Should Pedophiles Get Air Time?
Was the New York Times wrong to run an interview with Jerry Sandusky?
Penn State cheerleaders pass out anti-child-abuse placards while collecting donations in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Jerry Sandusky’s riveting interview with the New York Times this weekend has been oddly controversial, provoking indignant comments and attacks on the paper: “Why should he be given any platform, any excuse or explanation for his actions?” Buzz Bissinger asks in the Daily Beast, and adds that the paper “royally botched the story.” But arguments that it was somehow wrong to devote newsprint to an odious individual seem absurd: To the extent that Sandusky inadvertently and bumblingly revealed his habits of mind and self-delusion, the interview is valuable and certainly news. (And of course if the New York Times confined itself to interviewing people we liked it would be a very thin newspaper.)
In the course of the four-hour interview with the superbly sympathetic-acting Jo Becker, Sandusky did not openly admit his sexual abuse, but nor did his performance rise to the level of smoothly polished deviousness. (For instance he is unable to answer the question of whether he is sexually attracted to young people with the categorical “no” that his lawyer, clamoring in the background, wants him to.) Instead, he retreats into a kind of vagueness, a cloud of hurt inarticulateness. But what does come across clearly is that he feels wronged, misunderstood: The peculiar, confused, white-haired man in his golf sweater feels victimized himself. This is actually useful to know or recognize because it allows us to understand a little better a crime we are so invested in not understanding that we often don’t see or admit that we’ve seen it.
At one point in the interview, he says, “In my mind, there wasn’t inappropriate behavior.” And one gets the sense that on some crazy level that may well have been true: In his mind, he may not have been abusing little boys. This is striking because if there is any story that the rest of the world sees in black and white, it is this one. There does not seem to be any moral ambiguity, any subtle shading toward gray, and yet to the child molester himself he may have done nothing wrong. Father Bruce Ritter, for instance, founded Covenant House in the ’70s to shelter runaways and homeless kids, whom he claimed to be rescuing from a life of prostitution. Over a dozen of these kids later accused him of sexual improprieties. Sandusky may also believe that he was helping the boys from his organization, the Second Mile—that he was devoting his energy to save them.
The most detailed portrait of a pedophile I know is in Tiger, Tiger, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of her own experience with a child molester she met at 7, whom she remained involved with into her 20s. There is a tiny revealing moment where this man is outraged because her father forces her to cut her hair. Though the man himself is sexually abusing the little girl at the time, he says, “Nobody has the right to control your body!” He does not think that what he is doing is controlling her body; he thinks what he is doing is beautiful.
Likewise Sandusky says: “They’ve taken everything that I ever did and twisted it to say that my motives were sexual or whatever.” He may, in truth, not believe that his motives were sexual; he may believe, like many pedophiles, that the physical relation flowed naturally or organically from the situation, from his fatherly affection for these boys. He says that the physical part of the relationships “just happened that way,” as if he were not the active, dominant, responsible adult; his syntax itself transforming him into a passive participant, into someone just going along with things. It’s fascinating to watch in action this trick of the mind, this way the mind makes a man bearable to himself.
I once had an affair with a much older man in a position of authority, when I was a very inexperienced 16. It was a different situation, of course, in that it was consensual, and in that I was at least under the pretty powerful impression that I was an adult. Years later, in college, I called this man out of the blue. For some reason I thought it was important that I tell him that he hadn’t harmed me, and that I wasn’t angry at him. I remember the phone call vividly, because it turned out that he was furious at me. He believed quite powerfully that he had been the victim. Because of our affair, he had been pressured to leave his job, which involved the oversight of many teenagers, and got another, similar job outside of the city. In his head, there was no doubt that it was he who had been wronged by me, and by a world that misunderstood him. I still remember the tone in his voice, the certainty and accusation of it.
If the pedophile actually believes that he is exceptional, that the sexual act he is engaged in is not a violation, that the ordinary world cannot understand the purity and exquisiteness of his motives, this does not make him less terrible or disturbing. (It may, in fact, make him more terrible and disturbing.) It does, however, explain a little how these men are not caught, or caught sooner, and how they create around themselves so effective and convincing an aura of innocence and good intentions. The best liars, of course, believe their own lies.
At the end of the interview, Sandusky reverts to the role of a misunderstood little boy in a novel, whose dog is the only one who really gets him. “Bo is still there,” he says. “And I swear he understands. I swear he knows. And you know I love him dearly for that.” All we can think is that this big handsome dog is in possession of some pretty strange and unsettling knowledge.
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, and the forthcoming In Praise of Messy Lives.