The Cruel Lesson of Penn State
How what happened in State College forced me to confront my own abuse.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
A student raised his hand in my torts class last week and asked whether Joe Paterno might be exposed to liability for failing to tell the police about Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual assault of a young boy in the Penn State locker room. It was a perfectly legitimate question—we had been studying tort law’s general reluctance to impose liability for omitting to act. And it didn’t come as a surprise—I have always encouraged students to bring current events to class, and the Penn State situation was nearly impossible to avoid last week. Still, I had prayed no one would ask about it because I was not sure I could make it through any sort of answer. As I’d feared, the question stopped me cold.
I have spent the better part of my life working to cover wounds from my own childhood abuse, about which I have never spoken publicly. In fact, I’ve hardly talked about it at all; I can count on two hands the number of people who know anything about it. Some of my siblings will learn of it from this article.
The cascade of emotions that washed over me as I stood before my torts class and tried to muster a coherent response would be impossible to describe here. After many years of hard work, and with a lot of help, I no longer think every single day about that terrible winter night. There are still plenty of reminders, to be sure, and there are some things that will never be normal for me. But most days, the wound is insulated by lots of scar tissue. Not this week, though. The story hit me at a bad time, during a year that was already very difficult. And the similarities were too hard to ignore.
The perpetrator at Penn State was a coach, as was mine. The abuse happened on the periphery of a major college football program, and I was a walk-on college football player when the weight of my childhood abuse became too much for me and I finally sought help. Most significantly, I have a son who is about as old as the boys Sandusky allegedly assaulted, and nearly the same age I was when I was victimized. He is so young.
I cried uncontrollably at least three separate times last week. This is part of what makes abuse so wretched—it strips you of control, not only of your body in those moments of abuse, but of your mind long after. Sometimes emotions just sneak up on you. And even when you know difficult conversations are going to arise and you try to steel yourself, sometimes there’s nothing you can do. The emotions come, and you can’t make them go away. Then you hate yourself for feeling so weak and exposed. You are sure everyone is looking at you, and you know that no one would look at you the same way if they knew your story. They’d see you as damaged goods. Or they’d pity you. It’s hard to know which is worse.
All this rushed through me when the student asked his question. I can never recall my classroom having been so quiet. Mercifully, no one followed up on my answer; perhaps they could sense my discomfort. So I moved on, knowing I had probably shortchanged the class with my half-answer.
But as the story has remained in the headlines and the uncomfortable conversations have continued, I haven’t been able to shake an overwhelming feeling that I failed Sandusky’s victims and, by extension, far too many other boys. Abuse thrives on silence. In some cases, as the Penn State situation makes clear, the silence of third parties gives perpetrators license. But victims’ silence also plays a huge role. This is true in the immediate aftermath of the abuse, where victims’ inability to speak out puts them (and others) at further risk. It’s also true much more generally. Several of my friends, for example, were shocked when Rick Reilly reported that, according to a 1998 study on child sexual abuse by Boston University Medical School, one in six boys in America will be abused by age 16. For girls, it's one in four by the age of 14. They were shocked, no doubt, because concrete examples of abuse are not as available to them as the statistics suggest. Most people don’t think they know any abuse victims.
But they do know victims. They just don’t realize it, because so many of us have been unable to reveal ourselves. This breeds a false sense of security, with too many adults believing abuse is someone else’s problem.
This reality that the silence of victims creates opportunities for evil is a particularly cruel one, especially when you know it to be true and still haven’t been able to reveal your own abuse. It is another reason abuse is so insidious. Perpetrators procure their victims’ silence by causing such deep shame that private torment seems tolerable by comparison. But it is precisely this silence that helps create the conditions for abuse. This is what has been on continuous replay in my head in the days since my torts class. I can’t shake the feeling that I failed those boys. I failed them by hiding. You cannot imagine how devastating that feeling has been.
Mark P. McKenna is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. He teaches and writes in the area of intellectual property.