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Episode 42: Lacy Crawford, Author of Notes On A Silencing

Author Lacy Crawford details her experiences of devastating revictimization and institutional betrayal after she was sexually assaulted at an elite New England boarding school as a teenager.

Show Notes

Lacy Crawford’s website

Kathryn Robb is Executive Director of CHILD USAdvocacy

Miranda Pacchiana’s website The Second Wound

Our beautiful theme song is written & performed by Maddie Morris and produced by Pete Ord at Haystack Records.

Find the Truth & Consequences website, Facebook page, Instagram & Twitter accounts. Find the Second Wound website, Facebook page, Instagram & Twitter accounts. Learn about personal coaching with host Miranda Pacchiana, MSW on the Second Wound website coaching page.  Donate to help cover my production costs through Paypal @Miranda-Pacchiana or Venmo @mirandapacchiana1

Episode Transcirpt - Click to expand

Miranda: Hey everybody, it’s Miranda. Today’s episode requires a content warning. Our guest, Lacy Crawford chooses her words carefully as she describes the assault she lived through in high school, but some level of detail is integral to the story, so keep that in mind and please take care.

Kathryn, my co-host also dropped an f-bomb, but I think we can mostly agree that it was appropriate given the outrage she felt in that moment.

I am eager to share our guest with you today because Lacy is a truly gifted writer, a captivating narrator, and as Kathryn and I have gotten to know her we have discovered that Lacy is just as kind as she is intelligent and insightful, which is saying a lot.

Lacy is a person you want in your corner. And she is–she’s in all of our corners, as you will hear in this conversation. So let’s jump in.

Lacy is the author of fiction and nonfiction, including the satire Early Decision and the memoir Notes on a Silencing.

Notes on a Silencing is described as, quote, a riveting, lucid memoir of a young woman’s struggle to regain her sense of self after trauma and the efforts by a powerful New England boarding school to silence at any cost, unquote. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book, as well as a Best Book of 2020 by Time, People, NPR, Book Page, Library Journal, and Lit Lacey’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Narrative, Lit Hub, and Vanity Fair. And I will add that I stumbled upon Notes on a Silencing by accident soon after it was released and I found myself so personally affected by Lacy’s writing and the story she lived that I was moved to write her essentially a fan email.

And now here we are years later and I’m blessed to say that Lacy is a friend of both mine and Kathryn’s. Lacy, we’re so happy to have you here with us today. Thank you and welcome.

Lacy: Thank you so much to both of you.

Kathryn: Yeah, your writing is exceptional.

Lacy: Oh, Kathryn.

Kathryn: And also, it’s so personal, but it’s just exceptional the way you capture your readers, so, thank you. Thank you.

Miranda: And your story really touched home for me with the work that I do and the experiences that I’ve had. So Lacy, how about if we just have you go ahead and give a short synopsis, you know, as brief or as long as you want to make it, about the story behind Notes on a Silencing and how you’ve landed here today.

Lacy: Absolutely. Do you prefer any kind of caution or warning for listeners? I tend to be rather explicit with regard to certain impacts of the assault only because they were then the specific vectors of denial by the institution. So, in order to tell the story, I have to, I have to tell the story.

Um, so that said, when I was 15 years old, in the fall of 1990, I was, sexually assaulted by two 18-year-old seniors at my New England boarding school. It is a, an extraordinary school, prominent, elite in all the good and bad ways that these institutions can be. I was a thousand miles from home. My family was back in the suburbs of Chicago.

I had been summoned to the room of these boys by one of them who I knew vaguely through math class. He was a senior, very prominent athlete. I did not know him as a friend at all. Um, and he had called me on the pay phone from his dorm on the pay phone and mine and it sounded as though he was crying and he needed my help.

And I was naive and very hopeful that in high school, fabulous things would happen. It did not occur to me that this man was interested in me romantically. He had a very beautiful, very popular girlfriend. Everybody knew who they were as a couple. There’s no way this person would ever talk to me about anything other than calculus or whatever apparently was making him cry on that evening.

And he encouraged me to sneak out of my dorm after check-in, which was at 10 PM and come comfort him. And I did. And when I arrived, at his room, I found that his roommate was there. I didn’t know he had a roommate or who his roommate was and the beds were pushed under the window. And I was pulled up from under my shoulders onto those beds and, uh, it took me a very long time to figure out what their plan was and what was happening. Primarily, I was shushed when I kept saying what happened, what’s wrong? Because, as they pointed out, there was a faculty advisor who lived in their dorm, just the other side of one of those walls. And I was immediately aware that had the advisor heard a girl’s voice in a boy’s dorm after hours on a weeknight in October, he would have come in and flipped on the lights and I would have been caught on a bed with two senior boys. And there would have been no way to explain that that didn’t end in my suspension, being flown home to Chicago, the devastation of my parents for me at that time, my transcript, my applications to college, which I would be completing in a year. So I knew I just needed to keep quiet.

Once it became clear to me that what these men intended was something that had to do with my body, because I was a virgin at that time, I said, just don’t have sex with me thinking that that would keep me safe. That’s what my sex ed classes had taught me. I wouldn’t get pregnant. I wouldn’t get AIDS. Um, it was 1990. And so they did not have. Technical intercourse with me, but instead they penetrated my throat, each of them quite deeply. And then when they were done, they let me go.

And I climbed back out the window and walked back to my dorm and was quite sure that as long as I didn’t tell anybody what had happened, as long as nobody ever found, out I would be okay. I could survive this. Nobody would ever know. I had no words for what it was that had just happened. Certainly words like assault, um, definitely not part of my lexicon at the time, nor of most of ours I believe.

