Penn State Criminal Conspiracy

I have been getting a lot of email from people who want me to, expect me to, write about the recent revelations at Penn State. I cannot. That whole world, that whole milieu, is still very real to me. I have tried to parse it out over and over again: the linkages between hypermasculinity, locker rooms, coaches as models of manhood, misogyny, homophobia, repression, secrecy, loyalty, and obedience. It’s a knot. In the bowels of our culture.

In any hierarchy, especially those with a king on top, obedience and loyalty are primary virtues. Everywhere else they are secondary to honesty, compassion, and justice. Obedience and loyalty are only primary virtues if you’re a dog.

I shouted myself hoarse about this for ten years, at conferences, on commissions, on TV and radio programs, in op-ed pieces. People would rather continue to make minor adjustments and be able to keep the structures of power and money in place, structures that depend upon…you guessed it: obedience and loyalty, secrecy and silence.

The best writing I did about this was the two “afterwords” to Half the House. If I could, I would buy a copy myself for every person at Penn State. Hell, the NCAA.

What I can do right now is post a speech I gave to a conference in 1999. Even typing that date is disheartening. When nothing has changed since then, why would I have anything new to say?

TO TELL THE TRUTH Conference 1999,
Rhode Island College, 7 November 1999
Good afternoon. Like many of us here, I am a survivor of sexual violence in childhood. I am also a father, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. When my memoir, Half the House, was published in 1995, it became instrumental in the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of the man who raped me when I was ten, a revered youth sports figure who, it turns out, victimized nearly 500 boys over a forty year period. He died in prison last year.
The whole experience of the arrest, the court proceedings, the media attention, the meaning the book has come to have for others, has been an incredible education for me. Although I haven’t used the word since the sixties, I would have to say it “radicalized’ me; that is, it made me begin to think about the deep roots of sexual violence against children in our culture. This afternoon I want to try to share some of those thoughts. 
Like many of us here, I have been trying to understand the enormity of this evil for a long time now. I have come to few conclusions except that we have to begin with a different set of terms if we are to avoid the same fear, helplessness, and despair that have incapacitated us so far and continued to place children at risk.
I believe we have been misled by the language we use, by the way we talk about those who would harm our children. We speak of them as “sick”. We use names that accept their denial and distortion. Our words are important. Words are how we think. Too often we become tangled in language that does not reflect reality, but hides it until, over and over, child after child, it is too late.
Let’s begin by refusing to use the word “pedophile.” The word comes from Greek and means, literally, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion! To use this word to describe those who violate children, and in many instances kill to silence them, is to help the wolf into his sheepskin.
This term, pedophile, is more than a poor word choice; a clinical—that is, pseudo-medical—term, it asks us to see such evil as arising from disease or illness, evil in its effect, perhaps, but no more intentional than other natural misfortunes such as diabetes or muscular dystrophy. This makes the violation of children a part of the natural order and the perpetrator one who cannot help himself.
In place of the term pedophile, then, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from Latin scelus, meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Pedoscele: one who does evil to children.
And let’s stop calling them “sex offenders,” as if their crimes had anything to do with sex.  If a man assaults me with a baseball bat, it is not about baseball. If I am stabbed through the heart with a bread knife, it is not about “baked goods.”(Perhaps Jeffrey Dahmer was a “food offender.”) As the poet Linda McCarriston once pointed out, “Saying ‘the man had sex with the child’ is like saying, ‘The man had dinner with the pork chop.'”
The rape of a child is a violent act of contempt, not an expression of sexuality or affection. Pedosceles want us to believe otherwise. This is why they talk of “love” between men and boys. This is why, after Nabokov’s Lolita, pubescent girls are called, winkingly, “nymphets.” All too often we fall for it. For example, in a newscast about the man who had devastated the childhoods of several generations in my hometown, including mine, a TV commentator said that the defendant had “admitted that he is overly fond of young boys.” (The word “pedophile” is there, in the shadows.) At that pre-trial hearing, one boy said the man had threatened to cut off his genitals if he told. Another boy testified that the man threatened to shoot his little brother. Overly fond indeed.
Not long ago a pedoscele named Thomas Hamilton massacred a kindergarten class in Dunblane, Scotland. He had been driven, unwelcome, from one community to another for decades, it seems, but police were not able to find parents unashamed to take a case to court. Instead, he was shooed along, referred to as a “misfit,” and became, each time, the next community’s problem. The subsequent slaughter, like the murder of Jeffrey Curley in my home town of Cambridge, unmasks the real nature of sexual child abuse. At its core is a hatred of that naivete and vulnerability we call innocence. Men like Thomas Hamilton, or Jesse Timmendequas who killed Megan Kanka, or Salvatore Sicari and Charles Jaynes, the murderers of Jeffrey Curley, cannot stand that quality and must defile it. Failing that, they must kill the child who represents it.
