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Saturday
Nov122011

Tacit Endorsement & Smearing the Wronged

 Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Young Boys, + A Cloudy Presidential Hopeful

     Right now, America is reeling… Shocked that a respected coach could take a 10 year old boy, who no doubt idolized him, into the showers at a major American university's gym, pull the child's pants down and rape him. Equally shocking, a graduate student goes to the legendary head of the football program, a man who traded on integrity as a cornerstone of sportsmanship, and after the perfunctory notifications, it was the predator's shower keys that were taken away.
     I'm reeling, too. 
     First, that two grown men - one an old friend who didn't understand his friend needed “help,” the other not so far from youth - didn't intercede more forcefully. Sex is for adults… Consenting adults… Theoretically, people of equal power, influence and the ability to decide what they want to do…
     Secondly, that the students at Penn State, who have rioted in the streets, overturned satellite trucks for the local tv news, are more punch-drunk on the illusion of who someone is, then recognizing what that person allowed to go on is what they should be enraged about. Beyond lacking compassion for the unseen victims, they never paused to consider the betrayal of everything these men are supposed represent.
     A journalist friend of mine, who is politically aware, celebrity savvy and also a former editor at Penthouse, put it best. “I'd like every one of those students to look at a picture of their tiny 10 year old selves - or even better, their little brother or sister at that age - and imagine someone forcing themselves into their…”
     You get the idea. It's easy to degrade when you have no idea who's been or is being degraded. Joe Paterno knew. Joe Paterno did nothing; indeed, he probably interceded for his friend, recommended they keep it quiet “for the good of the program.” But that's never going to be part of the public record, or proved. It's the beauty of “an audible.”
     His friend, Jerry Sandusky, quietly retired. Then he started a charity for “at risk youth,” kids who needed some attention, an adult role model. He assistant coached at a local high school. He brought boys into his home. He continued doing what he'd done at Penn State - only now it was under the sanction of doing good for others, a charity giving back to the community.
     My mind reels. 
     Eight boys that we know of. How many more who're too ashamed to come forward… Too embarrassed to tell the truth for being sodomized, touched in inappropriate ways, quite possibly forced into oral copulation. And we shouldn't know: they shouldn't have to suffer through the dirty details beind trotted out like some tittilation for the bleachers - especially to thwart the claims “it wasn't that bad.”
     No child, actually, no person male or female, should ever be intimidated or taken advantage of based on authority or position of influemce.
     Watching “Good Morning America,” George Stephanopoulos interviewed the mother of Victim 1. Her face was obscured; her voice run through a pitch-changer for fear of reprisals. She told a tale of her son withdrawing, of his being told “no one will believe you if you tell…,” of her son being removed from school without her knowledge…
     And she was the one being obscured. 
     No doubt she felt guilt about what she didn't know, and how long it had gone on. When she started to ask questions, she knew not to press; what could be more embarrassing for a boy on the brink of puberty than to tell his Mom what happened. The same Mom he'd already asked if there was a book of “Sex Weirdos.”
     Wisely, she involved the school's counselor. They got the story. So the investigation began. Quietly. Because in 1998 and 2002 and heaven knows how many other years, these investigations were done so quietly, they never disrupted anything… 
     And here the mother, quite possibly single, had been relieved that a man with Sandusky's reputation had taken an interest in her son. Boys need male role models. She'd hit the lottery. He could most likely help with college, demonstrate another kind of life, help him develop her son's skills and confidence.
     How does one not trust someone in that sort of position? With that kind of resume? Who has a charitable organization devoted to this very thing? Especially for so many years, especially with a close friend like the legendary Joe Paterno.
     And that's the problem with not speaking up. How would you ever guess? Ever think? Ever dream? How dare you judge someone like that o harshly? 
     Just as certainly, who would knowingly empower or enable someone like Jerry Sandusky? Who would allow a grown man who victimizes children to not get help? Not ever allowed to be in a position where they could rape or sodomize a child again?
