Penn State, Child Abuse, and Moral Standards

“What’s the fascination with this story?” The question was asked to no one in particular, just the whole room, really. It wasn’t asked in any pointed way, but just out of sincere curiosity. “It’s about football, right?”

I got the sense that most of the people in the room were not big sports fans. Of course, it wasn’t just about football. It was about football at Penn State, which was, as someone else in the room tried to explain, a well-respected institution, known for its “Grand Experiment” of emphasizing a higher ethical standard.

“Like the Catholic church?” he deadpanned, to general laughter.

“But wait,” someone else said, “isn’t Penn State like a huge party school?” It can’t really be about moral hypocrisy, or high standards, or even child abuse. We brush away stories about child abuse all the time. Really, it must be about football.

I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t sure what exactly I disagreed with. Penn State was a party school; we had seen this all before with the Catholic Church; even the culture of cover-ups at athletic departments was old news.

But at least one thing seemed wrong to me: It’s not about football.

***

For six summers in a row, I went to a sleepaway camp in northern Pennsylvania. This is how most of my friends spent their summers, and I assumed it was the norm, only to find out later that it was only ubiquitous within a very specific demographic.

As such, my camp had its own subculture, which only seems strange in retrospect. Some of camp’s oddities were intentional—its emphasis on camp traditions and unity—but others were merely the by-product of spending almost all of your day around other males, almost none of whom were old enough to legally drink.

Some of it was, frankly, disgusting. People walked around with their hands in their pants constantly; some would masturbate while others were in the same room; once, a counselor walked into a bunk and, without thinking, spit right in the middle of the floor for no reason.

Of course, none of this would have been acceptable in any other context—and it arguably shouldn’t have been acceptable in any context—but that didn’t stop us from accepting it. These details may have repulsed an outsider, but they were mainly the type of idiosyncrasies that made insiders feel “inside” of something. The fact that others didn’t relate only proved that they didn’t “get” our camp’s culture.

But if anything bad had ever happened, I’m sure all these details would have looked like unmistakable warning signs.

***

It’s easy to see why so many people latched on to the story of Mike McQueary walking in on Sandusky raping a boy in the shower. Of all the allegations, it’s the most vivid and gut-wrenching scene. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces a third party, who’s neither a victim nor the perpetrator, whose duty is debatable, and whose culpability is not clear.

What’s more surprising to me, though, is how people have latched on to the setting for this story. The shower has stood out in so many recollections of the events: What was Sandusky even doing in the shower with these boys? How could he think that was appropriate?

My first instinct is to condemn the very idea of showering with children, but then I remember that, at camp, I had counselors who would defecate with the door open. I had a very productive conversation with him about Splender’s first album, while he was on the commode. Would it have been so much worse if he had been in the shower? From an olfactory sense, at least, it would have been better.

A few months before the story broke, I was at a comedy show where the comic did a bit about showering with his friend’s dad and the rest of his Little League team when he was a kid. The story didn’t seem horrible, just absurd and funny.

Now, though, the image of an adult showering with children makes me recoil in horror. I have to remind myself: What’s horrific isn’t where Sandusky was—it’s what he was doing.

***

Almost immediately after, similar allegations emerged from another college campus. This one was certainly different—no criminal charges were filed; there was no cover-up; an accuser eventually recanted—but in many ways, it was exactly the same. Once again, there were allegations about a long-tenured assistant coach. Once again, the head coach came too strongly to his defense. Once again, people lost their jobs.

And so the Penn State story was less singular. Oddly, instead of making it harder to ignore, it was now easier. The possibility of child predators lurking on our college campuses suddenly seemed like a fact of life. As if it had always been this way, and we just hadn’t been paying attention.

***

I lied before when I was talking about camp. There were some people who could buy alcohol, and even rent cars. Though all of the campers and most of the counselors were under 21, there were a few slightly older, and a select few who were significantly older. These people were institutions. They had been at the camp for decades, through different owners even.

And, of course, they stuck out like sore thumbs. It takes a certain kind of person to work with kids his whole life, and the campers would joke about those people a lot. They were out of touch, and a little odd.