Um, two things happened that foiled my secrecy plan. The first is that the boys bragged, from the next morning on, about a threesome, also a word I didn’t know. The news sort of spread like wildfire as news like that does in high school, so suddenly I was the target of a whole lot of attention and gossip and really lewd suggestion and provocation. The other thing that happened is I developed herpes very, very deep in my throat in a spot that is not visible has never been visible on an ordinary exam.

And I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I had a high fever, couldn’t eat, swallowing blood. The pain was extraordinary. I went to the infirmary at my school a couple of times, eventually was sent to a physician off campus in the town of Concord, New Hampshire who diagnosed me properly, relayed to my school what it was that I had, and my school neglected to tell me or my parents or my doctors back at home who were very worried about me, what it was that I had. So I was kept sick throughout that year.

The way this story ends is I sort of fell apart, in all sorts of appropriate ways over the course of that year, my junior year in high school. I finally disclosed the assault to my mother in May, the end of the school year, about six months later. And, she called the school and told them what had happened. They conducted an independent internal investigation into my complaint, which did not include me, and determined that what had happened had been consensual and there was no need for them to report it to the police.

It had been at the time under the laws of New Hampshire, statutory assault. I was 15. Both of the boy’s men were 18. And they were not 18 and a day, as a detective said to me once, but the school thought that this was not their concern.

And my mom flew me home as soon as I finished my exams, took me to my pediatrician in Chicago who diagnosed the herpes, promptly reported the assault as was her obligation professionally to do, to CPS, Child Protective Services in New Hampshire. And this was the first that Concord Police had heard of the assault. So by this point, the school had known for several weeks. Although, if we think about it, the school had known for a lot longer than several weeks because they knew that I was sick and because the boys had told everyone.

The police wanted to press charges against the men. The school told my father over the phone that if I agreed to that, they would make several claims about me and the culmination of those claims was that I was expelled from the school, I was not invited back for my senior year. So there was a kind of deal struck, which was as long as I told the New Hampshire police that I did not want charges to be brought, then I could come back, finish my senior year, apply to college, keep up my grades, not have to start in a new school, not have to acknowledge everything that had happened, and get on with my life. And that’s what I wanted to do.

Kathryn: What…what, what a fucking awful choice. Excuse my French, but, To put a victim in that position at your age, my God, it’s unconscionable. You already know this.

Lacy: It helps to hear it. Um, it helps to hear it.

Miranda: After helping three children apply to college, I stand firm in that kids that age are too young to make a choice about their own college for the most part. And look at the position, you were in, the choice that you had to to make. The lesser of two horrible situations.

Lacy: I think all along, it was a situation of really horrible choices. So when I found myself in these boys’ rooms, It was choice number one is if you make any noise or do anything, you’re going to get busted in their room. Frankly, that would have cost them a lot less than it would have cost me, given the position they were in as athletes at the school. And I, I didn’t understand what the punishment would be for going the other route and simply letting them do the things that they did. I thought I could absorb it. I could metabolize that. I didn’t understand.

I think, um, so many assaults are, violating in a way that is really disorienting. You don’t understand why this is happening to you. Um, somebody who you’ve known in one context is suddenly treating you in a very different way from a very different context. And it happens on a Tuesday night in October and you’re in blue jeans and sneakers and a turtleneck and nobody has cued you that everything is about to change. So there’s a real latency, I think, to the recognition of what is happening.

Miranda: It reminds me of the way Stephen, our mutual friend Stephen Mills talks about it he describes his own sexual assaults as a near-death experience. That it is that much of an assault on your nervous system that it is life or death, that you lose your higher reasoning and it is just such a high level of trauma.

Lacy: For me, it was if you could minimize every aspect of your being just long enough for this to end, then you can figure out how to put this back together again. Right? But right now you’ve no agency at all. So the best thing to do is be as nonthreatening as you possibly can. Right?

Um, we all know all of the language, for this sort of response. And I think on top of fight or flight or fawn for me is just bafflement. Just like, what? What? No anticipation. I was very lucky in many ways that I did not anticipate. I suppose that tells you something about my upbringing. Not this was the first time that I had been violated by a man, but it was the first time it had . Felt this dangerous to me.

The way the story with the school ends is I returned from my senior year. Nothing more happened. I got into the college I was intent on going to. I barely made it through the rest of my teens and my 20s. I was sick, of course. I continued to have really terrible outbreaks of herpes so deep in my throat I couldn’t eat, sometimes couldn’t even drink ice water without excruciating pain. This was before it was common to prescribe prophylactic Acyclovir. There have been a lot of developments since then that were not available to me, certainly not from student health services when I was young.

And, I managed, by virtue of a lot of privilege and a lot of work, and a lot of luck to survive into my early forties. At which point there had been other stories of assault on the campus of my boarding school, St. Paul’s school in New Hampshire that rose, some of them, to national media prominence. Most specifically a young woman named Chessy Prout, who was raped–her rapist was convicted–who was raped by Owen Labrie in 2014. And she disclosed right away. And the school’s response, the alumni fundraised for the defense attorney for Owen Labrie. There was an alumni effort because they felt it was unfair that he couldn’t afford an attorney or, you know, a powerful, prominent nonpublic attorney to defend himself. Um, I tried not to watch any of this.

Following his conviction, the family of Chessy Prout brought a civil lawsuit against St. Paul’s School demanding change. Uh, what had happened to Chessy was indicative of a rigidly hierarchical, quite violent, patriarchal rape culture. I think they would use those words and have used those words and in their petition, they, they wanted this to change and they wanted the school to be forced to change that.

In the course of going back and forth about this lawsuit, the defense counsel for St. Paul’s school did not like that Chessy Prout’s name was redacted from all court filings. Of course it was. She was at that point, the minor victim of a convicted rapist. So by all national standards, her name was kept out of all media. The school didn’t think this was fair so their defense counsel petitioned the court to release her name. And this, to me, was an extraordinary effort to shame and frighten this young woman and force her family to drop their lawsuit. I found out about this little legal maneuver because my oldest and best friend, who I’ve known and loved since we were 12, who is an attorney and a social worker, saw this filing online and sent it to me and said, it’s exactly what they did to you.

