one of the elite private schools in America. But it is her ability to tell the story with courage that discharges the power she felt for years was greater than herself.

Linda Romano grew up on the south side of Chicago and currently lives in California’s Silicon Valley working as an engineer. She received a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Illinois and is presently pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Program. She is working on a memoir about her upbringing and life as an engineer while raising two children. Her favorite pastime is enjoying the outdoors, especially on a bicycle.