by Malcolm Gladwell (The New Yorker)
September 24, 2012
In a 2001 book, “Identifying Child Molesters,” the psychologist Carla van Dam tells the story of a young Canadian elementary-school teacher she calls Jeffrey Clay. Clay taught physical education. He was well liked by his students, and often he asked boys in his class to stay after school, to do homework and help him with chores. One day, just before winter break, three of the boys made a confession to their parents. Mr. Clay had touched them under their pants.
The parents went to the principal. He confronted Clay, who denied everything. The principal knew Clay and was convinced by him. In his mind, what it boiled down to, van Dam writes, “is some wild imaginations and the three boys being really close.”
The parents were at a loss. Mr. Clay was beloved. He had started a popular gym club at the school. He was married and was a role model to the boys. He would come to their after-school games. Could he really have abused them? Perhaps he was just overly physical in the way that young men often are. He had a habit, for example, of grabbing boys in the hallway and pulling them toward him, placing his arms over their shoulders and chest. At the gym club, he would pick boys up and turn them upside down, holding them by the legs. Lots of people—especially gym teachers—like to engage in a little horseplay with young boys. It wasn’t until the allegations about Clay emerged that it occurred to anyone to wonder whether he might have been trying to look down the boys’ shorts.
“We weren’t really prepared to call the police and make it into a police investigation,” one of the mothers told van Dam. “It was an indiscretion, as far as we were concerned at this point. It was all vague: ‘Well, he put his hands down there.’ And, ‘Well, it was inside the pants, but fingers went to here.’ We were all still trying to protect Mr. Clay’s reputation, and the possibility this was all blown up out of proportion and there was a mistake.”
The families then learned that there had been a previous complaint by a child against Clay, and they took their case to the school superintendent. He, too, advised caution. “If allegations do not clearly indicate sexual abuse, a gray area exists,” he wrote to them. “The very act of overt investigation carries with it a charge, a conviction, and a sentence, a situation which is repugnant to fair-minded people.” He was responsible not just to the children but also to the professional integrity of his teachers. What did they have? Just the story of three young boys, and young boys do, after all, have wild imaginations.
Clay was kept on. Two months later, after prodding from a couple of social workers, the parents asked the police to investigate. One of the mothers recalls an officer interviewing her son: “He was gentle, but to the point, and he wanted to be shown exactly where Mr. Clay had touched him.” The three boys named other boys who they said had been subjected to Mr. Clay’s advances. Those boys, however, denied everything. A new, more specific allegation against Clay surfaced. He resigned, and went to see a therapist. But still the prosecutor’s office didn’t feel that it had enough evidence to press charges. And within the school there were teachers who felt that Clay was innocent. “I was running into my colleagues who were saying, ‘Did you know that some rotten parents trumped up these charges against this poor man?’ ” one teacher told van Dam. The teacher added, “Not just one person. Many teachers said this.” A psychologist working at the school thought that the community was in the grip of hysteria. The allegations against Clay, he thought, were simply the result of the fact that he was “young and energetic.” Clay threatened to sue. The parents dropped their case.
Clay was a man repeatedly accused of putting his hands down the pants of young boys. Parents complained. Superiors investigated. And what happened? The school psychologist called him a victim of hysteria.
When monsters roam free, we assume that people in positions of authority ought to be able to catch them if only they did their jobs. But that might be wishful thinking. A pedophile, van Dam’s story of Mr. Clay reminds us, is someone adept not just at preying on children but at confusing, deceiving, and charming the adults responsible for those children—which is something to keep in mind in the case of the scandal at Penn State and the conviction, earlier this year, of the former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child-molestation charges.
* * *
Jerry Sandusky grew up in Washington, Pennsylvania. His father headed the local community recreation center, running sports programs for children. The Sanduskys lived upstairs. “Every door I opened, there was a bat, a basketball, a football somewhere,” Sandusky has recounted. “There was constant activity everywhere. My folks touched a lot of kids.” Sandusky’s son E.J. once described his father as “a frustrated playground director.” Sandusky would organize kickball games in the back yard, and, E.J. said, “Dad would get every single kid involved. We had the largest kickball games in the United States, kickball games with forty kids.” Sandusky and his wife, Dottie, adopted six children, and were foster parents to countless more. “They took in so many foster children that even their closest friends could not keep track of them all,” Joe Posnanski writes in “Paterno,” his new biography of Sandusky’s boss, the former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. “Children constantly surrounded Sandusky, so much so that they became part of his persona.”
Sandusky was a hugger and a grabber and a cutup. “He liked practical jokes and messing around, knocking a guy’s hat off his head, making prank calls, sneaking up behind people to startle them,” Posnanski goes on. People at Penn State thought of him as “a knucklehead.” Much of Sandusky’s 2000 autobiography, “Touched,” is devoted to stories of his antics: the time he smeared charcoal over the handset of his chemistry teacher’s phone, the time he ran afoul of a lifeguard for horseplay with his children in a public pool. Four and a half pages alone are devoted to water-balloon fights that he orchestrated while in college. “Wherever I went, it seemed like trouble was sure to follow,” Sandusky writes. He was a kid at heart. “I live a good part of my life in a make-believe world,” he continues. “I enjoyed pretending as a kid, and I love doing the same as an adult with these kids. Pretending has always been part of me.” There was a time when one of the kids he was mentoring became “cold and unresponsive” to him. It upset him. He writes:
“You know it’s not right to treat people like this,” I told him. “You should talk to me.” The boy laid into me, screaming from the top of his lungs. “Get out of here! Get out of here!” His voice echoed into the hallway and staff people came rushing into the room. I looked at him with sincere tears in my eyes. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” I said quietly as I walked out of the room.
In 1977, Sandusky and his wife started a nonprofit called the Second Mile, to help troubled and disadvantaged boys. At its height, the Second Mile had a budget of millions of dollars and programs that reached tens of thousands of children. Three times, Sandusky was offered head-coaching jobs at other universities. Each time, he said no. The kids came first. “We had a young foster child whose name was Christopher staying with us,” Sandusky writes, of the time he considered whether to accept a job offer from Marshall University:
I spotted Christopher at the bottom of the stairs. He had a ball in his hands, and as he looked at me, he said, “P’ay ball! P’ay ball!”. . . Christopher threw me the ball, and as I tossed it back, I came to the realization that we wouldn’t be able to take him with us. . . . Seeing Christopher at that moment kind of told me all I needed to know.
We now know what Sandusky was really doing with the Second Mile. He was setting up a pipeline of young troubled boys. Just as important, though, he was establishing his bona fides. Psychologists call this “grooming”—the process by which child molesters ingratiate themselves into the communities they wish to exploit. “Many molesters confirmed that they would spend anywhere from two to three years getting established in a new community before molesting any children,” van Dam writes. One pedophile she interviewed would hang out in bars, looking for adults who seemed to be having difficulties at home. He would lend a comforting ear, and then start to help out. As he told van Dam:
I was just a friend doing things a friend would do. Helping them move, going to baseball games with them. What I found myself doing was getting close to the kids, becoming more of a father figure or a mentor, doing things for them that the parents weren’t doing because the parents were out getting drunk all the time. And, of course, it made it easy for me to baby-sit. They’d say, “Oh yeah. We can off-load the kids with Jimmy.”
One of the most remarkable and disturbing descriptions of the grooming process comes from a twenty-two-page autobiography (published as a chapter in a book about pedophilia) by a convicted pedophile named Donald Silva. After graduating from medical school, Silva met a family with a nine-year-old named Eric. He first sexually molested Eric on a ski trip that the two of them took together. But that came only a year after he befriended the family, patiently insinuating himself into the good graces of Eric’s parents. At one point, Eric’s mother ordered an end to the “friendship,” because she thought Silva’s friends had been smoking pot in her son’s presence. But Silva had so won over her husband that, he writes, “this beautiful man found it in his heart to forgive me after I assured him that such a thing would not happen again.” Silva describes an unforgettable night that he and Eric spent together after they were “reunited”:
I had recently broken up with Cathy [his girlfriend] when Evelyn, my future wife, arrived for a visit. In that month, Evelyn met Eric’s family, and she and his mother became good friends. Evelyn stayed with me at my parents’ house, and we enjoyed an active sex life. Eric slept over one night, and the three of us shared a bed for a while. He was going to pretend to be asleep while Evelyn and I made love, but Evelyn declined with him there and went to sleep elsewhere.
