Penn State child sex abuse roils campus

Question of Joe Paterno involvement divides students

Yesterday, when I walked onto campus, a young man crossed my path, a Penn State undergrad, moving zombie-like down the incline of the walkway, in the opposite direction of me. I had to stop to watch him, his eyes shut, a lazy goose step in his gait. The image has been seared into my neurology. Every time I close my eyes, I see him walking away, drained, aimless, his eyes closed, without recourse, without words.

When I arrived at Penn State to begin grad school last summer, I was unfamiliar with things like Joe Pa or Paternoville, the meaning of Blue and White, the chant of "WE ARE PENN STATE." When I say I was unfamiliar with these codes of collective honor, I don't mean that I didn't know them specifically—I had no idea such worlds even existed, generally. I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio where I was barely aware we had a football team, where individuality was placed far above the idea of the collective, where dissent and cynicism were the code of honor, where we sneered with disdain and skepticism at athletics or the reverence that surrounded the athletes of our high schools. I thought Football Universities were manufactured settings for Hollywood films. Not real places.

At Penn State, I became instantly intrigued with the myth of Joe Paterno, his godlike status, his place as icon. His image sits on the walls and in the windows of many local shops in the same way that Jesus' image might be the centerpiece of a devoutly Catholic home. In many ways, I was envious of those who were so fully engaged in the ecstatic religious experience that was Penn State football. I have always yearned for that sense of community. I am a woman who constantly looks for ways to find the extraordinary in the ordinary—to make the profane feel sacred. I like the ideal of constructing rituals and myths out of men. It's what we do best as human beings—something that makes us so fascinating to me. It's the one thing that I think binds us all together: our love for magical narratives based in real life.

The immense pride that many take in the honor and comport of our football team did not seem dubious or creepy to me at all. I enjoyed what it stood for—I enjoyed watching the narrative that Penn Staters spun around Joe Paterno and his soldiers. I heard that, before games, he would recite The Iliad in ancient Greek to his players, preparing them for the field. I loved that our football team was an allegory for so many great principles: grace under pressure, dignity, composure, and education, especially when athletics always seem to be at odds with education in the master narrative of our land grant universities. Joe Paterno, himself a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, where he studied the Classics (a secret passion of mine), was said to be the most academically aware coach of college football, setting academic standards for his team unparalleled in NCAA Division I sports. That made me proud and gave me material with which to teach. In my English 15 class, we dissected the rhetoric of Penn State football, through which I could teach metaphor and device and argumentation in a way that mattered to the lives of my students. As a writer, I got to see, firsthand, how narrative played a real role in the lives of Americans in a way I found profound and elegant: a new spirituality.

Still, I have not yet been to a Penn State football game, nor have I been anywhere near the stadium on game days. I don't own any Penn State gear. I still see myself as an outsider in this culture, though I appreciate it and have found some pride in it. I have very slowly started to see myself as a part of it.

Then, the horrific news came about Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State coach who was being indicted for the sexual abuse of eight young boys. At first, I looked upon this news as I think many did—an isolated incident about an alleged pedophile who fit the profile of another mythic narrative: that of the monster. And I thought of the many cases I had written about during my stint as a journalist—the stories of men who committed terrifying acts. I always tried to write about these pieces in a way that attempted to understand who these men were and how these things happened, because, the myth of the monster occluded the real point of the problem and didn't allow us to engage in an understanding of pedophiles that would allow us to try to stop the problem. I read the Sandusky stories looking for these sorts of answers as well.

