“But Why Didn’t You Say Something?”

 Gretl Claggett recognized the silence people kept around the Sandusky case, even when they knew they should speak up. It was the same silence she grew up in.

When the news broke, I was walking through the West Village talking on my cellphone to my mother. She cut me off mid-sentence. As she read the verdict as it crawled across her television screen in rural Missouri, “Jerry Sandusky guilty of 45 out of 48 child sex abuse counts,” we were struck by—and grateful for—the synchronicity that let us experience this moment together.

I stayed up till three that morning devouring the coverage, looking for one thread in particular. And there it was: comments condemning Penn State’s role as an enabler, as well as Dottie Sandusky. How could she not have known—especially since their adopted son Matt offered at the last minute to testify he’d also been molested by Jerry? That question took me back decades to a scene from my childhood.

One of my mother’s best friends—I called her “Aunt” Hazel and her husband “Uncle” John—was packing for a trip to visit her niece, who was married, lived in a nearby town, and was like a daughter to her.

I was 10; sat on the bed next to the suitcase.

Hazel searched her closet.

My mother folded clothes. “Isn’t John going with you?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” Hazel said. “He and Mary Jane had a falling out years ago, so she doesn’t want to see him.”

My insides tightened. I knew he’d done it to her, too.

Six years later, at 16, I found the courage to tell my parents that “Uncle” John had “raped me once.” When my mother asked if I wanted to press charges, believing it was all my fault I begged her not to, pleading, “Just don’t make me see him again!” My parents severed ties with both of them. But it wasn’t until I turned 23 and moved far away to New York City that I felt safe enough to expose the whole truth:

“Uncle” John had sexually abused me from before I could speak until I was 16.

That abuse sometimes took place—similar to the Sandusky case—at Hazel and John’s home, when Hazel and others, including my parents, were present.

Experts say that pedophiles are master manipulators, who “groom” not only the children they prey upon, but also the children’s parents and entire communities. I know my mother still kicks herself for not having seen or comprehended the signs. [“Uncle” John, “Aunt” Hazel and her niece died long ago.] My father has a tough time speaking about it, but the Sandusky/Penn State scandal, for all its ugliness, has given my mother and me yet another opportunity to deepen our dialogue and heal.

Recently I asked her what happened after she ended the friendship: “Didn’t Hazel ever ask you ‘Why’?”

“No,” my mother replied, “and her silence was telling.” She then echoed what many are now saying about Dottie Sandusky: “She had to know.”

As someone who suffered long-term sexual abuse, I understand how both Hazel and Dottie may have suppressed what they knew. I understand, because for years—in order to survive—I had to do that, too.

Since the verdict came in, journalists and psychologists have theorized about what drives someone to unconsciously or consciously enable a pedophile. There’s been no discussion, though, about how these acts of collusion psychologically injure victims. Deep into my recovery process I thought, “Once I make peace with the abuse, I’ll be done, I’ll be free”—as if the sexual assaults, alone, had wounded me. It was only after I’d come to terms with all the ways “Uncle” John had violated me, that I could finally face, grapple with and transform the betrayal, outrage and grief I felt because my parents and other adults—particularly “Aunt” Hazel—hadn’t protected me.

“But why didn’t you say something?” people ask; and, unintentionally or not, their tone often incriminates. Perhaps that’s because they only see me, the adult—not the five, nine or 13-year-old I once was. While “good touch, bad touch” talks may help, children can’t be expected to carry the burden of awareness and prevention.

A series of civil suits will soon unfold. As the media continues to focus on Penn State, we must remember that it’s not just about this school and this wife’s culpability. Roughly one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Most of them never testify. Many never tell a soul, or if they do, aren’t believed. There’s a reason why this epidemic is referred to as “society’s best-kept secret.”

I’m hopeful that this very public tragedy can help break private cycles of denial. Whether or not we’re legally deemed “mandatory reporters,” the future generations’ safety depends upon each of us taking responsibility for all the ways we turn a blind eye, shun what’s too awful to bear, or don’t take action because it’s not our business.

It comes down to this: If complicity isn’t proved in court, does that make it any less a crime?

 

Photo—See no evil from Shutterstock

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About Gretl Claggett

Gretl Claggett's debut poetry collection, MONSOON SOLO: Voices Once Submerged, was published by WordTech Communications in January 2012. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poetry, essays and interviews have appeared in journals, anthologies, and in online publications such as Head Butler and The Daily Beast. She blogs for She Writes, regularly reads and speaks in New York City, has been headlined at venues in London and Cambridge, and performed her poetry at the 2012 Spoleto Festival. Gretl teaches an ongoing memoir class at the 92nd Street Y, and she’s currently working on a short film and a novel. www.gretlclaggett.com

Comments

  1. Douglas Menke says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how some people can view the victim with varying levels of distain for not standing up to or stopping the abuser. “Why didn’t I say anything? I shouldn’t have needed too!”

  2. “It was only after I had come to terms with [it], that I could finally face, grapple with and transform the betrayal…”

    How horrific your story of deception, betrayal, and denial, and yet, how beautifully told….I am breathless after having read this…I almost dreaded to see what the next sentence would tell… Thank you for your storytelling power and restraint…! Well done! [I would like to read more from you in the future...once I calm down a bit!]

