“What Do I Think? I Have No Idea”:
Jerry Sandusky and the Gladwell Effect
The essay that follows was rejected or ignored by many online editors. As one of them stated, the name Sandusky is still “radioactive.” Don your biohazard suit, then, before entering these pages. But if you find the argument convincing, please tell others. A herd mentality sent an innocent man to prison. If there is any hope for his release, there will have to be a counter-contagion of independent thinking.
I can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (Little, Brown), consists of two related propositions. First, we humans are naturally disposed to trust others, and we find it hard to credit evidence that our trust was wrongly invested. But obversely, everything said or done by a “stranger” — someone we’ve already decided to mistrust — will be interpreted as consistent with that person’s bad intentions. The stranger (but for clarity’s sake let us rather say the alien) will further alienate us even by actions we would otherwise regard as admirable.
As an example of the first pattern, Gladwell cites the failure of Graham Spanier, then president of Pennsylvania State University, to notify the police in 2001 upon allegedly being told that a retired assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been seen sodomizing a child in the shower room of a campus sports facility. For that offense Spanier was dismissed by Penn State’s trustees and indicted, tried, and convicted of child endangerment. (The conviction was recently vacated, but a possible retrial looms.) Gladwell finds it easy to forgive Spanier, for Sandusky had been admired, even revered, for charitable works. In Spanier’s shoes, Gladwell is certain, you and I would have made the same mistake.
Needless to say, the guilt or innocence of Graham Spanier is not a topic of burning interest to the general readers who anticipated publication of Talking to Strangers. Even Gladwell surely regards it as peripheral. But for whatever reason or reasons, he won’t directly address the matter of Sandusky’s own criminality or lack of it. Nor, however, can he leave it entirely alone. Willy-nilly, he has placed in public view crucial revelations, previously known only to a small number of doubters, that cast the Sandusky issue in a novel light. And Gladwell himself must be counted among the commentators whose earlier pronouncements about Sandusky are now thrown into radical question.
Many of us will recall Jerry Sandusky as America’s number one villain of the period that began with the leaking of grand jury testimony against him in 2011. Only Michigan State’s sports physician Larry Nassar has subsequently become more despised. Nassar, however, appears at first sight to have been a dilettante in comparison with the Happy Valley rapist, who was convicted on forty-five counts of child molestation in 2012 and is assumed to have gotten away with hundreds of similar crimes. No wonder Penn State’s mortified trustees, even before Sandusky’s trial, peremptorily fired the officials who were thought to have covered up his only witnessed assault: not just President Spanier but also the athletic director, Tim Curley; a vice president, Gary Schultz; and the iconic football coach, eighty-four-year-old Joe Paterno, soon to die in disgrace.
That such a gorgon as Sandusky eluded arrest throughout the thirty years of his Penn State employment and beyond, even proceeding with his assaults after having been caught in the act in 2001, almost defies belief. Indeed, much else about his conduct has been perplexing. Unlike other pedophiles, Sandusky was anything but furtive when interacting with children whom he sponsored in his “Second Mile” foundation for troubled youth (established 1977, dissolved 2016). Out in public he hugged those boys, squeezed their knees, and kissed their foreheads, as if it had never occurred to him how suspiciously such signs of affection might be perceived. He also differed from the profile of a homosexual abuser in having no pornography on his computer; in suffering from low testosterone rather than the opposite; in never having impressed anyone as gay; in showing little interest in sex of any kind; in deploring delinquency and obscenity; and, still today when he inhabits a prison, in retaining the loyalty of his devoutly Methodist wife Dottie, who had joined him in welcoming innumerable fatherless boys into the family home as their private recreation center.
