You’ve heard all about it, maybe more than you want to know, but to recap: Last week Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, was charged with sexually abusing at least eight young boys over a long period of years. Since 1998, the university has been aware of accusations against Sandusky. In 2002, an assistant witnessed him anally raping a ten-year-old boy in the team’s showers. The assistant reported it to the head coach, Joe Paterno, who reported it to the Athletic Director, who reported it to his boss. No one ever reported it to the police. Sandusky was the founder of a charity designed to help boys from troubled homes, and he continued in his role of mentor until 2010.
Four days after Sandusky was arrested on November 5, the Board of Trustees asked Paterno and the university’s president to resign, effective immediately. (The athletic director and his boss are being charged with perjury and have left the university on different terms.) Enflamed at the ignominious departure of a legendary coach, “the winningest coach in college football,” thousands of students at the school rioted. They toppled a TV van; they threw things; they knocked down a lamppost onto a car.
The punditry and blogosphere also exploded, in their way, but for mostly opposite reasons. Among the outraged, a story coalesced: With so much to lose, the powers that be at one of the country’s leading Division I football programs refused to do the right thing—to report this man to the police and curtail his chance at raping others. Meanwhile, students’ worship of their team’s coach warped their perspective to such a degree that they were blind to the human suffering that had taken place. The Onion has a much forwarded satire here about the fans’ response that gets it exactly right.
Outside of Happy Valley—the name given to the town of State College and its environs—most people are furious about what’s been allowed to transpire there these last fifteen years. I share this fury, to put it mildly. As I read the grand jury testimony last Thursday at work, an emergency response alarm sounded in my brain. I have a ten-year-old son, and I was molested as a child.
I’m not a big crier, and I didn’t cry as I read, despite being hit with waves of impotent rage and grief. But I had a very physical response. Electric shocks pulsed through me. I felt like Donald Sutherland in the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the same pointing finger and rhythmic cry. Stop him. Stop him. Stop them. Stop it. Warning. Warning. Stop.
My impulse to stop that man, to stop those acts from occurring, was as automatic as the urge to sneeze, to defecate, to cough. My inability to act on it caused the same violent physical reaction as would fighting the need to vomit. I was wracked with tension. I was shaking. I experienced an overall bodily crisis.
I wanted to stop the acts from occurring. But I also wanted the inputs to cease. The images. Stop it. Stop it. Stop reading. Stop thinking. Don’t go there. Don’t go. No.
Society views child sexual abuse as the most monstrous of crimes, a pure evil. It’s general knowledge that child sex offenders are pariahs in prison, labeled as subhuman by even the most deviant and violent among us and brutally raped, ostracized, terrorized. The reactions to the news from Penn State support this view. ESPN columnist Rick Riley writes, “The horror of it makes you want to punch someone.” He takes some small comfort, though, in the ravaging Sandusky is likely to endure: “If all these charges turn out to be true . . . Sandusky will . . . be going to prison—a place where, with any luck, [he] will feel most unwelcome.” Many comments describe the damage the writers would like to wreak upon the rapist with their own hands. The assistant who witnessed the rape and who has not been asked to step down couldn’t be present at Sunday’s game because he received so many threats.
How could he? we wonder. How could they? How could someone look upon the rape of a child and turn away?
For answers, many have turned to Division 1 sports in general, and the rabidity of Penn State football culture in particular.
I’m from western Pennsylvania, and I know this football fever first hand. My own small town worshiped the game in all forms. It was a miniature, rust-belt version of Friday Night Lights’ Dillon, and as such, no different from all the other little towns dotting the hills and valleys in our half of the state. The mood of whole swaths of the population, not to mention the economy, turned on the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first time I visited Penn State’s campus, I was taken aback by the proliferation of life-sized Joe Paterno imagery. Like the portrait of a desert dictator, his visage was everywhere: in restaurants, bars, shop windows, office cubicles, sidewalks, dorm rooms. He saw all. He was all.
I was affected by the omnipotence of football. My first published story was set around a high school field. And part of me feels almost vindicated by the spotlight now shining down unfavorably upon my region. See? I didn’t make it up. The view really is that distorted. A sport really is the most defining and important thing.
And yet, every time the Penn State football program is mentioned as the cause of men turning a blind eye to the assault of children, I bristle. I feel this obfuscates the larger issue.
It’s the football program, yes, but it’s also the Catholic Church.
It’s hierarchical organizations like football programs and the Catholic Church, yes, but it’s also our families.
When we read about them, or learn about them, or watch them paraded into a prison yard with a sign around their neck, child sex abuse offenders are clearly monsters. I think of Ronald McGorvey in Tom Perrotta’s novella Little Children—pale, weak-chinned, acne-scarred. He shows up at the town pool wearing an ugly bathing suit, and everyone clears out of the water, moms grab their kids and clutch them to their bosoms.
