Malcolm Gladwell Paints Jerry Sandusky as Brilliant Magician

His New Yorker piece on the PSU scandal is maddening.

I thought I was at saturation with Penn State coverage. As the weather cooled and the new football season started, I had actually almost forgotten that we’re quickly approaching the one-year mark since Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of child abuse.

Of course, after that news shattered computer screens last fall, there was no tearing me away from the rapid fire of headlines: “More Accusations Surface in Penn State Abuse Case,” “Sandusky Arrested on Charges Involving Two New Accusers,” “Paterno Ousted with President by Penn State,” “Penn State Officials Head to Court.” I had only lived in Pennsylvania a few months at that point, and even I could sense that I was watching the columns at the Forum crumble.

As the dust swirled, writers from Philly Mag to Sports Illustrated to BBC examined tarnished legacies, penned solemn op-eds, and weighed moral responsibilities of the adults involved.

Still, as Sandusky awaits his sentence, and Tim Curley and Gary Schultz face charges of perjury and failure to report suspicions of said child abuse, a satisfying moral verdict still feels out of reach. No matter which administrator we put under the microscope, no matter how many Freeh report documents we parse through, the exact combination of doubt and cowardice that led to a sickening tragedy remains a mind-boggling puzzle.

So when The New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s expose this past week, “In Plain View: How child molestors get away with it,” much of which centered on Sandusky and his prolonged career as a predator, I devoured it. It’s Malcolm Gladwell, after all—a darling of the intellectual social commentary circuit, and a TED-loyalist’s dream, known for weaving threads of continuity through far-flung topics like Bill Gates and the Beatles, or spaghetti sauce and open markets. In the dilapidated ruin of Penn State’s image, he, I thought, might unearth some new insight into the great fall, some clear-eyed resolution we could rest our heads on.

A tall order, I know. But even considering his daunting subject, Gladwell comes up disturbingly short.

Much of the piece is predicated on criminology studies. He cites the work of psychologist Carla Van Dam, and the autobiography of child predator Donald Silva. Through that lens, it’s an interesting, if unsettling, read about the ways child abusers ingratiate themselves with their communities, select their targets, and hide their crimes. These points are undoubtedly crucial to understanding how someone like Sandusky could, as a trusted adult, begin to terrorize the children close to him. In describing the 1998 incident in which Sandusky was questioned by the mother of a boy who was fondled in the shower, Gladwell writes, “this is standard child-molester tradecraft. The successful pedophile does not select his targets arbirtrarily. He culls them from a larger pool, testing and probing until he finds the most vulnerable … children with vigilant parents are too risky.”

Also critical to the success of a pedophile, Gladwell notes early in the piece, is his ability to make other adults believe he is incapable of abuse. That any suspicion of wrongdoing should be chalked up to a misunderstanding, or, at worst, a foolish but not malicious boundary issue:

“When monsters roam free, we assume that people in positions of authority ought to be able to catch them if they only did their jobs. But that might be wishful thinking. A pedophile … is someone adept not just at preying on children but at confusing, deceiving, and charming the adults responsible for those children—which is something to keep in mind in the case of the scandal at Penn State and the conviction, earlier this year, of the former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child-molestation charges.”

Cue my confused head tilt. Are the cover-up charges facing Curley and Schultz not something of a hint that there was more at play in the Penn State scandal than one deceptive criminal? It’s merely “wishful thinking” to hope that administrators who suspected sexual abuse would follow through on those to the furthest degree possible?

After a few more pages documenting the meticulous, unsavory methods of Sandusky and other pedophiles, the end of “In Plain View” hits like a nosedive into a shallow swimming pool. Why didn’t Schultz, Curley, Spanier, and yes, Joe Paterno, do more when Mike McQueary reported the now-infamous 2001 shower incident? Gladwell assesses:

“Horsing around in the shower? That was Jerry being Jerry. It did not occur to them that the goofy, horseplaying Sandusky they thought they knew was another of Sandusky’s deceptions.”

And that, hopeful readers, is it. That is the harshest thing Gladwell has to say about any of the officials involved, other than a nondescript mention that they “currently face criminal charges.” He doesn’t say what the charges are. Or mention the subsequent investigations that suggest they knew exactly the type of “horseplay” Sandusky was engaging in. The problem, according to Gladwell, is not that officials were too scared to disturb the Happy Valley ethos, or that maybe the pecking order between the school and its football program was just a leetle off-balance, but that Sandusky was a magician of public image. An expert at his “tradecraft.” He just had them completely duped.

It’s a disturbingly short-sighted diagnosis of the Penn State problem. Instead of using the “criminal psyche” lens as a way to illuminate dark, uncharted corners in the oft-told narrative, Gladwell only shines a distant spotlight, casting Sandusky in a monotone pall and leaving the characters around him unquestioned. It’s an oversimplification that dismisses an institutional failure as just a cautionary instance of weasel-predators fooling their peers.

It was wishful thinking, on my part, to hope that any one piece of star-aligning, sense-making prose could answer all the questions raised by the Penn State tragedy. And Gladwell is right that psychological manipulation is key to understanding such crimes. But to place the blame exclusively on the criminal himself—and not on the moral compass of those around him—is to ignore a crucial reason why, as Gladwell himself puts it, “child molestors get away with it.”