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.


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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

23 responses to “Dropping the Ball”

  1. Tammy R. says:

    I cannot help but weep as i read this, Zoe and I am so proud of you for writing it and sharing your perspective and story–although it is the most painful thing I have read in a long time. It is also powerful and important to me because your voice here lends a deep credibility to many of the fringe issues that are hard to separate out of the entire crime and scandal to include: the state school fanaticism, the loyalty to local ‘heros’ (to a fault), the money, and the responsibility we all have to protect children. Thank you for your courage and the obvious research and time you spent crafting this piece.

  2. As someone who grew up a short drive south of Happy Valley, I can attest to the rabidity, as you very accurately call it, of the Nittany Lion football culture and the deification of Paterno. I remember the popular bumper sticker that said “If God is not a Penn State fan, then why did he paint the sky blue and white?” which, even as an adolescent certified non-jock, I found annoying and indicative of a wider lunacy. Obviously, a scandal like this can happen anywhere, so I’ve had to check my knee-jerk reaction to the alleged cover-up and overall fealty to authority and tradition as somehow typical to central PA. But it’s all the more reassuring to come across someone from the state with both a painful, gut reaction to this scandal and a brave and reasoned perspective. After a week of old high school friends’ status updates trying to work through their mixed feelings by beating the drums of Penn State pride, a piece like this is exactly what was needed.

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      I remember those bumper stickers! And now I hear they even have a seven-foot bronze statue of Paterno.

      Where are you from? My town was far enough away from State College so that there was a Pitt/Penn State divide.

      This is one of those stories that reveals the echo chamber we create for ourselves when we get so much of our news and commentary from FB and the like, as I do. The Pennsylvanian response has been very particular, I think. So many college graduates from PA are Penn Staters.

      • I’m from York, as detailed in a post listed above related to this one.

        There is some dividing of allegiances between Pitt/Penn State, though the Pitt contingent was smaller and didn’t bear the same psychic weight on people. I still have an enormous fondness for central PA, despite how squirrely (to use my family’s frequent description) things can get, especially once you head up to the mountains.

        • zoe zolbrod says:

          “Squirrely.” We use that term too, around here. (My husband is also from western PA.) I just read “36 Hours in York” and loved the writing. But! York would have been sophisticated and thus suspect to us. We have been endlessly entertained by this youtube series, and here’s one about western versus eastern PA accents that I cannot resist passing on. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4jn1L-riak&feature=fvsr&noredirect=1

          • Hilarious video. Donny in particular looks and sounds spot on. I’ll have to pass this around to friends. I think the key difference between eastern and central PA accents is in the “yin’s” and the “youse.” We like to say for instance “Youse guys gonna set here awhile then?”

            The Philly accent is another thing completely, might as well be Jersey. Way too sophisticated for me.

  3. This is a very nuanced piece, and I appreciate the unflinching yet empathetic way you write about it. You are an expert (unfortunately) on this topic on so many levels, and your personal story makes this moral and criminal tale easier for me to wrap my mind around. And you’re right, of course. Not only the football establishment is culpable, but the Catholic Church, families, our society.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Excellent piece Zoe. Thank you for writing for it.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    It must be hard not to screw up once in 46 years–I screw up a dozen times a day–but this is a really big screw-up.

    Thanks for expanding upon some of the same feelings I’ve had about this event. I hope the guy goes away for a long time.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    I was late to this story, so I was glad (that’s not the right word, but you get the idea) for this post. An ignominious way for JoPa to go out, but my God. I see this morning that Sandusky has proclaimed his innocence, which seems, based on what we know of the case, to be preposterous.

    I don’t know how you could walk in on something like that and not attempt to stop it, if not outright attempt to kill the guy doing it. But you’re right, that it must bring up conflicting emotions, just like, to a lesser degree, sexual harassment claims do.

    Thanks for writing this.

  7. Zoe, I too have a problem with absolutism and have a tendency, when confronted with anything that falls into that category, to step back and process. If it makes me seem like I am refusing to take a side or are any less passionate about the issue because I haven’t immediately joined the lynch mob, hasn’t always been easy.

    Yet when this story broke I felt an immediate reaction: Fire the coach. Untangle the deception. Hold the men accountable. Perhaps it was because I spent ten years in Florida where football for many boys (and coaches) is their only ticket out. Men blinded by dreams of glory are easily twisted and manipulated, their grasp on morality loosens, and the children suffer.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      I had that same reaction, Robin. I was worried in writing this that I might come across as being forgiving of the people who had knowledge and didn’t share it. I do not feel forgiving of them, even if I try to understand them. (Especially because in this case it doesn’t sound like there was much room at all for actual denial, as there is in many cases when just the tip of the iceberg is seen or suspected.)

      Something that’s not getting a lot of attention is that a janitor witnessed a similar encounter between Sandusky and a kid in the locker room a couple years earlier. The janitor told a fellow employee and his boss, and was apparently so upset he felt like he was having a heart attack, but again, no one went to the police.

