Penn State, Abuse Victims, and the Power of Narrative

The scandal at Penn State (accusations of sexual predation by a coach, and alleged failures by many coaches and officials to report this abuse to the police) is an important reminder of the power of narratives. The way in which we frame events, and the stories we tell ourselves about them, determine how we feel, think, and act. Typically we think we are viewing the world objectively—“seeing it like it is”–without appreciating how much we are interpreting and spinning what we are seeing. That is why it can be so jarring to find out that our interpretation was wrong.

For many Penn State students and alumni, Joe Paterno was a godlike figure, a paragon of integrity and an icon of all that should be admired about college athletics. Then, overnight, that narrative crumbled, when Joe Paterno was fired for his alleged complicity in the scandal. Michael Weinreb, a sportswriter in New York, is a Penn State alum who grew up in State College. He was interviewed recently by a reporter from the radio show This American Life, to get his perspective on the scandal. What is striking is his sense of disbelief, an inability to abandon one narrative in favor of a very different one. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. It just doesn’t compute. . . it just goes against everything that you thought you understood, you know? . . . . I keep waking up every morning thinking that this is. . . that it’s a dream . . . it still doesn’t seem real.”

But obviously the people whose narratives we should be most concerned about are those of the victims. What does a 10-year-old think when a beloved mentor insists on having sex with him in a shower? It is easy to imagine that the world shifts on its axis for the victims and that he, too, wakes up every morning thinking (or wishing) that it was just a dream.

But things might be a little more complicated here. We shouldn’t assume that all children react in the same way or that we know how they will interpret abuse. Children have a different understanding of sex than adults, and research shows that at the time the abuse occurs, some children experience confusion more than an axis-changing view of who they are or their own sexuality—at least at first. Susan Clancy, in her book The Trauma Myth, acknowledges that sexual abuse has damaging, long-term effects on the victims. But she has a different view than many experts of how this happens. She interviewed more than 200 adults who were victims of child abuse, and found that “very few victims reported any fear, shock, force, or violence at the time the abuse occurred.” One reason for this is that most child abusers are not strangers who kidnap a child and forcibly rape him or her. Rather, 90% of child abusers are trusted family members or friends who establish loving relationships with victims. When this loving relationship becomes sexual, many children don’t know that they are being abused or believe that something horrible is happening—in large part because of the manipulative cleverness of their abusers, who have fostered a loving, trusting relationship with their victims. One of Clancy’s participants, for example, reported that when she was nine, an adult male family member induced her to have sexual contact several times, such as performing fellatio on him and penetrating her with his fingers. But, she reported, she did not find this particularly traumatic at the time: “I did not understand what sex was,” she said. “I did not understand what he was asking me to do. I did not know why he would want me to do that . . . I did not know anything, at all, about sexual matters. I supposed I had led a sheltered life. He said it was normal and I chose to believe him.”

Another one of Clancy’s participants reported that when he was at Bible camp as a young boy, a counselor accompanied him to the bathroom and explained that when boys urinate they often don’t clean themselves thoroughly, and that the best hygiene is for another person to clean the penis by taking it into his mouth. Several times that summer, the counselor “cleaned” the boy’s penis, and insisted that the boy clean his. As absurd as this sounds to us, it was a narrative that made sense to a nine-year-old boy; after all, it was a trusted, beloved counselor said that’s the way it was, so that’s the way it must be. When asked how he felt during these episodes, the victim reported that he wasn’t at all scared or traumatized. “Confused is a better word,” he said. This isn’t to say that victims find the abuse to be normal. Most knew that there was something wrong about it, often because their abuser told them not to tell anyone what they were doing. The point is that for most of the victims, the abuse was not horrible or traumatic at the time it occurred. Children have quite malleable narratives about sex, and a clever, predatory adult can shape them to his or her advantage.

As you might imagine, Clancy’s work triggered a firestorm of criticism. A legitimate concern is how representative her sample was. They were people who answered newspaper ads seeking research participants who had been abused, and the people who answered those ads might not be at all representative of all victims of child abuse. But some of the criticism was unfair, such as the accusation that she was minimizing the traumatic effects of abuse. Clancy agrees that child sexual abuse is a terrible thing with serious long-term negative consequences for many victims. Indeed, most of the victims she studied exhibited a host of psychological problems, and other studies confirm that children who were sexually abused are more likely than others to have psychological problems in adulthood. Further, no one denies that some children do experience abuse as traumatic at the time it occurs, especially when it involves violence. Nonetheless, many abuse victims seem to fit the pattern Clancy describes.

Thus the question is not whether child sexual abuse damages its victims, but rather how it does so. We have to square the fact that fact that for some victims, the abuse doesn’t seem very traumatic at the time it is happening with the fact that it can cause long-term psychological problems. Clancy’s claim is that the trouble comes later, when kids figure out what had happened to them and their narrative changes. Prior to this point, many victims believed that the perpetrator was a loving man or woman who had their best interests at heart. Now they realize that they were betrayed by a twisted person whose main goal was personal gratification. Good people are suddenly bad people, and that’s quite a narrative shift, especially when the perpetrator was your father, or a beloved uncle, or a famous coach at Penn State University. As one of Clancy’s victims put it, “My whole relationship, my memory, my past really shifted, from just ‘those things he did at night’ to complete betrayal. It was heartbreaking, really . . . I couldn’t stop crying. I was stupid enough to think he cared about me; I thought he was wonderful, a good person.”

In other words, for many victims, the world shifts on its axis not when the abuse occurs—because of the clever manipulation on the part of their abuser—but later, when they are old enough to figure out what happened to them. And, it is this later sense of betrayal, the belief that the world is not the safe, loving place that they thought it was, and that loving people can’t be trusted, that is so devastating. This is especially the case because of the natural tendency for many victims to blame themselves. Because abusers are so clever at making the child feel like a loving and willing partner, it is only natural for victims to later think they were somehow complicit in the abuse. “I was thinking that I had something to do with it; maybe it was my fault,” said one of Clancy’s participants. “I have been in therapy for this for a long time and I is still difficult for me to come to terms with what happened and to accept that it is not my fault,” said another. “I am filled with self-loathing that I allowed it, that I was pathetic enough to think that was love,” said a third.

In other words, many victims settle on the corrosive narrative that the abuse was their fault or that they somehow encouraged it. One reason for this is that they view their past through the lens of their current understanding of abuse and sexuality. “How could I have believed that lame story about hygiene and urination?” they probably think, forgetting how naïve and confused they were at the time. This self-blame fuels the shame and humiliation they feel, which leads them to hide the fact that they were abused, which makes them less likely to seek help (or accuse their abuser).

When Susan Clancy asked her participants what would make them feel better, one of the most common responses were, “I would like to know that this happened to other people” and, “I would like to know that it was not my fault.” If anything good has come of the Penn State scandal, it may be that the publicity has helped victims revise their narratives in this way. According to one report, the phones at sex abuse hotlines have been ringing off the hook since the Penn State story hit the news (and the scandal at Syracuse University that followed). Many of the callers are males reporting that were abused by an older man, who now, it seems, feel more comfortable coming forward, perhaps blaming themselves less than they did before.

Let us hope that they are coming to realize they were the victims of clever predators, that the abuse was not their fault, and that it does not define who they are. After all, of all the narratives that need changing from this scandal, it is the victim’s we should be concerned about the most.

Note: The quotes from Clancy’s book The Trauma Myth (2009, Basic Books) are from pages 22, 29, 34, 124, 129, 132-133, 136, and 145

(Originally posted on PsychologyToday.com)

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