The Unbearable Deafness of Power
“Basically,” my father said, his voice rasping, “they’re promising to destroy you.”
Lacy Crawford’s father was not wrong. In 1991, St. Paul’s School, along with the law firm of Orr & Reno, threatened to destroy his daughter, a 15-year-old student who had been raped by two 18-year-old students. In her new memoir, Lacy Crawford names the educators who, she says, knowingly hid her rape from the police and engaged in witness tampering: Bill Matthews, John Buxton, Cliff Gillespie, and Kelly Clark, teachers and administrators at the school. Together these men lied to silence young Ms. Crawford and to protect the power of the institution to which they’d dedicated their lives.
Notes on a Silencing is a story of the slander of a young woman. It is a story of rape and power, of predation, of masculine domination—and it is a story of shame. For a long time, that shame was Crawford’s. With this book, she seeks, instead, to make it about the shame of these powerful men. I hope she is successful.
Crawford enrolled at St. Paul’s School in the fall of 1989, graduating in 1992. She was from a well-to-do Chicago family, her father an executive and her mother an Episcopal priest. St. Paul’s is one of the great WASP New England boarding schools. J.P. Morgan Jr. attended in the 1880s, alongside William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t graduate. In the 1960s, John Kerry played hockey alongside Robert Mueller, who was the second St. Paul’s alumnus to serve as a prosecutor investigating a sitting president. Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, also attended the school.
So did I, arriving shortly after Crawford graduated. Later, I went back to teach at St. Paul’s for a year, 2004-2005, and wrote a book about it (Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School). Fabulously wealthy, with an endowment of about $625 million and only about 500 students, on grounds with over 100 buildings and nearly 2,000 acres, the school exudes privilege. Part of making elites, as I argued in my book, is defending status and power. Crawford’s book tells this story far more brutally and convincingly than I was able to.
In her 11th-grade year, Crawford was raped by two seniors. One called her and convinced her to come to his room after “check in” because, he told her, he needed to talk about his mother. He made it sound like a personal crisis. Crawford was still very much a girl—she tells us of how crushed she was, around that time, when she lost her childhood blanket. Risking significant discipline but imagining she could somehow help this young man, Crawford went to his room. She found him there, mostly naked, and with another man. They took turns orally raping her. They held her down. They reminded her that a faculty member lived on the other side of the wall of their room. You might think this was an opportunity for her to escape by drawing attention to what was happening. But young Lacy Crawford instead thought of how much trouble she would get in if she screamed for help. There she was, with two naked boys, out of her room after she had signed her name to check in for the night.
Crawford had yet to have sex. The most she could muster in response to these men was, “Just don’t have sex with me.”
You might think how ill-conceived this was. Screaming out for help would have brought this horrific ordeal to an end. But as the story unfolds, we realize something different: that men like Bill Matthews, Kelly Clark, John Buxton, and Cliff Gillespie, who had dedicated their lives to education and to their faith, were not there for her. The terrified 15-year-old Lacy Crawford knew well what many of us are still unwilling to admit to ourselves. Salvation was not on the other side of that wall, only further violation. No one was going to help.
There is something almost banal about this story. Which is not to say Notes on a Silencing is banal. Crawford’s telling is beautifully rendered. Her narrative lacks all sentimentality, yet somehow isn’t cold. She manages to convey, simultaneously, her own childhood self-recrimination and empathy for her childhood self. Hers is not a story of triumph over adversity, nor does she provide a reflection on how she achieved peace. This is a different kind of telling.
Crawford is a martyr. I evoke here a different meaning of the word than usually comes to mind, one based in its Greek etymology, μάρτυς, or “witness.” I probably thought of this secondary meaning because Bill Matthews, one of the primary men who brutally silenced Crawford, was one of my classics teachers (he taught me Latin in tenth grade).
Crawford’s telling is beautifully rendered. She manages to convey, simultaneously, her own childhood self-recrimination and empathy for her childhood self.
Lacy told her parents about what happened months after her first rape. They contacted the school, which had an obligation to inform the police. School officials had known about the sexual contact—Crawford was given herpes by one of her rapists—and had known that legally this was statutory rape. They chose not to inform the police. The school officials illegally accessed her medical information and failed to inform her of her own sexually transmitted illness. They would, much later, inform other boys on campus about that condition of hers—but they never informed her.
No one asked the 15-year-old Crawford for her full testimony. Not the school. Not her parents. No court of law. Two women created space for her to tell it: a queer priest on campus and, later, an African American woman from a sexual assault crisis center. It’s no mistake these two women were the furthest people in Crawford’s life from white masculine power structures. Crawford was not yet prepared to bear witness to these relative strangers; the adults in her life were more comfortable with or interested in her silence than her words. Notes on a Silencing is testimony that institutions of power insisted, for decades, that no one hear.
