Malcolm Gladwell Turns Jerry Sandusky Into A Parable By Leaving Out Some Facts

This week's New Yorker brings a new retelling of the Jerry Sandusky story, this one from pop-think guru Malcolm Gladwell. In his usual this-thing-explains-that-thing mode, Gladwell cites case histories of two other prominent pedophiles, using those stories to explain how Penn State failed to act on what appears, in hindsight, to have been obvious, ongoing child abuse.

Child molesters, Gladwell writes, are good at deceiving other adults:

The pedophile is often imagined as the dishevelled old man baldly offering candy to preschoolers. But the truth is that most of the time we have no clue what we are dealing with.

That's fine. Gladwell is right that Jerry Sandusky had a public persona that could fool anyone. He was a successful defensive coordinator, the man who made Penn State into Linebacker U. He was the trusted lieutenant of Joe Paterno, famous for his own rectitude. And Sandusky had founded a charity to help underprivileged youth. Why would anyone suspect he was a monster?

But Penn State officials were dealing with more than first impressions. And to try to fit the Sandusky case into his story of how regular people are manipulated by molesters, Gladwell leaves out a number of facts that indicated that Penn State officials seemed to understand what they were dealing with.

So Gladwell frequently refers to the case of Jeffrey Clay, a well-liked Canadian elementary school teacher who repeatedly made angry denials about his behavior while allegations about him continued to surface. Unlike Clay, though, Sandusky was the subject of more than rumors. [Correction: There was a police investigation of Clay, but the case fell apart in part because some of the boys interviewed by police denied he had touched them.] His actions were investigated by police and by the state Department of Public Welfare, back in 1998.

Here's Gladwell's account of Sandusky's visit with the mother of a boy he'd showered with—a conversation that happened while Penn State police detective Ronald Schreffler and another detective listened in from the next room:

Put yourself in the mind of the detective hiding in the house. Schreffler was there to gather evidence of sexual abuse. But there was no evidence of sexual abuse. Sandusky didn't rape the boy in the shower. That was something that might come only after several weeks, if not months. He gave the boy an exploratory bear hug. Now he was back at the boy's home. But he didn't seem like an aggressive predator. He was carefully soliciting the mother's opinion and apologizing, with all his considerable charm. "I wish I were dead," he says to the mother. Is that an admission of guilt? Or is Sandusky saying how mortified he is that he—savior of young boys—could possibly have alienated a child and his mother? Sandusky had been caught in the subtle, early maneuvers of victim selection, and what Schreffler witnessed was Sandusky aborting his pursuit of the boy, not pressing forward. Sandusky had looked for vulnerability and hadn't found it.

This account of Schreffler's conflicted and uncertain thought processes sounds good. But Schreffler himself was sure that what he had heard was enough evidence to bring charges. He said so in December, and he said it again in June. The decision not to press charges wasn't made by the detective but by the district attorney (who has been missing since 2005).

Gladwell moves on to discuss the psychological evaluation of Alycia Chambers, a psychologist who had been working with that same boy. The mother, as Gladwell notes, asked Chambers if she was overreacting by bringing her concerns about Sandusky to Chambers's attention. And the boy didn't want to get Sandusky in "trouble" because the boy was enjoying the access he was getting to the Penn State football program through Sandusky. To which Gladwell adds:

Chambers wrote a report on the case and gave it to the University Police Department and Child and Youth Services. She thought that Sandusky's behavior met the definition of a "likely pedophile's pattern of building trust and gradual introduction of physical touch, within a context of a ‘loving,' ‘special' relationship." But Jerry Lauro, the caseworker assigned to the incident by the Department of Public Welfare in Harrisburg, disagreed. He thought that the incident fell into a "gray" area concerning "boundary issues." The boy was then evaluated by a counsellor named John Seasock, who concluded, "There seems to be no incident which could be termed as sexual abuse, nor did there appear to be any sequential pattern of logic and behavior which is usually consistent with adults who have difficulty with sexual abuse of children." Seasock didn't think Sandusky was grooming. Someone, he concluded, should talk to Sandusky about how to "stay out of such gray area situations in the future."

