Jerry Sandusky and My Child Abuse History:
Milky Ways, Duff Ball, French Films, and Victimization
Jerry Sandusky looks like my first abuser – same white hair and close-set eyes, same saggy and unthreatening face, same big lumpy body, and same institutional protection.
[For people reading this who’re not familiar with Jerry Sandusky (surprisingly, there seem to be a few people from Thailand to Russia who occasionally stumble across this blog): yesterday, Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse, stemming from his sexual advances toward and acts upon little boys. Sandusky was both a football hero, initially as a player and then as defensive coach for Penn State, and a local philanthropist best known for the ‘Second Mile’ foundation, dedicated to helping disadvantaged area youth, mainly boys. Evidently, he used both affiliations as bait to attract vulnerable kids into ‘relationships’ in which he could get his jollies, in ways ranging from touching and groping to downright rape. This has been a high-profile case for the past year, maybe less because of the child abuse charges per se than because of the suspicion that big college sports’interests contributed heavily to a decades-long cover-up, somewhat along the lines of the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of pederast priests. If you want to know my opinion of yesterday's verdict: right on!]
Milky Ways. My Sandusky-look-alike abuser, if that’s an accurate label, was the janitor in our church. He had a room in the basement, convenient to Sunday School classrooms. Because it was an Episcopal Church, things such as Sunday School were rather casual: adults mainly milled around chatting and drinking coffee after services, and most children over the age of six ditched Sunday School in favor of hanging out with friends in various church basement corners.
Which set the stage for Herman, the janitor. His Sunday morning routine was to ensconce himself on a metal folding chair in an out-of-sightline basement corridor, accompanied by a bag of full-sized (not the measly Halloween-sized!) Milky Ways. He’d motion young girls over, and have them (us, me) sit on his lap and let him kiss us in order to earn a candy bar.
As best I can remember, I was eight or nine. Sitting on Herman’s lap to get a Milky Way (after the boredom of church) seemed like a pretty good deal. To this day, though, I recall in my very body three (literal) impressions: rough fabric and buttons (that would be his overalls), squishiness (that would be his lap), and sloppiness (that would be his wet kisses on my cheek). Yet I also recall the triumph of scoring a candy bar.
It seemed like a fair-enough trade-off until my wiser best friend said that she thought it was icky and wasn’t going to do it any more. Because I had a crush on her older brother, I believed her. Thus I too stopped visiting Herman. But I – and for that matter, my best friend – never mentioned our Herman experiences to our parents. I’ve learned later that Herman kept plying his quasi-ecclesiastical version of Hansel and Gretel for years.
I honestly do not think I was personally scarred by my experiences with Herman. Why I remember them at all, I believe, is the shame of feeling stupid – that my best friend detected something swampy when all I thought was that candy bars were better than coloring pictures of Jonah and the Whale. In adult retrospect, I regret not having said something to my parents, as they no doubt would have raised hell and perhaps prevented something worse (if Herman escalated his ‘demands,’ if other little girls were more fragile) than what I and my best friend encountered.
So – in this case I didn’t and don’t feel like a victim. But what if Herman had been a priest, or a revered football coach, rather than a janitor? Would I have been more willing to ‘do’ more to earn his favors, and would he have been more emboldened to ask more?
Duff Ball. A much, much more scarring experience with child abuse revolved around my high school gym teachers. Let me call them out by name: Miss Pauline Gaertner and Miss Theodosia Brzezinski. They both may now be dead, but find the Appleton High School Yearbook on line, and you’ll find them in all their sexual-sadistic glory. They were the girls’ gym teachers for many years, and they abused ALL OF US.
And no one, as far as I know, said a word to our parents or to authorities.
Even as I write tonight, I find it hard to describe how disturbing their conduct was to me and to other adolescent girls in my high school. They didn’t touch us (other than towel flicking and butt-patting, the latter reserved for the more athletically gifted among us – but who knows what may have happened with their favorites?). Yet they humiliated all of us and made us ashamed of and fearful of our bodies; they made gym class something that actually produced nausea, much less every avoidance maneuver thirteen-to-eighteen-year-olds could think of, from faking menstruation to truancy. Many of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes involved showers, and the showers were the locus classicus of our gym teachers’ searing voyeurism.
They were ‘gang showers,’ and we were made to line up naked, ‘breast-to-breast’ and ‘bottom-to-bottom.’ At that age and at that time (the 60s), this alone was profoundly embarrassing. Miss Gaertner was usually the woman on the ladder. This was erected next to the passage from locker room to shower room, and she would look down and call out to us to get closer, so we would all touch. She would also comment on the size of our female parts.
When we were suitably arranged, we’d have to go into the showers. From her panopticon ladder, Miss Gaertner (or maybe it was Miss Brzezinski – in my memory they were a loathsome aggregate) would issue orders: lift those breasts and soap; scrub between your legs; get that butt-crack clean. These intrusive directives would be accompanied by our names, so there would be no mental asylum into which to retreat. When the shower from hell was finished, we’d be issued a handkerchief-sized towel and . . . finally . . . released back to the locker room, where we couldn’t get clothes on fast enough.
You’d think this would be enough fun for pervy gym teachers. You’d be wrong.
Somehow, they managed to warp gym itself into something profoundly uncomfortable. Part of it was the way they’d address us when we were trying to do actual athletics (softball: “if you’d put more bosom on you, you could be a good catcher”; gymnastics: “with that big behind, you’ll never do a decent cartwheel”). Yet they also made up their own games for their own enjoyment, the most infamous of which was ‘duffball.’
I’ve asked women throughout my life if they ever, ever played duffball when they were in high school. Answer: What in #$%#$^$#$ is duffball?
I guess it’s my high-school gym teachers’ invention. Basically, it’s dodgeball played on your back, with your rear ends propped up by your arms so your bottoms (and your legs) are in the air. As you can imagine, controlling a ball in this position is pretty difficult. That means that gym teachers have plenty of occasions to bellow “hoist that butt,” “let me see that big rear end work,” and similar endearments, all prefaced with your name so you couldn’t sink into the protection of anonymity. I can’t begin to describe how horrible and exposed this game made us feel.
Why I never told my parents about showers and duffball remains a mystery to me. I was older (and maybe a bit wiser) than I was with Herman in the church basement. But I never said anything. Neither did my best friend, nor any other high school girlfriends with whom I’ve discussed this subsequently. Our younger sisters were subjected to the same gym-teacher treatment, in large part because we remained silent (and the younger classes remained silent, too). I guess we/I thought such gym class protocols were the norm – how would we have known anything else (because we didn’t ask – because our parents never discussed child abuse and sexual abusers beyond the admonition to avoid accepting rides from strangers)?
French Films: When I was newly sixteen and working in a bookshop, a professor at our local college hit on me. The fact that he was in his late twenties and I had just gotten a driving learner’s permit did not raise a red flag (duhhh). I thought that I was so smart and alluring that the scenario made perfect sense. My best friend (she of the Herman-in-the-basement warning) tried again to open my eyes: why would a grown professional man ask a fairly young teenager on a date?
I’d given up my crush on her brother, so I paid no attention. The date happened (although I had enough premonition to make up some sort of alibi for my parents), and we went to a French film that was part of the summer movie series in my town. Rapture! Culture! In two months, when I finally would be in college in the East, this would be what I’d do every weekend. We spoke French to each other! And talked about Sartre! He served me wine!
And ended up in his house, on his couch, with him trying to rape me. I don’t know if this was child abuse legally, because I don’t know if my being sixteen and his being twenty-nine fit under a Wisconsin child abuse statute at the time. Whatever. I was a child, and he was an adult. I’m happy to report that I figured out a way to extricate myself from that situation with no serious damage to my virginity. It was harder to ‘explain’ to my parents why I returned home with my clothes torn. I was able to conceal the bruises.
Victimization: Re the Sandusky case, there’s been a whole lot of commentary about victimization. More, that ‘victims’ should be called ‘survivors’ and even heroes. And yet more, that the Sandusky verdict will empower people who’ve endured child abuse to speak out, to forgive themselves, and ‘heal and find closure.’
Although I certainly hope that Jerry Sandusky’s prey are helped by yesterday’s seemingly well-deserved verdict, and according to the evidence of his manipulative depravity, I’m pleased that he’ll probably die in prison, . . . I’m a bit concerned by the inchoate media embrace of ‘victimization.’ The reason I’ve here recounted my own, not very dramatic experiences with abuse is to question whether every ‘child abuse’ event results in everlasting harm and permanent victimhood status.
What happened (re me and my friends) with Herman the Janitor is consonant with many charges of which Sandusky was convicted. Frankly, neither I nor any other lap-sitting, slobber-kissing Herman candy recipient has been seriously harmed. If there’s psychic damage, it’s because we know that, even back then, we should have known better. We made a dumb bargain, and we have lived with it.
Similarly, the French Film guy’s fairly serious attempt at rape did not make me a victim. One: it didn’t work out for him because I was able to thwart it. Two: I really feel that I was complicit in putting myself in a position to be abused. I was not like Sandusky’s objects of affection – I had a stable home, I was a smart kid, I wasn’t more needy than any other sixteen-year-old. I made a moronic decision, one that I knew was unwise even when I made it. That doesn’t excuse the predatory professor (who, according to college magazines, died prematurely . . . how frigging sad . . . Je m’en fiche). But the event makes me (in my own mind, anyway) not a victim of much other than my lack of attention to my own wellbeing.
From what news coverage indicates, Sandusky’s ‘boys’ were much more vulnerable than I was.
Where vulnerability differences collapse – at least for me – is with my high school gym teachers. Remembering those three years of anxiety, fear, and shame makes me feel as if I understand Sandusky’s victims much more than I do if I try to connect my own experiences with a basement skeez and a ‘respectable’ predator with their experiences with Jerry Sandusky. The skeez and the predator did mess with my body, to some extent, but they didn’t mess with my spirit. Yet the gym teachers . . . they did effect how I think of myself, my body, my sexuality, my helplessness under authority. Even until this day. I – and hundreds (!) of other girls – are their victims.
Lots of useful things can come from the Sandusky case, and most have been robustly media-rehearsed. What I’d like to add to the mix, I guess, is that ‘abuse’ is not necessarily defined only in terms of physical penetration or touching. In some ways, overt gestures can be easier to deflect – or to endure – than systematic sexual humiliation, particularly when such humiliations/exploitations/abuses are undertaken under the aegis of a powerful institution.
For me, my church was not a very powerful institution; it was where my family went on Sunday mornings just because that’s what ‘Leave-It-To-Beaver’ families did in those days (I can certainly understand how young people steeped in other faith traditions could have felt profoundly different). Similarly, a single – albeit disastrous – date didn’t figure in any global concept of world and self. In contrast, my high school was the core of my being during my mid-teen years, the very years that I, and most of my friends, were trying to understand their sexuality, their agency, and their fast-approaching adulthood.
That’s why my high school gym teachers occupy the lowest circle of Deb’s child-abuse hell, such as it is (and it’s hardly much compared, unfortunately, to others’ experience) . . . and why, in my mind, they’re the despicable link between the relatively mild abusive occurrences of my childhood and the pitiable, detestable acts Jerry Sandusky afflicted upon the objects of his ‘affections.’