A couple of years ago, Jerry Sandusky, one of the most powerful football coaches at Penn State University, was convicted of raping a number of boys over a number of years. Some of the rapes occurred in the Penn State locker room, on-campus; despite being walked in on during the abuse on at least one occasion, and despite Sandusky’s boss, head coach Joe Paterno, being aware of the abuse, Sandusky was never reported to the police.
This week, Sandusky’s adopted son, Matthew, who earlier claimed Jerry had abused him but said he’d stopped short of engaging in certain acts, went on the air with Oprah Winfrey and said that his adopted father actually did engage in the acts he’d previously denied. The NY Daily News ran the story with a headline emphasizing the specific nature of the acts.
I have no issue with Matthew’s story evolving. As anyone who’s been the victim of a sex crime knows, it’s extraordinarily difficult to relay what happened to you in a linear, rational manner to someone else, because when you’re being violated your mind hits the eject button and separates as much as it can from your body. If you were raped as a child, it’s even harder. Kids struggle to remember positive experiences. There was no greater love in my childhood than playing baseball. Do I remember my first at-bat? No. The first time I pitched? No. My first home run? Well, yes…I mean, a home run’s a home run.
But things like birthday parties? Sleepovers? Summer camp? I remember little to nothing of any of them (except summer camp, for two reasons: 1) It’s where I learned to curse, and 2) On rainy days, when we were stuck in our cabin, the counselors would make us all strip down to our underwear, pick two of us to fight, and bet on who’d win. I remember the bleeding, the hell of being stuck in some kid’s armpit for what seemed a geological era, and the counselors talking shit to any kids who cost them money.).
I have a major fucking issue with Oprah. And with papers like the Daily News focusing on the salacious details of the specific violations. And with the fact that the reason they do so is because there’s an audience for the details. Comedian Louis C.K. does a bit about the irony of the truth that the only group of people that people all around the world are legally allowed to hit are the most vulnerable people: children. Watch this fucked-up clip: the newscasters sound crazy; the comedian speaks truth to power.
I don’t understand what’s newsworthy in having Matthew Sandusky go on TV and confess the specific details of his violation. Do people sympathize with him more depending on how much they know about what happened? Are Jerry Sandusky’s crimes more reprehensible or more punishable if millions of strangers, for an unspoken flash of a moment in their minds, can picture his particular sex crimes in their minds?
I’m particularly sensitive to this issue. I was sexually victimized as a child and in college. In each instance, I confided in friends and family who refused to believe me. I was drunk when it happened in college. Someone I knew took advantage of this, and when I told a mutual friend about it, someone who was my best friend at the time, I was told that since I’d been drunk, how could I be sure that I hadn’t really wanted it? This “friend” considered herself Little Miss Women’s Studies; if a female friend of hers had reported the same incident I did, this “friend” would have led a thousand and one “Take Back The Night” rallies. But since it was me, a man, she reduced me to one of the worst stereotypes of my gender—you’re a guy; you always “want it”—and made me feel guilty and ashamed for even bringing it up. It wasn’t until I was seeing a life-changing counselor that I was able to accept I was the victim, not the person at fault.
I was also victimized when I young, young enough that I blocked the event out for years. When I did remember and came forward, I was told by some of the people closest to me that they didn’t believe me. Partly because they didn’t want to, which, while shitty, is at least understandable. But they also said they didn’t believe me because I couldn’t remember all the details of something that happened when I was four.
That sent me into a private tailspin that cost me years of self-abuse. It fucked with my ability to trust people, exacerbating a handicap that began with the initial abuse.
I’m posting below excerpts from a memoir I wrote that was published a few years ago. It was the story I’d never told and truthfully didn’t think I ever would—just thinking about writing it made me physically ill. But I’m posting it here for the same reason I wrote it then: because someone somewhere will read it and relate to something in it. Because no one should suffer the double-violation of being physically scarred by what was done to them and then emotionally scarred afterward by not being believed. As I learned and wrote in the memoir, the mind doesn’t remember what it’s not capable of handling remembering. One day someone you love may confide in you. You may not believe them because you don’t want to. That’s understandable. But it’s not what they need. When someone confides in you, they’re demonstrating an incredible amount of inner-strength and faith in YOU by even getting to that point. They’ve struggled to get to the point where they value themselves enough to put their needs first. Honor that trust. Be there for them. You may have questions. Don’t look for them to have answers. They’re dealing with questions you (hopefully) will never fathom. Don’t take their trust lightly. Don’t betray it. That can do untold damage.
