With the recent passing of Joe Paterno, there is much discussion and debate about his legacy.
I’m from Pennsylvania, and a long-time fan of Penn State football. Because I was a “buddy with a car”, I used to drive my friend Herb three hours there from our hometown outside Philadelphia. Herb was a starting kicker on the PSU football team, so gave me gas money in the form of tickets to Saturday afternoon games in Happy Valley, and damn what a reward it was!
There’s nothing in the world like this place if you love sports, as the customs and enthusiasm play out for an entire weekend. The man who is the key to turning an anonymous state agricultural school into one of the most successful and prolific Universities in modern times, is their legendary coach, Joe “Joe Pa” Paterno. His on and off the field accomplishments over a 46-year span are remarkable. He has literally changed countless lives. His name will forever be remembered throughout the world as someone who made a significant difference.
It is such a crying shame that some of his shining image has been tarnished by scandal, especially being in his final days when he couldn’t necessarily tell the complete account of his role in the incidents. I don’t believe an entire lifetime should be wrapped up by one or two mistakes in judgment, however, I do think there could be an alternative light being shown that is not obvious upon initial review. Perhaps his death can mean new hope for some, as the awareness brought out could lead to positive change??
It’s not all black and white, or in this case, Royal Blue.
I’m not one to watch the news, but in the past couple months one cannot miss the incidents and surreal scene unfolding in Nittany Lion country, and the football program is at the core of the ever-developing saga. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach for Joe Pa and integral part of the building of “Linebacker U,” is accused of sexual assault of several minors over a 20-year period of time.
Like most people, I believe in a citizen’s rights. We are innocent until proven guilty. That assumption is even more at play in this case, as I do not wish for these allegations to be true, considering my lifetime of allegiance and what the football program has meant to countless others.
Yes, I have a first reaction of denial, as is natural when you don’t “want” to believe something that has been an integral and valuable part of growing up. When what you believe in is rocked like that, then I think we tend to look for ways to cope, which includes repudiation, refuting, casting blame or ignoring it all together.
Yet with this particular issue of child abuse, it causes me to react in a way that challenges common dogma or faith in idols or institutions. This is personal to me, and very much a part of my life’s journey.
I am a standup comic by trade and have trained myself to examine all sides of a narrative, and subsequently offer unique perspective, often finding the humor at the core of the premise. In the case of Sandusky and others associated, I’ve no desire to search for the comedy in this very sad tale, but I will not turn a blind eye to it either.
Most of my humor is generated from my own background and much of the source of laughter has pain at its roots. Hurt has inspired me as nothing else has, and the way I process perceptive heartbreak has led to magnificent discoveries. The more I choose to explore dangerous regions within me, the better the “product.”
When I was 13 years old, I was taken away for four days to a ghetto flop house “hotel” in Washington DC and held against my will or choice by a serial pedophile. His name was Ben. He was supposedly a friend, mentor and father figure to me during a short time just before I hit puberty.
I had met him five months or so before our train trip. As I was waiting outside Veteran’s Stadium to get some celebrity autographs, he gained my trust and admiration by taking me into a pro football locker room and introducing me to my favorite players from the team I rooted for. I was star struck and amazed. I had a conversation with Harold Carmichael, who shook my hand with the same large paws that had just caught a touchdown that day! I had never met anyone that tall or that famous, and to look up and see him this close was a stunning, ethereal experience.
With Ben, I felt seen and acknowledged for the first time in my life, since my own father chose to live his own life without paying any attention to his only son. I had never had a catch with my father, never attended a game or event with him, was never even in his company alone, without business associates or one of the women from his “harem” surrounding him.
So here comes Ben, a 70-year old stranger who actively pursued a relationship with me, became a paternal figure and filled the masculine void. He took me to Philadelphia Eagles football games and became a guy my mom could use to take my pre-pubescent issues out of her hair. She would often tell me whenever I felt distress or despair, what she deemed to be my sole problem – “this is because of your father,” so Ben was the temporary fix on that.
What I got in my new buddy was a confident, male influence who could replace a dad who chose to disappear, and a mom who didn’t know how to (or want to) communicate with a young boy. Ben was allegedly a former lineman for the Chicago Bears. His handle bar mustache and cowboy hat demonstrated that he was a man’s man. Well, this was about a year before the Village People came on to the scene, who showed us the “other” side of macho!
He gave me what I could not get in a home of all females, showing me how to tell dirty jokes, ogle girls and drink booze out of a flask.
My enthusiasm for life, strong desire for a dad and seeing the good in all people caused me to ignore the indications of what Ben truly was – a repeated child molester. An event that was supposed to be an amazing weekend watching my home team play in another stadium, turned into a nightmare that would haunt me for years.
I have total recall of that weekend 150 miles from my home in Philadelphia. I do not choose to turn my head to it. The nightmare is as much a part of my life as all the wonderful moments. Its significance however is not in the re-counting or re-hashing of the incidents, but in the lesson/awareness I garner from it, and now I pass it on to others.
A few months ago, when I saw footage of people over-turning cars because they fired Coach Paterno for being complicit in the crimes against children, my reaction was immediate compassion and empathy for the young boys. They were victims of a man they entrusted, and not defended by those who knew. In hopes of being of service to any victim of abuse (or anyone close to this), I share my personal, emotional archive.
First, I will say to all victims – you are not alone. I encourage you to break free of your internal jail and find a safe place to let go and unveil.
When we see the mass protests in child molestation cases such as entertainers, priests and athletic coaches; it sends a message to those who have been exploited that they should hold on to their secrets, for they will be punished upon the revealing.
Too many times we see attacks on the accuser’s character. There is such a strong propensity to discredit someone who is simply trying to convey their tragic story. Too many would rather live in a world of fantasy make-believe, so they turn their heads to reality.
One thing I’d like to make patently clear – it is not what the predator did to my innocence that had the most adverse effect, but the reactions of my own family that hurts my core to this day. Ben is long dead, but the horrific scars from certain people close to me are still infected. An occurrence is less harmful than an enduring pathology.
I think some whom have never been in this situation, think that talking about it will lead to the victim ending up on the top of a tower with a rifle, as if recounting it will lead to a mental break down. When I’ve opened up about the incident, I’ve heard, “Are you okay? You don’t have to talk about this.” The person I’m sharing this with will often respond with telling a joke or changing the subject.
Men are taught certain coping skills and they do not include expression of sad feelings or signs of “weakness,” which a person whom has fallen prey to a predator might be deemed to be. With this particular issue, fear and ignorance leap into play, so I implore others to take a pause and allow for sincere reality to unfold.
Frankly, the release of the hidden and unspoken truth leads to amazing revelations and individual growth. In my case, the more I talked about it, the more break THROUGH I had, not break DOWN. I began to build an authentic foundation that belied what I was told to think and feel.
If anyone chooses you to hear their story, please, do not be afraid to take it in, even if it bursts your bubble or challenges your views or long-held beliefs. Just listen. Hear the cries of the abused and know that a healing is taking place by their admissions.
I sometimes see people assume a person is making these things up, as if the person is in need of attention or money. Warning others that there is danger afoot or cleansing our spirit is not done with selfish agenda. And no one is getting rich from outing a child molester.
As far as “attention,” trust me, if you look at my resume, I have plenty of notice from countless fans and audience. To express this aspect of my life will not score me a single dime or popularity gain, and could even have me lose some folks, who would prefer me to remain their “mirth monkey.”
Being of service to others motivates my direction. If I can prevent a single crime against a young boy or girl, then I’ve accomplished a part of my goal. I think Joe Paterno should have had child protection at the forefront of his mind instead of protecting his long time friend. If he had, more would have come forward sooner, and thus stopped the assaults.
In my case, I returned from those few days of hell in our nation’s capital and was devastated and demoralized. My world was turned upside down and my effusive and positive personality took a hit. I did not know whom to turn to, but yearned to get this secret out.
I chose my mother to confide in. Her words of advice still chill me – “Don’t you ever tell this to anyone. Keep it between us. No one will believe you anyway. We won’t talk about this again.”
Actually, considering how most respond when an iconic, dominant or popular figure is accused, she is pretty much correct as far as likely public reaction. Denial supersedes support, and that is the crux of the problem. Too often folks do not wish to challenge lifelong faiths, so they choose to kill the message and the messenger in one shot.
This is where I implore all to take a pause from systematic response, and do what is beneficial for our loved ones and us. To ignore, set aside or numb the facts is a sure route to eventual hemorrhaging. Avoidance of pain has greater consequences than the actual distress. The agony is in the delay. I never liked the first moment the school nurse put Bactiene on a cut, but the long-term effects of infection are far more damaging than the initial ouch.
What happens with abuse victims is we get caught in a controlling, patriarchal society net. This applies to men and women, who defend its causes and platforms (seemingly) to the death.
In most sexual abuse cases, the criminal’s profile is usually someone who’s highly regarded as someone in the community who makes us feel more secure, happy or fulfilled, thus we turn our heads to what is right in front of us. If we don’t “want” to believe it, we will fight like hell to stay immovable in our position. Therefore, when a boy thinks about telling on a father-like figure, he knows instinctually he will be tortured further. Men are taught not to “rat.” The perps know this and use it to their advantage.
I have seen the interviews in the Penn State case. What I observe in the Sandusky situation I can relate to my own story – the patterns of a child molester.
First, they lure a young boy by offering them something they do not have, which can be in the form of money, gifts, prestige or just someone who will be a compassionate ear. The boys are usually at the most vulnerable age, as I was being a thirteen year old who had not yet hit puberty.
Most victims are fatherless, either by death, divorce or abandonment. The assailant assumes the role of dad, and gives the boy what he has been missing – a stable male role model and understanding voice. Most of the time, the man’s job or evocation calls for him to be surrounded by adoring boys, such as camp directors, priests and coaches. Because they are entrusted by the community and have done so many deeds that help others, it allows them to do as they please without scrutiny.
In my old neighborhood, I was actually jealous of all the kids who were part of our local Parks & Recreation chief’s crew, since they all got to go to the cool events and were given high paying township jobs. They were basically hand picked by the man in charge, Joe.
Turns out, my fate was on my side this time, because this guy was a pedophile. There are dozens of men my age who remain ruined to this day based on this man preying upon their innocence. Just like me, the kids who hung in that group wanted male bonding. What they got was a man who subjected them to various acts that he (like Sandusky and Ben) believed to be good “fun” for young men.
Strangely, our township tried to name a park after this man, and fought against my brave friend Paul, who had the guts to face this situation and tell the truth of this man’s reprehensible acts on minor boys.
Whomever you deem to be an iconic figure is probably not, so I suggest we focus on ourselves instead of empowering others. This can be said of anyone or any institution of our society, where we become “hostage” to the paternal control rather than question it.
The accused child molesters I have observed use the same basic playbook. They convince us that they are merely being a nurturing source of comfort to boys who need a man to assist them. Claims are often made of how they do nothing wrong, and that the behavior is merely an expression of warmth for a child in need.
I recall the conversations with Ben when he was trying to have his way with me. I have always been worldly and resilient, and I used all my street skills to talk him out of his surprise agenda. He was sure to let me know this was not a “homosexual” act, and even attempted to lure me by showing me Penthouse and Playboy magazines. He bragged about his female conquests. Actually, slurs about homosexuals flew out of his mouth with ease, a source of bonding with his friends we hung out with.
The guys of this ilk are passionate and loud about questioning morality and what we all accept as “normal.” Ben yelled; “What is normal anyway? F-ck morals! They are manmade, and come from hypocrites. You are my best buddy and buddies sleep together. There is nothing wrong about that. Look at all I’ve done for you. This is how you repay me?”
It is tough to have answers for a man so compelled to have his way and well versed in repeating what he needed to say to get it. A boy does not have what it takes to face such an attack. I challenged and stood up to him the best I could, but a perverse man on a mission is a difficult foe. Their actions are rationalized and justified, so it’s impossible to be rational in response to such a devoted goal.
Like a lot of males, I do not resonate with the word “victim.” We have to been conditioned to be “tough,” with the emotional resolve of a Marine. No whining and no blame. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and keep your problems to yourself. “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I looked up the word “victim” in my thesaurus. The words “loser,” “prey,” “stooge,” “dupe,” “sucker,” “fool,” “chump” and “patsy” appear. No wonder few come forward with actual facts about their abuse cases. In the animal kingdom, the leader does not show signs of vulnerability, or they will perish.
What I write now is the most difficult aspect of this ordeal – my mother, sister and ex wife actually used the information I gave them about me being molested against me. It’s a betrayal of enormous proportions. I cannot make sense of it or find comfort (yet) in their ongoing behavior. They ignore all wishes to discuss it too, choosing to remain steadfast in their conclusions and subsequent actions.
