Eirik Rogers sees himself and all other abuse survivors in the brave men who testified against Jerry Sandusky, but is reminded that there are too many abusers still walking free.
Imagine for a moment that Jerry Sandusky was never caught and never convicted. Most of his victims, who were asked to testify, would likely have stayed silent. We would never have a clue as to the darker dealings of this person, and he’d still be just Jerry – that wonderful family man in the neighborhood who left coaching because he was committed to disadvantaged kids, and used his celebrity status to continue as a Pied Piper – on a macabre march.
Take that hypothetical situation one step further and give Jerry another name. Then you probably would be reflecting many similar realities past and present. Jerry Sandusky is the one who got caught—a few times, it seems—until the stack of crimes was so egregious and his reputation so public that it was impossible to ignore. For countless kids, however, I imagine there have been other Jerry Sandusky’s who got away with it. There was one in my life who was a few years older than me—and I wasn’t his only victim. I suspect each of my co-victims dealt with the shame alone, as did I. In fact, so deep was the shame that I thought death would be a viable alternative to having my secrets—his secrets—revealed.
In the wake of the Sandusky verdict, I can’t help but think about that, and I wonder how many silent victims of similar abuses walk amongst us. I imagine quite a few.
My own Sandusky is living now in a quiet suburb. His kids are grown. He is probably retired. He never was brought to account for his crimes, and never faced prison. I was barely thirteen when he decided to advance a mentoring friendship into a confusing and inappropriate sexual relationship. And I soon realized he was also doing the same to several other kids—as young as seven, almost all of them girls. I undertook the mission of keeping him from the others while not revealing my own humiliation—trying to be a dark and dirty little hero to the girls. That was my reality growing up. That was my “normal.” We maneuvered as best we could through the mess. But our parents never saw the dark and clandestine world that flowed at their feet.
When he finally got caught, the adults looked no further than their offended sensibilities would allow. None of this was advanced to the police or the courts; the dirty secrets were buried under beautiful rose bushes and picket fences that spoke pretty lies about our neighborhood. The molester was released with a stern warning from a hastily-organized coalition of three adults including my own father: stay away from the girls. As his little sidekick, I was tasked with keeping him from them. I escaped the embarrassment of being discovered as a victim, and assumed the responsibility the adults asked of me. That was their solution. No one looked close enough to see what he was doing to me. I was to learn much later that nobody wanted to.
And so my young teen years were spent lost in the furtive filth of his hidden world. I was guilty by immersion and stained to the soul. I was pressed to act out love, yet felt only hate. I sometimes didn’t know where I ended and he began. And the times I tried to pull away, he would intone the responsibility he knew I carried, intimating that if I refused him he would have no choice but to go back to molesting the girls. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and size eight Keds on my feet.
My father, oblivious of my secret life, would harp on me incessantly about responsibility and integrity. I always seemed to fall short in the first category, and knew I could never meet the bar for the second. I remember very clearly one particular day he smiled warmly, put his arm around my little shoulders and told me that despite everything, I was really a “good boy.” It was a moment that should have been a prized and priceless memory. But my heart couldn’t accept it. My life felt like a sham, and I could not reconcile who he thought I was with the things I could not reveal. I kept a quiet distance to ensure my secrets were protected and his misguided perceptions undisturbed. That gulf only widened through the years, despite our love for each other. I wanted desperately to earn the regard he had for me. But he died before I could. His last words to me years later cut deep: “I don’t know you as well as I would have liked—you are a very private person—but I know you love me.”
That’s the price I paid. I built a wall around my dirty soul. But that wall kept the bad stuff in and the good stuff out. I needed someone to smash down that wall and save me. But it never happened, and only in therapy did I learn to dismantle it slowly, brick by brick. I think of the many other victims in my neighborhood and the walls that still stand.
And so I look at the Sandusky verdict with a sense of want. Did the victims find any catharsis with their testimony? Did they discover any salvation or healing in the process? For me, in the years that followed there was no justice – only therapy. And the therapy lasted only as long as the money did. For the Sandusky victims, perhaps that limitation will not be as severe.
Early on as the Sandusky case broke, memories of my dark past came burgeoning back. A reporter spoke of the “horror these kids experienced.” Yet I never experienced horror—only shame. It was not terror—it was confusion. I didn’t run from him. In fact sometimes I ran back to him – as so many of Sandusky’s victims also did. And so I questioned whether I owned the appropriate response to my own abuse. When my abuser was caught, the outrage belonged to others. Their anger was strong enough to cover feelings I didn’t know how to access or even define. Little has changed. I had learned well how to keep quiet and yield to the louder voices around me.
When I heard whoops and cheers on the courthouse steps as the Sandusky verdict was made public, I felt those same doubts again. I applaud the verdict. I applaud the justice. And I feel hopeful for any closure this may give the victims. But drowned out in the celebratory din is the quieter victory that belongs to the brave men who took the stand. They faced Sandusky and finally cast off that shabby, dark cloak of shame –laying it squarely at his feet where it always belonged.
Long after all the clamor dies away and Sandusky is rightly consigned to cold storage in a state penitentiary, the survivors will still be sorting through their own feelings about this. Perhaps they will find that when the louder voices disappear, the quieter ones within—the ones that speak the deeper truths—will be easier to hear.