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Malcolm Gladwell's Penn State Rabbit Hole Isn't Very Deep

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Malcolm Gladwell emailed me last Thursday, in response to a blog post I had written about his recent appearance on Bill Simmons’s podcast, in which he dusted off a tired defense of Joe Paterno’s role in the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal. He offered to send me a copy of his new book, which he said might “modify [my] position on Paterno’s culpability” in regards to the former Penn State coach’s inaction upon being informed in 2001 that Sandusky was seen sexually abusing a boy in the football team’s showers. “Btw not sure how far you have gone down this particular rabbit hole,” Gladwell wrote in a later message. “But I’ll warn you. It’s a SERIOUS rabbit hole! Be careful or you’ll never re-emerge. :-).”

Gladwell’s chapter on Sandusky and Penn State is titled “The Boy In The Shower,” and it has two aims. The first is to poke holes in the established narrative of Sandusky’s crimes and conviction, and the second is to demonstrate how a suddenly complicated version of the story evinces the strength of Gladwell’s favorite new theory of social psychology.

We’ll start with the hole-poking, which attempts to follow Gladwell’s lucrative tradition of wised-up contrarianism, but mostly just succeeds in being gross and embarrassing. Gladwell starts off by detailing the shifting and ambiguous nature of two early allegations against Sandusky—something that is not at all uncommon in cases involving the sexual assault of minors—before taking on former Penn State quarterback and graduate assistant Mike McQueary, whose account of seeing Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the shower eventually led to Sandusky’s exposure as a pedophile and the downfall of the Penn State administration.

Gladwell spends a good chunk of the chapter essentially smearing McQueary. He wonders why, if McQueary really did see Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower, he didn’t rush in to stop it. He wonders why the two people McQueary confided in that night, his father and a family friend, didn’t feel compelled to alert the authorities themselves. He wonders why McQueary remembers the campus as being deserted on the night he says he witnessed the assault (Feb. 9, 2001), even though there was a hockey game and a Barenaked Ladies concert on campus that night. On this last point, Gladwell cites the work of John Ziegler, who, according to Gladwell, convincingly argues that the only night that matches up with McQueary’s memory is Dec. 29, 2000. Taking this as a fact presents Gladwell with another useful question: If McQueary really saw what he thought he did, why did he wait until Feb. 10, 2001 to tell Joe Paterno about it?


Given that sourcing is an oft-criticized component of Gladwell’s work, it’s worth pausing here to note exactly what kind of source Ziegler is. To put it bluntly: Ziegler is a braying crackpot who has spent the last eight years trying to prove, through means ranging from the incomprehensible to the immoral, that Sandusky is in fact completely innocent of all the crimes he was convicted of having committed. After Gladwell first emailed me, I asked him if he was familiar with Ziegler’s body of work, and why he found him to be a credible source of information and insight. “I cite Ziegler on one point only: when exactly McQueary met with Paterno,” wrote Gladwell. “I found his argument on that matter very interesting. I make it plain in a footnote how I feel about Ziegler’s broader body of work.” In the notes section of the book, Gladwell has this to say about Ziegler:

I’m not convinced of Ziegler’s ultimate conclusion—that Sandusky is innocent. But I do agree with him that the case is much more ambiguous and unusual than the conventional press accounts suggest.

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Once Gladwell finishes with McQueary, he spins the chapter out into a discussion of the Larry Nassar abuse scandal, which he then uses to batter the Sandusky case. He describes the case against Nassar as “open-and-shut,” and then proceeds to marvel at how, despite the many reports of abuse that had been made against Nassar, so many people in his orbit, including some of those he had abused and their parents, failed to recognize Nassar for the monster that he is. He brings up Trinea Gonczar, a gymnast who was digitally penetrated by Nassar many times but still stood by the doctor even after the Indianapolis Star revealed the extent of his crimes. Gladwell compares her actions to that of Brett Swisher Houtz, who testified that Sandusky had put his penis in his mouth at least 40 times. Gladwell points out that, despite all the years of abuse, Houtz remained friends with Sandusky well into adulthood. Then he writes:

This is a much more perplexing example than Trinea Gonczar in the Nassar case. Gonczar never denied that something happened in her sessions with Nassar. She chose to interpret his actions as benign—for entirely understandable reasons—up until the point when she listened to the testimony of her fellow gymnasts at Nassar’s trial. Sandusky, by contrast, wasn’t practicing some ambiguous medical procedure. He is supposed to have engaged in repeated acts of sexual violence. And his alleged victims didn’t misinterpret what he was doing to them. They acted as if nothing had ever happened. They didn’t confide in their friends. They didn’t write anguished accounts in their journals. They dropped by, years later, to show off their babies to the man who raped them. They invited their rapist to their weddings. One victim showered with Sandusky and called himself the “luckiest boy in the world.” Another boy emerged with a story, after months of prodding by a therapist, that couldn’t convince a grand jury.

Sexual-abuse cases are complicated, wrapped in layers of shame and denial and clouded memories, and few high-profile cases were as complicated as Jerry Sandusky’s. Now think about what that complication means for those who must make sense of all that swirling contradiction. There were always doubts about Sandusky. But how do you get enough doubts when the victims are happily eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with their abuser?

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This is the point at which I wanted to hurl the book across the room. You should have to be a lot dumber than Malcolm Gladwell is to argue, in a widely published book, that one sexual assault victim’s method of compartmentalizing the horrors they endured is somehow more valid and less suspicious than another’s.

