Thursday, November 10, 2011

PENN STATE, 2011, AND WHITMAN MIDDLE SCHOOL, 1994: This is a long post, one my colleagues at ALOTT5MA HQ will recognize as falling in the category of "Ahem I Have Something To Say 'Bout Something." If you're looking for the Isaac Spaceman that is trying to make you laugh, you might want to skip it, because this one is about Penn State.

When I was in high school, my friends were mostly kids that had gone to a different middle school than I did. Their middle school, Whitman, was in a better neighborhood than my school was (or, for that matter, than my neighborhood), and it was more fully integrated in the community around it. A large group of Whitman boys, mostly wealthy or upper-middle-class kids, took annual canoeing and camping trips to the cabin of a teacher, Neal Summers – "Buddha" to his favored students – every year, and often they would keep going even after graduating from Whitman.

When my friends started getting their drivers’ licenses, we sometimes would go out to Buddha's house just north of Seattle. He had a pool table and a hot tub. If Summers wasn't there (and sometimes we went specifically because we knew he was out of town), we’d fire up the hot tub and make ourselves at home. If Summers was there, sometimes he would give us cans of Rainier Beer; other times he would just go about his business as if we weren’t there. A few times, there already would be other kids there, usually ex-Whitman students from a rival high school. Once, we showed up and Summers and a bunch of kids that seemed younger than us were watching a video of a stallion mounting a mare. Summers thought it was hilarious and kept rewinding it. If we were in the hot tub, sometimes Summers would join us, a middle-aged white Buddha in fogged-up glasses and a speedo.

Summers never really cottoned to me. He was close with a couple of my friends who had gone to Whitman, but as many times as I had been to his house, I’m not sure that he ever learned my name or the name of the other kid we hung around with who was not one of Summers’s former students. I went to his house to hang out with my friends, to play pool, and to get a free beer from time to time, but I was not in the Buddha inner circle.

Several years later, when I was in my early 20s, Summers was shot and killed walking through the entrance to Whitman. The guy who shot him, Darrell Cloud, was my age. I didn't know Cloud, though I knew of him – he was a Whitman classmate of my friends, he played for a while on a rival football team with some other friends of mine, and then he moved out of Seattle and quarterbacked a suburban team to the state title. I may have met him at Summers's house or at Dick's Drive-In, the burger joint where kids from his school and mine would mingle (or occasionally fight). Cloud shot Summers because Summers had abused him for years – Summers began raping Cloud when Cloud was a high school freshman. The abuse never stopped. When Cloud couldn't take it any more, he parked his truck in the Whitman lot and waited for Summers with a high-powered rifle. After killing Summers, he asked some of his Whitman friends to hide the rifle; his friends, seeing the news that Summers had been shot, were the ones who, in anguish, told the police to interview Cloud. Cloud ultimately served something like 15 years in prison – from what I can tell with Google, he got out a few years ago.

When I saw on the news that Summers was shot – and before I knew who shot him and why – my first thought was, "of course." I knew Buddha as a middle-aged confirmed bachelor who took groups of boys on camping trips, had unusually close relationships with former students, frequently gave beer to minors, had late night impromptu hot tub parties with the same minors, and showed children at his house videos of horses having sex. There is no logical reason why I should not have connected the dots and marched into the Whitman office – at 16 years old or later, whenever I remembered those times – and said "this man should not be teaching children." But I didn't.

And I began to wonder about my high school friends who went on all of the Buddha trips, the ones who brought me to Summers's house – the bright nerd who turned dissolute; the earnest one who later developed severe psychological problems; the preppie kid who barely graduated, had a deeply destructive relationship with his girlfriend (one of my oldest friends), and later spent time in jail after a bar fight. These are the kinds of things that happen to countless kids in and after high school, and they weren’t evidence of anything. But Summers raped Darrell Cloud, and I suspect that Cloud wasn’t his only victim, and that made me and makes me wonder about the friends who seemed to have lost their way by the time Summers was killed.

