Lacy Crawford was 15 when she was raped by fellow students at St. Paul’s, an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Her book about the assault and the subsequent cover-up, Notes on a Silencing (Little, Brown and Company), appeared in July. The school’s board of trustees has apologized for failing to properly investigate and report. Here, Crawford describes becoming a writer in the aftermath of the assault. Her book will be published in paperback next month.
Nuns go by quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek Hotel.
So begins Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, and for students of her work, it’s a wonderful place to begin. But if you’re young and a student of Toni Morrison herself, and especially if (God help you) you want to become a writer, it’s not ideal. It’s not a line a teenager could write — not even Morrison, as far as I know, conjured this in her teens. You need genius, yes, and at least a few wise decades in hand. None of which I had when I was 19 and enrolled in Morrison’s writing seminar in early 1994, only weeks after she had returned from Stockholm with her Nobel Prize.
There were other problems, too. I’d been sexually assaulted in high school, when I was 15, by two 18-year-old seniors, and had been silenced first by the shame I felt about the assault (which infected my throat, making it difficult to eat or speak) and then by an ugly and invasive cover-up perpetrated by the administration of my boarding school. Lots of students at Princeton knew something of this, as it had made for particularly good gossip, and Princeton was at that time significantly populated by students who had attended New England boarding schools such as mine. But nobody knew the full story from me, to whom it had happened. I did not yet have access to the police and medical documentation that would prove the cover-up, so I couldn’t hope to make anyone believe me. And in any case, I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I didn’t want anyone talking about it ever again.
By that point I’d had three semesters of creative writing, and I’d been dismayed to find I was writing, over and over, about a passive heroine who could not seem to claim her experience in the face of male cruelty. Mediocre stories about bad boyfriends, basically. I was bowed to misery by this, but could not seem to tell any other tale. One autumn day I had happened to be looking out the window of a friend’s dorm room. Toni Morrison was at that moment crossing the center of the quad, alone. Across the way I saw faces pressed against the glass, also watching, as though there had been some sound or summons. I still don’t understand her gravity, but I want you to know that when Toni Morrison walked across campus, kids came to their windows to watch her go by.
That year Morrison had announced the first Princeton Atelier, to be led in collaboration with the choreographer Jacques d’Amboise; Margaret Atwood was slated to visit in conjunction later in the spring. This was all we theater, dance, arts, and writing students could talk about. Collaborative, transcendent, unprecedented: It was the most exquisite of the opportunities Princeton offered, when all Princeton seemed to do was dangle opportunity. If only. If only. I applied. I did not get in.
I called home, nauseated by sobs, from a pay phone on Nassau Street. Mom did her best, and when I could breathe again I went back to the list that did not have my name on it and found, via an adjacent list, that I had been admitted instead to a seminar called “Long Fiction.” As I remember it, there were only five of us, and we were all women. Would Professor Morrison be teaching us? She would.
These lists were stapled outside of the office belonging to Professor Morrison’s assistant; the big door itself was farther down, at the end of Dickinson Hall, and it was always closed. On the door was posted a single, small index card:
Barn’s burnt down
Now I can see the moon
— Mizuta Masahide
I memorized the card and felt it was all I could do. How do you study with a master? It’s far from clear. I once saw Olympic marathoners in person, and the only thing I understood for my own running was that there should be a different word for the thing they were doing. When I found myself assigned to Long Fiction, I had already read Beloved. I bought The Bluest Eye. Nuns go by quiet as lust. It was almost too much. My awe; my desperation. How to walk through her door?
Her Nobel was nowhere to be seen in her teaching room, a second-floor office space flooded with sun in the building we called 185 Nassau. She spoke to us from a chair in front of our half-circle. More about life than about writing, though I imagine she would have found the distinction pointless. One morning, a student arrived very late. She paused in the doorway. Professor Morrison looked up. The student, who had been crying, whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Professor Morrison raised her head a bit higher, and asked, “Was it a boy?”
The student nodded.
Do you remember how Toni Morrison could smile without moving her face, how you just saw something grow brighter, like a light coming up? “I’m going to tell you something,” she said. “If a man ever says to you, ‘You deserve better than me,’ he’s right.”
Our classmate nodded, crossed to her spot, and took out her notebook.
Morrison would never have reminded us to be punctual. No lectures. I don’t remember assignments save the actual long fiction, an original piece of writing of around 75 pages. Morrison read from our pages as they came in and described what moved her, sometimes offering a description of her own process. About race, she told us the story of the day when her very young son announced that he was ugly. “How?” she had asked him. “Where are you ugly?” Her son had drawn his finger in a circle around his face — Morrison mimed this— and told his mother, “Here.”
It was all there. Not those early pages with Toni Morrison’s invitation on the back, nor the carefully crafted, half-alive stories of my thesis. The thing itself, my life.
About trauma, she told us how she had depicted a lynching by describing not the noose but the bare branches alongside. That’s what people see, she said, when they can’t see the other thing because their minds won’t let them.
Many weeks, there were journalists waiting for her in the hall. We ducked past them, apologetically, feeling like brides.
Morrison told us that her house had burned down a few weeks earlier. This had happened in late December, just weeks before we met with her for the first time. She’d lost her home and her books, but her friends were sending her signed copies of all of their own works from all over the world, and wasn’t that something?
I sat up, prepared. Her house had burned down?
“But the poem!” I said. “Now you can see the moon!”
