Horror Valley

Saturday, November 12th, 2011, 10:54 am

The summer after my sophomore year I stayed at Penn State to edit the summer sports section of The Daily Collegian. From May till early June there was an inter-session when the paper didn’t publish, and I lived at the Alexander Court apartments on Beaver Avenue and took a SpeechCom class. Campus was nearly deserted, as was my apartment building. I lived on the 7th floor, the top floor, near the stairwell. The elevator only worked half the time and when someone would exit the stairwell the door would SLAM shut with a terrifying bang, which was made much worse when it would happen at 3;30 in the morning.

My buddy Adam was going to live with me during the summer session but for about a month I was alone, and it was creepy living in an almost-empty apartment building by myself. The first few nights I lay in bed staring through the door into the short hallway, expecting some spectral figure from my nightmares to shimmer into view. The banging stairwell door didn’t help my nerves. After a couple of nights I started sleeping with the hallway light on.

There wasn’t much to fill my days. No one I knew was up there and I failed to summon the courage to ask out this one pretty girl from my class. I spent a lot of time at White Building, by myself, shooting hoops. I read a lot. And I would walk way up College Avenue to a video rental place near Wendy’s to pick up movies. And one night I rented Blue Velvet.

Watching David Lynch’s masterpiece of voyeurism and perversion by myself, at night, in an abandoned apartment building was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I spent the evening freaked out of my mind, the scene where Isabella Rossellini discovers Kyle MacLachlan hiding in her closet making me want to crawl under the couch. When it ended I looked around my still apartment and compared to the bleak cell Dorothy Vallens lived in. I needed to get out.

I took a long walk around the Penn State campus, to my mind the most idyllic spot on Earth. The stately buildings, the wide landscaped lawns, the gorgeous elms lining the Mall. If I’d been a little more perceptive I might’ve seen a parallel between the beauty of Penn State and the serene-on-the-surface settings of David Lynch’s films. Lumberton in Blue Velvet, or Twin Peaks, these archetypes of small-town America that harbor dark, disturbing secrets.

Of course I knew bad things happened at Penn State, you put 20,000 guys between the ages of 18-24 in such a small place and mayhem occasionally ensues. My freshman year someone was assaulting women walking through campus at night and when we’d work late at the Collegian the guys would walk the women back to their dorms. And having covered football for a year I didn’t look upon Joe Paterno as an infallible demigod–I saw that he could be irascible and dismissive and, well, human. But I was still a big, big, Nittany Lion fan, and every time I’ve returned to Happy Valley it’s been like going home, even if the campus has been so transformed in the 20 years since I graduated.

As I’ve watched the coverage of the allegations of sexual abuse leveled against Jerry Sandusky, and the apparent cover-up that followed, it feels more twisted and depraved than anything David Lynch would dare put on the screen. I’m still having a hard time believing these horrific crimes took place at my school. At Penn State. The school that did things the right way, led by a man who was called Saint Joe without any hint of irony. The crimes Sandusky is charged with are among the most monstrous human beings are capable of, they are acts that strip the humanity away from the most innocent and defenseless.

But there is evil in the world, you learn that lesson at a much-too-early age. The idea is when confronted with true evil, good people, and there are far more good people than bad, confront that evil. We construct our societies to├é┬árestrict and challenge the worst of our nature. And so the revelation that Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and Graham Spanier had information about Sandusky raping a child, and they did nothing about it, NOTHING, knocks reality off it’s moorings. I would bet that all those men are, at heart, good people. Decent, caring human beings. And that they did NOTHING once they learned what happened, that they did NOTHING to learn the identity of the child Sandusky raped, that they did NOTHING to ensure Sandusky didn’t continue abusing children, is impossible to understand.

That’s the question I keep hearing in my mind–“WHY???”. Why did they do NOTHING? The obvious answer, the one everyone keeps bringing up, is that they wanted to protect the football program. But on the surface, that doesn’t make sense. Sandusky was no longer part of the coaching staff. By going to the police, they would in fact be taking a decisive step toward protecting the football program, and by extension their own careers. The story would’ve been a very black eye for the football program, and for Penn State, but by not acting these men put their fates in the hand of a man who they had every reason to believe was a child molester. WHY???

I can understand McQueary stumbling upon Sandusky raping a child in the shower and fleeing the scene in horror. I can understand him talking to Paterno and the coach being unable to believe his friend and colleague was a monster. I can understand Curley, Schultz and Spanier hearing the reports and wanting to pause before taking action. I can understand these men needing a few days to process this horrible information before doing the right thing. But a few days went by, a few weeks, months, years, and they did NOTHING. No, they did something–Curley told Sandusky he wasn’t allowed to bring children on campus any longer. So they thought Sandusky might’ve done something horrible with that child, or that he was capable of doing something horrible. And all they did was say, “Don’t do it here”.

That is indefensible. As is the idea that McQueary and Paterno fulfilled their obligation by kicking the news upstairs. That is obscene. How could they see Sandusky walking around the football offices for YEARS and not say or do anything? It boggles the mind. As does the fact that it doesn’t seem anyone ever thought, “You know what, we really need to talk to a lawyer about this”. Didn’t it occur to, say, Spanier to bring in a University lawyer to lay out the allegations and ask what they should do? I can’t believe the lawyer would say, “Don’t ask questions. Don’t tell the cops. Just let it lie”.

Maybe Curley thought telling Sandusky he couldn’t bring kids on campus was a shot across the bow that was scare him straight. Forgetting that evil is sly and full of tricks and deceits. Maybe they thought this would all just go away, go away, and they could pretend that what McQueary saw that day in the shower was a one-time thing that had never happened before and would never happen again. Willfully ignoring how implausible that might be, and how that naive hope was an abdication of responsibility so shocking that it would destroy the reputation of the Univeristy nine years later.

The reputation of Penn State has indeed been destroyed, by men who did so much to build it in the first place. Paterno saw his legendary career ended not on his own terms, but by a Board of Trustees who felt they had no choice but to fire him if the University was to have any chance of saving its soul. Graham Spanier was a great university president–he’ll now be known as a man who let a child molester walk around free rather than risk embarrassing the school. Why. That’s always the question. Why.

The students, players, faculty, administrators and alumni of Penn State bear no responsibility for the crimes that were committed. Save for the fact that, to varying extents, we worshiped the false idol of college football. If Penn Staters aren’t responsible for these horrible crimes, we are all now responsible for trying to atone for them. If Penn State is to ever redeem itself, if the University is rebuild its reputation, it won’t be from the work of a handful of administrators and the new football coach. It’s up to everyone who ever has or ever will go to school there. It will take decades, generations, to clean the stain that Jerry Sandusky and those who ignored his crimes left behind.

Before football games they play the Penn State Alma Mater and it’s typical for students (and alumni) to say “We don’t know, the goddam words!” instead of the lines as written. I’m hoping that at today’s game, and every time the song is sung in the future, we actually sing those words. Especially the last stanza, which seems so poignant today and will continue to be in the future:

May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

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