I was a kid, not an adult, when I saw Summers’s creepy behavior, and what I saw was inappropriate, troubling, and sometimes criminal, but nowhere near the level of what McQueary saw – a rape in progress. By the time I was sophisticated enough to bear some moral responsibility, the events had long receded into distant memory. I wasn't the head of a football program that had ties to the rapist, and I wasn't an executive in an institution whose mission is the education and advancement of young people. I like to think that my responsibility was not as concrete or as urgent as that of the people involved in this Penn State fiasco. I think that Paterno, Curley, Schmidt, and Spanier have given Penn State no choice but to fire them, because the university cannot be seen as supporting or condoning their inaction in any way. But I would be lying to you, and to myself, if I said that I don't understand the impulse not to say anything or do anything. If there is any way to rationalize the behavior, to call the evidence inconclusive, or, failing that, to make it somebody else's responsibility, there is a powerful human instinct to do that. I like to think that if I saw someone raping a child, I would intervene and then go to the police, without regard to any possible consequences to me. But it's easy to say that. Until it happens – never, I hope – I won't know, and neither will you. McQueary, a former Big 10 quarterback, was distraught at what he saw, even a day later. The janitor who caught Sandusky in an earlier rape broke down and cried, and he was a Vietnam veteran. They both were paralyzed in horror, didn’t stop the rapes, and ultimately didn't do the right thing, or enough of the right thing.

I'm not trying to defend anybody in this scandal, and if it isn't clear enough, I think that every one of them had to be fired (and if they haven't already been fired, they should be). They failed as human beings in a way that had agonizing consequences for others. And I know that my initial reaction was that they are all criminals. But now, having thought a lot about it, I think that failing as a human being is not the same thing as being a bad human being. There is enough room for Paterno to have been wrong for not doing anything in 2002 (or maybe 1998) and also to have been honest when he said, in hindsight, that that is the greatest regret in his long and eventful life. And maybe that's just me rationalizing my own behavior, because when I think about Jerry Sandusky and his victims, I can't help but also think about Neal Summers and his victims -- Darrell Cloud and maybe others -- and what could and should have been done for them.


  1. Chris H5:56 PM

    Thanks for share a difficult perspective and a part of yourself.

  2. Agreed. I know how hard this was for Isaac to write (and decide to publish), and I'm shaken from reading it.  The Seattle Times appears to have archived many of its articles about the case, which are equally chilling.

  3. Maret6:38 PM

    Yes, thank you Isaac. This is a well-written and thoughtful post and I appreciate you sharing something so personal. I agree with your perspective and am grateful for your candor.

  4. MidwestAndrew7:17 PM

    Well said, Isaac. I think this probably sums up my reaction, too. I was talking about it with my wife yesterday, and I feel like it's easy for people to parachute in and say "Fire them all!" I do think it was the right decision for Penn State to let them go. I wish, in some ways, that Paterno had the ability to finish out the season, largely for all the good will he had done for so many people over the years, completely unrelated to football. But the more I think about it, I realize that wishing Paterno could have finished the year is childlike thinking, in a way. I feel it's childlike (in an innocent, but wrong way) to say that JoePa did things right all these decades and that one terrible, horrific incident should not cause him to leave without dignity. I think it's the correct decision to recognize that a failure of this magnitude and depth can outweigh that, so I accept and agree with Penn State's decision to clean house.

    But I do agree with Isaac's last two paragraphs that there's a very human reaction that has largely been ignored in the could/should/did sweepstakes that have unfolded. And that human reaction is: "What would I have done in this circumstance?" I'm not sure I wouldn't have, like McQueary and Paterno, just reported it to my bosses and hoped they took care of it while being inwardly troubled about it. I find it childlike in a way to say "This is what I would have done and what everyone should have done!" You'd be right about what should have been done (which is why the PSU Board was correct in their moves). But I think it's more complete to admit that may not be what we, the average citizen in the same shoes, would do.

    So in short, Isaac, the perspective you wrote has been sorely missing. And I'm glad you said it. Incredibly powerful.

  5. Dan Suitor7:19 PM

    I don't think I've read a more thoughtful, measured piece of thought since the Sandusky scandal broke. Thank you, very much so, for opening up and trying to help people contextualize all of this.

  6. isaac_spaceman7:34 PM

    To be clear, no, I wasn't an abusee.  I drank some beer, but that's something I did whether or not Summers gave it to me, and for the record, I do not regret drinking beer as a minor.  As for the video, I wasn't watching.  I was there when other people were watching, basically passing through on my way to the pool table.  But I  also don't think I get a pass just because I was young.  It's relevant but it's not dispositive. 

  7. Stevie8:48 PM

    Well said, Isaac.

  8. Jenn C9:02 PM

    Isaac, thank you for sharing this story and for your very thoughtful perspective.  

    This blog and the community behind and around it are just so incredibly awesome. 

