On Assault, Memoir, Justice, and Time: A Conversation with Stephen Mills and Lacy Crawford
“It’s a lot to ask of a reader, to bear witness to the pain of a child.”
This conversation discusses sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse, which experiences sit near the hearts of our memoirs.
After my memoir was published in the summer of 2020, I began to hear from victims of sexual assault who wanted to share their experiences. Many of them (60, as of today) had been assaulted on the campus of my boarding school. Another 150 or so had been victimized in other places: schools, families, churches, cars, the military. These survivors ranged in age from 17 to 81, and their experiences varied wildly, but almost all of them were women.
Exactly three male victims contacted me. But according to some studies, including one conducted by the CDC, as many as one in six boys is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I heard about other men who had been abused as boys; their loved ones said they wished I could talk to them. But these men could not, did not want to be, reached.
Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement gave women a sense of worldwide solidarity. The hashtag is now so gendered it has been coopted to refer, sometimes derisively, to feminist efforts to receive fair treatment in the workplace. No such community has arisen for men. The voices of the few male survivors who called me were quivery and full of self-lacerating humor, as though they felt they were not entitled to proper witness, care, and compassion. I ached for them. I recognized their loneliness. Courtesy #MeToo and the community of women, that loneliness was no longer mine.
Then in 2021, Metropolitan sent me a remarkable memoir. Stephen Mills’s Chosen reads like a gothic horror throughout the depictions of his childhood—vivid, singular, haunting. But then Mills carries his reader through the decades that followed, tracking with psychological acuity and great heart the decades of ongoing work of recovery. He wrestles candidly with the ways social constructions of masculinity corrupt victimhood, rendering it not only devastating but toxic, a threat to self and others. I recognized in his pages a story I hadn’t read, but that I knew to be central. I imagined that the men who contacted me and even more those who could not might receive this book as both companion and torch. Put simply: I am raising sons. They will be given Chosen.
Stephen and I began a correspondence over email and phone, both of us in California, both of us fighting for accountability from institutions that failed us and working to build community around our experiences. We begin here by sharing, as briefly as possible, our respective experiences, for background. I posed questions about Chosen, and Stephen, deep in publication week, replied.
Lacy Crawford: Stripped to the salient details, my experience was this: when I was 15 and a student at an elite New England boarding school, I was raped by two 18-year-old seniors. I contracted an STD. I was sent to a doctor who diagnosed me, but my school kept my diagnosis from me, my family, and my doctors at home, and left me untreated. When I later reported the assault, the school broke multiple laws to cover it up. The administration threatened me with slander if I testified against my rapists in court. I was allowed to graduate only if my family stopped suggesting the school had covered up the crime.
I discovered documented evidence of all of this thirty years later, when I joined the New Hampshire state investigation into possible crimes at my school in the summer of 2017. Even though this evidence was submitted to the state investigators, for reasons that were never made fully clear to me or to the police, they refused to consider my case, and the investigation was ended without any charges against school leadership.
Wow, that’s an exercise for a memoirist: write the coldest part, clean as a bone. What’s yours?
Stephen Mills: The director of my summer camp, a married social worker, began grooming me when I was thirteen, in the summer of 1968, before sexually abusing me repeatedly over two years. In my early twenties, I discovered that he was molesting boys in a different camp in another state. I confronted him, and he promised to get out of camping. He didn’t, but I was too paralyzed by shame to go to the police—as were other victims and witnesses. I then suffered a slow-motion physical and mental collapse.
Eight years later, at age thirty, I tracked down other victims and reported the perpetrator to law enforcement, at which point he was working at yet another camp in yet another state. In a catastrophic failure, the DA’s office and FBI let him leave his job instead of investigating and prosecuting him. Last year—at age sixty-six!—I filed suit against his employers under the Child Victims Act in NY, holding accountable the institutions that were the first links in a three-decade-long chain of silence and complicity.
LC: I so admire you for working to bring your abuser to justice and to protect other boys from his predation. It’s bold and exhausting to seek to bring organizations to accountability. Reading Chosen, I was struck by the heart-cracking story not only of the abuse you suffered but of the way you built a life thereafter—how you grew into the man who could both write this beautiful book and seek to create institutional change. Of the hundreds of survivors who have disclosed to me, none have expressed as much shame as the men have. Some wanted to talk to me and couldn’t get the words out.
One man scheduled three times and canceled at the last minute three times. I feel acutely that for men to speak about being victimized is perceived as expressing a vulnerability that our culture considers anathema to masculinity, and that men are isolated because of this. What can you say about gender expectations, abuse, and recovery? About justice?