To recap: A man uses his new girlfriend to befriend the family of the ten-year-old boy he is molesting. He orchestrates a threesome in a bed in his parents’ house. He asks the girl to have sex with him with the ten-year-old lying beside them. She says no. She leaves him alone with his victim—and then he persuades her to marry him.
The pedophile is often imagined as the dishevelled old man baldly offering candy to preschoolers. But the truth is that most of the time we have no clue what we are dealing with. A fellow-teacher at Mr. Clay’s school, whose son was one of those who complained of being fondled, went directly to Clay after she heard the allegations. “I didn’t do anything to those little boys,” Clay responded. “I’m innocent. . . . Would you and your husband stand beside me if it goes to court?” Of course, they said. People didn’t believe that Clay was a pedophile because people liked Clay—without realizing that Clay was in the business of being likable.
Did anyone at Penn State understand what they were dealing with, either? Here was a man who built a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar, fully integrated grooming operation, outsourcing to child-care professionals the task of locating vulnerable children—all the while playing the role of lovable goofball. “If Sandusky did not have such a human side,” Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wrote, in 1999, “there would be a temptation around Happy Valley to canonize him.” A week later, Bill Lyon, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, paid tribute to Sandusky’s selflessness. “In more than one motel hallway, whenever you encountered him and offered what sounded like even the vaguest sort of compliment, he would blush and an engaging, lopsided grin of modesty would wrap its way around his face,” Lyon wrote. “He isn’t in this business for recognition. His defense plays out in front of millions. But when he opens the door and invites in another stray, there is no audience. The ennobling measure of the man is that he has chosen the work that is done without public notice.”
In 1990, the Second Mile was awarded one of President George H. W. Bush’s Points of Light awards. After the formal ceremonies were over, Sandusky grabbed the microphone and shouted out, “It’s about time, George!”
“I had reverted back to the days of my mischievous youth,” Sandusky writes, in “Touched.” “I had always professed that someday I would reap the benefits of maturity, but my lifestyle just wouldn’t let me. There were so many things I had done in my life—so many of them crazy and outlandish. . . . My time on this earth has always been unique. At the times when I found myself searching for maturity, I usually came up with insanity.” Years later, at Sandusky’s criminal trial, a Penn State coach said that he saw Sandusky showering with boys all the time—and thought nothing of it. Crazy Jerry and his horseplay. Who knew what he would get up to next?
* * *
On the afternoon of May 3, 1998, Sandusky called the home of an eleven-year-old boy he had met through the Second Mile and invited him to a Penn State athletic facility. Sandusky picked him up that evening. The two wrestled and worked out on the exercise machines. Sandusky kissed the boy on the top of his head and said, “I love you.” Sandusky then asked the boy if he wanted to take a shower, and the boy agreed. According to the formal investigation of the Sandusky case, conducted by the law firm of the former F.B.I. director Louis Freeh:
While in the shower, Sandusky wrapped his hands around the boy’s chest and said, “I’m gonna squeeze your guts out.” The boy then washed his body and hair. Sandusky lifted the boy to “get the soap out of” the boy’s hair, bringing the boy’s feet “up pretty high” near Sandusky’s waist. The boy’s back was touching Sandusky’s chest and his feet touched Sandusky’s thigh. The boy felt “weird” and “uncomfortable” during his time in the shower.
This is standard child-molester tradecraft. The successful pedophile does not select his targets arbitrarily. He culls them from a larger pool, testing and probing until he finds the most vulnerable. Clay, for example, first put himself in a place with easy access to children—an elementary school. Then he worked his way through his class. He began by simply asking boys if they wanted to stay after school. “Those who could not do so without parental permission were screened out,” van Dam writes. Children with vigilant parents are too risky. Those who remained were then caressed on the back, first over the shirt and then, if there was no objection from the child, under the shirt. “The child’s response was evaluated by waiting to see what was reported to the parents,” she goes on. “Parents inquiring about this behavior were told by Mr. Clay that he had simply been checking their child for signs of chicken pox. Those children were not targeted further.” The rest were “selected for more contact,” gradually moving below the belt and then to the genitals.