But then, more news came. And came and came and came and is still coming. Very quickly, I watched the news about Sandusky and his vicious crimes misguidedly morph into headlines about Joe Paterno, Penn State's god, its beacon of truth, its moral compass. Apparently, he had fallen from grace. The headlines and their accompanying photos suggested to me that Joe Paterno was the criminal here, not Sandusky. And I was curious about this turn events, so I started reading more closely. I read that the 28-year-old graduate assistant who had witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the Penn State locker room showers had gone to Paterno with what he saw. I read a lot of "he said, he said" about who said what to whom. I read that Paterno went to his superiors—if a god like Paterno could have superiors—and had the grad assistant tell them what he saw. I read that these superiors did not take this eyewitness to the authorities, but behaved in a way that suggests to many a corrupt cover-up in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of Penn State's name, even if that still remains to be proven. I read that Paterno, as Penn State's figurehead, now shouldered the greatest blame because he did not do more: He did not follow up, he did not go to the police, he did not do whatever we like to think we would do in such a situation. For a god, this behavior was dubious, and suddenly we had to acknowledge that he was a man, a man with a great deal of power who failed to use it.

I also read the grand jury report, which recounted a horrific incident in 2000, where a janitor witnessed Sandusky giving oral sex to Victim 8 in the Penn State locker room showers. The janitor was so upset by what he saw, his co-workers thought he might have a heart attack. Still, the police were not called in that incident either. Then I read about the 28-year-old who witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in 2002, and that he did nothing to stop it, but left, upset and confused by what he'd witnessed. I read about the wrestling coach at a local elementary school who stumbled into the gym to find Sandusky lying on top of a young boy, and again, he didn't beat Sandusky within an inch of his life or call 911 right away. He left and contacted the principal later on. Of course, these men weren't being called out in the press. That is because they were not gods—they were not in positions of power. Their failure to act was somehow justified because they were not mythical creatures held to higher standards.

My first instinct was to consider what I would have done in these situations—if I had witnessed a grown man raping a small boy. I would have killed him! I would have pulled that young boy to me, wrapped him in a towel, and called 911 from my car, where the boy would be sitting shotgun, me trying to tell him that it would all be okay. In my fantasy, I painted myself a hero. But I had to acknowledge that I wasn't sure I would have behaved any differently in the face of such an atrocity. I'd likely have gone into shock, too. I'd likely have gone to someone else—someone I found trustworthy to tell me what to do. And I'm sure that person would have been at a loss as well, because, how does your mind process something so horrible? I tried to actually understand what happened here, rather than cast stones, because I live in a giant glass house that I am constantly aware of.

What that grand jury report suggested to me was not a full-scale cover-up to protect the name of Penn State football, even if that might be the case or the most exciting of stories to consider. Only a proper investigation will prove that to be true or not. What I read and learned was how we all, as human beings, fail our greater ideals about how we should behave in the face of real atrocity. I thought that this situation might be an excellent time to consider how we think we'd behave, how we might not behave that way, and what we can do to stop the systemic denial of pedophilia that plagues various institutions in our world—the church, education, athletics, etc. Now was the time to figure out a real course of action—a methodology for dealing with atrocity, if we could do that, even. To consider what was at stake for the psychology of men faced with inhumane atrocity. Would it be possible to act accordingly? I hoped so, but I wasn't sure.

But the press would not allow us this conversation. Instead, looking to increase unique hits or sell papers, it clung to the image of our school's icon, our celebrity, and twisted this story: It never allowed our school to engage in a real conversation about what went wrong and how we could use this as a chance to learn, to be better individuals, to truly engage the reason why we are all at Penn State. It all spun out of control into a bad game of telephone, where events were being miscast and misrepresented. When I talked to my father on the phone, I asked him if he'd heard about our scandal and he said, "What? About the boy who was raped in the shower while 20 people watched?" He wasn't joking, and I was disgusted by how things had spun so badly out of control.

In such a short time, I watched the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and message boards light up with hatred and outrage, with accusations that Penn State was little more than collection of pedophile enablers, that we were all implicated in this crime, that we were a bunch of blind meatheads, members of some weird football cult. I read my own colleagues write as much, even. Sandusky and the administration disappeared from our conversation; child abuse and its perpetuation disappeared from the conversation. Instead, Penn Staters felt like they were under attack and rightly so. In class, one of my students, in trying to engage the world in a conversation over what happened, was called a pedophile herself by friends of hers that are not at Penn State. The meaning of this moment got lost and the cause and rights of the real victims—those little boys—were occluded by the verbal victimization of our students and our school, placed in a position from which they decided to lash out. And though I am gravely disappointed and disheartened by Wednesday night's events, when students rioted after Paterno's firing, flipping over a news van, I know what it means to be defensive, to shoot from the hip. And again, I had to consider my own glass house before demonizing the very small percentage of our student body that headed into the streets Wednesday night.