While we’re at it, let’s retire the word “molest.” Look it up. It means to bother. Excuse me, sir, you’re bothering my child.
Even speaking informally we communicate mostly ignorance, discomfort, and confusion. I have heard the word diddle used to describe (and dismiss) the violation of children, as in “He likes to diddle little boys.” It is a word that seems made to order, silly sounding, sniggering, naughty. Diddling, fondling, fooling around—great foggy euphemisms into which real children vanish.
There is language that sheds light, and language that hides reality in fog. Honoring the truth means matching words to things as honestly as we can so the listener or reader sees what we are referring to, not an abstraction that has taken its place. Honoring the truth means not using language to evade responsibility.
Honoring the truth is a political issue, just as it is everywhere else in the world, whether it is in Chile, Cambodia, Guatemala, South Africa, or post-holocaust Europe; in fact it is THE political issue of our time since we live in such a mediadrome that reality can be processed, denatured, distorted, polished, and recycled almost as soon as something has happened. Psychology that uses terms like “the incest family,” “inappropriate touch,” and “the cycle of violence,” plays its part in that snowballing untruth. Psychotherapy that restores victims to the truth of what happened and helps them to regain their power to make change in the world is part of the solution. Psychotherapy that pretends neutrality, that offers palatable euphemisms for what is a great evil, is part of the problem.
I was not “fondled.” I was not “loved.” America was neither “discovered,” nor “settled.” Guatemalan peasants were not “pacified.” Kosovo was not “cleansed.”
Orwell had it right about language. It’s always first of all about language. That’s what it means to “come to terms” with something. Some people use euphemisms to make the intolerable tolerable, others to sow confusion and rationalize their actions. I understand that, for many, calling anything evil in our psychocratic age is blasphemy; nevertheless, when language masks reality, instead of revealing it, then we traffic in delusion and create suffering.
As you can see, I am reluctant to talk about the sexual abuse of children as if it were in each case a private tragedy, a kind of accident.
Much of the time, when we talk about recovering from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, we talk about healing. The metaphor of healing a wound is only so useful, however – the truth is even simpler and more terrible: the sexual violation of a child is a violation of the child’s history, not merely the child’s psyche. It is a lie told to the child about his or her worth, a lie that disrupts the story as it had been unfolding and establishes new premises that engender a different narrative or make a coherent individual story not congruent with the master narrative, the story of power over others, nearly impossible. The psyche, with its grief and outrage, is exiled, and there is no spirit left, no power, to withstand the profferred false narrative telling you who you are and what you must become. This is the story of childhood in patriarchal culture. This is the sacrifice of Isaac, complete with his initiation and induction into the bloody warrior’s covenant with the god of conquest, a covenant sealed by means of a genital wound (which, compared to what almost happened, and to what happened to that hapless ram, by now looks like a good deal.) This is the story of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, sacrificed to the gods in return for winds to sail warships to Troy.
In the case of boys, this toxic proto-narrative, inscribed, tattooed as it were, on Isaac’s psyche, seems to be that the whole of the world is an arena in which one strives, and in which there are necessarily winners and losers, and that all the others one encounters there are either adversaries or allies against one’s adversaries. This is the uber-ideology of “manhood.”
To the extent that manhood is a set of anxieties that are not aligned with the worries of women and the welfare of children, to just this extent is manhood dangerous and indefensible. When men remember their boyhoods, their childhoods, really, before they became enchanted by the dream of power, they grieve for the time they have lost to delusion, and they begin to work for justice.
This same violent disruption of a child’s authentic unfolding story, in the case of girl children, teaches them their unimportance. And offers the delusion of beauty, of becoming once again valuable by transforming themselves into objects, sacrificial objects subordinate to the enterprises of powerful men.
In neither case is the child any longer the protagonist of his or her own story. Both boys and girls are, from then on, in uniform, so to speak; what’s more, they are convinced that they are wearing it by choice. “If I feel isolated and alone, I can at least appear to be the same as everyone else.” Perhaps that is the same reason everyone wears a uniform. It certainly explains the terrible loneliness of crowds.
What I’m suggesting is that this induction into a culture of abusive, hierarchical power, a world of winners and losers, victors and victims, is accomplished in large part through sexual violence. It is not necessary that every child experience this violence explicitly and directly for it to be a constant feature of childhood.  We are learning, as disclosures mount, that somewhere between a quarter and a half of all children, girls and boys, are explicitly violated by a trusted adult.