At the term child molester, a common image leaps to mind—it’s that creepy guy with sickly white skin, that pocket puller wearing a thin poly-blend button-down shirt and bad glasses. As a matter of fact, one summer when I was in elementary school and playing with a friend in a near-empty building on the college campus where my dad taught, a guy who fit this description exactly followed us around for a while before cornering me and grabbing my crotch. When my friend’s dad came to pick us up soon after, we told him what had happened, and, catching a glance of the man, the dad chased him out the door and down the street. When we got home, we called the police. Everyone took me very seriously. Eventually, the guy was charged with assaulting a girl in a municipal parking lot.
But he wasn’t the one who molested me. That encounter was an anomaly. Approximately one of ten kids who are sexually assaulted don’t know the offender. Ninety percent of the time, children are sexually abused by someone close—an authority figure, a friend, a family member.
In real life, child abusers are often people who we love. Who we respect. Who we trust. Or who at the very least are part of the tightly woven fabric of our daily lives. And it’s very difficult to make a quick shift in perspective, from one view to another diametrically opposed: This person I know so well, care about, work with? This very normal person—maybe even handsomer than most, kinder, more successful . . . . How can he (or she, but usually he) be evil incarnate? If we see signs, we can’t quite recognize them. The pieces don’t come into focus as a readable whole. When someone steps forward with an experience or suspicion, he or she is often met with confusion or hesitation if not outright disbelief.
Let me just say here that of course I think the university president and Joe Paterno should be fired.
But I also, generally, shy away from absolutism. I hold in high esteem the ability, the willingness, to look at both sides, to examine complexity. The simplicity of slogans—“Get a job!” “Love it or leave it!” “Just say no!”—drive me insane, and I vigilantly guard against people being judged prematurely. Someone who seemed weird, or gay, or different raised a big red flag in my hometown. They evoked a loud “ew” from the short-skirted girls cheering in unison; they flew in the face of the single, rumbled “let’s go” arising from the huddle. You tell me someone’s “different,”—a barely veiled insult in western Pennsylvania— and I’m going to try to befriend or defend that person.
My son’s chess coach was a little weird, but the kids loved him and we parents liked him pretty well too. He gave so much of himself. He got our kids enthusiastic about playing a thoughtful game that didn’t involve a screen. When he made an inappropriate overture to a child at a hotel where the state tournament was held, the parents who caught wind told the principal, who told the superintendent and informed the police. The coach was let go. The children cried. I’m enormously grateful that the administration was so confident in their actions, because I have to confess that I wasn’t, quite. I was frozen. And some other parents didn’t agree with the course of events at all. They thought it was too much. That the coach should have been granted a warning.
It’s very typical for well-meaning people to say: Are you sure? Am I sure? Did I really see that? To say: But I’m not clear on what really happened. To say, anyone can be misinterpreted or make one mistake. I think this is what thoughtful people often do. And people who are scared. And people who have a lot to lose.
And, also, people who just, simply, refuse to let this into their lives: No no no no no. Stop. No more inputs.
The very monstrousness of the crime is what keeps us from recognizing it. Our horror in its face turns us away.
And no, that’s not brave or moral. And of course witnessing a rape, hearing an account of the rape of a child from an eyewitness, is far different from hearing about an inappropriate invitation to enter a hotel room with a grown-up. But child sex abuse is an ultimate horror that also exists on a continuum.
In one part of my brain the alarm is still going off. This is very personal for me. In another part, I’m equally horrified, but … somehow … I understand what keeps people from acting resolutely
Sometimes I get panicky that I’m not doing enough to arm my children. I’m not overly protective. The older one is starting to bike around town on his own.
“You know if anyone touches you inappropriately that you should tell your dad or me,” I remind him. I don’t think he’s listening. “If someone touches you around your penis or butt, that’s inappropriate. You know that, right? But any other kind of touch or even comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, let us know.” He’s still not listening. I wanted “penis” and “butt” to grab him, but I think it embarrassed him and turned him off, instead.
“It happened to me, when I was about your age,” I say. This gets his attention. I tell him the story of the man who groped me. He’s takes it all in, listening closely.
“You can trust most grown-ups, but not all of them.”
I don’t tell him the other story about myself. The one that’s longer, harder, more complicated.
Don’t let anyone touch you. Don’t let anyone touch you.
We all let people touch us, though. We have to. We’re human.
My heart goes out. It will be upturned like the news van. And stomped on like a car roof.
My heart goes out.
Our deepest animal nature urges us to protect our children. There is something in our human nature—some good things, too—that can make it difficult to act on this primal need.