Notre Dame law professor Mark McKenna writes a powerful essay about how the Penn State scandal forced him to confront his own sexual abuse at the hands of a coach. He talks about it publicly for the first time in this stunning piece. Excerpts:
I cried uncontrollably at least three separate times last week. This is part of what makes abuse so wretched—it strips you of control, not only of your body in those moments of abuse, but of your mind long after. Sometimes emotions just sneak up on you. And even when you know difficult conversations are going to arise and you try to steel yourself, sometimes there’s nothing you can do. The emotions come, and you can’t make them go away. Then you hate yourself for feeling so weak and exposed. You are sure everyone is looking at you, and you know that no one would look at you the same way if they knew your story. They’d see you as damaged goods. Or they’d pity you. It’s hard to know which is worse.
But as the story has remained in the headlines and the uncomfortable conversations have continued, I haven’t been able to shake an overwhelming feeling that I failed Sandusky’s victims and, by extension, far too many other boys. Abuse thrives on silence. In some cases, as the Penn State situation makes clear, the silence of third parties gives perpetrators license. But victims’ silence also plays a huge role. This is true in the immediate aftermath of the abuse, where victims’ inability to speak out puts them (and others) at further risk. It’s also true much more generally. Several of my friends, for example, were shocked when Rick Reilly reported that, according to a 1998 study on child sexual abuse by Boston University Medical School, one in six boys in America will be abused by age 16. For girls, it’s one in four by the age of 14. They were shocked, no doubt, because concrete examples of abuse are not as available to them as the statistics suggest. Most people don’t think they know any abuse victims.
But they do know victims. They just don’t realize it, because so many of us have been unable to reveal ourselves. This breeds a false sense of security, with too many adults believing abuse is someone else’s problem.
Please read the whole thing. It’s amazing — and it’s convicting. McKenna says one reason child sexual abuse continues to happen is the veil of silence around it. He said abusers create such overwhelming shame in their victims that living with that inner torment seems better to them than to speak to another about what happened. Reading this, I recalled an old friend telling me earlier this year about sexual abuse my friend suffered at the age of five or six. Suddenly, so much about my friend’s lifetime of emotional difficulty and pain made sense. Most stunning of all to me, here was someone who has been close to me for many years, and who knows how strongly I feel about child sexual abuse because of my writing, and who therefore knew I was someone “safe” to talk to about this … and yet who only this year felt able to speak the words about this person’s own experience. I don’t think anybody in my friend’s own family knows about this (the abuser was not a family member, I’m told, but a family friend, now dead). And when my friend “came out” to me, I observed the body language — the cringing, the cowering, the overwhelming presence of shame. It was a shattering moment of testimony to the power of evil, to the spell this kind of evil casts on its victims. I told my friend that it wasn’t my friend’s fault. This my friend knows — but it’s one thing to know something in one’s mind, and quite another to know it in one’s bones.
McKenna, the professor, goes on to say that one reason he’s speaking out about his abuse is to counter the myth that abusers are “monsters” that we can see coming. We can’t. He writes:
Predators do not look like monsters; they look like your neighborhood basketball coach or the guy running a children’s charity. They look like people you know, because they are. This is so important for parents to realize: If you allow yourself to think of these predators as “monsters,” you will convince yourself that they are rare, and you will not be as vigilant as you need to be.
He also says that this scandal is not fundamentally about Penn State or college athletics. It’s about hierarchy and human nature, about:
… a universal human tendency to look out for oneself, and to preserve hierarchical institutions about which one cares and upon which one is dependent. It’s also a reflection of the nearly boundless capacity to ignore inconvenient facts and to make excuses for those within our own circle. Think about the Catholic Church. Predators flourished in parishes for years, not simply (and probably not even primarily) because higher-ups worried about financial exposure. They flourished because many otherwise good people could not bring themselves to believe or to act upon information that their priest was a rapist.
It sounds like he is saying that we are all Mike McQueary. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation in which I would act as he did. But so many, many otherwise good people have done exactly that. It cannot be true that you or I could never be Mike McQueary. The thought it hateful to me, but I don’t think it can be avoided.
Anyway, thank you, Mark McKenna, for your courage.