Perhaps the strangest feature of the case was Sandusky’s evidently cheerful, gregarious, practical-joking nature. None other than Malcolm Gladwell emphasized this oddity in 2012, shortly after the trial had ended. (See “In Plain View,” The New Yorker, September 17, 2012.) At that time Gladwell already realized that the malefactor Sandusky, in order to rape with impunity, would have needed to be diabolically clever, crafting and maintaining a fake personality for his entire adulthood and (between molestations) never letting his guard down even once. Without hesitation, the Gladwell of 2012 portrayed just such an infinitely guileful monster. “Here was a man,” he wrote, “who built a sophisticated, multimillion dollar, fully integrated grooming operation, outsourcing to child-care professionals the task of locating vulnerable children — all the while playing the role of lovable goofball.”
In Talking to Strangers Gladwell makes no reference to this early interpretation. Clearly, however, it has dawned on him that nothing in Sandusky’s observed temperament or intelligence suggests that he would have been capable of such fine-grained thespianism. By now Gladwell has contemplated, but refrained from assessing or even clearly formulating, a rival hypothesis: Sandusky was just who he claimed to be, and he never sexually abused anyone. The resultant rhetorical tease is what I call the Gladwell effect: undermining the consensual view of his protagonist while backing off from conclusions.
Gladwell’s revised perspective on the Penn State imbroglio has been guided by two investigators who believe that Sandusky was railroaded into prison without any justification. One of them, John Ziegler, is a conservative filmmaker, radio host, and podcaster whose interest in the case arose from a nagging question. Why would the famously righteous Joe Paterno have been motivated to cover up a homosexual rape by a former assistant coach, no longer a university employee, whom he didn’t even like? It made no sense. Initially, Ziegler sought only to rehabilitate Paterno’s tarnished honor. He gradually became convinced, though, that the entire case, including the many other stories about Sandusky’s sexual marauding, must be a house of cards.
Gladwell thanks Ziegler for his assistance but is at pains to declare himself agnostic toward Ziegler’s position. He throws up his hands and pronounces the whole Sandusky matter to be simply “weird.” The weirdness, however, is an effect not of the narrated events but of Gladwell’s own reluctance to choose between the received wisdom about Sandusky and the version toward which he now finds himself attracted.
It is fascinating, in this connection, to follow a recent hour-long conversation between Gladwell and Ziegler. (Search for “Ziegler Gladwell interview SoundCloud 9/8/2019.”) Gladwell repeatedly waffles about Sandusky’s alleged crimes, declaring only that the whole business is “murky.” He tells Ziegler that he still disagrees with him on important points — a claim he also makes in his book. But when prodded to name a single disputed item, he can’t produce one.
Gladwell also acknowledges having drawn heavily from the science writer Mark Pendergrast’s neglected but scrupulous and comprehensive assessment of the evidence, The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment (Sunbury, 2017). Here again, however, he wants to make use of an author’s findings while dissociating himself from their significance. An open-minded reader of Pendergrast might infer that Sandusky was guilty of nothing graver than carelessness about appearances; but Gladwell fends off that inference. Noting, uneasily, that The Most Hated Man in America comes with the endorsement of America’s two most distinguished experts on false memory, Elizabeth Loftus and Richard Leo, he anticipates our next question. “What do I think?” he asks; and he replies, “I have no idea.”
The Sandusky chapter of Talking to Strangers is titled, almost inevitably, “The Boy in the Shower.” Although Sandusky was convicted on the testimony of eight other men who had been preteens or young adolescents at the time, the emotional heart of the case against him was the act of sodomy that had supposedly been glimpsed in 2001, eleven years before. Because the grown-up shower victim himself wasn’t called to testify, Sandusky’s conviction excluded that charge. In another sense, however, the judicially sustained accusations were all enabled by that unsustained one. Until the story of the 2001 rape was broadcast in 2011, suspicions that Sandusky was a pedophile had gone nowhere. But afterwards, prosecuting attorneys, police, social workers, journalists, and therapists played up the shower incident, helping to convince other veterans of the Second Mile that they, too, must have been among Sandusky’s prey.