At which point I clued in and said, my gosh. Really, it is. I recognize that footwork, you know? I recognize that effort to shame a victim to make something go away. Unlike me, Chessy Prout said, I don’t mind if everybody talks about me and she got out ahead of it and went on The Today Show to tell everybody who she was, which is a measure of how much interest there was in the case because of the school’s prominence in certain circles.

So, about a year after this, the state of New Hampshire announced a formal investigation into Saint Paul school, because there had been so many reports of children being hurt on campus, frankly, and the school either failing to report or obstructing justice and they invited people who had any stories to come forward. And I did that very privately in 2017. Within a few weeks, I received an email from the school’s attorneys asking me to contact them. So it was clear to me that they remembered what had happened. I remembered what had happened. And there was some sort of communication between the detectives and the school that made me feel truly violated all over again.

I will say that the two detectives I worked with were excellent. I told them everything. They went back and interviewed the men who assaulted me, both of whom admitted the details of what went on. They did both say it was consensual, but they did not deny any of the specifics.

Miranda: It can’t be consensual, as you established, due to statutory to statutory law.

Kathryn: Not…not to mention it was a conspiracy because they both agreed to call you to come over.

Lacy: It was a trap. It was a trap.

Kathryn: But criminally, it’s a conspiracy.

Lacy: I understand. I will say, interestingly, one of the men was White and one of the men was Black. To be a Black student at Saint Paul’s School in the 1990s, I can only imagine. To be a Black student at Saint Paul’s School who is clearly there for athletic prowess would have been a position that required absorbing a whole lot of shame and frustration. And the man who called me was White and the police,and we may edit all of this out afterward, but the police wondered whether it was the case that there was some sort of domination and aggression going on between the two of them, such that the roommate was sort of co-opted or conscripted into the assault.

So the question that was posed to me was, do you think that one of them would roll on the other, frankly, and I said, well, I don’t live in a crime novel. I have no idea. I don’t, and it turns out

Miranda: You never knew them in the first place.

Lacy: I didn’t really know them. No, I knew their girlfriends. I didn’t, no.

And, you know, true to form in our society, I suppose, the Black student has spent most of the last 30 years in and out of jail and the White student has not. I don’t know much more about their lives than that, but I do know that I was given the opportunity again to bring charges against them. I did not. That’s why I’m not naming them now.

I didn’t want to leave my family. I had 3 children by the time the state investigation was underway. I live on the other side of the country from New Hampshire. The last thing I wanted to do was fly to New Hampshire and have to defend the 15-year-old girl I was before whichever defense attorneys would try to tear her apart. I wanted to stay home with my children. I didn’t see how it would benefit me to send these men to jail now.

So as the investigation went on, at one point, knowing that the school was involved again, detectives drove up to campus and requested my student file, which that summer was 25 years old and happened to be sitting on the desk of the headmaster, who’s called the rector. Just happened to be there wasn’t in storage, um, perhaps because I had come forward. And the rector handed it over and the detective photographed every page.

And she called me and said, it’s all here. Everything you’ve told us is here. The memo from the students, the school’s counsel, the memo from the lawyer explaining to them that they didn’t have to report and what they should say, telling the headmaster how to get my father off the phone as my dad kept calling and calling that summer, trying to get them to take seriously what had happened to me.

Um, and then amazingly, amazingly, records of the school calling the doctor I saw in Concord, New Hampshire, who had no relationship to the school at all, a clinician, a medical provider, requesting records of my appointment. I can only imagine.

Kathryn: What the hell?

Lacy: So why did they call that doctor? How did this Dean know to call this doctor? This is a Dean I never talked to. I had no idea who he was. They were Clearly, as interested as I was in the fact that I had contracted herpes and looking for a way to shut that down.

So when all of this evidence emerged documented, the detectives took it to the state investigator who was in charge of this, who had been brought out of retirement to run this investigation into Saint Paul school, I was told and said, this is it. This is what you’re looking for. This is documented, we have a statutory assault. We have confessions from the men. We have clinical medical evidence that is pretty irrefutable. She went to the infirmary several days later, the timeline stacks up with her disclosure. All of it is here. Here’s the school burying this. And they were immediately severed from my case and told that the investigators were not interested in any more information about me at all.

I was told that it was a sort of obscure legal problem, which is, uh, the fruit of the poison tree. Kathryn, you’ll be familiar with that, that effectively, the detective should not have asked the headmaster for my file, but rather should have gone through the school’s counsel at the time to ask for my file.

I’ll never know, but I’m reasonably sure that had the detectives asked counsel for my file, they would not have been handed all the documents that they were handed, so it was a stroke of real luck. And even though there was to be no justice for me in terms of the state investigation, the validation of seeing in writing everything I remembered from when I was 15 and 16 was extraordinary.

Kathryn: Wow.

Lacy: And I would..I would have it happen that way a million times.

Kathryn: It’s incredible. There’s obviously so much cover-up and downright abuse of a victim over and above the sexual assault that you’ve experienced. I mean, this is the place where you think children are going to be safe.

Lacy: It was pretty annihilating for me, and I know for a lot of other people, because after the memoir was published, and that is in fact, why I wrote the book is because I found out that they had found all of this proof and that nobody was going to be able to do anything with it. So, I thought, well, I’m a writer and I will. And I wrote the book then.

When I joined that state investigation, initially, I had no intention of ever, ever talking about what had happened to me again. I had thought that the only silver lining of it was that it had happened before Google so my children would never have to know. I would never have to talk about this.

