Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gladwell, at the New Yorker, writes about Sandunsky and the grooming process

The title of this blog post should warn you in advance it's going to be dealing with nasty stuff.

... We now know what Sandusky was really doing with the Second Mile. He was setting up a pipeline of young troubled boys. Just as important, though, he was establishing his bona fides. Psychologists call this “grooming”—the process by which child molesters ingratiate themselves into the communities they wish to exploit. “Many molesters confirmed that they would spend anywhere from two to three years getting established in a new community before molesting any children,” van Dam writes. One pedophile she interviewed would hang out in bars, looking for adults who seemed to be having difficulties at home. He would lend a comforting ear, and then start to help out. ...

It may bear repeating that a community is groomed before individually targeted victims are.  This may be the single most troubling thing for me to read because it's a reminder that the grooming process begins in a community, and this would arguably be true for almost any kind of abuse and predatory behavior, couldn't it? At the risk of making allusions to some other writings grooming is a process that depends on two aspects of human nature that are not conventionally conceived as being able to be weapons.  Before I get to them let's take a look at a case in which a psychologist recognized a person fitting the nature of a threat who was second-guessed by others.

... Of all those involved in the investigation, only one person—the psychologist Alycia Chambers—recognized Sandusky’s actions for what they were. Here was someone with the full authority and expertise of psychological training, who identified a prominent man with virtually unlimited access to vulnerable children as a “likely pedophile.” But what more could she do? She had told the police. Patient confidentiality constrained her from going to the media, and her responsibility to her client made her wary of turning him into a public victim. Then, there was the fact that two other trained professionals had seen the same evidence she had, and reached the opposite conclusion. She was in the grip of the same uncertainty that afflicts even the best people when confronted with a child molester. She thought Sandusky was suspicious. No one agreed with her. Maybe she decided that she could be wrong. [emphasis added throughout]

It may be easy to underestimate or miss this particular point in discussing how abusers manage to succeed for so long. When people think about child abusers they think almost invariably it seems, first of the evil of the abuse and secondarily, if at all, of motives or methodology.  If you read the article in its entirety you'll see that abusers will lie to avoid getting caught but they will also exploit ambiguous language and an apologetic form of doublespeak.  They will talk about how heartbroken they are an sorry so much misunderstanding happened and they never meant to harm anyone.

Now some people may describe this is deceit and, in a sense it is, but what it really is would be better described as the exploitation of empathy and sympathy.  If you have read the full article you'll recall that an investigator realized that Sandunsky's words of sadness and remorse were too vague to be seriously pinned down to much of anything.  There was not enough compelling evidence at that point to pursue investigation with a certainty that something had happened based on overheard conversation. This is a point that may need repeating, that abusers are generally shrewd enough to avoid talking about their most scandalous and harmful actions in ways that would usually let a person assign blame even if suspicions are directly raised.  By that time the community has often been sufficiently groomed that very few people want to question the bona fides of the suspected abuser because if the charges turn out to be unfounded a whole raft of people have their reputations damaged and the nature of allegations of abuse is such that once an allegation has been made it can float over the accused whether or not the allegations turn out to be true.  Most people for reasons that shouldn't have to be explained, are loathe to do to others what they realize would be life-ruining for them if the same thing happened for them.

Now I backtrack to the tools at the disposal of an abuser in this kind of miserable communal dynamic.
For those who read the little essay "The Weapon of Empathy" that shows up at another blog, a sadist is not necessarily someone who, clinically speaking, has no capacity for empathy.  In fact empathy (divested of sympathy) is possibly one of the most potent resources an abuser has.  An abuser can exploit the benefit of a doubt that a person wants to provide and an abuser can exploit reasonable doubt.  Does this mean that we should not provide any room for reasonable doubt?  Well ...

The thing is that it would appear that abusers of this sort are often those who groom communities and it takes a community to uncover their crimes.  A Hollywood pop mythology of one brave person changing everything is just a myth. The person who steps up and says something that changes everything may not be a "good guy" We've been let in on enough of the previously hidden secrets of Deep Throat to recognize that the press didn't take down the Nixon administration, disgruntled people in the Nixon administration leaked things to the press and that catalyzed Nixon's downfall.

The sad reality is that in cases where abusers are not sent to justice when there are grounds for suspicion it can often be because the abuser brings measurable, tangible goods to a community that its members know they benefit from. This is not an occasion for you, dear reader, to foment about how people look the other way, it's an occasion for you to examine your own heart for how you might look the other way if you find someone has said and done harmful things.

Paterno did not like Sandusky. They argued openly. Paterno found Sandusky’s goofiness exasperating, and the trail of kids following him around irritated Paterno no end. He considered firing Sandusky many times. But, according to Posnanski, he realized that he needed Sandusky—that the emotional, bear-hugging, impulsive knucklehead was a necessary counterpart to his own discipline and austerity. Sandusky never accepted any of the job offers that would have taken him away from Penn State, because he could not leave the Second Mile. But he also stayed because of Paterno. What could be better, for his purposes, than a boss with eyes only for the football field, who dismissed him as an exasperating, impulsive knucklehead? Pedophiles cluster in professions that give them access to vulnerable children—teaching, the clergy, medicine. But Sandusky’s insight, if you want to call it that, was that the culture of football could be the greatest hiding place of all, a place where excessive physicality is the norm, where horseplay is what often passes for wit, where young men shower together after every game and practice, and where those in charge spend their days and nights dreaming only of new defensive schemes. 

It can be very easy to blame the abuser (and why not, the abuser has abused, they're thoroughly blameworthy).  It can also be very easy to blame the most conspicuous enablers who could be shown to be looking the other way but as the theologian John Murray put it decades ago in The Imputation of Adam's Sin modern Western culture is not particularly interested in accepting collective guilt  This might be all the more ironic since the Eastern church does not affirm Original Sin, which is arguably a uniquely Western conception of the sin nature in terms of the development of global Christendom ... and yet in the modern "post-Christian" West group guilt is only selectively applied to particular political movements or economic interests like the Democratic and Republican parties, "big oil" or "the ___________ industrial complex" of your choice. 

But you?  Could you be part of a community that was groomed for any kind of abuser to thrive and expand his or her reach into appropriating and exploiting?  No .... no .... that can't be, because you're a reasonable, rational person with your own will and emotions who wouldn't just blithely roll over for the use of a buzzword like "authority".  You are and if you tell yourself otherwise you're very likely lying to yourself.  There are temptations that most easily seduce us precisely because we can't imagine being tempted and then, bam, we're ensnared.  We live in such an information-saturated time that an abuser could be well-read in the extent literature on the profiles of abusers and compare that to pop cultural imaginations of the abuser.  It's hardly impossible for a man who abuses children as Sandunsky has to present himself for decades as an advocate for children in need.  It should be a sobering thing for each one of us to realize that not only are victims groomed but communities are groomed as well and what is most troubling for any of us to consider, of course, is that you or I may already be part of a community that an abuser has groomed for whatever abuse he or she is interested in starting or continuing.  

As Baumeister wrote at some length in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty the myth of pure evil is that it is the other and not in our midst. An application of this would not merely be a prosaic observation that you or I could even potentially abuse.  That is in a sense too melodramatic and too easy, though potentially true.  It's more troubling to concede that you or I might unwittingly enable the hurting of others; you or I may unwittingly have been groomed by others to have so high a threshold for the establishment of reasonable doubt that by the time an abuser gets caught or a person fits the profile of abusive behavior we will convince ourselves that can't possible be the case because that person (whoever he or she is) is one of "us". The troubling thing about an abuser to consider is that an abuser uses the community identity against us while we have been busy assuming that whoever an abuser might be the person could only be one of "them". 


Headless Unicorn Guy said...

I grew up with an abusive brother with undiagnosed NPD. I can attest that abusers and sociopaths are masters of camouflage, experts at hiding what they are.

And it does not surprise me that the grooming process starts with the surrounding community. This establishes a safe zone for the abuser, full of carefully-cultivated allies who will back him up and further discredit his victim. "Go ahead and tell everyone -- NOBODY WILL EVER BELIEVE YOU!!!!!"

"But he's such a Nice man -- he couldn't possibly do the things you claim he did to you! You must be Lying! How Dare You SLANDER Such An Upstanding Man!!!!!"

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

P.S. We live in such an information-saturated time that an abuser could be well-read in the extent literature on the profiles of abusers and compare that to pop cultural imaginations of the abuser.

i.e. Deliberately camouflaging himself to NOT appear as an abuser. In fact, just the opposite.

Isn't there something about "Appearing as an Angel of Light"?

It's hardly impossible for a man who abuses children as Sandunsky has to present himself for decades as an advocate for children in need.

ALL successful long-term abusers are like this. If Sandusky wasn't such a master of camouflage, he would have been caught long ago.

And we only hear about the ones who DO get caught...