The Week That Was

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Grown-ups Must Act Like Grown-ups

Penn State, victims, and a personal memoir of abuse

Five nights ago, a prosecutor pal — a new mom — who spends her days tracking terrorists and her nights trying not to think about them, sent me a link to the indictment of Jerry Sandusky on 40 counts of child molestation.

“Don’t read it before you go to bed,” my pal said.

In her former professional life, she prosecuted child sexual abuse cases and had helped me understand the abuse Mickey Mantle suffered at the hands of an older half sister, neighborhood bully-boys, and a high school teacher. She knew I had deeply researched the psychological image inflicted upon victims of abuse and thought I might want to write about the flesh-and-blood boys so clinically identified in the grand jury indictment as Victims 1-8.

I took her advice about my bedtime reading. I listened instead to the attorney for a woman who had accepted a settlement from the National Restaurant Association plead for her to be released from a confidentiality agreement so she could publicly address the allegations of sexual harassment she had made against Herman Cain. I listened to the leading Republican candidate for president refer to his accuser as “that woman,” and heard an echo of former president Bill Clinton’s defiant testimony: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

I read Penn State University president Graham Spanier’s statement of unconditional support for two school officials who would be forced to resign the next day after being charged with perjury and failure to report what they knew to state child protective services.

I watched a crowd gathered outside coach Joe Paterno’s house in State College, Pa. chant, “Paterno! Paterno!”

I Googled the name and learned that it is believed to be a short form of the better known “Paternoster,” a surname for a maker of rosaries as well as a given name for baby boys meaning, “Of the father.”

I thought about the cruel irony of the nickname Paterno wore as proudly as his Nittany Lions sweater.

The next morning I booted up the computer and opened a new document file with the intention to write about the common denominator in the colliding headlines and the institutional reflex to bury heads in the quicksand of silence.

Then I read the 23-page indictment, which should be required reading — though perhaps not at bedtime — on every college campus in America with or without a revenue-producing football team. Prosecutors call it a speaking indictment because of the awful, irrefutable specificity recorded in the statement of facts that puts the lie to the polite evasions and elisions of defense attorneys and family newspapers.

Credibility is always in the details. The images that make the mind recoil against fact — the slapping sound emanating from the shower room that a graduate assistant heard when, he told the grand jury, “he saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky” — are the same images that compel belief because no one could make them up.

The graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, is now an assistant coach who has received death threats from those who think he said too much and vilification from those who think he did too little. He will not be on the sideline tomorrow when Penn State plays Nebraska.

As I read, something quite unexpected occurred, an “aha” moment in the quiet of my kitchen, with the dog asleep on the floor and coffee cooling in a cup. I leaned against the cooktop. I realized I was writing the wrong story.

Forty-one years ago, while an exchange student living at a convent school in Belgium, I was sexually assaulted by a teacher, a married woman with an 8-month-old son. This is not a newly recovered memory. This is a story I have told repeatedly, though not publicly, for years. I needed to tell it to convince myself it was true.

I choose to tell it here, not because I wish to detract in any way from the severity of the alleged abuse that took place at Penn State but because it illustrates the power of the mind, as psychologist Richard Gartner, author of the definitive book on the subject, Betrayed As Boys, told me, “to put experience in a kind of box so that it doesn’t disturb the rest of you.” Because, while I am a reluctant citizen of the confessional states of America, my experience, which pales in comparison to the trauma described by the grand jury, illustrates the banal ubiquity of sexual abuse and its insidious aftermath.

I was 17 years old and naïve enough to believe that the biographical facts of my teacher’s life precluded such behavior. Perhaps she thought because I was a member of the American sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n-roll generation I was experienced, sophisticated. Or perhaps she read me just right and used my innocence to lure me.

My teacher plied me with gifts and attentions — outings to the theater, to bars and restaurants. She read me French love poetry she had written. I was too young, too stupid, too illiterate in the Romance languages to understand she was writing about me.

Forty-one years ago, she invited me out for a night on the town with her and her husband. I told our American chaperone that I didn’t want to go. She told me it would be insulting to refuse such a generous offer from one of our hosts. I took a friend with me for protection.

They got us drunk. They took us back to their house in the country — it was too late to go back to school, they said. The sweet smell of baby suffused the hallway outside the guest room. I had no idea where I was.

They put on Moroccan caftans and made a fire. Mme. let her hair down. A lick of flame leaped through the fire screen and singed a strand of French twist. The acrid odor of premonition filled the crevices of disintegrating trust.

They had purchased Jerry Lee Lewis music for the occasion. “Great Balls of Fire!” I doubt they knew what I knew about his marriage to a 13-year-old first cousin once removed.

For the seduction scene they changed the tempo and put Ravel’s “Bolero” on the stereo. By the time the clichéd torch song of classical music reached its inexorable climax 15 minutes later, I was clear-eyed and dead cold sober. I saw Mme.’s husband lying on top of my friend, who was passed out beneath him on a white fur rug. It was easier to process what was happening to her than to understand that the lips extolled in Mme.’s verse were my own. I dragged my friend away from her assailant; when my assailant pinned me against a bed and professed her love, I hit her across the room and forever lost whatever fluency I had in French.

We made it back to the convent the next morning physically intact. We were lucky. Only trust was violated.

I did not tell anyone, except my boyfriend, for the next four weeks, cutting class and counting the days until our departure. Two days before we left the country, our chaperone told me that Mme. would be the adult in charge of the next group of exchange students. After all, she had been so kind to me.

At the convent I was known as La Juive — the Jewess. That afternoon, I confessed everything to a nun who had become my friend and protector. Seated across from her at a table in the rec room on the top floor of the school, I learned that Mme.’s husband had been fired years before after impregnating a student.

I presented a list of demands (it was 1970):

1. They couldn’t do anything until I left the country.
2. They couldn’t fire Mme. (I was worried about her baby).
3. They had to get her psychological counseling.

“If only she had asked,” I told my friend the nun. “I could have said, ‘I’m not interested.'”

I didn’t comprehend her pathology or my naïveté. Needless to say, the mother superior didn’t find her a shrink when, immediately after I cleared Belgian airspace, Mme. was shown the door. I went home. I entered college. I waited for a knock on the door that never came and for escape from a memory that would never leave me nor fully register as what it was.

Over the course of five years of writing and reporting my biography of Mickey Mantle I educated myself about childhood sexual abuse. Mantle had been abused as a very young boy by his older half sister; then by boys in the neighborhood who, he later told a friend, were the reason he learned to run so fast; and by a high school teacher, not named Mrs. Robinson, about whom he later joked: “That’s how I got through high school was screwing the teachers.”

I read the literature. I interviewed the experts. I learned from David Pelcovitz, a professor at Yeshiva University in New York and a psychologist specializing in the treatment of abused children, about a constellation of symptoms often seen in survivors of sexual abuse: sexual compulsivity or extreme promiscuity; alcoholism or substance abuse; difficulty regulating emotions and self-soothing; bed-wetting; a distorted sense of self; self-loathing, shame, and guilt; a schism between a public image and the private self; feelings of isolation and mistrust; and difficulty getting close to others.

These deeply held feelings of isolation and shame, if untreated, abide and resurge, casting a veil of distrust and destruction over future relationships. Pulling back that veil gave me a new way to see, understand, and empathize with Mantle.

I learned from Richard Gartner, who treats survivors of sexual abuse in his New York practice, not to assume that “because some ‘objective’ point of view says that one form of abuse is milder or more severe that therefore the trauma is milder or more severe.

“I’ve treated and written about people who have had one relatively mild incident and yet were deeply affected all their lives, sometimes more than people who were chronically abused. They were less functioning. It could be because of the family they grew up in and the way it was either accepted or he believed it to be accepted or not accepted, and whether he can talk about it.” Which is very hard to do, Gartner said, because there is no room in American culture for men to see themselves as victims. Because if they are victims they are not men. Nowhere is that truer than in a major league locker room or a college campus athletic facility.

I learned from my prosecutor friend how delicately she had to tread when interviewing young victims who “test the waters” with investigators, parsing out little bits of their stories, waiting to see how they will be judged and whether they will be believed.

Not once in all that time, or in the 13 months since the publication of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, since I began traveling the country explaining to skeptical male audiences why Mantle’s high school teacher was as abusive as his half sister or the neighborhood bullies, did I make the synaptic connection between The Mick and me.

I went back to Gartner and asked what had happened to me. “It’s called dissociation,” he said. “You disconnected the possible connection even though it was so obvious. His teacher. Your teacher. It’s just a way of protecting yourself.”

It is in the nature of institutions to be conservative in the most old-fashioned sense of the word — acting to conserve a reputation, an infrastructure, a Golden Calf worshipped at the expense of common decency. Thus, settlements in sexual harassment cases are reached with “confidentiality agreements” that shackle the truth. (See the National Restaurant Association.) Thus, the false idol of a football program in Happy Valley trumps the sad, awful facts of the alleged crimes perpetrated on Victims 1-8.

It is in the nature of childhood sexual abuse for victims, perpetrators, and witnesses to want to disassociate themselves from the act. That’s why the law requires grown-ups to act like grown-ups. That’s why Tim Curley, the Penn State athletic director, took a leave of absence and Gary Schultz, vice president for finance and business, retired last week after being charged with perjury and failure to report charges of serial abuse in athletic facilities on the campus of a publicly financed institution of higher learning.

That’s why it was so patently offensive when Joe Paterno, college football’s Mr. Clean, took refuge early this week in having fulfilled his legal obligation by informing his superiors. And more offensive, days later, as the full horror of the story emerged, when he belatedly declared his intention to leave at the end of the season on his terms, dignity intact.

That’s why less than 12 hours after he announced his resignation, saying that he was “absolutely devastated” by “one of the great sorrows of my life,” the board of trustees acted in loco parentis, firing the patron saint of Happy Valley — who was, after all, just a football coach — and the university president with misplaced loyalties effective immediately. The grown-ups finally decided to act like grown-ups.

That, Gartner said, is the good news, if ever good news can come from a tragedy such as this. “The behavior was very similar to how other institutions have reacted — the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, orthodox Yeshiva, boarding schools,” Gartner said. “They protect the institution. What’s remarkable here is it happened so fast, and that suggests to me that there has been a sea change in the public perception of childhood sexual abuse.”

JoePa said that with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had done more, which begged the question: What words, what regrets, what sorrows and devastations are left to Victims 1-8, who must wonder how life might have been different if JoePa had acted in accordance with his lovingly bestowed nickname?

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Tim Curley resigned from his position.

Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy and The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, which was released in paperback last month. She is a former staff writer for the Washington Post.


Filed Under: Penn State, Penn State Nittany Lions, Joe Paterno, NCAA, College Football, Jane Leavy