  9. isaac_spaceman9:19 PM

    Hey, everybody, just so you know, I think of what I do here as writing, not sharing.  Everybody who knows me knows that sharing is just not something I do.  I'm Japanese on one side and Lutheran on the other.  So thanking me for sharing kind of creeps me out a little.  My problem, not yours, but still. 

  10. isaac_spaceman9:31 PM

    Also, calling me an abusee trivializes what real abusees went through. 

  11. Hannah Lee9:54 PM

    Isaac, thanks so much for your well written description of what you went through.

    I do disagree with you on one point, and agree with Aimee.   You were impacted by the abuse.  Even if that man never physically touched you.  His actions exposed you to an environment where your peers were harmed.  And that changed them in ways that changed you.  Maybe not as tragically as those he criminally abused, but still in some way.

    Something similar happened where I was raised.  Without the tragic murder, but the abuser is now dead nonetheless.  I witnessed several of my peers change dramatically during junior high:  outgoing enthusiastic boys becoming withdrawn and forlorn, kids who followed every rule suddenly acting out, teens tottering on the brink of adulthood hemming and hawing and finally getting up the guts to ask girls out but suddenly after a weekend away at the abuser's beach house, pulling back from social contact, teens who never quite found themselves and struggled into adulthood - some came forward and identified themselves as being abused by the abuser (a priest in this case, the leader of our church's "young adult group", how convenient for him) others remained in the shadows, harmed by him but never speaking out (out of fear, or shame or confusion.... who knows why - but they were children and victims, so I don't fault any of them)

    Sadly, similar stories probably can be gathered from many towns, many schools, many churches.  Some more horrible than others, obviously.  Many have begun to see the light of day, allowing the criminals to be charged, and the abused to seek counseling, aid, retribution.  But I always think:   the direct victims never can be truly counted, because there's still so much shame in being a victim in a sexual assault.  And  even if  all the "offical" victims have been counted, there are probably others who have been touched by the abuse in other ways:  by the loss of a friend who suddenly changed and withdrew into their own sad world, by the often unconscious sense of unease, that's something's wrong which floated by an undercurrent in the abusers' gatherings of pre-teens and teens, and by the neglect of attention that the abuser applies to those who were never physically touched by them. (the lucky ones who weren't targeted, but felt the sting of being left out from being the "in crowd" in the abuser's domain.  For example, the girls in my church group, including me, often felt like something was wrong with us, like we were 2nd class citizens, because Fr. ___ only paid attention to the boys, and never invited any of us on trips to his beach house. )  Because these men who focused their attention and efforts on how they would find, identify and isolate and abuse their next victims  were probably not giving full attention to teaching, or inspiring or ministering to the youths in their care, and left a void where a coach's disipline, a teacher's encouragement or a church leader's guidance, or the healthy attention of an interested adult could have made a world of difference.

    Don't get me wrong - in no way do I think that everyone in the abuser's environment was victimized to the same tragic extent as those who were physically violated.  But I don't believe that those who suffered sexual assault were the abusers' only victims.

  12. I'm in awe of Isaac (though for a different reason than usual)--this story demonstrates both the horrors of abuse and why people may not report it--they don't want to believe what they've seen or heard and are scared to report it.  People being willing to tell stories like this one (I hope) makes it easier for victims and witnesses to come forward in the future, rather than remain in their own personal darkness.

  13. I completely agree with Hannah - t<span>hose who suffered sexual assault were not the abusers' only victims.</span>

    I've made reference earlier that I deal with this in my job.   Inappropriate relationship with minors is a common issue that I have to address - it's amazing the relationships that parents overlook.  I am weary of trying to explain this, but I know that I have to be the adult.  And that's ok.

  14. Isaac spaceman10:39 PM

    I really just can't agree, and I feel like if I know I'm not a victim, then I'm not.

  15. Hannah Lee12:20 AM

    Isaac, I'm relieved for you, then.  And that doesn't change my appreciation for the way you told your story.

    Sorry if I overstepped and assumed you were a victim in some way when you were not.  I've seen others in similar situations been effected by abuse in their midst, but it seems you were lucky.