I can sympathize with the outrage of the students who ran to protect their icon, their god—it made sense to me, even if it seemed misguided. What did anyone expect? This myth of Jo Pa wasn't built in a day, and people were wholly invested in it in a huge way. I saw it with my own eyes. Shit! I even started to get swept up in it, even while I was aware of the construction in all my haughty cynicism. And, honestly, I think part of the outrage of Penn Staters comes from that awareness, too. As people suggest that Paterno should behave like the god we claim he is, students were saying: He is not a god, he is a man, and he failed like one. But a real conversation about what happened and what should happen now was wholly shut down.

I blame the press for misguiding the direction of this conversation—for making this about the icon of Joe Paterno rather than the systematic abuse of young boys and the failings of a system to handle the case appropriately. Instead, in a need for sensation, the press and those on social media outlets rallied against our icon because that was the sexiest headline. And, of course, the student body reacted with violent defensiveness. Real communication, real consideration for how Joe Paterno failed was never allowed to happen. These kids—this community—was never allowed to consider what this all really meant because everyone had to sex up this story with a celebrity and his myth, because what fun would it be to destroy that narrative so thoroughly for the sake of greedy viewers. It made for good television.

Well, I hope that everyone has fully enjoyed watching this spectacle from the outside—that your morbid curiosity and insatiable desire for public scandal has been thoroughly fed. I'm sure that it will disappear from your consciousness as soon as another sexy headline comes along to feed your addictions. But it won't disappear for us here at Penn State. The identity of this university has been utterly ruined and for all the wrong reasons. The real issues have been thoroughly buried. And now, we don't have healthy discourse on our hands, we have anger and frustration and camps of "Gotta Go Joe!" and "Stay Joe!" Now, we have an image problem that has occluded the real issue: that a man allegedly raped little boys and that an administration made aware of this fact failed to respond appropriately, making it possible for him to continue. Now we have some perverse narrative about a fallen god and a university that allowed little boys to be raped because our football team was more important.

I beg of all of you, help get the conversation back on track. Subdue the violence and vitriol. Encourage good conversation and help each other avoid generalizations. Find the facts and use them. Use this as a chance to make a better world, a world where we can talk openly and critically and peacefully. Anything but this.

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19 comments
Miamicool
Miamicool

For me the issue is rush to judgement.

Two things are interconnected. The first is moral panic or hystieria. The second is a process that leaps over or skips the step of careful fact finding.

in a democracy noone should be able to write in colclusory statements. Whenever anyone says " the graduate witnessed a rape" the author has a duty to cite the basis for that statement. So for example what exaactly did he or she see. What exactly did he or she hear.

Did the graduate assistant see "A rape" or did he hear the sound of towels slapping. When the other graduate assistant saw him lying on top of a boy were they nude ? What did he actually see. That needs to be cited in detail, names of the witnesses should be named.

Each of these articles is like a trial. And each of these trials should be conducted fairly. The reader has aright to know what allegations are substantiated clearly, which ones are vague or unsubstantiated.

No doubt everyone is being tried in the media. Nothing to be done about that. But the trials should be conducted fairly.

Dan Bott
Dan Bott

Great piece. As a recent alumn, you did a great job of capturing my similar sentiments.

JC
JC

Great Article.

I guess this one is not sexy enough, Sex Scandal at the Citadel;

http://www.latimes.com/news/na...

I saw this yesterday afternoon and I was expecting will be all over the news today.

Danneskjold2
Danneskjold2

Every one of those f*ck'n f@gg0ts should be rounded up, their b@lls cut off and they should be thrown into prison for the rest of their lives.

