Mental health experts call it “triggering”—when an event, a sound, an image on television, or even a smell takes a victim back to the moment of their sexual abuse. For those who have survived such a childhood, the next wave of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is about to hit like a tsunami.
There have already been leaks from the lengthy investigation, due to be released Thursday, of former FBI director Louis Freeh, who has been looking into how Penn State handled early allegations of abuse by Sandusky, a longtime football coach there. A string of emails has reportedly been unearthed, dating back to a February 2001 incident reported by former assistant coach Michael McQueary, who claimed to see Sandusky raping a young boy in a campus locker room. These emails purportedly reveal secret discussions between then–Penn State president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz (who was in charge of campus police), and the school’s now suspended athletic director, Tim Curley. If the reports are accurate, these emails show that at one point the trio seemed to be in agreement that they must call in local police—but Curley reportedly changed his mind after a conversation with Joe Paterno, the late and legendary coach who led the Nittany Lions for decades.
The leaked messages seem to indicate that Paterno played a larger role in deciding to cover up the scandal than has been previously reported. After the officials concluded they would not contact outside law enforcement, Schultz reportedly wrote, “This is a more humane and upfront way to handle this.” To this day, the identity of the boy in the shower remains unknown.
The release of the highly anticipated report is sure to haunt Sandusky’s alleged victims, many of whom testified against him at the trial in which he was recently convicted. It may even spur legal action against Penn State and Spanier (who recently resigned), attorneys have suggested, if the report appears to prove that abuse could have been prevented.
But even for those not directly tied to the case, the enormity of the Sandusky saga has been felt. For the most fragile of childhood sexual-abuse survivors—those who are new to treatment or have never sought professional help—the spectacle of the Sandusky case may act as a trigger, dredging up memories of their own painful past. According to professionals who work with such patients, a trigger can leave victims with panic attacks or feeling depressed or, in the worst cases, suicidal.
Curtis St. John, former president of the support group MaleSurvivor, expects traffic to the organization’s website to spike this week as survivors (they prefer to be called survivors rather than victims) seek balance after the barrage of news coverage following the release of the Freeh report. “We’ve already been getting a flood into the site,” St. John told The Daily Beast. In November 2011, after Sandusky was arrested, traffic increased 66 percent, according to St. John. “It went up another 50 to 55 percent in May and June as the trial got underway,” he said. He attributes the increase to “those who found us and realized, ‘I am not alone.’”
At the age of 10, St. John was the victim of Albert Fentress, dubbed the “Poughkeepsie Cannibal” after he later murdered a teen and cannibalized his corpse. Today he anticipates the release of the Freeh investigation with a heavy sigh.
“How will I react when the report comes out? Well, it’s typical of a big institution,” he said. “Penn state is like the Catholic Church. It’s difficult for them ... They’ve been hiding behind the uncomfortableness of the topic all these years.” However, St. John says he was pleased when Penn State announced shortly after the Sandusky verdict that it wanted to meet with his victims and offer help. (A promise that, as of yet, doesn’t appear to have been kept.)
Mental-health therapist Dirk Kummerle, who is based in Boston, told The Daily Beast that two of his survivor patients sought to reenter therapy once the Sandusky trial got underway and the first victims testified. “Two of my male clients came in ... because of anxiety and flashbacks. Both—one 70, the other 26—were abused in their teens by coaches,” he said. “They are struggling with their past trauma, and understandably so. Sexual abuse is equally devastating, but particularly challenging among males.”
“Penn state is like the Catholic Church … They’ve been hiding behind the uncomfortableness of the topic.”
Kummerle’s 70-year-old client rebelled as a youngster, joined the military, and later became a member of a well-known crime syndicate in Boston. He had never revealed his abuse until he entered therapy. The younger patient is a military veteran as well, of the war in Afghanistan, and, according to Kummerle, presents a significantly more challenging case. “During his abuse, he came across a phenomenon not that uncommon among sex-abuse victims,” the therapist said. “He found himself being aroused during the abuse. He couldn’t make sense why something he knew in his heart was so wrong would have such an effect on him physically.”
“It’s a little like the magician’s scarf trick,” explained Judith Bralove, a clinical social worker in Fitchburg, Mass., who has worked extensively with sex-abuse survivors. “When the magician begins to pull it out you see one scarf. Each piece of the survivor’s past history becomes one of those scarves … Even though you think you’ve taken care of it, you’ve gotten treatment, it still can overwhelm you,” she said.
When it does, Bralove said, the patient can regress in measureable ways, turning to drugs or alcohol for solace. “The unofficial formula we use is to go back to the year they were abused and subtract two years,” she explained. “If they were 10 when it happened they would, theoretically, be taken back in their minds to when they were 8 years old.”
In short, these survivors often live out the rest of their lives on an emotional roller coaster, set in motion by their childhood abuse. And it’s not just male survivors who are triggered by the Sandusky case.
After Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011, Connecticut nurse Rebecca Berry obsessively followed every development. She attended each day of the trial in Bellefonte, Pa., and on June 22, the night the packed courtroom waited to hear the verdict, Berry sat in the back of the room taking in great gulps of air, her face red, tears streaming down it. As a survivor of repeated childhood rapes by her best friend’s stepfather, Berry was fighting a cacophony of emotions. She had never had the occasion to face her abuser in court, she told The Daily Beast, yet she felt compelled to watch what happened to Sandusky. Months earlier, upon hearing platitudes for the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno upon his death, Rebecca’s passion for supporting survivors took hold of her. She penned a caustic and widely read post at the Daily Kos titled, “F@*k Joe Paterno,” which graphically outlined the psychological fate of child-abuse victims (using herself as an example) and condemned the entire Penn State hierarchy for doing nothing to determine precisely why Sandusky had allegedly been taking campus showers with young boys since at least 1998.
“I have no guilt or shame about saying to every single person who knew, who suspected, who was outright told and passed the buck on to someone else while children were being raped by grown men ... Fuck you for not doing your goddamn job or fulfilling your most basic moral obligation as an adult to protect children who were being harmed.” Berry’s post prompted thousands of comments and immediately went viral between survivors and their support sites.
Daleen Berry, author of Sister of Silence, a chronicle of her own sexual abuse, also attended the Sandusky trial. In anticipation of the Freeh report she told The Daily Beast she expects to feel both “really disgusted and ecstatic” after its release. “If it contains what I believe it’s going to contain—that they covered it up, that Paterno could have done more—then I’ll be ecstatic. I hope it causes people to realize, ‘I can’t be so squeamish anymore about discussing child abuse.’”
Berry (no relation to Rebecca from Connecticut) also feels satisfaction that Penn State has offered to sit down and discuss settlements with the witnesses heard at trial. She believes that with a $1.8 billion endowment behind it, the university can well afford to pay restitution for their failures.
But, Berry says, nothing short of dismantling the prestigious football program will do. “That would be the only way to atone for the fact that they turned a blind eye to all those boys being molested. What’s more valuable—a football program or the lives of children?”