The child molester’s key strategy is one of escalation, desensitizing the target with an ever-expanding touch. In interviews and autobiographies, pedophiles describe their escalation techniques like fly fishermen comparing lures. Consider the child molester van Dam calls Cook:
Some of the little tricks that always work with younger boys are things like always sitting in a sofa, or a chair with big, soft arms if possible. I would sit with my legs well out and my feet flat on the floor. My arms would always be in an “open” position. The younger kids have not developed a “personal space” yet, and when talking with me, will move in very close. If they are showing me something, particularly on paper, it is easy to hold the object in such a way that the child will move in between my legs or even perch on my knee very early on. If the boy sat on my lap, or very close in, leaning against me, I would put my arm around him loosely. As this became a part of our relationship, I would advance to two arms around him, and hold him closer and tighter. . . . Goodbyes would progress from waves, to brief hugs, to kisses on the cheek, to kisses on the mouth in very short order.
Sandusky started with wrestling, to make physical touch seem normal. In the shower, the boy initially turned on a showerhead a few feet from Sandusky. Sandusky told him to use the shower next to him. This was a test. The boy complied. Then came the bear hug. The boy’s back was touching Sandusky’s chest and his feet touched Sandusky’s thigh. Sandusky wanted to see how the boy would react. Was this too much too soon? The boy felt “weird” and “uncomfortable.” Sandusky retreated. The following week, Sandusky showed up at the boy’s home, circling back to test the waters once again. How did the boy feel? Had he told his mother? Was he a promising lead, or too risky? As it turned out, the mother had alerted the University Police Department, and a detective, Ronald Schreffler, was hiding in the house. According to the Freeh report:
Schreffler overheard Sandusky say he had gone to the boy’s baseball game the night before but found the game had been cancelled. The boy’s mother told Sandusky that her son had been acting “different” since they had been together on May 3, 1998 and asked Sandusky if anything had happened that day. Sandusky replied, “[w]e worked out. Did [the boy] say something happened?” Sandusky added that the boy had taken a shower, and said “[m]aybe I worked him too hard.” Sandusky also asked the boy’s mother if he should leave him alone, and she said that would be best. Sandusky then apologized.
A few days later, the mother asked Sandusky to come by the house again; the police were once more in the next room. She questioned him more closely about what had happened in the shower. According to the Freeh report:
Sandusky asked to speak with the son and the mother replied that she did not feel that was a good idea as her son was confused and she did not want Sandusky to attend any of the boy’s baseball games. Sandusky responded, “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.”
Put yourself in the mind of the detective hiding in the house. Schreffler was there to gather evidence of sexual abuse. But there was no evidence of sexual abuse. Sandusky didn’t rape the boy in the shower. That was something that might come only after several weeks, if not months. He gave the boy an exploratory bear hug. Now he was back at the boy’s home. But he didn’t seem like an aggressive predator. He was carefully soliciting the mother’s opinion and apologizing, with all his considerable charm. “I wish I were dead,” he says to the mother. Is that an admission of guilt? Or is Sandusky saying how mortified he is that he—savior of young boys—could possibly have alienated a child and his mother? Sandusky had been caught in the subtle, early maneuvers of victim selection, and what Schreffler witnessed was Sandusky aborting his pursuit of the boy, not pressing forward. Sandusky had looked for vulnerability and hadn’t found it.
The episode was, as the parent said of the first allegations against Mr. Clay, “all vague.” The mother saw her son come home from the gym with his hair wet. He told her that he had showered with Sandusky. He seemed upset, and showered again the following morning. The mother called a psychologist, Alycia Chambers, who had been working with her son, and one of her questions to Chambers was “Am I overreacting?” She wasn’t sure what had happened. Nor, for that matter, was her son. Here is the Freeh report again:
Later that day, Chambers met with the boy who told her about the prior day’s events and that he felt “like the luckiest kid in the world” to get to sit on the sidelines at Penn State football games. The boy said that he did not want to get Sandusky in “trouble” and that Sandusky must not have meant anything by his actions. The boy did not want anyone to talk to Sandusky because he might not invite him to any more games.
