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Friday, July 13, 2012

Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and My Own Dark Night of the Soul


Reading the news about Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football coach and serial child rapist, and Joe Paterno, football coach hero and enabler of Sandusky, is hitting too close to home for me. I'm nauseated. I'm tearful. I'm fighting a crisis of faith.

Something too much like this story happened to me. And the news coverage makes it fresh in my mind.

I talk about a lot of this in "Save Send Delete."

***

After receiving my MA from UC Berkeley under Alan Dundes, a truly great scholar, I went to Indiana University in Bloomington for the PhD. Berkeley did not offer a PhD in my field.

I had no money. Previous to grad school, I had been a working class child of Eastern European peasant immigrants. I had worked through college as a nurse's aide. After graduating I served in Peace Corps twice. I came back and worked, with just the BA, as an adjunct professor in an inner-city Community College, teaching English to new immigrants. Nurse's aide, Peace Corps volunteer, inner-city English teacher: you don't make a lot of money at any of those fields. And, I had already spent a lot on tuition at UC Berkeley.

I told the department at IUB (Indiana University Bloomington) that I would really need some kind of work in order to survive as a PhD student. They put me to work for a Professor. Let's call her Prof. X.

It was immediately evident to me that Prof. X wasn't all there. She assigned me bizarre, Sisyphean tasks. One day she told me to go to the library and find research on children.

Anyone who knows anything about research will know that this is a crazy request. No one looks for "research on children." You look for research done in the last year on the impact of food dyes on fourth graders' test scores – something specific like that.

I attempted to communicate this to Prof. X. She became flustered, and angry, and then just told me to sit in a room with a desk in it. And that was it. For an eight-hour work day.

One day I got a phone call. My father was dying.

I told Prof. X. She said I couldn't leave. She needed me to type up the program for a conference she'd be hosting.

That night, I cried. Around two a.m., I went out into the street and threw an empty bottle against the pavement. Then I went into the house, got a broom, and swept up the broken glass.

I had learned at UCB: There is a pecking order on American university campuses, and it has little to do with hard work or intelligence. It has everything to do with politics. I had learned from what statements got laughter and applause, and what statements arouse protest, from who got funding and who did not, from whose research drew praise from professors, that I, a working class Polish Catholic, had no status on this or any other American college campus.

I had two choices: I could go to my father's deathbed, and lose the chance to get the PhD that I thought would enable me to give voice to my people's concerns in academia and in the wider culture, or I could let my father die without me, and get the PhD, which, of course, would be, suddenly, exposed as completely hollow.

I decided to go to my father's deathbed. He died just as my train was pulling in to Penn Station. I stayed for the funeral, then turned around and went back to Indiana. I missed only four workdays. I had plenty of time to type up the program for the conference. I began doing so.

My boss began to behave badly toward me.

I won't go into detail here.

A few days before Christmas, I couldn't take it anymore. I went to a dean. I have never cried so hard in my life. People would later ask me how my ear burst. It may have been this episode of crying.

I told the Dean I was leaving. I had begun to pack my bags.

The Dean moved me into an emptied-out office on campus. She told me she needed me to stick around.

"We need someone to testify against her," the Dean said. "Someone like you, with nothing to lose. Someone with no pension, no scholarship. You see, she's been doing stuff like this, and worse, for years, but no one will speak out against her, because no one wants to be accused of being sexist or racist." Prof. X was an African American woman.

This Dean began sending me on a round of appointments, appointments that lasted till the end of the spring semester.

I was to meet with the top officials of the IUB campus. These meetings would be announced to me at the last minute. I was just to report to room ABC at such-and-such a time.

I sat in leather chairs in rooms with heavy curtains. I met with people in suits and gleaming shoes. It was always the same: dates. Times. Actions. What exactly did she do to you? I had to tell the story, over and over again, to complete strangers. And then I would be dismissed.

Over and over again, I heard. I heard these exact words, from these officials' own mouths: she's a bad person. She's done much worse to others. She almost killed one person. She's a sociopath. But no one will speak out against her because no one wants to be accused of being sexist or racist.

All these good people knew. And they did nothing. Because it might inconvenience them.

I began to find it hard to walk down hallways. I heard a popping sound in my ear. I began to vomit uncontrollably.

I did not realize it at the time. My life, as I knew it, my hopes for the future, were ending.

My inner ear burst. For the next several years, I would be chronically ill, often completely paralyzed, not only unable to move, but unable even to imagine movement. Nystagmus rendered my eyes all but unusable. I couldn't read. I couldn't even recognize myself in a mirror. I would lie on a couch, all day long, in a fetal position, rising only to vomit.

And so began a new round of appointments. I went to doctor after doctor. They denied me treatment. They didn't know anything about vestibular disorders. They couldn't treat me because I didn't have health insurance or money. Or they experimented on me. Inner ear disorders are "orphan diseases": little studied and little understood. The experiments were not successful. My symptoms continued.