The victim needs to be fully seen, not condemned. I realize that when people have a disingenuous stance as these three have, they are really making a choice to ignore self-examination and find their personal foes. The real enemy lurks inside. Human nature compels some to cast an outside enemy, even when it makes no sense or is baseless.
Truthfully, my grueling past has been an amazing teacher for me. As long as I am willing to stop to see the inspiration, good things will unfold. The abandonment/betrayal has motivated me to be a more thoughtful, conscious and loving friend, father and husband. I have become the man I wish to be, and not the man my mother, sister or ex wife deem me to be. I get to throw out the script and write my own.
Reassurance and unbridled love is what I craved from my mom and my only sibling, but what I got was the polar opposite.
Then again, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m emboldened by this perceptive tragedy of mine. Formerly a bitter man, I’m now a better man. Where as I used to be inclined to assume the role of the helpless, I’m now strengthened by my past, choosing to learn and transform from it. I don’t use it as an excuse to live a life unfulfilled, but indeed fill my every day with committed love, compassion and enlightenment.
As far as my mom, sister and ex wife are concerned, I do my best to accept it all and let go, but the fantasy guy in me sometimes takes over and I slip into ongoing inner monologues that has me convincing them to move towards love or divine guidance. I try every day to turn away from this paradigm, and be a shining example to my three young sons of what it takes to self evaluate, and the subsequent magnificence that manifests from this choice.
Although my ex wife has unabashedly accused of the most heinous and indescribable acts, I have chosen the high road as much as possible. Undeniably it hurts so much to have to re-live old wounds, and to witness my mother and sister align with this pattern is sometimes unbearable. It’s abuse and betrayal all over again. Just like the predators, to tell these three women to “stop” nets little results, for those with conviction to control and have their way are a robust force. It’s like going against a scud missile with a whiffle ball bat.
The only things I have power over are my own actions of dedicated introspection and connection to heart. I love my wife and three sons with loyal purpose. I am amazed each and every day that this guy gets to absorb and enjoy such profound attachment to them, as well as many others present in my life. A voice inside of me has always told me to stay steady and give to others what I always wished for myself. That song has now prevailed.
It’s hard. I now ask anyone reading this to reflect on what I have experienced, and be sure to approach abuse in a way of earnest consciousness. Look to where you might walk with one another through the uncomfortable. This is not to say you should “force” an issue by insisting a child might have been hurt and trying to pull a story out of him that doesn’t exist. What I suggest is that we always be encouraging to all around us to speak freely, and always love them unconditionally, and be available as a source of safety and unadulterated support.
One thing this has all taught me is to be a strong and solid foundation for our own children. The adversity from my past has propelled me into a deeper resolve and greater understanding as to what a child needs to thrive. Our sons will doubtfully ever feel dismissed or disregarded, and will not yearn for paternal love. I see the sparkle and comfort in their eyes and effervescent glow from their heart.
It is amazing. And I am grateful to all who have allowed this to happen, including those who appear to have given me much pain to contemplate and evaluate. I want to send all a message of hope. This former panic-ridden and faith-less boy is now living a dream life.
Today, I’m married to the most incredible human being I have ever met. We are connected by soul and it is pure. She is right there for me, not in a “fixing” way as many humans are compelled to do when faced with adversity, but in a subtle and dedicated way that shows me I am not alone in this journey. My sons and I enjoy our lives to the fullest, and our home is filled with laughter and joy. Through absolute honesty I have attracted the coolest friends too, since we see one another so clearly and are always present to what is.
I don’t think I would have arrived at such grace if not for the difficulties I have described here. Without going through hell, I would not fully appreciate what it’s like to be in my personal heaven.
For now, Joe Paterno’s reputation rests in pieces, as there are so many opinions surrounding a case of this magnitude. But I would like to suggest that we all look to a lesson he taught us, which is far more useful than learning how to tackle and pass block – to hear how he wished he had gone past the denial and into truth and helped those innocent boys.
The coach may have had one more win in him when he admitted his mistakes, and thus brought our emotions to an alternative place than the media would simplify and put into sound bites. I like to believe Joe Paterno to be a man of great character, which is why his career had such success and longevity. Even if unintentional, I choose to see his greatest lesson – to humbly examine ourselves and use the wisdom gained for greater good.
Mr Paterno, may you rest in peace.