    As someone who has had abusers in my midst, and had friends fall by the wayside as a result, and who has seen the cult of football silence people (even if it was on the high school level, though locally as powerful as Penn State) I guess I just wanted to open things up.  Both to say, to those who had been physically, sexually abused that "it's not your fault" and "it's OK to talk about it"**.   And also to say to those who weren't personally physically abused, but who had abusers in their midst, it's OK to talk about that, too, to recognize the damage those abusers did, even if they never touched you physically.

     and who has been personally close to "the cult of school football" the situation at Penn State makes me incredibly sad, but sadly is completely unsurprising. 

  16. Isaac, thank you for writing this. I don't follow football at all and had never heard of Joe Paterno (or any of the others involved) before this story broke, so it's been easy for me to fall entirely on the side of anger, indignation and righteousness.  But I admit that there's been a part of me wondering, "What would I have done?  What would I REALLY have done in this situation?"  I'd like to think I would do what I wish they had done - called the police, not stopped with an internal report.  But I can't really know that.

    I will say that based on what you wrote here, it sounds like there was nothing for you to really report in high school.  Many kids would say that the situation sounded like a dream to a high schooler - a private place to escape, a hot tub, pool table, free beer.  Even if some of that was illegal and morally wrong (an adult providing alcohol to teens) - and even if something was vaguely unsettling to you about the situation as a teenager - I would say the two situations are very different.

  17. Meghan8:04 AM

    Because this story has made so many of us question, "What would I do?" it is my fervent hope that we all, as adults, know we'd try to intervene on behalf of the child being raped. We've had time to consider and, hopefully, recognize the importance of intervening.

    What I also hope tjs has done is open a dialogue about how to recognize abuse better. Because we shouldn't have to rely on a kid who doesn't know specifics but just feels weird about an adult.

  18. gretchen11:05 AM

    I just want to say that this was a compelling and nuanced piece of writing. 

    I don't think it's so clear that any of us, in the moment, would have known what to do.  We all think we would step up and take action.  But the human soul is complicated, and we're none of us heroes all of the time.  Like Meghan, I hope that this terrible story has forced us all to think through what we would do, to imagine ourselves in that position, and to have the courage to intervene when something is wrong. 

  19. I'm very glad that you don't feel like a victim.  I certainly did not mean to trivialize anything.

  20. Jim Bell1:41 PM

    Thank you.  If I were you I would feel guilty too, but that, would be wrong.  A result not of my Japenese/Lutheran background, but of my Catholic turned Methodist Italian mother, my Catholic Italian grandmother, and the general wierdness that inhabits my head.  Sounds like you made one of many possible right decisions -- "a right thing" to quote Admiral A. Vorkosigan.  This is the first piece since the news broke that made it real for me.  Thank you for writing, I really appreciate what you do for us Isaac.  Really.

  21. I don't know about that. When I was in high school, the idea that a teacher would do something that heinous would not have even occurred to me. Perhaps this is a sign that I was unusually sheltered, but I suspect that plenty of people would have had a hard time connecting those dots when they were in high school, especially a couple of decades ago (or more), when these sorts of scandals were just not as well known. The fact that the later you was not surprised by the outcome doesn't mean that the younger you should have been able to puzzle it out. Isn't that one big reason that some of these abusers manage to do these terrible things? For good or for ill, kids just don't expect evil to be lurking in a seemingly nice, friendly people.

    I'd also say that what you witnessed was just not of the magnitude of what was allegedly seen on the Penn State campus by the janitor and by the grad student. If the indictment is correct, there really were no puzzle pieces to put together or figure out. Just my ten cents.

  22. I appreciate the talent and effort it takes to craft a well-written, nuanced reflection and the vulnerability inherent in publishing it.  Your perspective as a child was not the same as that of an adult with power and privilege, so, while I don't begrudge you your empahty, and I don't begrudge Paterno his regret, I intend to embrace my righteous indignation.  I *do* know what I would do if I saw what McQueary saw or heard what Paterno heard.

    Indeed, it's human nature to turn away.  If it weren't, perhaps these stories wouldn't be a dime a dozen.  Here's mine, a story too familiar. A close relative of mine was raped as a girl by a man - a father, local "hero", a person of power and wealth, and every system failed, and every person turned the other cheek. She struggled to survive, but, ultimately, she shot herself.  That's what happens when we don't tell. 

    Thank you ALOTT5MA community for keeping the conversation going ...  there is a song line from the band Needtobreathe that's been in my head related to this story ... "Beg the book to turn the page/'Cause I get stuck where the villains get away/Somewhere in this wretched tale there must be a line where the victim gets his way ... just one time." Seemed a good venue to share.