A grand jury was told in 2011 that Sandusky, ten years earlier, had been seen locked into a sexual position behind a naked boy in a shower room within a campus sports facility. Four Penn State firings and three prosecutions ensued in 2011 because university officials hadn’t passed the shocking news along to civil authorities. Through that neglect, Spanier and the others were deemed to have facilitated all of Sandusky’s later abuses. Now, however, Gladwell has learned, and he informs his readers, that the 2011 grand jury testimony was false. Neither Spanier nor Curley nor Schultz nor Paterno had ever been informed about a witnessed rape.
The man who had been alarmed by the shower incident, Mike McQueary, was then a husky, 6’5”, twenty-seven-year-old former quarterback who could easily have overpowered Sandusky, thirty years his senior, in order to stop the despicable assault of a child. But McQueary hadn’t known what he was witnessing. From outside his locker room he had heard a few “rhythmic, slapping” sounds, emanating from an adjoining shower room. Then, upon reaching his locker, he had looked obliquely into a mirror that allowed him a momentary sight of a boy being yanked backward by a man’s arm. To McQueary’s mind, those fragmentary percepts implied homosexual violence. But he couldn’t be sure, and his later sight of the clothed Sandusky and the boy calmly exiting the facility together was hardly indicative of a crime.
Instead of overtaking the pair, McQueary had once again held back. As Gladwell relates, however, he was sufficiently troubled to phone home and, later that night, to meet with his father and his father’s employer, Jonathan Dranov, for a long consultation. Neither McQueary père nor Dranov, after persistent interrogation of McQueary fils, believed that the latter had happened upon a rape. His impressions had been fleeting and ambiguous. Furthermore, it was well known that Sandusky, an “overgrown kid” himself, openly played roughhousing water games with boys he mentored. Now, it seemed probable, he had merely been doing the same thing in private.
Although McQueary, a decade later, initially misdated the shower incident by a full year, he and the Sandusky prosecution team eventually placed it on February 9, 2001. Since it was certain that McQueary had reported his misgivings to Joe Paterno on February 10, the February 9 dating underwrote McQueary’s claim that he had gone straight to Paterno on the following morning. But Gladwell is now convinced, on solid if circumstantial grounds, that the events in question actually occurred on December 29, 2000, or forty-one days before McQueary bothered to mention them to Paterno. If so, that is a sign that McQueary’s rape interpretation hadn’t survived the very first discussion of it.
When Joe Paterno finally heard McQueary’s tale, he, too, was convinced that no crime had occurred. With due caution, though, he passed the story along to his athletic director, Curley, who notified Vice President Schultz, who in turn consulted Spanier. The three administrators weighed the evidence and found it insufficient to warrant involving the police. But they also regarded the rambunctious Sandusky as a nuisance who could trigger a public relations disaster for the university. Accordingly, Spanier forbade him to bring any more Second Mile boys onto the campus.
If Gladwell’s recounting had halted at this point, it would already have sufficed to establish his main factual contention in the Sandusky matter: Graham Spanier conducted himself plausibly and correctly. But Gladwell’s broader thesis wasn’t getting illustrated. He meant to show that when a trusted person — in this instance Sandusky — deviates from ethical conduct, those who trust him will be reluctant to believe the worst. But he actually discloses that in 2001 there were excellent objective grounds for regarding Sandusky as blameless.
With respect to the shower incident, Gladwell relays but hastens past the following explosive truths. Once Sandusky, in 2011, began being excoriated as a rampaging pedophile, a twenty-four-year-old ex-Marine named Allan Myers stepped forward to champion him. Myers’s first act of conscience was to tell the Pennsylvania State Police that as a boy he had often showered with Sandusky after workouts and that no sexual advance had ever occurred. Two months later, having realized that he himself had been the boy in the shower, Myers proffered a sworn statement to Sandusky’s attorney. Sandusky, he averred, had consistently behaved as a father to him, and even now they remained warm friends. As for the night at issue,
I would usually work out one or two days a week, but this particular night is very clear in my mind. We were in the shower and Jerry and I were slapping towels at each other to sting each other. I would slap the walls and slide on the shower floor, which I am sure you could have heard from the wooden locker area. While we were engaged in fun as I have described, I heard the sound of a wooden locker door close. . . . I never saw who closed the locker. The grand jury report says that Coach McQueary said he observed Jerry and I engaged in sexual activity. That is not the truth and McQueary is not telling the truth. Nothing occurred that night in the shower.