    • Leia, Thanks so much. I am a huge believer in the transformative power of storytelling! Please do read more, and feel free to friend me on FB and/or follow me on Twitter. Be well!

  3. Terri Schmidt says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart and your deep wounds. You expertly put into words what so many of us have lived through and felt. I was in my late 30s before I began to finally deal with the sexual abuse I suffered as a child/teen from my stepfather. I was asked some of the same questions by family, friends, etc…why didn’t I say anything? I’ve had such a difficult time putting into words why I kept silent. No more. I freely tell people now in any venue I can find. Thank you for your courage. I thank God that He has turned your life into something positive so that you are now helping others. God bless you.

  4. I too kept my mouth shut through many years of abuse because I was protecting my family. I didnt want to cause any trouble or upset the apple cart so to speak so I endured the torture at the expense of my own soul. I too hope this brings to light that abuse can happen right before your eyes. Especially because it seems almost no one is looking for it.

    • Nicole, Thanks for sharing a bit of your story. For years I, too, wanted to protect my family, so I completely understand. When the abuse happens in or close to our own home, and is perpetrated by a family member or a close friend — as it is more than 95% of the time — the taboo to talk about it is even stronger. I hope you’re not carrying the burden alone any longer. Wishing you peace of mind, heart and soul …

  5. I was asked the question too, why did I not say anything. Well I did, and was not believed. It is not convenient to some to believe. Even when the evidence was staring them in the face and my abuser admitted guilt and went to prison many were in denial. Sometimes people don’t want to know because it means they have to confront it and accept that they have to make a moral decision that will disrupt their life, their career, their love, their comfort levels.

  6. Coty, I’m deeply sorry you were’t believed. So many survivors aren’t. I’m happy to hear, though, that your abuser was sentenced and served time. I hope this helped in your healing process. And you’re right, many people turn a blind eye to these crimes — and to others — because they don’t want to disrupt the “safe” status quo. Denial is an amazing thing, isn’t it? I mean, Sandusky has been found guilty, is behind bars, and he’s still proclaiming his innocence. Thanks for sharing your great insights. I wish you all the best!

  7. Dear Greti: I am so sorry this happened to you, so very very sorry. There are literally millions of children out there who still as you did, walk around unprotected. Why? Because adults feel uncomfortable talking to them about sexual abuse prevention education. Well, I say: parents, carers, teachers get over it and take responsibility; provide the children in your care with ‘body safety’ skills. This epidemic is preventable if everyone takes responsibility and educates their kids. Thank you Greti for speaking out and I will continue to try to get parents and educators on board in the work I do. But as you know it isn’t easy – adults find it such an uncomfortable and horrific topic they literally turn away, doing exactly want the perpetrator wants . And who have they left unprotected? Their child.

    • You’re right, Jayneen. Adults need to teach children “body safety” skills AND — even more importantly — they need to arm themselves with prevention tips and training. Stop It Now!, Darkness to Light and PARTNERS, based out of St. John’s University in New York, offer Internet information, hotline services and in-person trainings for individuals, groups, organizations and school systems — all geared toward helping adults to take preventative actions, as well as recognize the signs and intervene if and when they suspect abuse. I agree that the majority of incidents can be prevented, but that requires a big shift around how our culture thinks and talks about the complexities of CSA. Thanks for your post and for all the work you’re doing to spread awareness and educate people!

  8. Dear Greti: I am so sorry this happened to you, so very very sorry. There are literally millions of children out there who still as you did, walk around unprotected. Why? Because adults feel uncomfortable talking to them about sexual abuse prevention education. Well, I say: parents, carers, teachers get over it and take responsibility; provide the children in your care with ‘body safety’ skills. This epidemic is preventable if everyone takes responsibility and educates their kids. Thank you Greti for speaking out and I will continue to try to get parents and educators on board in the work I do. But as you know it isn’t easy – adults find it such an uncomfortable and horrific topic they literally turn away, doing exactly want the perpetrator wants . And who have they left unprotected? Their child.

  9. Life Lessons says:

    Very well read and informative article. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Your line “children can’t be expected to carry the burden of awareness and prevention” really leapt out. It’s so true. So much of the discussion about sexual abuse really focuses on the abuser and the victim, but it’s the other adults surrounding the situation who must step in – obviously easier said than done it seems. How do you appropriately handle a horrible situation (like knowing your daughter is being abused) without your own resources or education to turn to?

    Thank you for your article and your willingness to share.

  11. Hi, Laura- Thanks for your comments. There are resources available to help people learn about prevention or intercede in crisis: Stop It Now!, Darkness to Light, RAINN and PARTNERS, to name a few. Hopefully we can shed more light on these organizations and get more mandatory reporters, as well as parents and other caretakers, trained and comfortable with reaching out for help and speaking about these issues.

  12. The question of weather it should be a criminal offence to not report child abuse is interesting.

    I believe it is an offence to cover up crimes like murder, why not extend this to child rape.

  13. Not all wives are aware of their husbands’ pedophilia. I have a close friend who found out about that her husband had been sexually molesting their children when she had been married to him for almost 30 years. She had her first heart attack that same night. She saw to it that her husband went to prison and divorced him while he was in prison. She had no idea what was happening, but the pain and guilt have not left her many years later and never will.

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