A judge who had just been removed from the bench, for a time, for unfair treatment of female claimants, in spite of supporting testimony from physicians, career specialists, an IU official and a nun who came to testify for me, turned down my SSDI claim.

I had no income for years. I lost my life savings. Every sock I wore in those days, I found on the street. I got food from a food bank. At times, I stole food.

I wrote to everyone I could think of to write to: Oprah Winfrey, Polish American organizations, Senator Lugar, Evan Bayh. Mostly my attempts to get help were ignored. Sometimes I received insulting replies.

I tried to contact the priest at the church where I attended services – and where I donated volunteer labor. I needed a one-on-one conversation. Why can't I get medical care? Why is God doing this to me?

Father was always too busy, the secretaries always said.

During all the years I went through this, in spite of numerous efforts, I never was able to find a priest who would talk to me.

A friend said to me that I had to suffer at the hands of Prof. X because I am white, and therefore guilty. I deserved it, somehow, and Prof. X was correct to do what she did. She was just getting justice for slavery.

"My only friend is darkness," as psalm 88 says.

***

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, "Young Goodman Brown," that describes a Puritan man attending a witch's Sabbath one night and finding all the good people of town present. He becomes cynical. He becomes convinced that there is no goodness in the world. Because, after all, the people who represented goodness were all exposed as bad.

And that's what's killing me in this Joe Paterno / Jerry Sandusky coverage. All those "good" people on the Penn State campus. The deans, the administrators, representing goodness. All bad.

Power is what matters.

Appearance is what matters.

Goodness is just a sham to enable power to do what it wants.

***

One of the people I wrote to was State Senator Vi Simpson. I didn't expect much. She was a state senator. Not very powerful.

Her legislative aide, Rick Gudal, read the letter. He responded. He was on the case for years, until Dr. Richard T. Miyamoto, at Riley Children's Hospital, in Indianapolis, performed a pro bono surgery that permanently stopped my symptoms overnight.

***

One Palm Sunday in Bloomington a man turned around to shake my hand during the "Sign of Peace" ceremony. I gasped when I saw his face. I refused to shake his hand. He was one of the IUB officials I had been sent to to testify.

That one gesture – not shaking that one man's hand – was my one moment of … what … revenge? Certainly not justice.

I met with IU official Deborah Freund. She asked me directly what I wanted done to Prof. X. I had been alerted that that question would come up during our meeting, and I had been told to prepare an answer.

I was, and am, a Christian, if an often-doubting one. I said I wasn't interested in revenge; that that was not the Christian way. In any case, Prof. X struck me as more reptile than human. I don't mean that as a schoolyard insult, but, rather, as a diagnosis. Prof. X demonstrated for me the concept that evil is not so much a presence, as an absence. She seemed the void, her skull an empty can. Nothing there. How do you punish emptiness? Insert something?

I wanted to say to Deborah Freund, and I hope that this is what I actually said, "Prof. X is the smallest particle of this ugliness. The larger part is all those 'good' people who knew exactly what she was and enabled her, because to take a stand against her would inconvenience them. That is what needs to change."

***

It's now many years since these events. In the interim, some of the folks who knew me back at IUB have googled me and become my facebook friends. They are, for the most part, leftists. They festoon their facebook pages with evidence of their commitment to glorious causes. Sometimes they berate me for not being part of the movement.

And I think, but I never say this out loud: For years, you knew me in Bloomington. You knew I often couldn't walk or see. You never once offered me a ride. You offered me no support in my search for health care. You never visited me on a day when I could not move. You just ignored everything I was going through, because it was too much a downer. And now you lecture me about your glorious leftist cause?

I don't say this to them. I guess I've just said it here.

***

My crisis of faith comes back to me as I read about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky, as I confront all the "good" people at Penn State who could have done something, and who did nothing.

When those who represent goodness are exposed as empty suits, one is tempted – by the Devil, I, as a Christian, believe – tempted to believe that goodness itself is mere show.

I know that that is not true.

I remember Rick Gudal.

In the essay Political Paralysis, I write about a Bloomington man, Mark Braun, who stopped on a snowy day to give me a ride when the illness was striking me as I was trying to walk home and I began to weave, visibly, on the street.

There is goodness out there. A goodness that is reflective of God, the source of all goodness, so says Psalm 16.

I remind myself of the victim who had the courage to speak publicly of what Jerry Sandusky did to him. I focus on his courage, on his determination to help other victims. Not on all the noise and hoopla of glorious Penn State, all those six-figured deans and administrators who publicly represent goodness and are just the fancy cake icing hiding putrescence.

I am telling myself this.

I am struggling against the sense that all goodness is just show. That all that motivates and animates the world is power.

I always try to end blog posts on an upbeat note. This is my upbeat note: my tradition, the Judeo-Christian one, is there. It beat me there. "Eli eli lama sabacthani?" "My only friend is darkness" "O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more." My tradition gives me voice and acknowledges the darkness. That is no small thing, one discovers, when confronted with it.