     What kind of person stays silent? Is that loyalty? Or a complete moral breakdown? We know Jerry Sandusky has a problem… pedophiles are considered mentally unfit… What's Joe Paterno's malady? The graduate student? Though the student may well have been intimidated, shamed or “reasoned” with… “for the good of the program.”
     How good is a program, though, if this is what it covers up?
     We're only as sick as our secrets is an Al-Anon truism. 
     For Penn, it calls into question so many things about the ethics of the people in charge.
     For those young men, it creates a vortex of self-doubt, an inability to trust and a rage that they never be able to even explain. Often with this sort of trauma - and it is trauma - the brain will sublimate the memory so the victim can cope. They won't knowwhat's wrong, just that something is…
     Or they will have irrational fears. Perhaps withdraw. Maybe become suicidal.
     They've done nothing wrong, yet how wrong is this? And how often do the perps use blame, shame and fear as tactics to get the children to remain silent, to endure repeated abuse, to believe there could be worse coming.
     It doesn't change much when you grow up. You get conditioned to look the other way,  to not make waves. It becomes a way of life. You learn that bosses have power - they can take away jobs, not give bonuses, create horrible workplace conditions - and so you must endure. 
     Endure or lose your seniority. Endure or risk not finding another job in a tough economy with record unemployment. Endure or lose work that fulfills you, that you're educated for. Move on, and still possibly know the consequences for speaking up could mean no future employment in your chosen field. 
     Nobody likes a troublemaker. Everybody has a past.
     The question, though, is how will the people with everything to lose portray the ones saying, “This is wrong…” or even “No…”
     Sometimes it's cruel jokes. Sometimes it's whispers behind their back - or distorting the facts, leaving out pertinent information. Maybe it's bringing up things that are not germane to the wrong, in an attempt to undermine the person who's been victimized's character. 
     In some ways, the Herman Cain thing is living proof. Did he? Why would he? And yet, growing up, I played enough competitive golf with the wives of men with “good jobs” to understand how women can turn a blind eye to keep their family - or lifestyle - together. “For better or worse” can mean a lot of things… and who men are when their wives are not around can be very different from the devoted family men they present.
     The irony is that the women who tend to be victimized are usually the ones who end up being silenced. Many of the ones who come forward, like the mother of Justin Bieber's “baby,” are the gamers. 
     They are not brazen. They just want to be left alone. They want to move on, to forget about it. Why would you look back at that? Oh, yes, because something - often far more than just your dignity - was taken from you.
     The silence is kept… for the sake of getting along, of not being ostracized, of who knows what might be cooked up? The two women in Cain's coterie of “what happened?” are already being picked apart: work histories examined, as if unfair workplace conditions could only happen once. As if a man who might fish off the strange pier now and again - indeed, who might find plenty of willing women who're happy to have a little dinner and a little nibble to get ahead - is unthinkable.
     People have cheated as long as there are marriages. Men - and women - have used their positions, influence and money to grease the rails of love, lust and many stripes in between. It is only when the attention is unwanted and leveraged that there's a problem - or when the bias is based on something unfair.
     Most people don't remember Christine Craft. She was an accomplished journalist, but more significantly, the first woman to win a high profile sexual bias suit. Bypassed for promotions and key assignments, she was eventually released from her local tv news anchoring job for being “too old, too ugly and not deferential enough to men.”
     She won. She had to fight hard, endure her life being completely dismantled and held up for judgment. Theoretically, she was a feminist icon, a woman of principle willing to tell the truth, to stand up on behalf of every other woman trying to make her way in the business world through intelligence, professionalism and solid experience and skills.
     "Would she do it again?" I asked her as a college student, reporting for a Miami alternative weekly. She took me in, studied my glowing face. Then she paused. For what seemed like a minute. Truly debating.
