The Spirit of Violent Lamentation

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My Twitter feed blew up last night when the news came down that Joe Paterno had been fired by Penn State University for his role in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case. Many tweets echoed my feelings on the matter—it was only right that Paterno was gone, was not allowed to finish the season on his own terms.

He had abdicated the right to decide his fate almost nine years ago when he failed to pursue the report by one of his graduate assistants that Sandusky had been raping a 10-year old boy in the shower.

Count me among the people who hold Paterno culpable (in part) for every person Sandusky abused after 2002. I want to be generous. I want to say I understand how a fellow human might hear such a story about a close friend and want to find a way to explain it away, to deny that such a thing might be possible. I do it myself, try to interpret actions in the most favorable light. I would rather think a person hurt me unknowingly than maliciously, even when deep down I know better. I want to say I can understand how, when one discovers a person they’ve known for 35 years is a monster, they would find a way to explain it away.

I want to say that. I’m working on it. I’ll probably fail.

Normally a story like this one wouldn’t get to me, despite my history of being sexually abused by a babysitter for a period of roughly three months when I was four years old. (I have vivid memories of this—they are among my earliest memories.) In the US, rates of childhood sexual abuse are on the decline even while stories like this one and the ones which involve the Catholic Church occasionally dominate the 24-hour news cycle. That’s a good thing, frankly, because it’s the kind of story that almost never would have made the news 39 years ago, when I was being molested by my babysitter.

What set me off was something Paterno said two days ago when he said “I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and their relief.” My instant reaction was sarcastic, that a phone call to the police from a person of Paterno’s stature would have been more beneficial than saying prayers for them years after the fact.

Prayer was a tool that my abuser used to keep me under her control. After a session (I really don’t know what to call this), she would have me kneel down beside her next to the bed and ask God to forgive us of this sin we had committed. I had to do the praying, because I was the man and, by extension, the responsible party, the pleader for the two of us. So I did, and it wasn’t until I was 17 that I was able to tell anyone about it.

What helped me to talk about it then was being raised in a culture where it became increasingly okay to talk about abuse. People joke—I joke—about the “bad touch” episode of “Different Strokes” where Arnold is nearly molested by the bicycle shop owner as being over the top, but for a kid who’d spent most of his youth feeling guilty for doing something wrong, being told that it was something done to you that wasn’t your fault meant a lot.

When I was young, the number I heard most of the time was that one in ten children had been a victim of sexual abuse—more likely if you were a girl—and that the most likely molester would be a family member or trusted friend. Like a babysitter, or a football coach.

When the news came out that Paterno had been fired, a large group of Penn State students began to protest, shouting “We Want Joe” and “We Are Penn State,” and at one point tipping over a news van. My first thought was that in ten years, it will be difficult to find an alum who would cop to having protested in support of a man who potentially helped cover up the sexual abuse crimes committed by a once-close friend.

My second was that chances are that those protesters probably know someone who was a victim of sexual abuse, even if they don’t know they do. I wonder how those survivors feel, seeing this outpouring of support for a man who was, at best, indifferent to people just like them?

I know how I feel. Call it the spirit of violent lamentation. Part of me wants to take a swing at anyone who defends Paterno or anyone else at Penn State. Another part is sad about the pain that humans cause each other when they choose tribe over their wider humanity. A third part is happy that a story which once couldn’t make the news is now a national scandal, because every time that happens, it lets another kid know that they are not wrong and that they are not alone and that they can tell someone what’s happening to them.

And perhaps that’s where I can find some understanding for Joe Paterno. Not sympathy, but understanding. Paterno came from a time where these things weren’t discussed publicly. Families dealt with this mostly by trying to keep the kids away from the offending adult, and churches dealt with it by shipping offending clergy from parish to parish. Paterno may have felt he did what was necessary by cutting Sandusky out of his life and forwarding the story along to his putative boss. Other people—lots of other people, in both the media and the public, and mostly younger than Paterno—disagreed, and that, to me at least, is cause for hope.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →