I won’t pretend to know everything about the situation with Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. What I do understand is that the revered coach, who notoriously stood for the ideals of virtue and honor, did next to nothing when a graduate student alleged that he saw former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, sodomize a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the team’s football complex in 2002. Paterno reported the incident to the Athletic Director, but failed to follow up or alert authorities, which the state police commissioner and many others are calling a lapse of “moral responsibility.”
Coach Paterno has not been accused of any legal wrongdoing, nor has Sandusky been found guilty (although let’s just assume he will be). However, Paterno was fired by Penn State trustees on Wednesday due to the suggestion that he failed to do all he could about the allegations of child sex abuse.
After my column about Michael Vick, you’ll probably be shocked to hear that I’m not going to defend Paterno. I believe the guy made a horrible, terrible, irreparable mistake. Yesterday he expressed remorse, called it a tragedy and said he wished he’d done more. Too little too late, JoePa. Too little too late…
And so while I would never defend the (non) actions of a man who did not report the rape of a child, what this situation did get me thinking about was the times the rest of us turn a blind eye. Times we keep our mouths shut when maybe we should, in fact, speak up. Times we let something go because we’re scared, uncertain, trying to stay out of it, lazy…
Speaking up, saying something when you think someone’s in trouble, or being hit, or being cheated on: it’s not always black and white. The results can be disastrous. Or they can be life changing. But how do you know which it will be? In Joe Paterno’s instance, he had a moral obligation to say something. But when speaking up can’t change the situation. When you only know part of the story. When you’re not sure what is truth and what is fiction. What then?
I dated someone once with a sordid past. A childhood of sexual abuse turned him into a severe drug addict and criminal. By the time I met him, he seemed to have changed his ways, but it was clear there were demons that haunted him and chased him straight to the bottle, the only “drug” he still allowed in his life.
Our relationship was volatile, at best. I was never enough for him. He accused me of being selfish, cold, jealous, manipulative, snobby, disdainful, you name it. Certainly over the course of the relationship I was many, if not all, of those things. But he … he, sad to say it, was broken. He was depressed, insecure, nervous, self-loathing and mostly: He was drunk. It’s true what they say: How can you love someone who can’t even love himself?
I wanted to protect him, save him, make him a better person, but ultimately, I learned you can’t do that for someone who doesn’t want it. And even if he did want it, only he had control over the type of person he was.
So after he held me down on a hotel room bed and yelled at me -- again -- for being selfish and terrible, I finally broke up with him. And when I did that, I also repressed almost the entire relationship. I can remember specific dramatic moments, but I truly can’t remember dinners or weekends, phone calls or mornings in bed. In order to heal from the relationship, I blocked it out.
However, one afternoon has always haunted me. Years later, I can’t get this horrible moment out of my head. I’ve repressed the specifics, likely as a means of coping, but the shadowy memory remains.
It’s late afternoon in winter. We’re out of town with friends in a house we’ve rented. He’s mad at me for working all day, so when someone asks him to go into town to a bar to play pool, he agrees. I follow him into the bedroom, annoyed, reminding him that I’ll be finished with work in 20 minutes. Can’t he just wait? We’ll all go together.
He flops his body onto the bed. “You don’t understand,” he says, pulling his hoodie tight around his body. “I hate myself.”
I ask him what’s he talking about. Why he’s saying this. What he means. What this has to do with going to play pool.
“I don’t sleep at night. I’m up all night -- ALL NIGHT -- while you sleep. Every night. I feel like I haven’t slept in years. How can I sleep? How can I sleep knowing who I am. What I’ve done.”
His past is full of heroin and crack and fights and DUIs, so I ask him what he means. What keeps him up at night. I lay on the bed next to him. Our faces inches from each other.
“I can’t tell you.”
Yes you can. You can tell me anything.
He’s crying on the bed now. Our friends knock on the door. I tell them we’ll meet them later. We’re napping.
“How can I live with myself with what I’ve done?” he asks again.
And then he confesses.
Years ago. In a small town (does he say which? I can’t remember) in a state far away, he and a friend went to buy drugs. Something went wrong (I don't remember what). A homeless man got involved. (Said something? Tried to rip them off? Talked shit? Stole a backpack? There’s something about a backpack.) And instead of walking away, he and his friend grabbed metal weapons (Pipes? Crowbars?) from the construction site near where they were standing. And then they beat the man.
They beat him until he died.
“I wasn’t the one who killed him,” he says. “My friend is the one who hit him last.”
I don’t believe him, nor do I care. It’s disgusting. Vile. Awful. The worst thing you can do to a person. And I’m dating someone who did it. Someone who murdered another human being.
I’m dating a murderer.
It gets worse. He goes on to tell me a story about a friend who’d just gotten out of rehab. A friend to whom he then gave heroin.The day the guy got out of rehab. He promised he’d look after him. Make sure his friend was okay. Instead, he went out to score more drugs. When he came back hours later, his friend was dead. One day out of rehab and dead.
He dragged the body to the front lawn before he called the police. Didn’t want them to find his drugs.
The stories sound fake. Like something out of “Drugstore Cowboy” or “A Clockwork Orange.” But they’re real. And I know it.
And yet 45 minutes later? We’re at the bar playing pool. Drinking vodka. Pretending like nothing ever happened. Which, pathetically, is the only way I know how to deal with it. I only bring it up one more time. He refuses to discuss it. A few months later, we finally break up. And never speak again.
The ex-boyfriend is no longer the only one who can’t sleep at night. I wake up at 3 a.m. in a panic. Because I know a man died. A man was beaten to death. I see the dark alleyway with a lone streetlight shining on the wet pavement. I see my ex-boyfriend and his friend raising pipes above their heads. I hear the blows as they hit the man’s body. I feel his fear as he is savagely brutalized. As he realizes he’s going to die.
Somewhere there is an unsolved murder case for a man who died alone. On the streets. Without his family.
And I know who did it.
But I’m too scared to tell.