We shall come to see, if we keep our eyes open, that all ways of gendering the sexual abuse of children are wrong; what’s more, they are beside the point. I remember a group of men with whom I worked as a volunteer in a prison. Members of a substance-abuse group working toward release to a half-way house, many of these men were at last ready to face their lives honestly. They had much at stake. Many of them had been violated as boys. They were now living in an environment in which the threat of sexual violence was very real. Yet many of them spoke of women in ways that objectified and demeaned them. They were unable to see beyond the wall of gender, unable to empathize. When I asked what it would mean to be sexually violated, several said that it meant that the abuser would have robbed them of their manhood; others nodded silently. The idea of “manhood” was so strong that they could not see that sexual violence is the most elemental violation of one’s humanity, regardless of gender.
It may be that a similar blindness hides the reality that children, both boys and girls, are also sexually abused by women. Once again gender stereotypes serve only to bewilder us. And once again, those who refuse the stereotypes, those with the courage to shatter the silence that allows continuing ignorance among people of good will, are those who represent children’s best hope.
The abuse of a child is a lesson in power. It defines power for the child: it says that power is making others do your will. This message is congruent with many other lessons we receive from our culture. Real power, however, is what was taken from us, not only by acts of violence and violation, but by lies about the nature of, the meaning of, and the responsibility for those acts, lies about who we are.
Truthtelling is the arduous process through which we recover real power and free ourselves from the tyranny of the past. This liberation, this difficult extrication from lies, shame, and silence, this grief, anger, hope, and truth, has the potential to restore not only the souls of those of us who have suffered abuse and betrayal, but also our common life. The violation of a child, after all, is an offense against the community. It is a crime against the future. Through the cumulative effect of many separate acts of truthtelling, encouraging others to follow suit, we help to regenerate in our communities a respect for truthfulness, for honesty as a primary value. And THAT will make the world a safer place for children.
Some days I see hope in the actions of brave truth tellers who refuse to pipe down in the face of sneers and threats. Other days I feel that asking this culture to fight for the protection of children and against their exploitation is like asking a tree to uproot itself, a stone to lift itself, a bomb to defuse itself.
Society still responds to instances of child sexual abuse as if each were an exception from the way things are, generally; no doubt the vast majority of people find such acts repugnant in the extreme and so believe that their incidence is exaggerated, probably by well-meaning but overly zealous, and terribly damaged people. This position allows one who takes it to feel a mildly patronizing compassion, not unpleasant for being so “reasonable” in the face of potential “hysteria”. The sexual abuse of children is, however, not only commonplace, but lodged at the intersection of certain cultural assumptions that, taken together, shield its prevalence from view.
1. sexual abuse of children is rare
2. sexual abuse of children is something only “those people” do
3. sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by a few sick, mentally ill persons
4. if a child is sexually abused by a priest, coach, caregiver, it’s the parents’ fault for not being more vigilant
5. children wish to be sexual with adults
6. most adults are focused on making the world a better place for kids
The necessary myth is that our society exists in order to sustain its members and to create health and abundance for coming generations, beginning with our children and grandchildren. This may indeed have been the function of pre-industrial, agrarian cultures, but it is emphatically not the purpose of our late capitalist consumer society. Ask any primary school teacher how much of their time is spent debriefing their charges, trying to countermand the toxic messages about their self-worth that indoctrinate entry-level consumers.
Now consider the corollary myth: that those who prey upon children are different in kind from the good middle-class souls who work hard to keep the wheels of commerce, religion, and politics turning. This myth insists that predators are out of alignment with society’s values regarding children. This myth bodies forth in the form of the wild-eyed deviant in a trenchcoat lurking in the suburban shrubbery. (In the service of this myth, every child abuser who owns a trenchcoat will be photographed in it a thousand times, preferably with playground equipment in the background.)
It was Freud, of course, who helped supply this myth because he gave way to his own quite human need, and that of his colleagues, to make something safely “other” of what he rightly saw as vile and criminal. He decided, under pressure from his colleagues, that of course the good burghers of Vienna couldn’t be exploiting their daughters and nieces in this unconscionable manner (let alone their sons and nephews.) We have been living with the consequences of that evasion for a century now, and we are accustomed to a conceptual framework, or at least a phraseological one, that cannot allow the truth, that in fact reflexively dismisses it whenever it appears. Unless, of course, it involves a guy in a trenchcoat.