I do think that the gossip component when something like this happens to a student, in the context of a school, particularly a residential school, is really extraordinary. And what happened to my reputation, to the sense that people had of who I was, and the choices I made, further sundered my connection to community, which was already, you know, sort of on a pyre.

Um, one of the things that I haven’t had the chance to talk about with people who are professionals, the way both of you are in approaching issues of justice that I find really, really interesting and that I know is not unique to my experience is this phenomenon of my disclosure seeming to change the nature of everything that had happened. By which I mean, by the next morning, the boys were telling everyone. So this, you know, freckled choir girl who’s kind of nerdy and doesn’t have a boyfriend, apparently suddenly shows up in the room of two seniors who are dating powerful girls on campus, engages in a threesome with them, goes back to her weird little ponytail life, you know, and this is incredible gossip and everybody knows this and somehow allows us to change their sense of who I am and how I behave.

Faculty knew about this. It was a small school. Everybody talked. The infirmary, and I now know deans, were aware that I had shown up with a florid case of genital herpes so far down in my throat it was past the gag reflex, which is why it couldn’t be seen on an ordinary exam. They had to numb up my throat with viscous lidocaine in order to see that far down. The school was in possession of that information and did not do anything about it. So as far as I can tell, everybody knew, or a lot of people knew pretty much what had gone down.

But that didn’t disrupt the social order of anything. What did was my calling my mom and saying they did this to me. It wasn’t until I posited that I was a victim that everything sprung into action. Does that make sense?

Kathryn: Because, yeah, it totally makes sense because what you’re doing is you’re calling upon the status quo of this patriarchal system of power and money and control, you know, you’re calling on them. And once you do that, it threatens their validity, it threatens their, structure of power and control, and, perfection even, false perfection, that they are such a good institution doing wonderful things for children and sending them to the best colleges. Well, in fact, they’re not. In fact, they’re not protecting the children. And so essentially, the exposure is, basically the truth of the trauma and the truth of the trauma is an indictment against them.

Miranda And yet, every step along the way, Lacy never had a chance, right? From step one to that phone call enticing you into their room and I understand why you used the word naive, but I don’t think that’s a fair word. I think you had a right to be innocent of what their motives were. I think that was completely reasonable.

And the way that they enticed you, the way that they hurt you, the way that they bragged about it, that now you had your community at school turning against you in a sense, your school refusing to stick up for you, every Other than CPS, perhaps, and the police, every institution completely failed you and put that hierarchical system over the welfare of you. And that’s gotta be their approach then, in general. And you know you’re not the only person, it’s just so heartbreaking in its, the fact that it’s not unusual.

Kathryn: Mm hmm.

Lacy: Right. I mean, I think what’s unusual is that I, I got so lucky that’s gallows humor, but that’s an accurate word in that there was clinical evidence of the assault. Um, it was statutory. The documentation of the school’s cover-up was left in my student file. I feel as though I was given this incredible gift because, and this is why I’m so interested in the nature of bearing witness, I have received so many disclosures from people since the book came out, so many. And one of the things that I hear over and over and over again is that everybody sort of knew. Whether it was everyone in the family, in in the case of child abuse of incest, whether it was everyone at church, in the case of church leader, church elder, other schools, everybody kind of already knew, or definitely already knew, and nobody chose to act. And the minute the survivor says, actually, this is happening which is effectively a way of saying I am a victim, right, now it upsets the apple cart. And now is when there are people springing into action to defend the institution to act. So, it’s not actually the assault that troubles most people. Most people are able to look away for a long time, pretty consistently from even the most horrid, horrid cases of interpersonal violence. What’s upsetting is when you challenge that status quo, right?

Kathryn: Or when you identify it, when you identify it.

Lacy: I, and I, I’m equating those 2, I’m equating those 2 things. I think by positing the victim, this has happened to me, you necessarily are challenging the power structure that’s doing it.

And the reason I think this is so deadly for survivors, boys and girls, men and women, no matter what circumstance you find yourself in is because that experience of violation is so unmooring. We know from trauma testimony and theory, it’s unmooring to ourselves, within our own bodies and psyches.

It also severs you from your community in radical ways because something has happened to you, which you, you cannot relate. It does not make sense. At least in my experience, I could not figure out how I went from answering the pay phone to what happened next swallowing blood, like, uh, everyone looking at me, boys following me down the hallway promising to, you know, fuck my freckles and all this stuff that I mean, my life blew up in ways that I think are not unique to me.

And what I was waiting for, unconsciously, what would have helped, is anybody else to recognize, yes, something with really high stakes has happened here. Yes, something is wrong. And when your community doesn’t reflect that, it deepens that isolation and that sense of bafflement in ways that I think are really, really dangerous.

And I think one of the greatest costs to me was not specifically the violation on that night. That was horrible. I got sick. I will have to deal with that for the rest of my life. Absolutely. But the way my community then reified that assault and deepened that assault made it almost impossible for me to find my way back. And I know I’m not alone.

Miranda Uh, you are so not alone. That just hits me so to my core. And Lacy, when you and I were emailing back and forth a little bit about this topic, I pulled a quote from something you said to me that’s resonates so much that it just, it just, it hurts my chest. You said, “What ruined me about the community and institutional response was my expectation that a crime or something bad, tragic, aggressive, would be met by adults and others with appropriate measure.”

So you have this. reasonable expectation, this very deep need shattered. In addition to, like you said, losing the community, which is those very people that you had every right to assume be there for you. And that is my story and for years people used to say to me, you know, I’m so sorry people in your in your life don’t believe you. And I would say, no, no, that’s not what happened. Nobody didn’t believe me.

Lacy: Believe me. Exactly.

Miranda: I wrote a on my social media this week that said exactly this. I said claims of disbelief are a cover for the fact that people just don’t care. I mean, it’s not quite that they don’t care. They don’t care enough about our pain to step up for us.

