The trial of Jerry Sandusky is over, and he has been found guilty. The victims have told their haunting, painful, dramatic and heart-rending stories of abuse at Sandusky’s hands. One of Sandusky’s adopted sons is also claiming that he sexually abused him. We will probably hear more and more of the victims’ stories in the coming weeks.
As painful as the stories are to hear, it is crucial for the victims’ healing that they are finally able to tell their stories. There is, however, a vital part of the story that is missing, a part that we will probably never know: Jerry Sandusky’s real life story, the hidden story that explains what happened to this man who ended up doing these horrible and criminal things to his victims.
It is good that we are hearing the stories of the victims as they voice the pain, trauma, victimization, betrayal of trust and exploitation of vulnerability that they experienced. As a psychotherapist who has counseled hundreds of survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse, I know these stories well. I know, too, what courage it took these young men to speak out about what they endured. The road of healing ahead of them may be long and difficult, yet telling their story is one of the vital and most freeing parts of that process.
I have also counseled many dozens of perpetrators of abuse and listened to their stories and challenged them to take responsibility for what they did to their young victims. I have also helped them to reconstruct the path that eventually led them to abuse. From this experience I know how powerfully healing and liberating it is for them to own and tell their story as well.
But, I doubt very much that we will ever hear this part of Jerry Sandusky’s story. Actually, I’m not sure that we are interested or care. There seems to be a nearly universal lack of curiosity about Jerry Sandusky’s real backstory. No one asks how this seemingly good man and talented coach came to be this way. What brought him to do these awful acts to his victims, this man who founded the youth group called Second Mile in 1977—years before the abuse occurred—and with his wife, Dottie, adopted six children and fostered several others? We just assume that he is a monster and a predator and has always been so. Our desire for black and white answers, for clear-cut heroes and victims and evil villains leaves us satisfied with this judgment and we go no further.
My professional experience tells me that there is a tragic backstory to Jerry Sandusky’s case that we need to know—that we ought to want to know—before we pass judgment on this man. Jerry Sandusky is a serial predator of young boys. How did he get this way? Was he always this sort of man? Did something happen to him along the course of his life that caused him to develop this abusive behavior? Is he just plain evil, or is he sick? Did he consciously plan all of this, or was he driven by a sick and destructive compulsion? Was there ever any goodness in the man and his actions, or was it all a front for his predatory grooming of his victims?
Unless Sandusky honestly tells his story, we will never have the definitive answers to these compelling questions. However, the life histories of my perpetrator clients suggest some likely clues to his untold story and provide possible answers. Their stories do not usually come forth easily or readily. Like their own victims, they are blocked by their own shame about what they have done and fear about the consequences of telling their story honestly. They are often stuck in denial and rationalization in the early part of their treatment, and sometimes by arrogance and narcissism, which serve to mask extreme self-loathing. However, persistent, challenging but non-shaming listening often brings forth their story.
Most of the stories of the abusers I have treated are some variation of the following. It is likely that Sandusky’s story is similar. Not a single one of the perpetrator clients I have worked with set out consciously or purposely to become abusers of children or teens. Instead, the seeds of these behaviors grew over time within them, unknown to them, like a silent and hidden cancer that becomes evident only when it finally metastasizes into a full-blown and out-of-control disease. It then becomes a complex and addictive set of compulsions and behaviors that the disease itself makes very difficult to face and admit and impossible to control without outside help. It is like uncontrollable flesh-eating bacteria that overwhelm the person’s mental, moral and spiritual immune systems and take over its host body, mind and spirit. And the “flesh” that it eats is not only the bodies and psyche of the perpetrator’s young victims, but the mind and soul of the perpetrator himself.
The seeds of this cancer are usually planted in the perpetrator’s childhood. Although this is a complex disease with several pathways of development, most of my clients experienced some kind of significant and damaging trauma and abuse during their childhood. Quite often they themselves were victims of childhood sexual abuse. Sometimes, the trauma is physical or emotional abuse or some early abandonment or relational trauma from their parents or other trusted adult. I have had a few clients whose trauma was early exposure to graphic adult pornography.
Whatever the trauma, normal emotional and psychosexual development is arrested and distorted. Sexual desire and pleasure become connected with self-medication and self-soothing of emotional pain and, at the same time, with secrecy and shame. There are alternating attempts at control and periods of binging and loss of control. The object of desire becomes distorted and obsessive. All of these sexual problems are usually accompanied by an emotionally and relationally immature inner personality—some part of the perpetrator is still a needy, wounded child—often hidden beneath a surprisingly accomplished and seemingly competent outer adult personality.
Why Should We Care?
Some version of this tragic narrative is likely Jerry Sandusky’s story. However, without challenging and yet compassionate professional help, he will likely remain in his silence, secrecy, denial and self-delusion, and so we will never know for sure. But why should we care? Shouldn’t we just lock him up for life and write him off as the monster his monstrous behavior seems to show him to be?
There are a couple of reasons, I believe, to care about his real story. Sexual abuse of minors is one of the few illnesses in which we simply judge the carrier of the disease as bad, and do not probe further to look for causes and preventions for the disease. If we want to protect our children and stop the horrible damage to young lives that sexual abuse inflicts, part of our efforts ought to involve learning how to identify this disease, stop it, treat it and prevent it. To do this effectively, we have to become willing to listen with understanding and tough compassion to the stories of the perpetrators themselves.
The other reason to care is for our selves. One of the effects of abuse is to dehumanize all the parties involved. The abuser uses his victim as an object, without rights, feelings and needs of his own, to fulfill his sick and compulsive needs. In doing so the abuser dehumanizes himself as well. When we refuse to look past the abuser’s horrendous actions and see the suffering and wounded humanity underneath, we participate in the same process of dehumanization as the abuser. In simply judging Jerry Sandusky to be evil and not caring about what happened to this man, we diminish our own humanity and embitter our spirit. That is why I pray that Jerry Sandusky, for his sake, for his victims’ sake and for our own, will someday tell his full story, and that we will have ears, heart and soul to listen.