With the North American Man-Boy Love Association marching in the gay Pride parade, crying out, wrongly, “we’re gay too, and persecuted for our sexual preference,” and, on the other, right wing homophobes busily scapegoating gay men for crimes against children, it becomes difficult to get anyone to see that these violations are first of all crimes of abusive, oppressive, exploitative power, and that they are a human rights issue. Add to that such psychobabble as “the incest family,” “the cycle of violence,” and statistically inaccurate representations that suggest to the public that those who are violated as children go on to violate children, all that “kiss of the vampire” crap, and you have a paralyzing confusion about who is responsible and what, if anything, can be done.
I believe this is similar to the confusion that reigned in our culture right up to the latter half of the 19th century on the question of slavery. People walked around wringing their hands and saying they were of course against it but what could they do? It was “too complex,” “too politicized;” its opponents were “too fanatical.” Many debates were held to discuss whether in fact slavery was “evil” or just an unfortunate economic and historical development. Some maintained that blacks were better off than they would have been in Africa. Others, saying they shared the same goals, but saw no reason to call good Christian gentlemen of the south “evil,” created “African Colonization societies” that did nothing to interrupt the slave trade, but bought up slaves, mostly the sick and elderly, and resettled them in places like Liberia.
Those who argued on behalf of slaveholders contended that the Greeks had slaves. They argued that not all slaveholders treated their slaves violently. They argued that some slaves were thankful to their masters for educating them. They argued that truly sadistic masters were a tiny minority. I have heard every one of these arguments applied to the latter day “peculiar institution” of child sexual exploitation.
It took William Lloyd Garrison to say, unequivocally, that slavery was evil, and that while a man held slaves, there was nothing that could be placed in the other pan of the moral scale that would balance it out. Through his efforts, and in the face of accusations that he was preaching hatred, the entire north finally came round to his position.
Those who violate children are slave-masters, tyrants, especially when the child can make no escape from their sphere of influence. And while a person continues to harm children, there is nothing that can be placed in the other pan of the scale — nothing — that can balance it. It doesn’t matter if you are a winning coach, an inspiring teacher, a great provider for your family, a beloved priest, a pop star, or a poet. And to condemn the actions of tyrants is not hatred, but love.
As for the question of abusers who were themselves victimized — I am not sympathetic to those who have violated children even though they were violated themselves. Please note that I say “even though,” and not because. I know too many decent honorable men whose boyhoods, if we were to adopt this mechanistic theory, would qualify them to be axe-murderers.
Neither do I condemn anyone who is willing to look hard at the consequences of his actions, and make the penitential journey to restored wholeness. One would be a fool to do so; the literature of every land provides stories that attest to the possibility of redemption, and to the fact that even the most horrible torturers can once again find their place in the human community. But no one can make that journey while they are minimizing the horror they have inflicted, and I think it the very worst kind of “help” to offer them the debased and distorted language that allows them to do so.
For what shall they feel remorse? For doing evil? Or for “being inappropriate?” For “fondling” a child? (Most of us like being fondled!) For “offending?”  Last week I was “offended” when a friend gave his Celtics tickets to someone else. When I was ten my coach raped me. I have been bitten by both dogs and fleas, and I know the difference. But then I am not invested in softening the language to accommodate some new pseudo-enlightened view that dispenses with evil as a category to describe the selfish exploitation of the vulnerable.
I suppose that here is the part where I should talk about forgiveness. Over and over again, I am asked if I forgave coach Feifel. The answer is yes — I forgave him for thirty years; that was the word I used: forgiveness. I knew nothing about denial during those years while it was having its corrosive effect on my life. Forgiveness had a nice virtuous ring to it. And during the thirty years that Feifel enjoyed my virtuous amnesty, over three hundred more little boys were raped.
Those of us who were victimized by this ongoing atrocity, this pervasive secret institution in our culture, have only recently found the strength to claim, understand, and come to terms with what was done to us when we were at our most vulnerable. I am not alone when I say that not only do I refuse to be anesthetized any longer by the culture’s prescribed anodynes of booze, drugs, constant entertainment and distraction, but that I also refuse to be “amnesthetized” by bogus versions of forgiveness based on a no-fault ethical system.
If a man burns down my house, I do not owe him anything — certainly not the chance to do it again after I’ve rebuilt, and least of all forgiveness. On the contrary, he owes me. He owes me a house, along with a great deal more for the trauma and devastating interruption of my life his act has caused. He also owes the community for infecting it with fear and mistrust.