Lacy: Exactly.

Miranda: And that is shattering.

Lacy: It is shattering and I know that you have created so many opportunities for people to talk about this problem. I’ve also just read Truth and Repair, Judith Herman’s second book.

Kathryn: So good

Lacy: I think she’s addressing the concept of community restitution. Right? Community justice. What would that look like?

Um. After my book came out, and I was besieged by disclosures from people who had been at my boarding school spanning six decades, by the way, on campus, people who had been assaulted and also people who had known and loved people who had been assaulted on that campus, um, there was a small group of alumni who showed up immediately and I realize more and more with every day how extraordinary it is that they recognize themselves as moral subjects and members of that extended alumni community.

And some of them had known me, some of them had not, it was not a secret or a surprise to most of them. Anyone who had been there around when I was there had a sense that something had gone down, but they showed up and said, let’s change the school. We’ve got to change the school. What should we do? Can we have a Zoom? Can we build? Can we make a group? Can we, you know, some people did maybe 20, 25 people,

Kathryn: Right. Sounds like real people with a moral compass.

Lacy: With a moral compass and they ranged from a corporate litigator in New York City who I’d overlapped with but didn’t know at all to a physician and emergency room doctor in Providence, Rhode Island who commonly works with women and assault survivors and is truly aware of the impact of these events in people’s lives, to a mom in LA, who was in my dorm my first year and she’s like, Oh yeah, I remember that. We gotta, it’s time, you know, um, really beautiful group of people.

But a much larger group of people did a whole lot of nothing. Which, I also understand nobody owes me anything. This is more a matter of observation than it is frustration, with a few exceptions.

And that is this other thing that I know is not unique to me. There’s one woman in particular who’s representative of this response, who is very active in the school community, did not Did she go there herself? She might have…had two girls who went through the school who got in touch with me right away and I was really moved, cause she had girls on campus now. And we talked and she said, I’m so sorry that happened to you.

Okay. So it’s my private misfortune, but I understand. And then she said, but you know, my girls had a terrific experience there, but of course they made different choices.

Kathryn: Whoa.

Lacy: So let’s just unpack this a little bit because I, I don’t even think this is about her. It’s very helpful actually, because she’s mapping out the sort of range of community responses that all of us have received. Right? When we’ve come forward. So, these I’m so sorry that’s happened to you, which can be anything from I genuinely love you and I have no idea what the hell to say, which I totally get, to, um, huh, that happened to you. It’s a fairly isolating comment, right? What it suggests is that what happened to me was not in any way indicative of the culture at the school, which in the context of my story, where there’s quite a cover-up, I’m not sure I was a choreographer of all of that folks, but anyway. But my girls had a very different experience, had a wonderful time there.

So. Now, it’s pretty clear, actually, that there’s a division between the person bad stuff happens to and the girls that bad stuff doesn’t happen to. And there’s a whole lot of agency implied in this. So, obviously, there is something that I have done that led me down that road. I’m also fascinated by the ease with which, because she didn’t have to call me. This woman didn’t owe me anything. I didn’t know her. But the ease with which she could dismiss what happened to me, because it did not also happen apparently to everybody else.

Kathryn: That’s like saying, oh, Hitler never hurt me.

Lacy: Right. I mean, we got out. We were fine you know? It’s like, um. I, I was as really struck because I don’t ever wish ill on other people, nor did I want to create for this woman in her mind the specter of something bad having happened to her girls, but the fact that it didn’t happen to them means exactly nothing about what happened to other people on campus.

And in fact, may reinforce part of the story I was telling, which is that in systems like this, certain people are elevated and protected and other people are not. And those two functions work in tandem. They absolutely do. When this woman then goes on and says, but they made different choices. Well, now she’s turning the knife. Now I know exactly what she’s saying, which is that this is my fault. At which point we ended the conversation.

She continues to be very prominent in the school community. I have no relationship to the school community. Maybe they have completely transformed themselves. I don’t know. Someone else can speak to that.

Miranda: If they did, you should know.

Lacy: I mean, it would be lovely, but, you know.

Miranda: But part of that would be bringing restitution to you.

Lacy: So this was what was amazing is watching members of, and this is, again, it’s a beautiful exemplar, the community of this boarding school, because what does it cost to send a child? They’re now 65, 000 a year? 70, 000? I don’t know. Um, how many kids out of each graduating class end up in the Ivy League is it 30 percent of the whole class.

So everywhere else nationwide, the numbers of students who are able to gain admission to these incredibly elite exclusive colleges is dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping, except in a few boarding schools, which continue to be feeders. This speaks to a lot of good things and a lot of not-so-good things about the way education works. This is a powerful place.

Miranda Pacchiana This is key.

Lacy: And it is key. And it is the case that I don’t know what people think it would cost them to put their hand up and say, I went there too and if it happened to her, no, it didn’t happen to me, but it happened to my community and I’m not okay with that. Now, there were certainly some people, as I said, who did. They really stepped up and that was a remarkable thing. But the great majority is so happy to have it be an isolated siloed incident. Everything is different now. That was a long time ago. That guy’s dead. You know, whatever it is. There were very few people who openly attacked my account. I mean, it’s documented. It’s in the book. There’s not a lot of room there for that.

The son of one of the deans who silenced me did actually go on a bit of a letter-writing campaign about it. He’s never been in the same room with me, but he was pretty sure he knew everything. Other than that, I was spared a lot of that never happened, and I think Miranda to your point, it’s because everybody knows it happened. Nobody ever wondered whether it happened. The only question for them is, does it matter? And the answer then, as now, for almost everyone is no.

Miranda: Exactly.