I’ve been thinking about one of them a lot recently. He was one of the nicest and most sincere people I ever met. He would remember virtually any conversation you had with him—he even had every camper’s home address memorized, and would disarmingly start conversations with “How’s everything on Elm Street?” or “What’s new on Cedar Way?” He was a shameless Mets fan who called Mike Piazza the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time, something we disagreed about vehemently.* In short, he was one of my favorite people at camp, but he was also very strange.

*I mean, seriously, of all-time?

Some of the things he said have come roaring back in my memory recently, like when he told me that I had “a beautiful smile,” or when he said another camper had “an amazing body.” These things creeped me out at the time, and seem even more disturbing now. At camp people would joke about it—everyone seemed to have a list of weird things he’d said—but nobody ever attributed anything nefarious to him.

Yet, looking back, there is now a trace of something sinister to everything he said. My instinct is to wonder if he was as nice and peaceful to everyone else as he was to me. And that’s not fair. I don’t know whether or not he had some inner demons that he was able to overcome, but that shouldn’t matter. What should matter is what he did: The decades he spent as a fixture of the camp, as one of the friendliest people there.

***

“Jerry Sandusky is a monster.”

It almost seemed like a contest to see who could say it louder, faster, most convincingly. As if there were anyone in the world who needed to be convinced.

But something got lost in the chorus of condemnations, and that’s this: There are no monsters; there are only people.

***

“It’s magical thinking, that somehow you can look in a person’s eyes and see into their soul, and it’s dangerous, because it encourages people to think they can identify sociopaths just by looking at them.” —Bill James

***

It’s scary to think, as many have suggested, that Jerry Sandusky set up his charity, The Second Mile, in order to lure children into his evil grasp. But it’s even scarier to think that he set it up because he sincerely wanted to help children, and he ended up using it as a vehicle to abuse children. The former is scary because it indicates that children are never safe from those who wish to harm them. The latter is scarier because it indicates that children are never safe even from those who want to help them.

Unfortunately, I think the scarier explanation is the far likelier one.

***

Before the news story could fade away, Sandusky tried to defend himself. His interview with Bob Costas on Rock Center with Brian Williams was truly the news story’s climax, and one moment stood out:

For many, Sandusky’s hesitant and stammered response to “Are you sexually attracted to young boys?” was tantamount to an admission of guilt. Dan Patrick played the audio on his radio show and said, “There was a pause in there. As I’m listening I’m thinking I don’t know if Jerry Sandusky knows what a pedophile is.” If you can’t answer that question with a definitive “No” then you might as well be saying, “Yes”—or so the thinking went. That moment seemed to annihilate any doubt of his guilt, if there was any remaining.

And yet, for me, the worst part was simply hearing Costas ask the question. Why was he asking a question about Sandusky’s sexual desires? Is that what’s really on trial? Is he in trouble for having perverted thoughts?

This is not only hypocritical, but also dangerous. It misses the central issue: The crime was what Sandusky DID, not what he felt. If we can’t make that distinction, then no progress will come out of this.

***

Suppose Sandusky were merely someone who was sexually attracted to young boys. Would that be criminal? Aren’t we all cursed with desires we don’t want? Impulses we would never act on?

Moral character is not about what you feel; it’s about what you do. And yet people who lust after young children—and they do exist, in numbers we’d probably never want to admit, if the last few months are any indication—are told that merely having those desires makes them monsters. And so they repress those desires, or they convince themselves they don’t exist. They tell themselves that their feelings are strictly wholesome, and that their behavior is merely “horseplay.”

They lie to themselves, which makes it easier to lie to others, which may explain why they’re so good at getting away with it.

***

“I should be dead.” According to the indictment, Sandusky confessed that to the mother of one of his victims, and I’ll bet part of him believes it. The guilt he must feel for so grievously hurting those he meant to help must be unbearable at times. It’s a torture he deserves, but one he likely began suffering before he started to deserve it.

This is all we get from classifying these people as Others or Monsters: We get them to feel ashamed of themselves, but we don’t protect the children they hurt behind closed doors. We tell ourselves that no decent person could have such desires, that it’s not something normal people have to deal with, and that it’s not a problem we need to concern ourselves with. So the problem stays hidden until it’s too late.

When the stories surface, we focus on the football coach implicated, or the gruesome details revealed, or on sympathizing with the victim and punishing the guilty. But we don’t ask ourselves How do we stop it?

That’s the most important question, but it’s the hardest to answer.

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