10 comments:

  1. July, The Crucible

    July is always hard and this July is competing to outdo all the rest. It has me feeling like General Custer, in “They Died With Their Boots On” standing there alone, torn and bloodied, all his compatriots slain, out of ammo, drawing his sword against 10,000 warriors who are racing toward him like a pack of enraged and starving lionesses who smell the blood of a fat, wounded wildebeest who strayed from the herd, my friend telling me Mercury is going retro again and even God looks doubtful saying, “If you survive July, you’ll be a better man for it”.

    So, to survive to my beloved Autumn, I’m living out of my reality Embodying the spirits of those who have worn this path before: Victor Frankl who when he realized he had no control learned to romance a rotten fish head while vacationing in Dachau or the Marines fighting there way out of Chosin, -50 below and out numbered 100 to 1

    But, as always, I’m expecting a miracle. Perhaps the seventh cavalry to charge over the hill sending my troubles to flight. Or perhaps remembering that “This Too Shall Pass”.

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    1. Charles, what's going on? Why is July so hard for you?

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  2. Christina Pacosz sent this kind comment but could not post it for some reason. I'll post for her:

    Danusha - You are a rare gem of a person and your outrage and concern are a testament to your spirit. I am proud to know you and hope to actually meet you one day. Christina Pacosz

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  3. I have read about your experience within Academe before Danusha - I think on your website(?) - but it doesn't get any the less harrowing. And I suspect things have got worse, not better, since them. Did you link this article to the PMI fb group? I ask as someone has just said that Professor Jan Gross being a Princeton Professor is a guarantee of something or other - essentially that he is debunk-proof. These days I wouldn't like to say what that that might guarantee, beyond a spot on accuracy as to the current Political Correctness. By the way, I assume your being working class would have been a plus, had you only been of the "correct" working class, not the "incorrect" one? And hello Charles, I hope you survive to your "beloved Autumn". I love all the seasons, but Autumn above all. It seems that Adam, our first father, probably first opened his eyes in an Autumn garden. As things are now, IF I make my threescore years and ten, I only have 5 Autumns left. Its not enough, is it?

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    1. Sue, no, I did not post this. Polonia does not care about what happened to me. That that's exactly WHY it happened.

      Predators know what victims they can safely attack, and what others they'd best leave alone. That Bohunks in Academia have zero allies makes them vulnerable.

      I find Polonia's obsession with badmouthing Jan Tomasz Gross to be despicable. If Polonia organized, JTG would present no problems. Blaming others for their own failures is a sorry spectacle.

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  4. I don't know if anyone is blaming The PJG for the political agenda - are they? Is he powerful in the world of Academe? I had seen him more as someone who is riding the zeitgeist and getting the plaudits that come from doing so. If I had written his "Bambi" trilogy, wouldn't I have got the same applause - and i am nobody?

    If the PC changed over night, and some other group was being picked on, I don't think they would cope with it any better than we do. That is why I feel that Muslims are in an odd and vulnerable position at the moment.

    American Academe does set the Zeitgeist to some extent, as it is, presumably the most powerful bastion of "the wisdom of the world". However, the strings are pulled elsewhere.

    Ephesians explains it clearly: "Put on the complete suit of armour from God that you may be able to stand firm against the machinations of the Devil; because we have a wrestling, not against blood and flesh, but against the governments, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places."

    The world rulers of this darkness are the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places.

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    1. Strongly agree with that quote from Ephesians.

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  5. Thanks Danusha. Don't you think more people need to know this? Otherwise, it is only too easy for us - the children of Adam - to turn on and blame each other.

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  6. Sue, need to know the bible quote, or need to know what happened to me at IU? If the latter, please feel free to share this link with Polonians. I can almost guarantee that they will ignore you. We, as a community, just don't care. And that is why it can happen. Members of other groups who are organized ... it doesn't happen to them. If the ethnicities had been reversed ... if a Polish American prof had done this to a black student ... the Polish American prof would have been fired, and the black student would have been taken care of by the universities. Because African Americans have organized and demanded their rights. I admire that. If you haven't seen it already, please see the documentary "Eyes on the Prize." It's inspirational. More Polonians should be inspired by it.

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  7. I was thinking that people really do need to know that there IS a deep and dark conspiracy ruling the present world system - which is why there are so many conspiracy theories out there - but they also need to understand what it is, otherwise the danger is that we, the children of Adam, will turn on each other in blame. But, yes, I do think people, and not just Polonians, need to know your story. I deeply admire the courage of African-Americans, and what they have achieved, but I still think that if the Zeitgiest suddenly turned against them, it wouldn't matter how brave, how organised they were. What Kipling called The Great Game is a cruel and ruthless one. But the good news is that it is soon coming to its end, and God's will will be done on earth.

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