Myers’s narrative coincided with the one independently provided by Sandusky. So there you have it: the terrible deed whose disclosure turned Penn State and all of Pennsylvania upside down never happened. But Gladwell, instead of admitting as much, immediately reports that soon thereafter, Myers “signed up with a lawyer” and recanted; now he had been among Sandusky’s molestees after all. Although Myers’s subsequent behavior, as Gladwell describes it, showed every sign of bad faith, the reader waits in vain for any acknowledgment that Myers’s first account of Sandusky’s conduct must have been the accurate one.
People who find Gladwell’s revelations provocative but lacking a coherent overview can satisfy their curiosity, if they so desire, by turning to Pendergrast’s The Most Hated Man in America. There they will find that the Sandusky matter, though more complicated than I can indicate here, is not the ineffable mystery propounded by Gladwell. Rather, each development in the saga is comprehensible not only in its own terms but also as a precondition for what happened next.
The course of mistakes and misdeeds, Pendergrast shows, was shaped by a perfect storm of factors, beginning with public alarm over earlier abuse scandals. There followed a prurient misconstruction of Sandusky’s hands-on but sexually oblivious approach to male bonding; several failed attempts to build abuse cases against him; and still more frustration as prosecutors, unwilling to admit their error, sought out hundreds of former Second Milers only to meet with disappointment. What the dragnet chiefly collected was a great many tributes to Sandusky’s benevolence.
Those encomiums tended to show that the suspected pedophile Sandusky had ignored thousands of opportunities to molest children. Instead of reflecting on the import of that fact, however, Sandusky’s antagonists then enlisted and manipulated Mike McQueary in order to concoct the prototype crime. McQueary protested to the senior deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania that she was twisting his story; she persuaded him to keep mum about it. (That was a felony: suborning a witness.) The fictitious horror in the shower was then made the centerpiece of a relentless press campaign against Sandusky. The journalist Sara Ganim produced an award-winning series of articles bearing such prejudicial titles as “Former Coach Jerry Sandusky Used Charity to Molest Kids.” Months before the trial, which the ingenuous Sandusky wanted to be held in the town where he was best known and loved, its outcome was a foregone conclusion.
“I grant you all this,” some readers will say, “but what about the eight accusers who swore that Sandusky had molested them on multiple occasions? Their testimony, after all, is what put him in prison, and no amount of horseplay in the shower can gainsay it.”
Agreed. But that testimony would have looked unbelievable without the poison cloud of revulsion that enveloped it. Not one of Sandusky’s accusers, to begin with, had ever told anyone about misconduct on his part. More tellingly, most of them had remained on cordial terms with him, and some had even volunteered expressions of gratitude for his help in steering them away from trouble. They could hardly have said that about their serial rapist. And even after alleging subjection to brutal assaults, no former Second Miler could bring himself to claim that Sandusky’s many exhortations to clean living had been hypocritical. It was as if, absurdly, the young men needed to charge him with awful crimes but persisted even now in remembering him as their kindly protector.
The testimony that sealed Sandusky’s fate had been carefully shaped by attorneys who wished to remove anomalies and contradictions from their clients’ initial reports. Courtroom embarrassment was further minimized by having each young man concisely assent to propositions that would be read aloud to him. Even so, jurors who hadn’t already made up their minds (but there weren’t any!) would have been taken aback by stark implausibilities among the charges.
