Because I cannot get this off my mind

November 13th, 2011

I am not one to succumb to the delusion that I am a hero.

I have no tolerance for the kind of self-aggrandizing fantasies that many people engage in when they hear of a shocking public accident or act of violence. Please. You wouldn’t take down the shooter. Even with the purest will, even with the bravest heart, the average person is far too paralyzed by horror to take effective action in the moment. I mean, good God, people write me every day because they didn’t know how to respond appropriately to a racist joke or a financially intrusive question. It’s a good bet if you’re standing there gobsmacked because your sister-in-law used “jew” as a verb, you won’t suddenly morph into Liz Salander and break the fingers of a subway groper.

Most people are not heroes. I know I’m not. I am often paralyzed in the moment. And I would not risk my own safety for the sake of a person I didn’t know.

But I have been searching every corner of my soul, and being as harsh on myself as I can be, and I still cannot conceive that I could witness a man raping a child and not act. Immediately. Whatever I did would be graceless and loud and possibly dangerous to myself and others. But I know I would do something, that every part of me would instantly turn to the imperative stop this now.

And I cannot imagine how anyone could do otherwise.

Open thread on Penn State, readers. I can’t get my mind around this. I feel as though I’m looking into the face of evil.

Talk to me.

(cross-posted at “Miss Conduct”)

13 Responses to “Because I cannot get this off my mind”

  1. geekgirl99 on November 13, 2011 3:58 pm

    Well, I think part of the paralysis comes from disbelief. I can, when I am straining a muscle in order to be merciful, conceive that if you saw a man raping a child, you would think, “I must be wrong. That can’t ACTUALLY be a man raping a child. There must be some other explanation.” I can see that you would not trust the evidence of your senses.

    I am basing this on the time I was hit (not very hard) by a car, and I just kept thinking, “This must be some sort of mistake. Someone wouldn’t ACTUALLY hit me with their car when I was standing still on the sidewalk. I must have misunderstood.”

    That is my attempt at explanation. That said, anyone who sees a man raping a child and does not immediately stop it is clearly guilty of epic moral fail.

  2. Jerry on November 13, 2011 5:06 pm

    A bare minimum (for someone who feared for their own safety) would be to run to the nearest phone and call 911.

    But McQueary saw the rape, presumably did nothing, went home, thought about it, and the next day reported it to the head coach. Who did nothing but report it to his boss. Looking at the Wikipedia chart of who supposedly knew what, I’m struck by how very unlikely it is that each person only knew about one victim.

    And 10,000 people rioted to protest the head coach’s firing. This is why I don’t like people. People suck.

  3. Eileen on November 13, 2011 5:40 pm

    This awful story has many ramifications, including the stirring of old, stored-away memories for me and, I’m sure, for many others.

    As a 12-year-old, I witnessed the attempted sexual assault of a young child by an older child. I was certainly in shock and denial at first, but I made a lot of noise and the predator ran off (see how easy that was, McQueary?) I knew both the predator and the victim, and I also knew an evil act on sight. I told, and I was 12.

    AS one writer has said, McQueary saw Jerry Sandusky many times after that day – once the shock wore off, his rational mind knew this was not a one-time thing and that his silence allowed a predator to roam freely in search of more victims.

    You would never, I don’t think, find a conspiracy of silence among a group of women that allowed someone to continue hurting children.

  4. Clare on November 13, 2011 9:35 pm

    I too cannot imagine not acting, or at least screaming. I have a nearly-8 year old son, and it sickens and terrifies me that someone could be hurting my baby and a grown man could watch, then walk away without helping him.

    And apparently he missed a recent game because of death threats. I assumed, naively, that he was being threatened because he saw but didn’t act. Then I read somewhere that they were because he testified before the grand jury, which then led to Paterno’s firing. If that is true, and he was threatened for eventually doing something he should’ve done from the beginning, I am disgusted.

  5. Anna on November 13, 2011 9:43 pm


    Sadly some women allow their husbands to abuse their children for years and years. Some extended families (including many women) also have conspiracies of silence around abuse. I am not a social worker but know a few, and unfortunately abuse can go on for a long time in ‘insider’ groups. I wonder if the dynamics and conflicts around loyalty at PSU were similar to those among families which hide abuse.

  6. sponica on November 14, 2011 1:01 pm

    I don’t know where I am in my stages of grief. I’m reserving judgment on Joe-Pa until I learn what exactly McQueary told him. I can easily understand in my brain that McQueary (not wanting to believe what he saw actually happened seeing that Sandusky was his dad’s best friend) may have downplayed what he saw to Paterno and Paterno reported his understanding of what he was told up the chain of command. (not that age is an excuse for anything but he’s currently 84 and in 2002 he was in his 70s, there are times I wonder about his mental faculties…)

    I’ve been in the position of being a mandated reporter and based on my field and the rules of my game, mandated reporting means “you tell your boss, your boss tells his/her boss” and then you wait to be informed about what has happened or what you should do. Granted I am not Joe Paterno and my professional world is not built around my aura and mystique…but I was never authorized to inform authorities without administration giving me the ok.

    I am upset that McQueary is still a coach because he basically committed the same offense as Paterno. He knew about an alleged incident, reported it, and then failed to follow-up. They both fulfilled their legal obligations (while ignoring or denying the moral obligation) and one is executed without a trial while the other is granted a reprieve.

    We all think we’d do something different…but how many of us have had neighbors who fight and scream and throw things, but we never call the police because we don’t know for sure what we think we heard is what we actually heard?

  7. Jerry on November 14, 2011 1:21 pm

    I’m not much trained in the law beyond watching a whole bunch of Law & Orders, but my understanding is that if I see a felony being committed, I am legally required to try to stop it or immediately report it to police so that they can stop it. Failure to do so is ITSELF considered a felony. What my boss has to say about it is irrelevant.

    Am I wrong?

  8. sponica on November 14, 2011 1:28 pm

    Only in certain states (I believe)…and it depends on the crime. Law & Order is fairly good on NY State Criminal Procedure Law and the Penal Code, but I’m not sure what the laws in Pennsylvania are beyond the fact it allows for indirect reporting (meaning, person A informs boss, who informs boss, who then decides what action is appropriate to the situation). I’ve been the middle person before…my client tells me something which might qualify as elder abuse, I notify my boss, my boss notifies his boss. Then upper admin tells me what to do. Since I did not witness the crime, I could not inform the police but instead was instructed to contact elder abuse services (who would then determine if police action was appropriate)

  9. Kaethe on November 14, 2011 3:49 pm

    It seems that many more people are upset with McQuerey for not doing something to stop it than they are with Paterno. We can all imagine ourselves failing to pursue legal sanctions with the proper interest, especially against a friend, but the purely visceral reaction to witnessing a violent crime and not doing something. That the witness was a strapping man of 28, the traditional sort of hero, makes it even worse.

    One thing that’s interesting, watching comments people make on the story, is how widespread is the understanding that this is serial predator behavior. I can’t think of another case where the number of victims was popularly assumed to be much larger. Usually the accused seems to be given the benefit of the doubt for sex crimes, no matter how many victims there are.

  10. JP Gal on November 15, 2011 12:58 pm

    I think McQueary’s failure to act is a testament to the enormous power of this football program and its coaches. No one, not even this strapping and strong assistant coach, believed he had the power to do anything to stand up to these even more powerful old men. No one wanted to sully the reputation of the program, the team, and the men in charge. So McQueary convinced himself that what he saw wasn’t so bad and that the really bad thing would be if it became public, because then a lot of “good” men and the team would be hurt. That’s what we’re seeing right now, as people continue to defend Paterno and others who let this tragedy play out for years.

  11. jane on November 15, 2011 2:34 pm

    I think that geekgirl99 is probably the closest here. I can understand, not excuse mind you, but understand, McQueary’s inability to believe his own eyes. And McQueary did _something_ – I think that what is so difficult for all of us in this case is the understanding that the _something_ was not nearly enough. But how often have we all passed the buck? Not in a case of child rape, of course, but I think that there is a comfortable delusion that we all have that when something terrible happens, we will respond. But when the inadequacy of our own response is laid out bare in a case like this it is so hard to swallow. McQueary didn’t fail to act – he failed to act _enough_. And the next person up the chain failed to act enough, and again, and again, until the actions became so removed from the horror of the original event that it was as though the original event could not possibly have occurred. I’d like to think that I would not only act, but that I would act enough. But I’m a teacher. I deal with really troubled kids all the time. I don’t know if I always act enough. I don’t excuse McQueary, and I wouldn’t excuse myself if something terrible were to happen on my watch. But I don’t think it’s as simple as it seems.

  12. Betsy on January 5, 2012 10:49 am

    Dear Robin,
    I miss reading your blog! I hope you soon will feel like posting something more. This Penn State thing has appalled all of us. I too have extensive experience dealing with kids and adults who have been sexually abused, as well as having had experience myself with a “funny uncle”. It scars us all.

    I hope you have not given up on your blog because of it. But whatever is happening with you, I hope you’ll do whatever you need to, to come through it successfully.

  13. Ana on February 19, 2012 11:12 pm

    So what’s the deal? Did you abandon this blog?

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