This article was originally posted as the charges against Jerry Sandusky, and the administrative cover-up that slowed the process down, first came to light. Now, as Sandusky's trial is underway, we revisit this post from Rachel Mennies on her reactions at the time, and how they reverberate into the present. From November 22nd, 2011:
I graduated with my master’s degree in English/creative writing from Penn State eight months ago. I won a teaching award and shook our President Graham Spanier’s hand. He and I posed on the stage of the round and echoing Eisenhower Auditorium for a photo together, though I still haven’t seen the actual picture. I had brought two friends with me to the event, afraid I’d be alone during the hours-long ceremony; from the stage I could see neither of them, though I searched for both as I strode across the stage.
While we posed, Spanier asked me about my graduate thesis, about my mentor, and I am sure I responded kindly, but I cannot remember many of the details of our brief conversation, nervous as I was to be on stage with one of the most important men at Penn State, if not in Pennsylvania entirely. I remember, impressed, him smiling with genuine enthusiasm for the seconds we stood together, and smiling at the next graduate student, and the next, and the next who came his way, and shook his hand, and took their reward.
Seven years before, I’m pushing through the revolving door at the Back Bay train station in Boston when a girl falls at my feet. She is small, maybe six or seven, and dark-skinned, with smart pink boots protecting her feet from the snow. Her hair, tugged into a small, tight ponytail by a vigilant hairband, has picked up pieces of rock salt, glass, and gravel in the dirt.
“Didn’t I tell you not to touch that door.” A hand, before I can offer mine, grabs the girl by her fur-rimmed hood, yanking her to her feet by her neck like a misbehaved pup. The girl whimpers, and a flushed five-star blooms on her cheek. An older girl, perhaps a mother or a sister, brushes her off with the hand not still clutching her jacket, the hand that had struck her moments before. She and I look to be the same age, I think, in the short moment I bring myself to look at her as she studies me, both of us shivering, both of us ensconced in puffy black coats to ward off the icy, bright New England winter.
“You’re in the nice woman’s way,” she says to the girl, now looking at me angrily, as if I’d witnessed the scene in their bedroom, some personal private space. “Sorry,” I say, and I take my nineteen-year-old body and I turn around and I walk away from them both. I see the pair holding hands as I turn: one small mittened hand inside a strong bare one, the little girl reaching the whole span of her arm to find the comfort in her caretaker’s grasp.
I remember this girl often lately. Nothing about her memory has faded in my mind, but I have reason to see her more now, over the past two weeks. I have felt, like many of my fellow Penn State alumni, the tumult of horror and shame and confusion brought upon by the news of our former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, having molested children for the past decades while other, powerful men at the University did little, or nothing, to stop him.
Sandusky claims innocence of the charges brought against him by the grand jury presentment: forty counts of sex crimes against young boys, eight of whom are identified (not by name, but by victim number) in the presentment. Since the charges broke, head football coach Joe Paterno and Spanier have both been dismissed by Penn State’s Board of Trustees; the Trustees believe, as do many people (including myself), that both men knew of this abuse and chose not to act in a manner to best help the victims and their families.
I have thought more about this little girl recently as I read and read (and read and read) about what’s happening at my old school, about what happened to the boys left unwittingly in the care of an alleged serial child rapist. I think about words like “unwittingly”: what it means to trust our neighbors and our community leaders, as we must trust them in order to function as a neighborhood and a community, and what it means for that trust when we learn that evil can live there, in that community, and can find its way to our most vulnerable, to our children. I think about the tiny evil in myself that cannot leave, which takes as its shape a giant hand striking a small girl in pink boots and a high tight ponytail.
As I read and read, I meet the lawyer Penn State has chosen to investigate the University’s crimes: Kenneth Frazier, the current chairman and CEO of Merck pharmaceutical company, who succeeded in reducing Merck’s payments to proven victims when it became public that its painkiller Vioxx gave users cardiovascular conditions and, in some cases, killed them. I see Sandusky’s own lawyer on television, sitting calmly as his client equivocates over the phone about his sexual attraction to young boys, and I listen to this lawyer assert that the victims numbered in the grand jury presentment will soon come forward from the mistaken haze of their childhoods and remember that nothing bad actually happened to them at all — that they will clear his client, prove his innocence.
I see in these men, in all of the men damned by Sandusky’s will to rape, both a wild animal fear and a calculated, methodically human will to survive at any cost. I cannot quiet these men, or stop them from acting as they act; I read about them silently, and share my outrage only with friends in earshot.
I have, in my life, been a person who saw a child injured at the hands of an adult and did nothing to prevent it from happening again. I have been a person who has taught children, mentored them, babysat them, loved them. I want, someday, to have children of my own. I feel a splintering inside of myself when I consider all of these facts, when I hold them all together in my head and reckon them from a distance.
Many writers and pundits and friends and strangers, in the wake of this news, have pointed out to me man’s ability to ignore evil — not to perpetrate it, though the perpetration of evil is undeniably human. To ignore evil: to use versions of examples from David Brooks’ recent column for the New York Times, to be an uninvolved, un-persecuted neighbor during the round-up of Jews in 1930s Europe; to see a small child struck by a car and not rush to her side; to overhear a murder in the business next door and turn up the stereo. To suspect, even to witness, but to choose not to act. “Some people,” Brooks asserts, “simply can’t process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what the psychologists call Normalcy Bias. When they find themselves in some unsettling circumstance, they shut down and pretend everything is normal.”
Here, Brooks makes an attempt to absolve the bystander, or at least to rationalize her behavior: the name for this inability to stop evil is even called, often, the Bystander Effect. By definition, to stand by and bear witness is part of our nature. To run away from or to conceal wrongdoing as a syndrome, not a conscious choice. A line between good and evil we cannot help but draw, instead of a line we make the choice to draw ourselves, and then point to as a gesture of self-absolution. Speaking of the evil that took place in his locker room, Coach Paterno tells us that “[t]his is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” He drew the line of the bystander clear through our campus, and now he is gone.
I have the ability, as a rational adult, to look back through these seven years — with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more — and see my own fear, my newness alone in a big city, my embarrassment and shame as a sort of paralysis. I find this ability to rationalize reassuring, and I also find it problematic, and I also find it wrong. Sandusky says: we were horsing around. I touched their legs, but never in a sexual way. I ask myself: had this child ever been slapped before. Will she ever be slapped again. These are not really questions. I cannot know the answer, and yet.
I have the idea in my head that I would never let this happen again. And I read (and read and read) of others hurling their own assuredness like a rock at Old Main: if I had seen this, I would have acted differently. I would have stopped this with my own hands. I would have called the authorities myself. I want to believe this as true for myself.
Since that day as a nineteen-year-old, I have never been tested.
Image courtesy of Caitlinator