SM: That just slays me about the guy canceling three times, because every male survivor has been there and knows that feeling. The shame boys experience is all-consuming. It began for me, like for most boys, the first moment I was abused, because my body responded with an erection—that’s just human physiology, the boy body responds to anything. The perpetrator knows that, but the boy has no clue, so there’s an instant feeling of complicity. He insisted I was asking for it: “Look, you’re enjoying this.” That shame goes right to the core, it becomes who you are.
On top of that, as you say, our culture says boys have to be tough, able to defend themselves. We have contempt for male weakness. We’re supposed to shut up and bear our shame in silence. This is so pervasive that up until the late ‘90s, psychology didn’t even recognize the sexual abuse of boys as a thing—it wasn’t considered possible!
So, yes, men have a much tougher time disclosing. Just look at our culture’s few movies on this topic: Prince of Tides, Sleepers, Mystic River. The message in them is clear: the sexual abuse of boys is brutal, humiliating, and must never be discussed. Fortunately, today, there are fantastic online resources like MaleSurvivor.org and SNAPnetwork.org where you can instantly find hundreds of support groups, forums, and therapists if you’re ready to disclose.Every stroke of the clock—every therapy session, every meditation retreat, every death in the family—brought me closer and closer to that moment when the story was ready to be born.
LC: One is always aware, when disclosing details of an assault or abuse, and its sequelae, of offering information so upsetting that the most compassionate listeners or readers might turn away. It’s a lot to ask of a reader, to bear witness to the pain of a child. How did you think about this challenge as an author?
SM: Yes, it’s a lot to ask of readers, but ask we must. And kudos to Bruce Feiler who ended his New York Times review of Chosen by saying we must not “stifle the cries of those we’re most called on to protect.” That’s the work at hand, and it begins by telling these painful stories. I wanted to tell mine from the kid’s POV, without commentary or jargon, so the reader could feel it. And I wanted to make sure they had no excuse to stop reading. Ideally, you’re getting on a ride that won’t let you off till it’s over.
LC: I’ve had decades to think about my experience and how it shaped me. You have, too. I believe there’s real value in this expanse of time and understanding, not least in the point of view it allows the writer: a wide range of self-awareness marked by long chronology. Did you ever try to write this story before? Why or why not? How did those efforts go?
SM: For me it was more like: Was there ever a time in my adult life that I wasn’t trying to write this story? As I mentioned before, I first tried back in 1987, followed by many attempts that ended in deep depressions, and at least one visit to the ER. I beat myself up for decades that I couldn’t write it. Now I thank God I didn’t write this book in my thirties or forties. That “expanse of time”—the gestation—couldn’t have been one minute shorter. Every stroke of the clock—every therapy session, every meditation retreat, every death in the family—brought me closer and closer to that moment in when the story was ready to be born.
LC: That’s perfectly put—I, too, was always trying to write my experience. I’ve come to understand that as painful and unsettling as my assault was, what devastated my development and emotional reality was the way my community refused to acknowledge what had happened to me. They gossiped about it, sure—that form of knowledge was hot; but when I disclosed, asserting my selfhood, they turned on me fast.
That gap, where facts are held differently based on what people are willing to see, has haunted me my entire life. It’s also, I think, a very writerly space—a murky place where language, character and truth are put in the service of projection and power. Put bluntly, the work of writing helped me to understand their lying. What is your experience of this?
SM: That aspect of Notes on a Silencing—the gossip, the ostracizing—was almost as scary to me as the rape itself because, at that age, social belonging feels like life and death. I didn’t suffer that as a teen—no one knew my secret (though that didn’t stop me from trying to disappear myself). But as soon as I pointed to the truth in my early twenties, and then again in my thirties, it was as if I were threatening a powerful, collective fairytale that had everyone in its grip.
I was telling anyone who’d listen that the man they had entrusted their children to—a heroic figure beyond reproach—was a soul-destroying charlatan. No one was willing to go public and challenge the power. I didn’t fully grasp this until I wrote the book—that it takes a village to shield a predator. I hope Chosen gives readers a window into that, so that we can change the dynamics.
LC: Chosen reveals the repeated failure of organizations and law enforcement to stop your abuser, even after he was exposed. This is an appalling but far from uncommon phenomenon. I did not press charges against the men who assaulted me, but I did seek, by writing my story, to expose the system of power and money that protected them from facing any accountability for their crime.
