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