One accuser, Aaron Fisher, affirmed the claim that Sandusky had forced oral copulation on him more than twenty-five times. Another, Brett Houtz, attested to over forty violent assaults, occurring two or three times weekly. A third, Sabastian Paden, was supposedly molested in Sandusky’s home about 150 times. On one occasion Sandusky was said to have locked Paden in the basement for three days, starving him and raping him anally and orally while Dottie Sandusky, one floor above, ignored his screams. But all of those contentions were ludicrous on their face. What could have motivated rape victims to keep rejoining their tormentor and undergoing more of the same?
Even the most gullible jurors, one might think, would have wanted to know why several hostile witnesses had at first denied that Sandusky had done anything improper with them. Shouldn’t the timely denials, proffered without external pressure, count more heavily than later avowals scripted for judicial victory? To this objection, however, the prosecutors and their witnesses had a ready answer. The boys, it was said, had repressed their memories of abuse, and just recently they had retrieved those same memories.
It is this aspect of the case that drew the interest of the psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and Richard Leo, who understand that the theory of repression lacks any scientific credit. To them, belated “recollections” such as Sabastian Paden’s tale of a three-day sadistic kidnapping bore every mark of the dreamlike pseudomemories typically conjured by patients of recovered memory therapists. Paden may simply have been lying, of course. But the authorities who targeted Sandusky were indeed working in tandem with memory enhancers. One of them subjected his patient, Aaron Fisher, to months of daily brainwashing until Fisher more or less “recalled,” or pretended to recall, scenes of violation. “It wasn’t until I was fifteen and started seeing [therapist] Mike [Gillum],” wrote Fisher, “that I realized the horror.”
Other memories were refreshed as it became apparent that any new claims against Sandusky were likely to be believed. “I tried to block this out of my brain for years,” one turncoat declared. Another reflected, “That doorway that I had closed has since been reopening more.” A third stated, ”I have spent, you know, so many years burying this in the back of my head forever.” And after Sandusky was remanded to prison, Pennsylvania’s attorney general at the time, Linda Kelly, congratulated the ex-Second Milers for having dredged their damning scenes from the unconscious. “It was incredibly difficult,” she pronounced, “for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.”
The one major question that remains is what induced beneficiaries of Sandusky’s kindness to betray him so cruelly. Ziegler and Pendergrast know the answer — but so does Gladwell. “According to Ziegler’s reporting,” he remarks in the middle of a long endnote, where it will escape most readers’ attention, “at least some of Sandusky’s victims are not credible. They appear to have been attracted by the large cash settlements that Penn State was offering and the relatively lax criteria the university used for deciding who would get paid.”
“Some of Sandusky’s victims”? No, all of them. In a paroxysm of needless remorse, the Penn State trustees had broadcast the availability of a vast compensation fund that would eventually approach $140 million. An incentive was thus created for any young man who had once been helped by Sandusky, and even for some who had never met him, to spin a preposterous yarn and become an overnight multi-millionaire. And that is exactly what happened — for example, with the lawyered-up shower boy, Allan Myers. At last count, some thirty-five applicants, feigning PTSD at Sandusky’s hands, had availed themselves of Penn State’s princely largesse.
Ironically, the hounding of Jerry Sandusky could have perfectly illustrated the second half of Gladwell’s argument: once someone has been demonized, his whole record will be held against him. Sandusky had titled his autobiography Touched — surely a mark of pedophilia. What devilish impudence he had shown, furthermore, in publishing photographs of himself surrounded by happy eleven-year-olds! All of his assistance to at-risk children, such as adopting six of them (of both sexes) and raising them to be studious, self-disciplined, and drug free, was now reconfigured as grooming.
That was essentially Malcolm Gladwell’s position in 2012. Today, he is to be complimented for having come far toward a full reversal. Never mind that he isn’t ready to state the inference that lurks between the lines of his chapter. Readers of best sellers who would never attend to Ziegler or Pendergrast now have in their hands enough information to suspect that the main victim of the Sandusky drama has been Sandusky himself, a martyr to the resurgent wave of puritanism that has grown ever stronger in the years since his conviction.