Kathryn: Right. But it seems like this particular woman is very much like tied to the story, you know, because she’s vicariously living through her daughters. I’m assuming she didn’t go to the school. So there’s that piece of it of her just, saying, Oh, there’s nothing wrong with this place, this storybook place. There’s nothing wrong with it. So she can feel better because she’s vicariously living through her daughters, which is pretty sick and sad, in my opinion.

Lacy: And reaching out to me in order to set up that dynamic too.

Kathryn: She can just check with herself. See, it’s not all that bad. This is an outlier of some sort.

Miranda: She is also making an assumption that her children were never harmed this way.

Lacy: 100%. Yeah, as my best friend said, yeah, the only thing, you know, for sure, is that they wouldn’t tell her.

Kathryn: Exactly.

Miranda: Wow, that’s a good point. Okay. So you’ve already thought of that. It is. Okay. Thanks. A really strong example, though, that that idea of, you know, people ask all the time, why don’t people support victims? Why don’t they quote unquote, believe me? And there are so many answers, but I do fall into the same answer over and over after thinking about this and analyzing it and hearing story after story for years, that it’s almost always that need to be aligned with some kind of power, even if it’s just the golden child in your family or, the person that you don’t want to piss off, not necessarily the offender, but the person who has the social power in your group or your extended family. These people can cut you off from your support and they can cut people off from opportunity, money, the whole gamut.

Kathryn: Yeah. I’m wondering, Lacey, do you have any thoughts about all the people that did nothing? The bystander not being outspoken until the crime is disclosed rather than the crime itself. What do you think is operating behind that dynamic?

Lacy: Well, that the disruption is not the assault. The disruption is the disclosure of the assault and that is.

Kathryn: So it’s to maintain the status quo?

Lacy: Yes, yes, because it challenges the power structure and that is one thing that I think is so, so painful for survivors. I mean, if I could say something to young people or older people who are going through something like this, the fact that everyone is ignoring it is all you need to know about the kind of power that inflicted this on you.

Right? You know, they know, they know, you know, they know, and they cannot yet bring themselves, either they don’t consider themselves moral subjects and part of the system that you’re in, whether that’s a family or a church or a school or a town, or they do and they are not willing to risk what it would cost to speak up. And also in some very, I think, sort of non-judgmental ways, I would like to say people don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do because these are really complex systems. But when, as the survivor, and I go back and forth on that word, survivor victim when you speak up, the experience of it is that you are the one inflicting violence on the community. You are the one who has caused harm.

Kathryn: You’re causing harm.

Lacy: Now, everybody has to deal with this. Nobody had a problem when you were victimized quietly over there. Maybe once, maybe for years. That we could tolerate, but you speaking up is really a pain in the ass, and if you write a memoir about it, that’s a super pain in the ass, you know, for the school and for a lot of people involved.

Miranda: Good for you.

Lacy: Um, thank you. There’s a lot of cost to that too privately, but in any case. So I think these were things that I felt, but didn’t have language for. And I wish I had because it would have been so useful for me to understand. Because when I was going through this as a teenager and really out of my head. I mean, I’m playing three sports and in three choirs you know, it’s junior year in high school and this, pressure cooker elite New England boarding school. And I’ve got all the AP class and the whole thing. And all of this is happening and I’m in pain and I can barely eat. And I’ve lost 15 pounds and everything is falling apart. And the only thing I can conclude I could conclude because nobody was responding, what had happened to me was, you’re not really sick. It’s all in your head. I didn’t know they were lying about knowing what I had and refusing to treat me for it, by the way. Um, but, uh, I mean,

Miranda: Oh my God, it makes me so angry.

Lacy: I, I mean, it makes me my oldest is almost as old as I was that year. And it is a homicidal rage that I experienced when I look at him and I realized how young I was and the decisions.

And this was an Episcopal school, by the way, our headmaster was a priest and we had chaplains coming out of our ears. And we started 4 of every 7 days a week in chapel. Uh, the hypocrisy was profound. Um, so there’s a separation also from church tradition that I had had coming in all of this, but I concluded therefore, that what had happened to me, I knew what had happened, but that it didn’t, it didn’t really matter.

And I couldn’t figure out how to merge that sense of it not mattering that I was receiving from my community with the utter shattering that I felt internally. It didn’t line up.

Miranda: Nope.

Lacy: Was I crazy or were all of them enthralled to something that precluded their noticing? The answer was B, right?

Miranda: That’s right? How can you possibly make sense of that at 15, 16?

Lacy: I, I, I mean, almost 50 and figuring it out. Yeah.

Miranda: Well, it is a gradual process. I was probably 26 when I first came to terms with understanding what had happened to me and disclosed it. I was about 30 before I started to push back and say, No, no, this really matters. And we need to live as though it were true, not just never talk about it again.

Lacy: Right.

Miranda: The idea that you were 15, 16, and living in this cognitive dissonance, how do you possibly have the strength to say, Oh, it must be all of them. You know, I tell a story sometimes about being in my early 20s and working with my first therapist and challenging her support, you know, playing devil’s advocate with her and saying, but if everybody tells you that you are the one who’s wrong and you’re the only one advocating for your position, don’t you have a responsibility to reflect that maybe you’re wrong?

Lacy: Of course, any reasonable person would.

Miranda: And she just looked at me with so much sympathy and she said, but you have to look at the system. And that’s what I just didn’t get, and it clicked in that moment. Like, yes, they all have reasons to maintain the status quo. And that’s what we’re talking about here in your school, in the bigger society and culture that we live in. And I think really illuminates that when you look at St. Paul’s as this feeder school to the Ivy Leagues, which is a feeder to Wall Street and the masters of the universe and government officials, right? That we all need to be invested in St. Paul’s and every other institution doing this. Completely backwards from the way they’re doing it now.

Kathryn: The truth is doing nothing, whether it’s, At St. Paul’s, or in the Catholic Church, or in families, or Boy Scouts of America, doing nothing is doing something, right? Whether the institutional system is, not responding, whether bystanders are not responding, or teachers and, administrators and deans it really speaks to, an illness in our culture, that really doing nothing is doing something.

Lacy: And I recognize myself as a member of other communities where there is significant harm and I am in the position now of being the moral agent. If it were to be something like assault, I, I know how to respond to that. And I sometimes insert myself, in communities and conversations where perhaps I haven’t been invited because I see something and I want the victim to know that I see you, I see you. But there are a lot of other harms that are inflicted, in the name of all of the different power structures in society. I happen by virtue of my identity to sit atop a lot of those. So coming out of my thinking about this woman’s phone call in the summer, when my book came out in 2020 and how her daughters would have made different decisions, thinking when in my head, I think, Yeah, but I wouldn’t have done that. Or, yeah, but you know, my, my boys wouldn’t.

Kathryn: And what decision did you have to make? You didn’t have any power.

Lacy: Right, right, right. No, for sure. As, as a student at St. Paul’s, I did not. But as an adult in the world, recognizing how difficult social change truly is, maybe this is a roundabout way of finding forgiveness for some of my community in that recognizing that there are instances in which I am the bystander and I have not yet worked out what it is I should be doing.

I had to find some way to make peace with a lot of the people who didn’t show up, also women who knew me, who knew about this in many cases, I told them for years, who have built public platforms as feminists. And who not only didn’t speak up when the book came out, but we’re actively behind the scenes saying, Well, you know, it’s complicated.

Oh, it was complicated, you know, but, but not in the ways that I think they’re seeking to diffuse the truth of it. And that has been a remarkable thing too. So one of the reasons I’m so grateful for the community of survivors and people who’ve spoken up is because we’ve all had this experience of somehow being perceived as though we were the perpetrator, because we dared to put into the public domain, this thing that everybody already knew.

Miranda: That’s why the first quote that you see when you open up my website is, you are not a troublemaker. You are a truth-teller. Now, you could argue we are troublemakers, and I will wear that label proudly, but I do think that we need to be reminded that that’s not actually what we’re doing. We’re identifying trouble.

And I also just want to say to your last point, I appreciate that reminder. Neutrality is aligning with the power structure and we all need to realize that there are all kinds of situations and moments in our lives where we also need to reflect on that. hmm.

Lacy: I try to remember how difficult it is to make meaning of an event that surprising that has no precedent in your life that doesn’t make sense for which you have no language, how to make meaning of that when other people don’t acknowledge it. And I, I’ve gone back to having parented. Now, my boys are no longer little, but watching what happens when a child falls down on the playground, the first thing they do is they look to their mom or their caregiver. And if she says, oh, honey, are you okay? You’re okay. Nine times out of 10, the kid gets up and climbs back up to the top of the slide. But if the mom goes rushing, you know, which is often appropriate, he’s hit his head or something’s happened, the child’s experience of having been injured is reified in a different way. You’re hurt. And if the bone is sticking through the skin, everyone at the playground is going to respond to that.

We understand this. This is an innate sense we have that what happens to us is made real in part because other people bear witness to it. I truly believe that we are built that way as social animals. And the experience of something which must be kept secret, specifically sexual assault of any kind, particularly in these rigidly hierarchical systems, from the family to the school to the church to the government to the military, is that you, you do not have that experience of someone bearing witness to something that has happened to you, no matter how egregious it is.

And that is an added challenge sort of epistemologically for the victim because you have to accommodate what happened to you. You have to believe yourself that it happened to you. Your body knows. Sorry, I don’t even love that book, but your body knows and won’t let you forget.

But your community is like, No we’re all good. Sunny day at the playground. I don’t see a child down. Do you see a child down? Nobody sees a child down. And coming to terms with that, again, I’ve said this before, I would almost say, if I could say to myself, my younger self, a thing, I would say, Their silence is precisely the proof you’re looking for that it was that bad.

Miranda: It’s flipping it around. And that’s really helpful. I hope that that helps a lot of people to think of it that way. Instead of internalizing it, that I don’t matter or that it’s not as bad as it feels in my body.

Lacy: It couldn’t have been like that. Right? Or maybe this happens to everyone? Or in my case, Well, I did go to their room, so as this woman pointed out, her daughter would have made different decisions. I guess I asked for it. I truly believe that for years that if you go to a boy’s room, of course, this kind of thing is going to happen to you. Never mind what that suggested about what I would think about boys and men too.

Um, but, uh, you I was worried that they had girlfriends, like, you know, go hang out with guys who have girlfriends when you’re in high school, social suicide, right? That was where my brain was at that age and stage of development. And I, think we get trapped. It’s a little micro power structure, and those are the tools that the perpetrators use, I think, to trap us, take advantage of us. And those are the tools that other people agree not to see.

Miranda: And there’s so much messaging that reminds us to blame ourselves. It’s everywhere and it’s just such a quick hop to get there when it’s also your survival mechanism. Because if no one’s going to support you, then you have to find a way to live with that reality.

Lacy: That’s right. I don’t, I don’t think it helps necessarily to try to recruit outside support if you’re not going to find it. That will just recreate that experience of helplessness over and over and over again. And I do think taking responsibility for it, even though wildly inappropriate and irrationally, is at least a one-stop shop, for moving forward. It’s like, alright, so that’s on me. That’s what I did. That’s on me.

Miranda: Maybe a stopgap. Maybe that’ll hold you until you can get to a place where you have that option.

Lacy: But it is a defense mechanism that is very effective. It can unfortunately then be quite limiting as you try to grow through that. She says, knowing very well that taking responsibility for things that you didn’t control is no way to go through life. But I think a lot of us probably can relate to that experience too.