Troy
Troy

delete

Danneskjold2
Danneskjold2

No need to burn anything down, that'd be a little extreme. Finding and convicting these homosexual serial child molesters and then castrating them and locking them away permanently would be good enough. Then sue the hell out of the University! Their endowment is worth $1.5 billion and the football program is probably $100 million / year. Take it all and give it to the victims and their families.

G Olanda
G Olanda

I agree 100-percent, I just wish the author had not made the article so much about herself. The key ideas here could have been communicated without all her personal and autobiographical background.

Jill
Jill

I disagree. Making the narrative about her self humanized the story. And as a fellow grad student at Penn State, I can say I identify wholeheartedly with everything she said. Bringing in her background explains how, to get a full grasp on why we are so upset about the situation, who has been implicated and where the blame has been most heavily laid, you have to be here and see the students and the town, to understand the culture that is not prevalent through most universities.

St Averti
St Averti

Unfortunately, as you were not privy to the events you honestly have no right to suggest you would have done anything differently. We can all say anything we want when we are not vis a vis with a complicated and traumatic situation, but the reality is not a single one of us can honestly say what we would have actually done with the exception of one man, being McQuery himself.

St Averti
St Averti

Excellent article, though I would add that a large part of the problem is not just the pedophiles or how society accepts them, but also the treatment of children themselves in society. Don't mistake that for an attempt at blaming the victims, I don't suggest individual abused children are at fault; I mean to say that our society's deification of the idea of the "child" is at least partially to blame for the rampant sexual (and otherwise) abuse of children. Child sexual abuse isn't about love, lust, or even power (like most rape is), the goal of most child predation is to reach the deified being upon their lofty pillar. It is likely that if we want to really stop child sexual abuse, we as a people need to address not only the predators themselves, but the inhuman treatment of our children as well. In making the child sacred, all we are doing is painting a large target on their backs, and promulgating their exploitation.

Mommydearest21
Mommydearest21

Your point is well made, and I can understand how difficult this has been for all who love Penn State. One exception to your article: the administration did not ignore the abuse. People ignored it. People did not stop it. A rather long list of people did not nothing to protect the children. Do you really believe you would witness such an act, be confused, and walk away? Then put yourself in the list. Would I be scared to confront such a man? Yes. Would I walk away? No. I have children and grandchildren, and I would protect yours as soon as my own. The conversation you want is desperately needed when grown men and women cannot make such a simple decision. Ignore the media. Start the conversation by asking the boys if Joe, the others, and even you, should stay or go.

Justine Ringle
Justine Ringle

That was amazing! I am a Joe stay person. I think he did what a lot of people would do. We don't know what happened after that not yet at least. However if I were in his position and took the assistant to my superiors and nothing happened I would assume that the allegations were false. Yes we look at Joe Pa as a god but I really don't think of the information we have thus far that he did anything wrong. The fact that Penn State fired him looks bad, really bad. Not so much for Joe Pa but the university itself! If they would throw someone as idolized as Joe Pa to the wolves imagine what they would do to other employees!

Ellen King
Ellen King

thanks for posting this Laurie! And I agreee AMEN!

Alliessantacruz
Alliessantacruz

I bet if Jo Paterno or that Sandusky was getting abused in some way they would expect an onlooker to hep them! I bet if anyone of these students protesting against Jo Paterno having a moral obligation to report would call 911 immediately if they saw someone beating him up or abusing him......What is wrong with these students. Does their Name or football take away from common sense and morals??? The entire cover up is a sick act and tells a lot about the character of a lot of people.

St Averti
St Averti

The author points out something very important in this article. As much as people such as yourself feel that you or anyone else would have acted differently in the same situation, the odds are very much against that. The real question is what's wrong with you? Statistically speaking you know at least one child abuser personally, why then don't you hold yourself accountable for not calling the police directly on the people who you know that happen to abuse children?

goddessofgumbo
goddessofgumbo

Yes--but no. What outsiders think has nothing to do with the internal conversation that your university conducts. There are no news cameras in anybody's classrooms. And while the administration may be more hampered in its efforts, it is certainly not powerless.

 
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