  8. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t agree a “child molester” should be punished. But what’s so truthful about this piece is how unwilling many people are to identify him (or her). It’s a double heart break in so many cases, because the child is harmed irreparably, and the adults are shown their flaws in judgement, their horrible mistakes of character. And it’s painful for them (adults, college students, football fans) to change their ideals of what’s right and true and good. I too grew up in a small town, but instead of football we had a progressive ideology to believe in. And at the helm of that progressive ideology was a child molester. It took years for the town to reconcile their mistake. Kids I knew 20 years ago are only admitting they were molested now. I’m sure that particular type of denial–the refusal to change your view of reality after a crime has been committed by someone you respect–is called something in the PDA. Or it should be. Anyway, really great piece, Zoe.

  9. D.R. Haney says:

    You know, I hadn’t paid much attention to this case until I read your post yesterday, Zoe, and afterward I spent a couple of hours reading the grand-jury report, as well as reading (and watching) a few other pieces in trying to make a kind of sense of it all. What strikes me is how familiar it seems, how similar this case is to so many others about which I’ve read. The culture has been fairly obsessed with the sexual abuse of children for a while now, yet, for all that, the glaringly obvious signs of abuse in this case were ignored for years. I was also struck by the widespread anger at Mike McQueary, who blew the whistle on Sandusky in 2002. Really, there’s far more anger, online at least, directed at McQueary than there is at Sandusky or Paterno or the Penn State officials who were censured for lying by the grand jury. People are accusing McQueary of careerism and cowardice for not having walked out of the locker room with the boy he witnessed being abused by Sandusky, but it made immediate sense to me that he would have been so shocked as to not know how to react. But I suppose this case, like so many others, requires a scapegoat. Meanwhile, were you aware that Sandusky and his wife have something like six children, who were all adopted, and many of whom seem to have met Sandusky through the Second Mile? Yet none of them have come forward to say they, too, were molested — so far.

  10. zoe zolbrod says:

    You’re right, Duke. So much of the rage is directed at McQueary. I think it’s because most people can’t really put ourselves in Sandusky’s shoes–we cannot imagine raping a ten-year-old. But we can put ourselves in the shoes of McQueary, and as we’re reading about what happened, we’re likely feeling all this rage or horror. (Using a lot of plural pronouns here, but I think it’s a fairly safe bet.) We want so badly to intervene. How could he have done nothing! We would tear down that locker room brick by brick in order to stop what was going on! We feel the adrenalin that would let us do that right now! But the farther away we are from events, the easier it is to react with certainty. Maybe it’s like being a war or something. Kaboom. Who knows what you do when something actually explodes in front of you?

    But then, there were also so many years afterward when this guy was seen all over the place with kids. I’ve spent time wondering how these guys felt when they saw him parading around with yet another one. What went through their minds? How did they treat him in the halls? Were there whispers? Was it semi-common knowledge on the team? The first charges against him were brought up in 98. I commented to Robin that a janitor saw him going at another kid around 2000. He told his boss, too. Nothing.

    Yeah, I read he had adopted a lot of kids, some of whom came to their family through foster care.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      “I think it’s because most people can’t really put ourselves in Sandusky’s shoes–we cannot imagine raping a ten-year-old. But we can put ourselves in the shoes of McQueary…”

      I hadn’t considered that, but you’re exactly right, I would say. But this kind of blame accomplishes absolutely nothing, and I don’t believe that McQueary’s accusers would necessarily have been as decisive in his shoes as they claim. Some, yes, but many others would have been paralyzed by shock, as seems to have been the case with McQueary, and lashing out at him is, I think, like whistling in the graveyard.

      But I was very struck by a comment I read somewhere online: that it was all men who investigated this case — McQueary, in fact, took the action he did on the advice of his father — and if there had been any women involved, it might have made for a very different outcome.

      • zoe zolbrod says:

        I guess I would like to think that women would have reacted differently if they’d been the ones made aware of Sandusky’s behavior, but there are plenty of examples of moms turning a blind eye to what their husbands or boyfriends were doing to children, etc.

        I was shocked to find out tonight that there’s not actually consensus about who is making the death threats to McQueary. I assumed it was people outraged at him for not doing anything to stop the rape, but there’s speculation that the threats might be coming from rabid fans who are angry with him for doing too much rather than doing absolutely nothing, for implicating Paterno, in other words. I find it almost impossible to believe, but I guess there’s some question.

  11. Matt says:

    I’ve been keeping an eye on this case, but until I read this piece I had no idea these allegations went as far back as 1998. I thought I was pissed off before; I’m incandescently livid now.

    Has there ever been a case where covering up or ignoring something for The Greater Good (football, Church, the facade of peace within the family, etc.) hasn’t in itself been an evil act? Make me wonder why people put so much stock in The Greater Good to begin with.

  12. Gloria says:

    God, I’m so sorry that this happened. Thank you for writing this piece. And, yes, it makes me want to hug my boys, who will be 10 in February.

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