The Cruel Lesson of Penn State

How what happened in State College forced me to confront my own abuse.

By Mark P. McKenna (
November 18, 2011

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.

When I told this to my friend, the psychologist to whom I disclosed my abuse in college and whose counsel I have relied on for the last 16 years, he told me all the reasons I couldn't have expected more of myself. Intellectually, I know he is right. But this isn't primarily about what I didn't do long ago—it's about what I wasn't doing last week. So here it is: I am a victim of sexual abuse.

I say this now, at age 36, in the hopes it can make a small difference to those currently suffering in silence. You know them, I promise. They are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, and, painfully, your children. Be a safe place for these people. If you are one of them, I am sorry. Know you are not alone. You did nothing wrong, and you are lovable. It can get better.

I am also moved to say this publicly to counter two aspects of the public reaction to the Penn State situation, both of which reflect our collective attempt to distance ourselves from the reality of abuse. First, it is a mistake to characterize Jerry Sandusky as some kind of subhuman monster. The inclination to do so is entirely understandable, for his behavior was unequivocally monstrous. But to describe him as a monster shields us from the reality that human beings have the capacity for tremendous evil. This recognition is critically important. Predators do not look like monsters; they look like your neighborhood basketball coach or the guy running a children's charity. They look like people you know, because they are. This is so important for parents to realize: If you allow yourself to think of these predators as "monsters," you will convince yourself that they are rare, and you will not be as vigilant as you need to be. This recognition is also important for your kids, because if you teach them that they should be on the lookout for monsters, they will be confused by the inappropriate behavior of adults who don't fit that profile.

This is particularly true with respect to adults who have parents' implicit trust: friends, family members, and coaches. Sadly, the statistics tell us that most perpetrators are in this group. Focus on behavior—teach your kids that adults are never entitled to touch their bodies, and that no one is entitled to touch their bodies without their permission.

Second, many have painted this story as one fundamentally about Penn State or college athletics. At the Sports Law Blog, for example, Alan Milstein asked whether, were the perpetrator an assistant professor of biology and the witness a graduate student, there was "any doubt the perpetrator, if aware he had been seen, would immediately stop, the witness would intervene, the cops would be called, the professor would be put away, and the university and its president would not be implicated in the least?" In Milstein's mind, there was no doubt: The big money in college football is the reason Jerry Sandusky's abuse was not reported.

This is wrong. There is absolutely a doubt about what a graduate student would do in these circumstances. Graduate students are as highly dependent on faculty advisers for their futures as graduate assistant coaches (like Mike McQueary) are on their superiors. For the same reason, I have significant doubts about what an associate at a law firm (or a junior person at Goldman Sachs, or an intern in Congress) would do if he witnessed a sexual assault. Because this is not about a problem at some other institution; it's a reflection of a universal human tendency to look out for oneself, and to preserve hierarchical institutions about which one cares and upon which one is dependent. It's also a reflection of the nearly boundless capacity to ignore inconvenient facts and to make excuses for those within our own circle. Think about the Catholic Church. Predators flourished in parishes for years, not simply (and probably not even primarily) because higher-ups worried about financial exposure. They flourished because many otherwise good people could not bring themselves to believe or to act upon information that their priest was a rapist.

Please believe me when I say that this is not a story about Penn State or some other corrupt organization. Characterizing what happened in State College, particularly the failures of so many adults to report the abuse, as the product of some morally bankrupt institution is a way of convincing ourselves that we are outsiders to these sinister forces. It is no different from calling Sandusky a "monster." That is soothing, I realize. But it also lets us off the hook too easily, allowing us to avoid asking hard questions about what happens, or can happen, in our own backyards. The Penn State cover-up could have, and undoubtedly has, happened at many other institutions, including those you most care about. Don't content yourself with demanding something of Penn State, or big-time college sports. While that might make you feel better, it won't prevent the next tragedy.