I believe that there is a dimly lit, demanding way that, followed, might lead not only to real safety for our children, but the reestablishment and strengthening of a community, a body politic, a nation, torn apart by deep moral divisions in other matters. Surely we all agree, across those divides, that adult sexual exploitation of children is wrong. (By the way, contrary to what some people would like us to believe, there is no nation on this planet where the sexual violation of a child is legally permissible. None.) So why not begin there, where we agree?
If we cannot come together across the barriers of race, class, religion, and politics — including the politics of sexual orientation, abortion, and capital punishment — to search for a way to protect our children from this scourge, then truly all is lost. Then we will have failed as a people no matter what else we may accomplish.
We will have to rethink things, rename things, reconsider positions with which we’ve become comfortable. We will have to be willing to admit ignorance, feel foolish, relinquish worn pieties. We will have to be fearless.
Which of our children doesn’t deserve this? And what are we as a society if our first goal is not to protect our children — not your children or my children, but our children? Who are we if we turn our backs?
According to the Czech writer Ivan Klima, “The dreams of the powerless are either to flee to safety or to gain power.” Looking back at my own life, it seems to me that its entire course, until recently, could have been plotted using those two coordinates.
I fled my home town, scene of my shame. I fled the working class background that marked me for sneers and dismissals. I fled the church that further shamed me. I fled the self whom I was taught to see as a loser. I looked for safety in muscular strength, weightlifting myself into an armored pose. I looked for safety in womens’ arms. I looked for safety in the bottle’s anesthesia.
The alternative dream, of wielding the same kind of power I had suffered under, was abhorrent to me. Stuck, I settled for a life in which time passed, meant little, and accrued to nothing.
Only when I’d understood that there was another kind of power — not abusive power, not power over other people, but the power to speak the truth — could I admit that the dream of safety is part of the problem. To feel the kind of safety the first dream promised would require me to betray what I knew just as surely as the second dream, the dream of power, would require me to deny the pain of my boyhood. Both dreams are one and the same: the first says “Now I can never be hurt again”; the second shrugs, “Better you than me.” Both are as sterile and solitary as dreams must be.
When you speak the truth, you wake from this terrible delusion. At first there is pain, like the blood returning to a numb limb when we’ve slept too long, too drunkenly, too deeply. You wake to a world where others are suffering from the onslaughts of abusive power and where shame still drives the deadly machinery of disempowerment and disintegration. But it is also a world where, once you commit yourself to the struggle for wholeness, recovery, and justice, there is joy, solidarity, and strength.
More and more of us are coming forward, and coming together, not because anyone would want to claim such a history, but because with each new voice the need for continuing denial is diminished. What’s surprising is that when the silence is broken the sound we hear is only briefly the sound of pain; soon after there is laughter, which any comic will tell you depends on knowing the truth and seeing the incongruous. And soon after that there is joy. The whole process is like drawing water from a pump: the terrible rumbling and gurgling sounds, the clay-colored, rusty sputter, and finally the water, cold, clear, life-giving: the honest, revitalizing truth drawn up from deep in the willing earth.
This gathering — and others like it — represents the stirring of a sleeping giant, the authentic spirit bequeathed us by our forebears but anesthetized by childhood violence, betrayal, and despair. May it be for each one of us more than a stirring, but an awakening.
I’d like to end with a poem of mine called MESSENGERS since I believe that’s who we are, all of us here, bearing witness to the truth. It begins with a quotation from the tragic poet Aeschylus, from his play Agamemnon, written in about 450 B.C.E. —

“The house itself, if it had a voice,
would speak out clearly. As for me,
I speak to those who understand;
if they fail, memories are nothing.”
Aeschylus: Agamemnon
We say what we know because we must.
You can cheer us or run us out of town.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust,
a hairline crack in the faultline’s crust,
a tentative first-person plural pronoun.
We say what we know because we must
recall, recount, redeem, and readjust
all that we’ve known, not for renown.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust,
or the first few tiny flecks of rust
on barrels buried underground.
We say what we know because we must
talk back to histories we do not trust,
relearn our own, and set them down.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust.
What does it mean to fear what’s just?
You can cheer us or run us out of town.
We say what we know because we must.
It’s nothing at first, like rain on dust.


  1. Doglady says:

    Richard, I have never heard someone articulate this issue so beautifully or clearly. I thought of you as soon as this happened. I thought of myself, too– with this happening on the heels of the accusers of Herman Cain being villified and riduculed. Both examples of the culture not wanting to know, not wanting to hear.Thanks.

    We who feel called upon to tell the truth need to hear the strength and power of words like yours.

%d bloggers like this: