It’s not about football. And it’s not about scandal. It’s about children who were sexually assaulted. Despite the fact that these children “told,” nothing was done to stop what was happening to them.
The fact that the perpetrator in the Penn State case was a football coach and that one of the people who protected him was an even more highly-esteemed football coach has led to all sorts of speculation about whether the sport is somehow at fault.
It’s probably un-American to dislike football, but I despise the sound of football games on television. Despite my lack of affection for the sport, I feel compelled to defend it. As I said, this case is not about football.
The truth is that even if the perpetrator had been an unknown man with little or no power in his community, people still might not have acted on the information that he sexually assaulted a child. People will protect a perpetrator for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with that person’s fame or standing in the community. The needs of the child are rarely considered.
People say that victims should speak out, but I wonder if any of those who advise doing this have ever tried it. Kids can tell, but unless somebody responds with action, the child might be better off keeping quiet.
I know—because it happened to me. I was that child. I told, but things did not get better.
I told my mother about the assaults after a particularly frightening episode in which my assailant held me down in the woods, pulled off my clothes and molested me. It was not the only time he’d touched my private parts, but it was the first time I realized that he was not trying to make me feel good.
I was thirteen. The man who assaulted me was my father.
That day in the woods stands out in my mind not only for the level of fear I felt, but because of the epiphany it brought. The truth hit me between the eyes like a hand smacking me on the forehead: this had been going on for years, and I had been a willing participant.
I remember crawling onto the couch next to him as he watched football on TV. I was small, maybe around nine years old, maybe younger. My mother was somewhere, but I have no idea where—perhaps she was right there, dozing in the rocking chair. Perhaps she saw what he did and deliberately chose to not pay attention to what was happening to her little girl.
As we sat, the roar of a game blaring from the television set, his hand would gradually make its way under my nightgown and into my underpants. He would probe and fiddle with my genitals and I remember wondering what he was trying to find—it always felt to me like he was looking for something there. I sometimes got bored or tried to pull away, but I think I also liked the way it felt.
When he grabbed me in the woods that day when I was thirteen and held me down, I suddenly realized my part in it. I had liked it to some extent. I wasn’t sure if I’d sought it out, but I hadn’t struggled very hard to make him stop. The feeling that hit me between the eyes was guilt, pure and simple—I had asked for it, just like my mother would say, later.
That day in the woods was different. Whatever he was up to this time, I didn’t want it. I squirmed and flailed around, trying to free myself from his grip. He was a lot bigger and stronger than I was. I began to panic. I don’t remember screaming or making any noise. I also don’t remember how it all ended. My memory stops mid-event, and still, forty-four years later, I do not know how I got away or even the full extent of what happened.
I’ve asked him, but he only admits to the parts I remember. He has never denied that he did it, but he’s also never tried to help me fill in the missing details in my memory. He continues to maintain that it didn’t hurt me, and I should let it go and quit talking about it.
After I told my mother what he was doing, she promised to “talk to him,” but the assaults continued. I went back to her, begging her to make him stop. She said, “He told me that he stopped. Are you sure he’s still doing it? Besides, you’re sitting too close to him on the couch. You’re too old to do that now.”
It was my fault. That’s what she said, but that’s also what I thought. I believed I had caused this to happen, so I had no right to complain about it now.
Apparently, I planned to run away. She said she stopped me as I was leaving the house—I don’t know why she wanted me to stay there, since he continued to molest me. He eventually stopped touching me, or perhaps I learned to stay out of situations where he would have the opportunity to do that.
The pattern changed. When I got a little older, he started exposing himself to me. I would be standing in the kitchen at the stove or the sink and would glance down the hall to where his bedroom door was wide open. He would be standing there, stark naked, full frontal, looking at me.
I was sixteen.
That year I met a boy at school. We began to date and, soon, were “going steady.” Kissing led to light petting led to heavy petting, but I never wanted to go much further than that. I said I was afraid of getting pregnant, but the truth was I didn’t want to feel the things his touches were making me feel. I see now that I was already learning how to shut down my sexual response, to avoid ever getting into another frightening situation like the one in the woods.
I knew something was wrong, though, and I talked to my mother again. She encouraged me to go to the minister of our church, Rev. Martin. I suppose that he was the closest thing to a “therapist” one might encounter in 1973.
I stayed after church one day and asked to see him. He said he would give me a ride home and I could talk to him while we drove. I told him what had happened and when we got to my house, he parked the car, shut off the engine and said, “I have to think about this a little more.”
Then, he asked me specific questions about the abuse. He wanted to know if my father had “just” touched me, or had he raped me or tried to rape me. I said I had no recollection of any rape or attempted rape. Rev. Martin’s response was, “Okay, I guess it wasn’t technically incest, then.”
I was dismissed. The relationship with my boyfriend did not improve. I graduated and left for college. I never intended to return.
Rev. Martin died soon after I left home. I have no idea if he ever reported anything to the authorities. If he didn’t, I don’t know why, since clearly what I had told him about was a crime, whatever it was called.
The laws were different in 1973. Perhaps Rev. Martin broke no laws by not reporting what I had told him. Or, maybe he did report it, and lacking any physical evidence, nothing was done. I have no idea, since nobody ever talked to me about it after that.
My parents acted like it had never happened. I tried to put it out of my mind and focused my attention on school and my own life. I never doubted that the abuse had occurred, but I wanted to believe that I had not been hurt by it. I wanted to prove, to myself and to the world, that I was okay—that I was better than okay.
I met a man who shared my interests in science and encouraged me in my studies. I graduated with a degree in Chemistry and, with his encouragement, went off to graduate school. We got married and, soon, had two kids. I got my PhD and, then, a job. I had a life. And, from the outside, I looked better than okay.
I never forgot what had happened with my father, but I began to believe that it had not affected me, despite the fact that sex was difficult. I often ended up in tears and when asked why I was crying, I never had an answer. I never had orgasms, a fact that left me feeling greatly ashamed, as if I was deeply defective. I didn’t see either of these things, nor the fact that I’d been suicidal more than once, as related to my history of abuse.
I had almost convinced myself that I’d emerged from childhood undamaged until a book saved me. Its title, “The Courage to Heal,” and subtitle, “A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse,” made me simultaneously want the book but fear buying it in front of anybody I knew. A few days later, I went to the bookstore alone and sandwiched it, upside down, in a stack of other books, hoping to hide the title from the cashier.
That book finally got me to see that I had, in fact, been hurt by what happened. I suffered from obvious sexual dysfunction, but I also had lots of trouble trusting people and I had been depressed for years. I started therapy, joined an incest survivor’s group and began to get the help I needed. I was told that it was important to talk about what had happened, so I practiced doing that with my therapist and support group, then moved on to my family and friends.
People who counsel survivors of child sexual abuse seem to think that talking about it will solve everything, but the truth is it creates more problems. My news was never welcomed. I was told that what I was saying was going to “kill” my grandmother, although it turned out that she lived to be 99 years old, and died for reasons that had nothing to do with what I said about her son.
I told my sisters early on, since both of them had young daughters. I told other relatives, thinking that everybody who might potentially bring young children into contact with him should know. I continue to do that, but my news is never welcomed. I felt alone before I told. I felt even more alone afterward.
More than forty years after the events that launched my own sad story, I watched the situation at Penn State unfold. Child molesters still attack children and the people who surround them continue to do nothing to stop it. The kids talked, but nobody listened.
I still hate the sound of football games on television. But, like I said, it’s not about the football.