This week has been a week like none other at Penn State. Our community has been rocked by the scandal of a sexual predator in our midst, and accusations of who knew what when. For someone who uses writing as a catharsis, I haven’t even attempted to approach this topic for several reasons. I know little of the facts of this case–and doubt we will for a long time. Simply put, people lie. People don’t want to hear about sexual abuse. It’s dirty, it’s ugly, it makes us feel incredibly uncomfortable and voyeuristic. We don’t want this topic to be part of the landscape of our lives. I also work for this university, which is under fire from all directions, and I know that if I choose to write of this, I will have to preface it with the obvious “these views are my own and do not represent those of my university” disclaimer. Clearly.
However, the biggest reason I’ve been unable to approach this story as a writer is, quite simply, this story hits far too close to home for me. This case makes me want to run for my bedroom like a child, lock my door, crawl into my bed, curl into a fetal position, pull the covers up to my chin, screw my eyes shut and think about someplace far far away. Because, really, no matter how much time has passed, no matter how much therapy has helped to heal the pain and allows one to move on, the personal shame of sexual abuse is always somewhere in the dusty shadows of your mind, threatening to pull you back into the nightmare with the right trigger.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, suddenly I find myself reliving my own past every time this topic surfaces. Reading the presentment of the Grand Jury findings is not an easy thing, and I was completely unprepared for the naked words of sexual assault that I found there. Every brutal word assaulted my memory, and I wept for each victim. When I read about showers, I felt the cold wet tile against my own hands, the hot tears of shame running down my face; I remember the hopelessness of being a small child in the hands of an adult that was so much bigger than you, the adult that you had trusted to do the right things and to take care of you because that’s what adults do. Except for this horrible position in which you now find yourself, the things you are forced to endure and the lies told to your face by someone in a position of trust and authority that this isn’t really bad, this is an expression of love, that you don’t need to tell anyone, it’s just something between us. If you tell someone, they won’t understand, and they won’t believe you even if you do tell.
This is how a child views sexual abuse: confusion, broken trust, despair, humiliation, and shame.
We believe you when you tell us we shouldn’t tell. We are unwilling collaborators because we don’t want other adults to be ashamed of us, to be angry with us, like you say they will be. We know that we’re supposed to do what we’re told, but the cognitive dissonance of our brain saying that this isn’t right no matter how many times you tell us otherwise forces us to compartmentalize our lives, to become subdued and, worst of all, silent.
We don’t even understand we hold the keys to our own prison.
This is the reality that sexual predators prey on. This is why this type of crime is so abhorrent. This is why, although every fiber of my being tells me to stay silent and deal with these torturous childhood memories alone, I want you to understand how horrific this situation in which we find ourselves really is. It isn’t about football. It isn’t about a university. It is about a man who took advantage of at least eight children who thought this adult walked on water, and would open the door to dreams of football and excitement. Instead, this man opened the door to a nightmare these children never saw coming. And the people who surrounded him, the people who had the opportunity to say something when they felt that first nibble of doubt, instead remained silent because they felt it was dirty and unspeakable and uncomfortable, and were afraid to say something for fear that others wouldn’t believe. Or worse, others might blame them for voicing the unspeakable. So the silence of abuse continued. And continued. And continued.
I am angry. I am furious. You should be too. But be furious for the right reasons. And for the sake of abused children everywhere who cannot speak for themselves, do not be silent.
I beg you.