And I want to acknowledge how your experience was different from mine in that your abuser violated you on multiple occasions—not only was he not stopped, but you were not able, as a child, to keep yourself safe from him. Those systems are all-powerful, and incredibly difficult to make visible. Was exposing such systems similarly part of what drove you to write Chosen?
SM: Well, your book resonated so deeply because you not only conveyed the girlhood trauma but you tore back the curtain on revictimization—that second wound inflicted by institutions that would rather sacrifice children and survivors than let the truth get out. In my case, the seed for writing Chosen was planted in response to revictimization, back in 1987, when an FBI agent, thwarted by the bureau’s failure, urged me to tell my story. I tried then, but couldn’t.
By the time I was ready, inspired by #MeToo in 2017, the writing emerged more from a sense of urgency that we needed stories from boys and men—to challenge our cultural shibboleth that boys can’t be victims. But when I got to the chapters about the institutions and law enforcement, I saw their mendacity and complicity in full for the first time, and, yes, I wanted to expose it so the whole world could see what victims are up against.
LC: People have often asked me whether writing my memoir helped me to “heal.” I bristle at the suggestion that I wrote inward and not to reach others; that my primary audience was ultimately myself. It was not. To the extent that I told my story successfully, I could only do so after I arrived at the authority of self to shape the telling, which took decades and the validation of police investigations. The healing enabled the writing, not the other way around. What is your relationship to writing as a “healing” act or (God forbid) therapy?I don’t seem capable of writing anything that isn’t inviting the reader to witness some injustice and demand change.
SM: For thirty years, the act of writing was anything but healing—it was flat-out psychic torture. Ultimately, the book was enabled by that expanse of time you mentioned, by a growing spaciousness around the trauma (opened up by years of somatic work and meditation), by loving relationships, and by writers like you who showed me this could be done.
Book or no book, the healing continues—it’s a lifelong journey. Publishing Chosen did prompt a big emotional shift, but I wouldn’t call it healing. Outside a small circle of close friends, family, and fellow victims, I’d never shared my history of abuse. On my pub day, I did a podcast with Jim Clemente, ex-FBI agent, writer on Criminal Minds, and a survivor. He said, “Steve, this is your liberation day.” And that’s exactly how it felt—fifty years of secrecy and silence all went poof that day. I got my voice back. I got my story back.
LC: That’s beautiful, that pub day might also be liberation day. There is something to be said for knowing that the story lives in the world now, that it’s out there, and we told it the way we felt was most accurate. When I was writing my memoir, I considered my potential readership, of course. But I was thinking also of progress—I wanted to make possible some degree of social or institutional change. I don’t know what I expected to be true of the relationship between individual readers and the energy and agency to create change.
I didn’t think I’d change my school (and I was right!). But the dream of advocacy is seductive. I’m not sure books do the work of change, but I don’t know that we can change society without them. What are your hopes for Chosen? Do you separate the literary ideal from one of advocacy, if you wished to create change with this book at all?
SM: I set my sights low: all I want is to change the world. Haha. I’ve spent my whole adult life in the realm of advocacy—for human rights, civil liberties, the environment. I don’t seem capable of writing anything that isn’t inviting the reader to witness some injustice and demand change. That said, I hate agitprop. I believe in the power of good storytelling to change hearts and minds. I hope Chosen prompts readers to demand better protections for children and more justice for victims. But that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because the story needed to come out before I died.
LC: I believe that your book and your work off the page will make this nation a safer place for boys—both as a society to grow up in and a community where they might speak out if, God forbid, they have to. I’m very grateful. But I know it is difficult to bear witness in this way. If a writer said to you, “I’m thinking of writing about my experience of assault, but I’m scared,” what would you say?
SM: Honor your fear. It’s there to protect you, to keep you safe from what you can’t handle. The writing process can’t be forced or rushed. Open the lid only as wide and for as long as you can bear peering inside, then close it and write about that one small glimpse into some sliver of the experience. That’s huge, so congratulate yourself, even if you’re curled up in the fetal position. Come back when you feel ready to look again, to look a bit deeper. There’s an inner wisdom at work—you’re not in charge, no matter how many resolutions you make or deadlines you set. What about you? What would you advise?
LC: I would tell them to listen to you. Thank you for your work, and for the space you are making for other boys and men—and for those of us who love them.
SM: And I thank you, in turn, for inspiring me to finish Chosen. All these stories are interwoven. How powerful is that?
Stephen Mills’ Chosen is available now via Metropolitan Books.