Photo: Peter Griffin
A two year old child is missing and I read that the police suspect "foul play." Coming as this report did hard on the heels of the scandal at Penn State this week, and in that both cases involved children, the irony of the phrase struck me right between the eyes. Foul "play." What's happened is hideously foul but not remotely playful.
I spent huge chunks of my formative years in "Happy Valley." I learned to swim there.(Thanks Aunt Daisy!) Saw my first R rated movies there. (Thanks, Sherril!) Read The Harrad Experiment with my cousin, Carolyn, sang Broadway show tunes with my cousin, Darlene, and tried to shoot pool with my cousin, Dominic. I went to art fairs on the PSU campus, ate ice cream at the Dairy Queen, watched re-runs of The Brady Bunch. I don't know how Aunt Daisy managed it -- her four kids, a niece and two nephews for months on end -- but I'm so grateful that she did. It was idyllic time. Idyllic enough to make the Nittany Lions "my" football team of choice, in spite of the fact that I scarcely know a tight end from a quarterback.
Given the sense of personal connection, maybe it is not so surprising that I read the Grand Jury report on Jerry Sandusky and in spite of my churning stomach and brimming eyes, I couldn't seem to put it down. In my state of horror, anger, disbelief, revulsion, I want to blame someone. But, in good conscience, I'm not sure I can pin this on Joe Paterno. Joe has a reputation for seeing the good in others; is it so inconceivable that when he looked at Jerry Sandusky he saw a man who was devoted to helping underprivileged youths? Is he to be blamed for not jumping to the conclusion that his friend was a sexual predator? As damning as the testimony is, it's not clear that there was any cover-up on Joe Paterno's part. Maybe -- just maybe -- he couldn't think the unthinkable.
Hind sight is 20/20. Having read the transcript, it's tough to see how Joe and others in authority could have missed the signs and ignored the red flags, And therein lies the rub and the lesson for all of us. PAY ATTENTION. Don't think, "That couldn't happen here." or "I must have misunderstood." or "I'm sure I/you didn't see what I/you think I/you saw." PAY ATTENTION. And, in the immortal words New Yorkers have come to know so well, "If you see something, say something." If no one listens the first time? Say it again. Say it louder! Yell it if you have to. Take out a billboard ad.
When I was in elementary school, I befriended a sweet, gentle girl I'll call Veronica. Her hair was always dirty; her clothes were shabby and often unwashed. She smelled of woodsmoke and musk. She had a delicate frame and, when she moved, she reminded of a small bird, like a wren, with a wounded wing. I liked to make her smile but even when she laughed, her eyes remained sad. When we went to Junior High, I began to understand why.
In Junior High, after gym class, we all would shower together. Veronica would try to wait, and either not shower at all, or shower afer everyone was gone. But she wasn't always able to avoid it, and so I wasn't the only one who knew why she was reluctant to bare herself in front of the other laughing 12 and 13 year olds. Veronica's body almost always bore big, ugly bruises and angry red welts . . . the kind of welts raised when skin is lashed with a leather strap. Truthfully, while the marks frightened me, I didn't understand what they meant until I was much older. But I've always wondered why a grown-up didn't step in to intervene. And then I wonder if it would have helped. Our "justice" system is notoriously lax in protecting children; Penn State is just another microcosm that illustrates a much larger and deeper problem.
I don't know what happened to Veronica. My family moved to another country and I never heard from her again. So, as an adult. I wrote a play about her; in it, she finds love and tenderness and redemption. I've been so haunted by her lo these many years that I had to give her a happy ending. Statiscally speaking, it's unlikely that she found one.
Jerry Sandusky's victims may not all bear the pysical scars of his lechery, but they've been marked by the abuse just the same. Is Joe Paterno to blame? Maybe. The truth is, there's plenty of blame to go around for not protecting them, but nothing we can do or say is likely to mitigate the damage that's been done. Jerry Sandusky ushered each of his young victims into their own, private hell and, unfortunately, each and every one of them must now find his own way out.