Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Writing at Slate, Katie Roiphe, herself a victim of statutory rape, takes as her point of departure the question of whether the New York Times was wrong to interview Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach who stands accused of numerous instances of sexual abuse of boys and adolescent men. Roiphe doesn't really address the question on ethical or political grounds, but she does demonstrate that, in her words, "the interview is valuable and certainly news."
Specifically, the interview shows just how far a sustained habit of evasion can shape someone, psychologically, even to the point of helping someone get away with horrible crimes for quite a long time.
At one point in the interview, he says, "In my mind, there wasn't inappropriate behavior." And one gets the sense that on some crazy level that may well have been true: In his mind, he may not have been abusing little boys. This is striking because if there is any story that the rest of the world sees in black and white, it is this one. There does not seem to be any moral ambiguity, any subtle shading toward gray, and yet to the child molester himself he may have done nothing wrong. Father Bruce Ritter, for instance, founded Covenant House in the '70s to shelter runaways and homeless kids, whom he claimed to be rescuing from a life of prostitution. Over a dozen of these kids later accused him of sexual improprieties. Sandusky may also believe that he was helping the boys from his organization, the Second Mile -- that he was devoting his energy to save them.Be that as it may, even the psychological self-destruction caused by this astounding degree of evasion doesn't exempt someone like this from culpability. Assuming guilt, if Sandusky were unaware that what he did was considered a crime, he wouldn't have felt the need to conceal his actions. Conversely, Sandusky could have abstained from such acts entirely and attempted to make the case, as incorrect as that would be, that the law should be changed. (In the process of the latter, he might have discovered why, on a moral level, it is as wrong to have sex with minors as it is with non-consenting adults.)
Likewise Sandusky says: "They've taken everything that I ever did and twisted it to say that my motives were sexual or whatever." He may, in truth, not believe that his motives were sexual; he may believe, like many pedophiles, that the physical relation flowed naturally or organically from the situation, from his fatherly affection for these boys. He says that the physical part of the relationships "just happened that way," as if he were not the active, dominant, responsible adult; his syntax itself transforming him into a passive participant, into someone just going along with things. It's fascinating to watch in action this trick of the mind, this way the mind makes a man bearable to himself.
If the pedophile actually believes that he is exceptional, that the sexual act he is engaged in is not a violation, that the ordinary world cannot understand the purity and exquisiteness of his motives, this does not make him less terrible or disturbing. (It may, in fact, make him more terrible and disturbing.) It does, however, explain a little how these men are not caught, or caught sooner, and how they create around themselves so effective and convincing an aura of innocence and good intentions. The best liars, of course, believe their own lies.
The self-inflicted psychological problems of someone this evasive notwithstanding, men have free will: That is, they have the choice to face reality or not, and since there are no contradictions in reality, that choice is always there, on some level. The very fact that a serial child molester covers up what he does demonstrates that he knows, and always has, the following, at bare minimum: It is illegal to have sex with people under the legal age of consent. That fact alone raises a whole host of issues that such a person must actively choose to ignore. A warped psychology may make it easier to do so, and to get away with the crimes, but it doesn't excuse the crimes or the evasion at all.