     “I wouldn't,” she said. “No, uh-uh.:
     I wanted to press, but I couldn't. It would've been too painful, I could tell. Whatever she'd been through for justice to be served, it hadn't been worth being eviscerated. 
     When we were done and making the post-interview small talk that creates the illusion of intimacy, she looked at me again, really weighed who she thought I was. Her eyes narrowed a little, then she dropped the bomb.
     “I shouldn't have sued,” she said. “It's hard to find work… There's always a 'reason,' but it's obvious.”
     Our eyes locked. Was this sisterly advice from someone who'd been there to a bright-eyed kid? Or merely a woman exhausted from another long day of media and speaking engagements, flogging what happened to pay her bills? Was she a woman who'd found someone she could trust, who might understand why she felt like that - and just needed to unburden?
     I'll never know. Overwhelmed by the depth of the revelation, I went, “Wow…”
     The bubble burst. I was a kid. The soul search was over.
     Christine Craft was a damn good reporter. She shouldn't have had to suffer because she didn't want to play honey-blond-bimbo to her big strong co-anchor. If you had a daughter/sister/best friend, would you want that for them?
     But you gotta be smart. As Alan Jackson warned, “Here in the real world/ the cowboy don't always get the girl…” and “justice” might just be a fancy concept, a high-flying notion that's about protecting the powerful in whatever state of conduct or business they might pursue, an illusion brokered to the rest so we can believe “we'll be treated fairly; we're protected from unfair situations; we're all equal and have the same protections.”
     “You scratch my back, I'll scratch your's…” is more like it.
     If you're a 10 year old boy who doesn't understand… an almost middle-aged woman not particularly interested in favoring a married man - or really any man…  It shouldn't become an issue. 
     Being made to feel uncomfortable, let alone violated, is a wrong. Simple as that.
     When you've done wrong - and could be getting exposed for it - the stakes are high How many wrongs are you willing to sow to protect the sketchy? The stakes then become exponential, and, well, to thine own self be true.
     Just ask Joe Paterno. Or the mothers of those young men in the area surrounding State College, PA.
     Maybe being true to yourself is doing the right thing, speaking up, dealing with the consequences. As my father used to tell me when I was a kid, “Don't do things you're worried about people finding out about… Because if you have to worry, then probably you shouldn't be doing it.”
     My Dad also raised me with a sense of “playground justice.” Again, something simple enough for a kid - especially a girl going to an all-girls school where there wasn't much bullying to be seen.
     “If you see a kid being beaten up or harassed, and you don't do something,” he admonished, “then you might as well pick up a baseball bat and join in. I'm not telling you to go fight the bullies off, but find a grown-up and make them help.”
     Again, it was just that basic.
     Listening to Jon Stewart's “Daily Show” commentary about the protestors, I marveled. Seeing the rage on those young people's faces was horrible; realizing they never stopped to think about the kids  and what demons they might be living with was sobering. It took me back to the basic wisdom of John Gleason.
     Looking to make the point on Facebook, I posted:
     Tacit endorsement is doing nothing…
     Tacit endorsement means no consequences…
     Tacit endorsement is full complicity!

     Maybe we can blame the sexualization of advertising, the breakdown of the family, the Girls Gone Wild high school hottie culture, the predominance of internet porn, the easy sleazy I-me-mine reality that is all greed and immediacy… 
     In the end, wrong is wrong. 
     If you say nothing, you condone everything. Because nothing changes.
     Circumstances, context, actions. Simple as that. “No” means “no.” Children are innocent and that should be protected. Even kids who've been exposed to too much shouldn't be preyed upon. 
     Job tracks are on one's feet, not back. 
     Just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should.
     Somehow I feel a lot less cool right now, but I also feel like I am serving the truth. Not mine to tell, but any support and encouragement that can be given to those who've been wronged is being the kid my father raised. It's not much, but who knows who it helps? And in standing strong for those who need to know someone cares about what happened to them, that's the most powerful thing I can imagine.
-- Holly Gleason
11/11/11