From there, Gladwell pivots into his big, climactic point: If the Sandusky case is in fact so complicated and hard to parse—particularly in comparison to the “open-and-shut” Nassar case—then how can we blame Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and Graham Spanier for their decade of inaction upon being made aware of what McQueary saw in 2001?

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What’s worse than asking this question is Gladwell’s reason for doing so. Yes, he wants to muddy up the Sandusky case for the sake of absolving Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier. I don’t get the sense that he has taken on this mission based on any deeply held belief that those three men did nothing wrong, though. He’s doing all this because demonstrating how they did nothing wrong is a means by which to demonstrate how clever Malcolm Gladwell is.

Here’s where, at long last, we get to the latest Gladwellian buzzword, the likes of which he has built a career on. What Gladwell is interested in is dazzling the reader with another example of the “Truth-Default Theory,” which was created by psychologist Tim Levine. It was born out of an experiment Levine ran in which people were shown brief interviews in which college students were either lying or telling the truth about cheating on a test. Levine’s subjects could only spot the liars about half the time, and so the theory’s basic premise is that human beings generally operate under the assumption that the people we are interacting with are being honest. If you hit yourself on the head a few times and then re-read that last sentence over and over again, it might eventually become as profound as Gladwell seems to think it is.

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Gladwell wants it known that Paterno and the other Penn State administrators can’t possibly be held morally responsible for never bringing McQueary’s story to the police because, as Levine’s theory demonstrates, they were simply acting like any rational human being would have. They were defaulting to the truth that Sandusky was a good and trustworthy guy rather than a potential pedophile:

But Graham Spanier is not Harry Markoplos. He opted for the likeliest explanation—that Sandusky was who he claimed to be. Does he regret not asking one more follow-up question, not asking around? Of course he does. But defaulting to truth is not a crime. It is a fundamental human tendency. Spanier behaved no differently from the Mountain Climber and Scott Carmichael and Nat Simons and Trinea Gonczar and virtually every one of the parents of the gymnasts treated by Larry Nassar. Weren’t those parents in the room when Nassar was abusing their children? Hadn’t their children said something wasn’t right? Why did they send their child back to Nassar, again and again? Yet in the Nassar case no one has ever suggested that the parents of the gymnasts belong in jail for failing to protect their offspring from a predator. We accept the fact that being a parent requires a fundamental level of trust in the community of people around your child.

If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.

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These paragraphs are the point at which the reader really has to strain credulity in order for Gladwell’s arguments to continue making sense. He’s asking us to believe that there is some meaningful connection to be drawn between Levine’s far-off experiment and Penn State administrators failing to understand both the gravity of what they had been told and the responsibilities that came with their positions of power. He’s asking us to believe that there is no difference between a parent’s inaction in the face of disturbing accusations and similar inaction from the powerful figureheads of the very institution that sheltered and empowered a predator. (And does he think the parents of the victims don’t hold themselves morally responsible for what their inaction let happen?) He’s asking us to believe that all human interaction can be better understood through a complete stripping of context, that all instances of a person having to decide what’s true and what isn’t are as simple and straightforward as watching someone answer a few questions and deciding “true” or “false.”

There’s no need to even try to follow Gladwell this far on his journey, though. All the hokum about defaulting to truth only turns into anything substantive if you already believe that the Sandusky case is in fact extraordinarily messy and complicated, and that Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier were presented with a single, hazy description of something that may or may not have been sexual assault by a potentially untrustworthy source.

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To get to this point you have to forget, as Gladwell seems to, that Paterno, Schultz, and Curley all knew about a 1998 incident in which Sandusky was investigated after being reported to the police for showering with and touching a young boy in the Penn State showers. You have to forget that Paterno denied knowing about this incident during his 2011 grand jury testimony. You have to forget that in a 2014 court testimony, a man testified that he was abused by Sandusky in 1976, and that he immediately told Paterno about the incident. You have to forget that, according to Paterno’s own grand jury testimony, there was nothing all that hazy or confusing about what McQueary told him 2001:

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These are the sort of facts that Penn State truthers like Ziegler have been willfully ignoring for almost a decade, but Gladwell’s willingness to dip his toes into these waters is much more professionally embarrassing than anything Ziegler has ever done. For as unsound as Ziegler is, he at least has the courage to follow his wild ideas about the Penn State case to their logical conclusion that Jerry Sandusky is innocent.

Gladwell isn’t willing to go that far (he’s got books to sell), so instead he adopts a pose of “just asking questions” for the sake of using the Penn State case to prove the profundity of his latest pet social theory. Gladwell’s after nothing more than his own gratification here, and the fact that he’s willing to use two infamous sexual assault cases as rhetorical springboards tells you all you need to know about how shallow his well of ideas has gotten.

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After reading this section of Gladwell’s book, I was left with the impression of a writer furiously and desperately working backwards. It seems to me that Levine’s “Truth-Default Theory” captured Gladwell’s imagination, which sent him combing through recent history to find the sort of culturally important moments to which the theory could be applied in a way that would grab readers’ attention. The Penn State scandal! That was a big deal, right? Let’s take it for a spin!

By the time Gladwell is finished mashing together bug-eyed theorizing with abstract social psychology, the reader isn’t left with any real insight into or new understanding of the Penn State case. There’s no entrance to a rabbit hole to be found here, just a man begging us to continue watching him furiously scratch at the hard surface, promising that something profound is just beneath.

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