Chambers wrote a report on the case and gave it to the University Police Department and Child and Youth Services. She thought that Sandusky’s behavior met the definition of a “likely pedophile’s pattern of building trust and gradual introduction of physical touch, within a context of a ‘loving,’ ‘special’ relationship.” But Jerry Lauro, the caseworker assigned to the incident by the Department of Public Welfare in Harrisburg, disagreed. He thought that the incident fell into a “gray” area concerning “boundary issues.” The boy was then evaluated by a counsellor named John Seasock, who concluded, “There seems to be no incident which could be termed as sexual abuse, nor did there appear to be any sequential pattern of logic and behavior which is usually consistent with adults who have difficulty with sexual abuse of children.” Seasock didn’t think Sandusky was grooming. Someone, he concluded, should talk to Sandusky about how to “stay out of such gray area situations in the future.”
Of all those involved in the investigation, only one person—the psychologist Alycia Chambers—recognized Sandusky’s actions for what they were. Here was someone with the full authority and expertise of psychological training, who identified a prominent man with virtually unlimited access to vulnerable children as a “likely pedophile.” But what more could she do? She had told the police. Patient confidentiality constrained her from going to the media, and her responsibility to her client made her wary of turning him into a public victim. Then, there was the fact that two other trained professionals had seen the same evidence she had, and reached the opposite conclusion. She was in the grip of the same uncertainty that afflicts even the best people when confronted with a child molester. She thought Sandusky was suspicious. No one agreed with her. Maybe she decided that she could be wrong.
Lauro and Schreffler—the man who had hidden in the other room—met with Sandusky. He told them that he had hugged the boy but that “there was nothing sexual about it.” He admitted to showering with other boys in the past. He said, “Honest to God, nothing happened.” Everyone knew Sandusky, and everyone knew that he was a bit of a saint and a bit of a knucklehead. For all we know, he quoted those lines from his book: “At the times when I found myself searching for maturity, I usually came up with insanity.” Penn State officials had been apprised of the investigation from the beginning. After the meeting between Lauro, Schreffler, and Sandusky, Gary Schultz, Penn State’s senior vice-president for business and finance, e-mailed Graham Spanier, the university’s president, and Tim Curley, the school’s athletic director, and told them that the investigators were dropping the whole matter. Sandusky, Schultz wrote, “was a little emotional and expressed concern as to how this might have adversely affected the child.”
* * *
Joe Paterno, Sandusky’s boss, was a football obsessive. He played quarterback at Brooklyn Prep and at Brown University, which he attended on a football scholarship. Aside from a short stint in the Army, he never held a job outside of football. He began at Penn State as an assistant coach in 1950 and never left. He talked and thought football, around the clock. “At night,” Posnanski writes, “he wrote countless notes (all his life, he was a compulsive note-taker) about football ideas he wanted to try, plays he wanted to run, techniques he wanted to teach, improvements he wanted to make, thoughts about leadership that crossed his mind.” Shortly after Paterno arrived in State College, he moved into the basement of a fellow assistant coach, Jim O’Hara. Finally, O’Hara confronted him. “Joe, you’ve been with us ten years. Get the hell out of here.” Paterno, puzzled, replied, “Have I been here that long?”
Paterno was strict and uncompromising. “Even as a boy, when he played quarterback on his high-school football team back in Brooklyn, he would lecture his teammates in his high-pitched squeal when one of them unleashed a swear word,” Posnanski writes. “ ‘Aw gee, come on, guys, keep it clean!’ They thought him a prude even then. He had lived a sheltered life—not by accident but by choice. The Paternos never even watched any television except ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ on Sunday nights.”
He scripted practices down to the minute. He did not like distractions. “He would scream at us all the time, ‘Would you just let me coach my football team,’ ” a friend tells Posnanski. “That’s all he wanted to do. Every other thing made him crazy.” Once, while hard at work drafting a new defensive scheme, he all but disappeared. “We could have moved out, and he wouldn’t have noticed,” his wife, Sue, said. “He might have noticed when he came out and there was no dinner for him. But he might not even have noticed that. He was in his own world.”