Miranda: Absolutely. Um, yeah, we’ve been talking for over an hour now, you guys. I’m thinking that the next place to go is to talk about how do you get support and how different and validating it is when we do start to find our people who get it, who’ve been through it. It’s been life-changing for me all along the way, all the different ways that people have believed me and seen me and there are just people who get it and people who don’t get it.

You know what I mean? And the people you try to explain it to, you should probably just not worry about it because there are people that don’t need to have it explained and just know you and trust you and understand how the world works because they’re willing to.

Kathryn: But I do think it’s really important to know that as moral people that it’s also our obligation to point out the people who are looking away. Whether we do that with our voices or with writing a book or with what I do testifying, writing legislation, I think it’s really important to point to the people that are looking away to the people that don’t see the baby or the child in a park that has a bone exposed and is injured, you know, I mean, I think it’s really important to, over and above bearing witness is to point to the people that create this system of silence, because those boys thought , that you were just an object for them, Lacy. That was written deep in the culture of that institution at every level. And I think not only do we need to, clearly bear witness to the trauma that children go through both boys and girls and unfortunately at such a high rate women, but we also have to bear witness and call out the institutions that choose not to speak up, to choose to look the other way, choose to cover up all of those things and, also choose to, punish the person who discloses the truth. I think that’s another thing that I think we have to bear witness to those that are not.

Lacy: Um, I mean there were two things that were very moving to me that I want to say, because I think they might potentially be useful.

Miranda: Please. Yeah.

Lacy: If in tone, if not in the world. But when I got a hold of my police records, and I do have to say that Saint Paul’s School signed off on my getting those police records. It took 2 years to get them because the file was so huge. And I don’t even know what some of the complication was. We had to hire an attorney to get them. But St.Paul’s had to sign off on a lot of the documents that pertain to them. They could have claimed privilege on all of them. They did not. So, in that instance, I was served.

Um, I saw the phone calls, the the frantic recording of phone calls in the summer of 1991 after I disclosed when I was home after my pediatrician had called. I think it was called in New Hampshire at the time, the Department of Youth and Child Services, and reported. She called in Manchester. It was a different town. And bless their hearts. They kept calling, they kept calling Concord PD asking what was going on at St. Paul’s, where was the girl? Who was on top of this?

And I saw this and I, I started to cry. I imagine in my head, this person, I made her a woman, I don’t know, calling and calling and calling. And if only I had known that there was someone out there who saw this and was like, Oh, hell no. You know, and, and, and she had no power over St. Paul’s school. Their endowment is north of half a billion dollars. I mean, it is now, who knows what it was then, relative terms, but this civil servant, that she’s probably a social worker, you know.

Miranda: Mm-Hmm. (Yay, social workers.)

Lacy: She is calling about a girl who’s not even a New Hampshire resident trying to find out if she’s being looked after. I was so moved by that.

And the second thing that happened that was really illustrative to me is there is a women’s shelter in Concord and it’s like two miles as the crow flies from the school. The head of the shelter got in touch with me and she said, God, I wish I’d been able to come hold your hand. And I realized that, you know, people have said, well, What could what could anyone have done? What would you have done differently? Okay, sit down. I can go long on that.

But the thought that 2 miles away was a women’s shelter where people are trained and educated and, in many cases experienced, who would have been able to look at me and say, here’s some language for what just happened to you. It’s also, by the way, against the law. Also, the following people legally need to be notified right away. These processes are going to begin. How can we look after you? You can stay here if you need to.

That astonished me. I thought I was utterly alone in the world and I both was and I wasn’t. And so I, I wish also for young people and not young people to know where those places are.

Miranda: Thank you, Lacey. That’s really, really important. And I’m hearing your story and I’m just hearing how like foundational that aloneness was for you and why that would kind of rock your world to see that as an adult. And in some ways it’s too late, but in some ways it’s not. And I hope it’s not too late for other people who hear you saying this and pointing this out.

Lacy: I hope so too. I hope so too.

Miranda: Is there anything else you want to throw in there, Lacy?

Lacy: This is too depressing. If you really want to make people mad, write a book. That’s a top tip. Get it out there in whatever way. Although I should say do that very carefully read up on, libel laws first. Um, but I got really lucky. I got really lucky that I was able to put it together. I was able to write it down. I was able to put the book into the world and to find readers. And, I’m really grateful for all of that and there is, I’m not a big fan of healing as a paradigm, because it suggests an end point that I don’t perceive for myself,

Miranda: I don’t either.

Lacy: But in terms of progress, which is to say the ability to start to forget, telling it in a way that validates helps. It really does.

Miranda: Are you glad you wrote the book?

Lacy: Yes.

Miranda: Great. Me too. You are a stunningly beautiful writer. And I read your other book too. I really enjoyed it.

Lacy: Long time ago.

Miranda: It’s different. I really liked it. Because because I know you’re also really funny. But, you know, we don’t get to hear this side of people in interviews about sexual assault.

Lacey and Kathryn, this has been such a pleasure. And, uh, every time I talk with both of you, I learn more. And I think, so corny, but I feel like my heart expands.

Lacy: I share that feeling. Thank you, Miranda. Thank you, Kathryn, for all your work.

Thank YOU for listening!

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Miranda: So, da, da, da, hello and welcome, blah, blah, blah. All right, let me make sure everything’s going.

I’m going to take a sip of water.

Kathryn: Didn’t we, didn’t we do like a big chunk of an episode and you forgot to hit recording? Record.

Miranda: So sweet to remind me of that right Kathryn, yes.

Kathryn: I’m just saying it’s only happened once since I’ve known you.

Miranda: And scene. We’re done. Oh, my dog is sensing that it’s over and she’s ready for attention now.

Lacy: My dog can count 50 minutes because that’s my therapy therapy session length.

Miranda: Oh my God!

Lacy: So at the end of 50 minutes, the dog gets up and goes to the door. I’m like, all right, we’ll talk next week.