Surviving Sandusky

By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

Now that the Sandusky trial is over and we are in the sentencing phase of this horrific story, I breathe an uneasy sigh of relief. Uneasy because so many things that unfolded throughout the course of this trial are so deeply disturbing that I doubt true peace will come anytime soon.

For the survivors of his torture (be they known or still silent) there is a process of healing that has hopefully been helped along by the guilty verdict. The validation in hearing that yes, what he did was wrong and without defense is a very empowering feeling. For many survivors, the confusion of what has happened is the most difficult part to deal with, especially when young children are involved. The fact that their perpetrator had such an upstanding reputation and “would never do such a thing” most likely left them in disbelief about what truly happened. Combined with Sandusky’s charming and “father figure” persona, it is easy to see how his manipulative and sociopathic behavior would cause great conflict within his chosen victims.

Often sexual assault survivors feel that they are to blame. That they must have done something to provoke such treatment. The loss of control is often too overwhelming to process, thus survivors are left grasping for ways in which they can feel some semblance of control over themselves and what happens to them. Because if they believe it is their fault, they simply need to make some changes and it won’t happen again. Don’t trust this person or that, and don’t go here or there. Unfortunately, that is not what caused these events to unfold, and thus there is nothing that the survivors could have done to keep it from happening.

Jerry Sandusky presented a mask to the world carved in charisma yet made with manipulation. His victims were groomed long before physical violation to ensure their silence. Abusive individuals are remarkably cunning. An outright act of violence would easily be seen as wrong and victims are usually quick to call attention to the situation. However, in sexual assaults of this nature (especially cases where children are victimized), the predator first gains trust and care from their prey. They seek to ensure their victim has a vested interest in their well being and trusts them, which is why children are a target for people like Sandusky.

Children trust rather easily. They have long depended on the adults in their life to keep them safe and meet their basic needs. They look for guidance and acceptance from their elders and feel pleased when they receive positive reinforcement for their behavior. These ingrained thoughts do not disappear on our 18th birthday. Jerry Sandusky used his knowledge of that to maintain his abusive and criminal behavior. He went so far as to write his victims letters where he talked about their “relationship” and his “feelings” for them as though this was not an illegal and detrimental situation.

The defense stipulated that Sandusky had been diagnosed with Histrionic Personality Disorder, which is what contributed to his behavior. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Nor should anyone be allowed to make such a sweeping declaration. While I have never met Jerry Sandusky (thank my lucky stars), and I have no idea weather he actually qualifies for a diagnosis of Histrionic Personality Disorder, I do know that it doesn’t make one bit of difference.

Histrionic Personality Disorder consists of intensely dramatic behavior, a deep seated need to be the center of attention at all costs, and polarized thinking. Notice I did not say such a diagnosis consisted of sexual attraction to children, a need for power and control over others, a total disregard for laws, disregard for the emotions or needs of others, delusional thinking, or a desire to cause harm. Most of these qualities can be found under the Antisocial Personality Disorder heading commonly known as sociopathic behavior. I doubt the defense would have paid for an expert to point that out, but from my Monday morning quarter back position that’s what it appeared we were dealing with here. Interestingly enough the next version of the DSM (the bible by which all mental health professionals live) will be absent of Histrionic Personality Disorder as a diagnosis.

Sexual assault and emotional abuse are all too common in our society. The manipulation and victimization of others has a long history. This case points out that it is not only women who must endure sexual trauma, but men as well. While one in four women experience a sexual assault, the number is only slightly higher for incidents of men ranging somewhere around one in seven. After a sexual assault, survivors frequently blame themselves and feel isolated and alone. Looking at the statistics we know that they are never alone.

Most survivors experience doubt, shame, guilt, and humiliation as they start the process of healing. Working through the grief process is not easy or fun yet the rewards are overwhelming. The realization that you may have started out a victim but became a survivor is a powerful one. That combined with the knowledge that you have survived one of the most horrible things that can happen to a person, yet you are once again able to laugh and love and trust…well I’d say that makes you pretty indestructible. It may feel as though being a sexual assault survivor has damaged you or made you weaker than everybody else, but the truth is surviving has made you the strongest person in the room. I hope the survivors of Jerry Sandusky’s torment will one day know that (if they don’t already).

If you or someone you care about has experienced a sexual trauma of any kind, speaking with a professional is profoundly helpful. The staff of Noyau Wellness Center has extensive training and experience in working with sexual assault survivors. We are here to help you make that transition from surviving to thriving. You may also contact the national sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-HOPE.