Maybe Matthew Sandusky went on Oprah because it brought him some closure. Maybe he thought, like I did, that someone out there would see him sharing more of his story and they wouldn’t feel alone; maybe they’d be emboldened to come forward, too. I don’t know why he came forward with more details. I just hope his reasons had everything to do with Matthew Sandusky, and nothing to do with Oprah, or her audience, or her ratings, or anyone out there who needs to feel the holes where the nails were before they beileve you’ve resurrected from what was done to you.
In October, me being me costs me $125.
I’m sick. I leave class early, home by six, in the shower by 6:30, by 7:00 calling every locksmith in the phonebook. I don’t remember locking the bathroom door behind me when I entered the bedroom, then headed back to the bathroom, only to find the door locked. From the inside.
The last guy I call says he’ll be over in fifteen minutes. Fifteen pass, then three more, grace minutes, minutes which feel lighter than minutes, because the first minutes you trust someone are always the easiest. When he arrives, I think what a lovely tribe strangers can be. Once the door’s fixed, I hand him the cash and wait, and the question comes: What’re you locking the bathroom door for, anyway? You live alone. What are you afraid of?
I remember when I was thirteen. My father took me to the hospital. I’d woken in the middle of the night with cutting pains in my abdomen. Couldn’t walk. Couldn’t stand. My father guided me to the car and helped me in, like I was a toddler or an old man. I remember lying in a hospital bed after being injected with something, marvel-babbling I could hear music in my mind with complete and perfect recall: the crystal clarity of the cellos in Mozart’s 40th symphony; the bright guitars from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme; a sultry D’Agostino’s jingle from my receding childhood. Soon I was out cold. I never heard the doctor tell my father it’d been so long I went to the bathroom I’d built a toxic white blood cell count. I’d a talent, it seems, for keeping things in.
Years later, a different kind of doctor tells me the mind won’t remember what it can’t.
I remember playing football in 6th grade with Chris, a boy around the corner everyone called Kipper, the two of us romping in sweet summer grass, lungs ready to pop from laughing so much, until he stood and pulled down his red white and blue Buffalo Bills’ Zubaz pants, then his underwear. He looked down at me and started rubbing his dick. I remember how he looked then, the way his head eclipsed the sun—a slit of light crowning a face I now only remember as dark, smudged, like it’d been rubbed out with a lead-stained eraser. The walk home afterward? What I was feeling? Why I didn’t tell anyone what had happened? I can’t remember.
I remember the time after journalism class in 10th grade when a friend we called Soapdish grabbed my crotch, how hot and red and ill I’d felt. I remember my precious self-control slipping away, my voice rising without my consent, unable to account for the fortissimo of its response.
I remember walking miles of after-dark country roads my freshman year of college to check out the Geneseo warplane museum. As a child I’d been enthralled with WWII aircraft, dreamed of piloting Zeros, Messerschmitts, Spitfires, and most of all, the heroes of the Battle of Midway: the American Navy’s Dauntless dive bombers. But I don’t remember any planes from that night. I only remember the trucker who followed me the whole time, who kept close and kept eyeballing me while he talked at me, his voice the soft sizzle of meat on the grill. Despite my best efforts to avoid him, he kept ending up at the same displays I did. I remember him lingering right behind me at one exhibit, and not knowing if I’d felt him brush against my neck or imagined it.
I snuck away, headed home along the darksome highway. A mile later I feared the worst: an eighteen-wheeler pulled to a slow nauseating stop right next to me, making the psssss sound airbrakes do when big rigs stop. I love that sound. Psssss. Like a whisper hitting puberty, an overtone trapped in the body of an undertone. The voices of the voiceless speak to me. It wasn’t the man from the museum. Just some other old man. I hopped in, afraid the trucker from the museum would find me if I didn’t.