Of all those involved in the investigation, only one person—the psychologist Alycia Chambers—recognized Sandusky's actions for what they were. Here was someone with the full authority and expertise of psychological training, who identified a prominent man with virtually unlimited access to vulnerable children as a "likely pedophile." But what more could she do? She had told the police. Patient confidentiality constrained her from going to the media, and her responsibility to her client made her wary of turning him into a public victim. Then, there was the fact that two other trained professionals had seen the same evidence she had, and reached the opposite conclusion.

Again, Gladwell overstates how unavoidable the uncertainty was. Lauro, the DPW investigator, later said PSU police never shared Chambers's evaluation with him, and that if they had, Lauro "would have made a different decision."

Gladwell then demonstrates how Joe Paterno and Penn State administrators might have been duped. He writes:

Penn State officials had been apprised of the investigation from the beginning. After the meeting between Lauro, Schreffler, and Sandusky, Gary Schultz, Penn State's senior vice-president for business and finance, e-mailed Graham Spanier, the university's president, and Tim Curley, the school's athletic director, and told them that the investigators were dropping the whole matter. Sandusky, Schultz wrote, "was a little emotional and expressed concern as to how this might have adversely affected the child."

The implication here is that PSU officials were aware of nothing more than an investigation, which had led to no charges. Yet three years later, when those officials were confronted with then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary's eyewitness report of Sandusky and another boy in a shower, Schultz's handwritten notes from the time show that he "reviewed the 1998 history," while an email reveals that he asked the PSU police chief about the report from the '98 incident—a report that included Chambers's and Seasock's psychological evaluations, plus Lauro's assessment. And as Gladwell mentioned earlier, even Seasock's evaluation, the less damaging one, had recommended that Sandusky be advised to "stay out of such gray area situations in the future."

Instead, Sandusky ended up in the showers with another boy—witnessed this time by McQueary. Gladwell narrates how McQueary's eyewitness account worked its way up the chain of command at Penn State after McQueary talked to Joe Paterno, who then talked to athletic director Tim Curley:

Curley met with McQueary and Paterno. Then he and Gary Schultz, the university's vice-president for business and finance, went to the Penn State president, Graham Spanier. Here is the Freeh report again:

Spanier said that the men gave him a "heads up" that a member of the Athletic Department staff had reported to Paterno that Sandusky was in an athletic locker room facility showering with one of his Second Mile youth after a workout. Sandusky and the youth, according to Spanier, were "horsing around" or "engaged in horseplay." Spanier said that the staff member "was not sure what he saw because it was around a corner and indirect." . . . Spanier said he asked two questions: (i) "Are you sure that it was described to you as horsing around?" and (ii) "Are you sure that that is all that was reported?" According to Spanier, both Schultz and Curley said "yes" to both questions. Spanier said that the men agreed that they were "uncomfortable" with such a situation, that it was inappropriate, and that they did not want it to happen again.

Horsing around in the shower? That was Jerry being Jerry. It did not occur to them that the goofy, horseplaying Sandusky they thought they knew was another of Sandusky's deceptions.

Didn't it occur to them? According to the words of these men themselves, they knew they were discussing something more than goofy horseplay. McQueary has testified repeatedly that he conveyed to Paterno, Curley, and Schultz that what he saw was "sexual." Paterno told the grand jury McQueary had informed him of "fondling" and something of "a sexual nature."

As for Curley, he twice told the grand jury he had no knowledge of the 1998 incident, when the emails in the Freeh report demonstrate that he did. And in the fateful email exchange in which Penn State officials decided not to report Sandusky to child welfare authorities in 2001, they acknowledged that Sandusky had "a problem" and that they felt he needed "professional help." Professional help for what? For Jerry being Jerry—because, despite Gladwell's version of events, Penn State knew what Jerry was.

[The New Yorker]