Sandusky Trial: Breaking Down Week 1
Kristen Eisenbraun Houser ’93 has some insight into what the alleged victims in the Sandusky trial are going through. As the vice president of communications and development for PCAR, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Houser spent all of last week outside the courthouse in Bellefonte, talking to news outlets (she’s appeared on NBC’s Nightly News, CNN’s In Session, and TruTV) about victims’ rights and the psychology of child sexual abuse. On Friday, she talked with me to help break down the week of disturbing testimony — from the accusers’ perspective.
For any victim, how difficult is it to testify about child sexual abuse?
It’s the last thing on the planet they want to do. Here in America, everything is saturated with sex, yet we don’t talk honestly about it. It’s extremely difficult to talk about sexual violence and things that make you feel disgust, shame, and humiliation. That’s why people say they’ve “locked the memory away.” To then get to a place where you can tell a room full of strangers is unbelievably hard.
Some of the young men who testified this week got very emotional, and others were more composed and straightforward. What accounts for such contrasting reactions?
I haven’t worked with these individuals, but I can tell you that when you’re dealing with trauma, people react on far ends of the spectrum. When someone is awash with emotion, and the pain is raw and uncontrollable, that’s what we think everybody will look like, and it can throw the public when we see someone who can speak in a detached and unemotional way. But that’s self-protection. You can choose to do one or the other — access the feelings and fall apart on the stand, or separate yourself.
The defense has been critical of accusers who’ve waited years to come forward. Is that common in cases of child sexual abuse?
It’s very common for victims to wait years, even decades. Nobody ever wants to talk about this. What’s happening to you is happening in secret, so you think you’re the only one. Isolation makes you think no one will believe you. Look at it through the eyes of a 12-year-old: You don’t understand human sexuality period, let alone abuse.
In general, is it especially difficult for male victims?
For males, it gets very confusing. There’s still a lot of homophobia in society. That’s an extra layer that keeps boys silent because of the stigma attached. And that’s on top of the gender dynamics; we think boys should be able to protect themselves. Unfortunately, there are different societal rules about victimization in men. They’re all barriers to disclosure. One of the young men said it extremely well — “How do you tell your mom about something like that?”
Some of the accusers mentioned “blacking out” the abuse, which makes it hard to recall specifics. Is that a common coping mechanism?
It’s textbook. You see this with victims of any trauma — car accidents, war. The brain literally processes sensory information differently. When a person experiences something they perceive as life-threatening, the brain gets that sensory info and codes it as “dangerous” and stores it. It’s not always stored in context, in a linear fashion. The Broca’s area of the brain, which is responsible for language, doesn’t code it with words. So the data is not readily accessible, but it can be triggered. Think about Vietnam vets who can’t be around fireworks — it literally takes them back to the battlefield. If you’re a sexual assault victim, something like the smell of brewing coffee, a song on the radio, a certain aftershave can bring it all back. It’s very common for a person who’s been through trauma to have sketchy, scattered details. Over time, as they begin to process it, the memories become richer.
It’s confusing to some people that several of the accusers maintained a friendly relationship with Sandusky after the alleged abuse.
I think we have to recognize he was not abusive all the time. He was kind, loving, fun, made them feel special — and he abused them. As a child, you can hate the abusive experience but love the person who did it. Many victims feel that way. To stay in contact doesn’t make sense to the average person. Also, offenders try to foster those friendly relationships to maintain silence. If you’re still in touch, still friendly with the offender, it’s harder to report the abuse.
Many of the accusers were afraid to tell anyone for fear they wouldn’t be believed. One testified that a school counselor dismissed his claims because Sandusky “has a heart of gold.” What can parents learn from this?
If you want your children to know you’re a person they can confide in, you need to send that message all the time. You can’t have a meltdown when a lamp gets broken accidentally and expect that they’ll feel comfortable telling you someone is touching them. It’s about modeling that you’re a calm, trustworthy person on a regular basis. And we need to stop labeling sexual offenders as “monsters,” “animals,” and “predators.” We use language to talk about people who commit sexual crimes that separates them from who we spend time with in reality. That makes you blind to your inner circle. People who commit sexual offenses are people, and they may be in our everyday lives.
LaVar Arrington ’00 blogged at The Washington Post about feeling like he should have seen one alleged victim’s pain and done something more. How can people in the same situation get over the guilt?
Attorneys I’ve worked with say the worst thing about child sexual abuse cases is asking people about the offender, because they always say, “Now that you mention it, I always had a funny feeling.” But hindsight is 20/20. I think at some point we have to forgive ourselves for not having had all the information, and then commit to changing it, so that we never have to feel that regret again.
So what can we do when we get that feeling in our gut that something isn’t right?
Talk about it. If you’re feeling weird about something, other adults probably are too. No, you can’t report someone for giving you the creeps, but if you talk to other adults, and a situation is making all of you feel uncomfortable, then you have something. You’ve started the conversation.
If Sandusky is convicted, will the young men get any closure or healing?
I think everyone thinks that a conviction is all that victims want, but when it happens, they don’t feel any better. The reality is, going through the trial really does re-traumatize you. You have to face this horrible experience, say it out loud, have people in the room try to make you look like a liar. You can feel good that this person is locked up, but it doesn’t change the loss and devastation of your life.
Mary Murphy, associate editor