I can still feel her silence. It scalds. A fool, I tried to explain: “On your door, the poem on your door…”
Toni Morrison said, “You.”
I waited. She should have had my head, and I’d have surrendered it without protest.
“You,” she repeated. “You are the only one who said it.”
But I couldn’t have been the only one who thought it. She was the oracle. Her words described the world more accurately than any language I’d ever heard. Of course she’d known her house would burn down. She was recovered before it even happened. Wasn’t she?
It turns out there is more than one way to refuse a person’s humanity. Idolatry, too, is a failure of care. If there was one thing Toni Morrison insisted on, it was the humanity in all people.
She was shaking her head so slowly I might have imagined it. “I’m sorry,” I said. I had already handed in the first half of my obviously nonfiction “long fiction.” I was writing about my rape, and I felt now that asking Professor Morrison to read about my experience was a terrible imposition. The story had no end because I did not know the end. I hadn’t lived it yet.
When it was my turn for discussion, Morrison didn’t say much. She read aloud a line about an animal that had been stoned in the pond at my boarding school. She admired how I’d mentioned it and then moved on. “Lightly,” she said, tapping the air with her fingers. “Just like that.”
At the end of the semester we delivered our final manuscripts. The class was pass/fail, and we would all pass. Morrison was not in the practice of writing comments, but if we wanted our manuscripts returned, we could give her office a self-addressed envelope. When I delivered mine to her assistant, the door at the end of the hall was still closed, the poem still affixed to it.
The envelope arrived in July. On the back of my story, Toni Morrison had written: “If you’d like to work on expanding this into a book, I would be open to considering advising it as a senior thesis.” She asked me to return 100–150 pages to her office the following fall. An audition.
What jewel was in my hand? It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t ready. In ways I both did and did not understand, I wasn’t ready. I’d already written the account of my assault. What else was there to say? The silencing that followed the attack, the slander, the shaming, would take years to recognize. I’d need the documents produced as part of a state investigation in 2017. I’d need a police detective who was willing to break protocol and detail incriminating evidence in my student file. I’d need the authority of my own womanhood, the ballast of a good marriage, the consolation of becoming a mother to my children.
I set that story aside and produced 150 pages of something else that moved me a good deal but moved Toni Morrison not at all. The typed message read: “Professor Morrison wishes you luck with your work.” My senior thesis was instead a set of short stories advised by Russell Banks, among whose many graces was the ability to track my actual subject without forcing me to account for it. “As she tried to sit up,” I might write, “he pushed,” and Banks would query: Do you mean when she sat up? “As” not truly being a temporal term, he’d explain, though we all used it that way, thinking it sophisticated. Do you mean to suggest something immediate or something related? This moment or the next? Good fiction, Banks taught, is built of instants of action and reaction, one after the other. Imagination is not a reprieve. The page requires the same accuracy we require from an engineer or a physicist. Do the work before you write a single sentence. But I couldn’t make heads or tails of the instruction to look more carefully, to see.
As a senior I took John McPhee’s course, “The Literature of Fact,” and wrote about the emergence of the 17-year cicadas in my Midwestern town and the night my father took us with a flashlight to watch them coming up through the dirt. Black as crude oil, their shells crackling on the trees. I wrote about waiting, about being blocked, about dormancy. McPhee too kept his remarks to the page. It struck me as an almost moral modesty.
I didn’t graduate a writer. I didn’t pursue an MFA or a career in publishing; I was too afraid even to try. I stopped writing about that passive girl who could not address male cruelty and became her instead. My friends climbed ladders: law, medicine, finance, civil service. I had begun a descent. Eventually it would be impossible to ignore how my experiences had shaped me. The barn, we might say, would have to burn. On the other side was good, but different, work: in environmental rights and for youth charities, in education and for a literary magazine. I gathered new books. I read Morrison, Banks, McPhee.
Then in 2017, I discovered the existence of documents concerning my assault and its cover-up, and learned that state investigators, for obscure reasons of legal protocol, would not consider my case as part of their investigation of my boarding school. Against the threat of being silenced again, I began to write.
It was all there. Not those early pages with Toni Morrison’s invitation on the back, nor the carefully crafted, half-alive stories of my thesis. The thing itself, my life. Which Morrison had seen, and protected, in spite of my foolish deification; which Russell Banks had carefully left a space for, showing me how to brick up sentences instead. Which McPhee knew better than to name. I don’t know if it’s true of other vocations that you can spend years learning particulars but require still a certain reconciliation of the self to the work, an arrival of authority to method. But I do know the writing teachers I had at Princeton were aware that by demonstrating craft, they could create the space into which voice might emerge.
This was not the story Princeton told: You will be launched, but it will take decades. Good thing, too, because when it came time to tell what had happened, I felt no entitlement. I just had some things I really needed to say, and it seemed, wondrously, that I knew how to say them.
People have asked me how long it took to write my memoir — a common question in publishing interviews, especially when a nonfiction work is tied to recent events. The answer is just about 14 weeks, start to finish. But the answer is also 25 years. I first wrote it for Toni Morrison, that’s the truth. And I tried again for Russell Banks, and again for John McPhee. And the thing I learned is summed up best, I think, not as patience — which heaven knows I have not had — but as respect for what is alive in any discipline; for what cannot be wrestled or studied or planned into existence; for what of our work waits, quietly, for us to grow.
Writer Lacy Crawford ’96 lives in California with her family. Notes on a Silencing has been named a New York Times Notable Book.