Paterno did not like Sandusky. They argued openly. Paterno found Sandusky’s goofiness exasperating, and the trail of kids following him around irritated Paterno no end. He considered firing Sandusky many times. But, according to Posnanski, he realized that he needed Sandusky—that the emotional, bear-hugging, impulsive knucklehead was a necessary counterpart to his own discipline and austerity. Sandusky never accepted any of the job offers that would have taken him away from Penn State, because he could not leave the Second Mile. But he also stayed because of Paterno. What could be better, for his purposes, than a boss with eyes only for the football field, who dismissed him as an exasperating, impulsive knucklehead? Pedophiles cluster in professions that give them access to vulnerable children—teaching, the clergy, medicine. But Sandusky’s insight, if you want to call it that, was that the culture of football could be the greatest hiding place of all, a place where excessive physicality is the norm, where horseplay is what often passes for wit, where young men shower together after every game and practice, and where those in charge spend their days and nights dreaming only of new defensive schemes.
In 1999, Paterno made it plain to Sandusky that he would not be the next head coach of Penn State. Sandusky retired and took an emeritus position. On February 9, 2001, a former Penn State quarterback named Mike McQueary saw Sandusky in the shower with a young boy at a Penn State athletic facility. What exactly McQueary witnessed is still in dispute. That evening, he spoke to a family friend—a local doctor—and told him he had heard “sexual” sounds. The doctor asked him several times if he had seen any sexual act, and each time McQueary said no. Eleven years later, in his grand-jury testimony and at Sandusky’s criminal trial, McQueary’s memory grew more explicit: he had seen Sandusky raping the boy, he now said. What is clear, though, is that whatever McQueary saw or heard upset him greatly. He went to Paterno. Paterno called Tim Curley, the Penn State athletic director.
Posnanski, in one of his final interviews with Paterno, asked him if he had considered calling the police. “To be honest with you, I didn’t,” Paterno said. “This isn’t my field. I didn’t know what to do. I had not seen anything. Jerry didn’t work for me anymore. I didn’t have anything to do with him. I tried to look through the Penn State guidelines to see what I was supposed to do. It said I was supposed to call Tim [Curley]. So I called him.”
Curley met with McQueary and Paterno. Then he and Gary Schultz, the university’s vice-president for business and finance, went to the Penn State president, Graham Spanier. Here is the Freeh report again:
Spanier said that the men gave him a “heads up” that a member of the Athletic Department staff had reported to Paterno that Sandusky was in an athletic locker room facility showering with one of his Second Mile youth after a workout. Sandusky and the youth, according to Spanier, were “horsing around” or “engaged in horseplay.” Spanier said that the staff member “was not sure what he saw because it was around a corner and indirect.” . . . Spanier said he asked two questions: (i) “Are you sure that it was described to you as horsing around?” and (ii) “Are you sure that that is all that was reported?” According to Spanier, both Schultz and Curley said “yes” to both questions. Spanier said that the men agreed that they were “uncomfortable” with such a situation, that it was inappropriate, and that they did not want it to happen again.
Horsing around in the shower? That was Jerry being Jerry. It did not occur to them that the goofy, horseplaying Sandusky they thought they knew was another of Sandusky’s deceptions. Those who put all their ingenuity and energy into fooling us usually succeed. That is the lesson of a world-class swindler like Bernard Madoff, and of Donald Silva, in his parents’ bed with a ten-year-old boy and the woman he later married—not to mention Jeffrey Clay. Clay, van Dam writes, got his teaching certificate reactivated. He went on to teach the handicapped and take foster children into his home. “Needless to say,” she adds, “his expertise, enthusiasm, and exceptional generosity to those who are needy has been very much appreciated by the community in which he now lives.”
* * *
Tim Curley and Gary Schultz currently face criminal charges. Graham Spanier was forced out of office last November, a few days after the grand-jury indictment of Sandusky was released. At the same time, someone came to Paterno’s house with an envelope. According to Posnanski:
Paterno opened the envelope; inside was a sheet of Penn State stationery with just a name, John Surma, and a phone number. Surma was the CEO of U.S. Steel and the vice chairman of the State Board of Trustees. Paterno picked up the phone and called the number.
“This is Joe Paterno.”
“This is John Surma. The board of trustees have terminated you effective immediately.”
Paterno hung up the phone before he could hear anything else.
A minute later, Sue called the number. “After sixty-one years,” she said, her voice cracking, “he deserved better.” And then she hung up.
Paterno died two months later.