The new old man said he always offers rides to students along the highway because his daughter was hit by a truck and killed a few years ago, and he wouldn’t want any other parent to suffer a loss like when he lost his Karen. I wondered if I’d wandered into an urban myth, and next the old man would say on full moon nights the ghost of his dead girl wanders these roads, or that the townie kids say if you stand in a pitch black bathroom on the anniversary of her death and say “Karen” three times in front of a mirror, she appears. While I’m wondering, I’m struggling to catch my breath. When the truck first pulled up and I’d thought it was the old man from the museum, all the air had whooshed right out of me. Psssss.
I remember that same year meeting a daffy old accordion player named Walter at the bus station. I don’t remember when I first felt anxious around him (remembering something I don’t want to hurts like sitting naked on seat springs in a pick-up truck bouncing down a bumpy dirt road). Walter invited himself to join me at the Burger King next to the station. I remember him cringing when I told him I had a girlfriend.
“Women don’t want sex anymore,” he said. “They want money. God created women as a curse unto men.” He warned me not to let myself be ruined by “the fallen sex,” adding, “You’re a nice boy, such a nice boy.”
I remember him reaching under the table and rubbing my knee, remember the silent shriek that rose and died in my throat, remember how easy it is to slip from 18 years old to four, just like that.
In high school, I wouldn’t let my first girlfriend touch it for a while. The best defense is a good offense, and for our first month together Lisa had no qualms with my one-sided insistence on pleasuring her. But in time the challenge of subduing me grew more attractive than my private parts philanthropy. Soon she woke me to my body, and in doing so woke something else, too, something I couldn’t hold in anymore. I was seventeen when I remembered.
I was four when it happened. I left the sanctuary during the offering to go down to the bathroom in the basement. I went over to the second urinal, the far one. There was a man in one of the stalls. He started speaking to me. I knew that this was wrong somehow, for this man in a stall to be talking to an unaccompanied child. I knew it was inappropriate, but I didn’t have the language to know exactly why. His words had me off-balance, the way he said new things in strange ways, this upside-down slant phrasing that snagged me halfway between instinct and wonder, where I’ve been stuck ever since.
I remember him asking if I knew that we were all alone down there, and how his saying this seemed to cast a spell, because I hadn’t felt alone, but once he said it, yes, I did. I remember him saying the Devil is stronger than God, and did I know what that meant, and that he’d show me what it meant. The stall door opened and he came over. I looked up. Lastly I remember music: the congregation one floor up filling the sanctuary with song, their hymning led by the minister behind the altar, where carved in woodblock lettering were two words—ONLY BELIEVE—as above a rapturous cry of thanks was lofted to Hosanna in the Highest, as below a child learned to forget what can’t be forgotten.
In 6th grade, a counselor from the local youth center spoke to our class about the importance of being healthy in mind and body. We spent a half-hour learning how to walk properly. Remember to swing those arms! At the end of the presentation, she repeated the importance of good posture, and then said If any of you have ever tried to kill yourself, or know a friend who has, please write it on the back of your information sheet. It’s all confidential. Just for statistical purposes. So I wrote how I’d tried to hang myself earlier that year.
That Friday, my parents picked me up after school. This was a rare treat: getting picked up instead of taking the bus meant getting home twenty minutes earlier, meaning I’d catch the second episode of “The Adventures of Link” while my bus-bound brethren would only get home in time to watch the “Super Mario Brothers” show, Fredo Corleone to Link’s Michael. But we didn’t go home. We headed somewhere I didn’t recognize. A few minutes later we’d pulled into the parking lot of the local youth center. A few minutes later I was seated between my parents in the posture counselor’s office. A few minutes later she slowly pulled the sheet with my written confession out from a desk drawer.
They tried to get me to talk for ten, fifteen minutes. I wouldn’t. All I could do was all I could do: hide my closed eyes behind fists never strong enough to fight back with, not against the man in the bathroom and not this counselor now. I kept quiet, kept shaking my head. I wouldn’t say a word. I’d a reason, it seems, for keeping things in.