Years later, in 2015-2016, the local police in Concord, New Hampshire, began investigating a new rape case at St. Paul’s that led them back to the rape of Lacy Crawford in 1991. Under the glare of public attention, St. Paul’s retained the law firm of Casner & Edwards to investigate those two cases and nearly 100 other claims of sexual abuse and assault at the school.
The former attorney general of Massachusetts, Scott Harshbarger, led Casner & Edwards’s team. By Crawford’s account, his work was a success—for the school. The police detective working her case conveyed that after uncovering information about potential witness tampering and reporting that to the attorney general’s office, she’d been taken off the case. “We’re all in agreement,” the detective told her, “that there seems to be some collusion or incestuous relations between attorneys here … It’s attorneys tipping off attorneys.” The attorney general of New Hampshire settled all charges against St. Paul’s. This ended the investigation into decades of destroying lives, Crawford’s and others.
The narrative in Crawford’s memoir isn’t linear. Chapters loop backward and forward in time. We know of her rape from the opening few pages. We later hear of other assaults that followed—not all of which Crawford describes as such. A 20-something ski instructor gets her drunk and has sex with her as she lies there, paralyzed and numb. The boys who first raped her talk about their “threesome” to others, spreading word of her sexual availability, and upon hearing the story, a recent graduate from St. Paul’s drives down from college, walks into her room at night without her permission, and rapes her as she cries into her pillow. In her own home, a friend of her father stands before her drunk in his boxers and harasses her. She tries to run by him, and he sticks his tongue down her throat. His own daughter was sleeping in Crawford’s room at the time.
This broader context doesn’t make the assault at St. Paul’s somehow more understandable. Nothing really changes about the story of that first rape, presented in the opening pages of the book. There is a powerful lesson in this: We don’t need to know more to understand what happened. We must respect her witnessing. It’s actually not that complicated.
This isn’t to say there’s nothing more to be learned. And some of those lessons are ones that Crawford herself never teaches. Reading Crawford’s book, I realized three things about her time in high school. She was brilliant. She was athletic. She was beautiful. Which also made me realize a fourth thing that she, perhaps, did not. The men wanted to destroy her for it. Boys and men noticed her. She was the top pupil in the school. She was an outstanding tennis player. Crawford tells of her depression and her lack of self-awareness. But reading through the book, I saw her potential power. She was an extraordinary young woman. And nothing short of an organized program by men sought to make sure she could never exercise that power. They were successful, for a time.
Nearly 30 years later, we might believe that we have finally come to a point where girls like Crawford can stand before us as witnesses and that we will hear them, and act.
Their triumph has now faltered. But there are no heroes in this story. Crawford certainly does not present herself as one. Shunned for a time by her friends and the school, one young man, Alex Ault, as she calls him, helped bring her back from her pariah status, and even to herself. He was powerful and popular. He knew what had been done to her. He didn’t care; he wasn’t like the other guys, he told her. Dating him made Crawford a member of the community again. Bill Matthews’s ire at this redemption of Crawford led him to treat Ault brutally.
Nearly 30 years later, we might believe that we have finally come to a point where girls like Crawford can stand before us as witnesses and that we will hear them, and act. But we should not fool ourselves. As recently as 2017, the Office of the Attorney General of New Hampshire effectively joined the school in an attempt to bury Crawford’s testimony.
In the end, Notes on a Silencing is about men’s care for power, and their brutalization of everything else. These were “good men.” Kelly Clark, now deceased, was a minister and a former dean of the Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal seminary at Yale Divinity School. Those still surviving, no doubt, continue to maintain their goodness. But these good men knowingly stood by when I was a student, year after year, as the senior men of the school used the handle of a cricket bat to sodomize young boys. Everyone knew. These men in power, however, worked not to protect the young, but to protect the rights that came with power and status. They may not have personally plunged the paddle deep into those young boys, but they certainly helped. They stood by as students ran to their offices, having been assaulted by teachers. They still lead educational institutions to this day. This makes it hard for us to argue that things are different than they once were.
Midway through the book, Crawford’s best friend, Elise, leaves the school because of mental-health struggles. Elise had quotes posted all about her room, and Crawford writes one of them down for herself, a passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But there is no wisdom for us in these lines of Eliot. Believing in them is only a toxic embrace of self-protection. The argument of Notes on a Silencing is not that with exploration came truth. That young 15-year-old knew, all along, what was happening. And she knew what would happen if she’d served as a witness to her violation. Help would not be there for her, it was there for power. Her first rendering was as true as her last.