What if Jerry Sandusky didn’t do it? In a recent hearing, the former Penn State football coach, who was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, testified for the first time, claiming innocence. But who is going to believe him?
I do, because many of the allegations against him are based on a discredited psychological technique known as repressed-memory therapy.
During the trial, one of the eight young men who testified was asked why his allegations had multiplied over time.
“That doorway that I had closed has since been reopening more,” Dustin Struble told the court. [editor’s note, see p 143 in link.]
“Through counseling and different things, I can remember a lot more detail that I had pushed aside than I did at that point.”
Unfortunately, Sandusky’s trial lawyer Joe Amendola was clueless about the repressed memory issue.
During my investigation for “Victims of Memory” (1996), my book on the subject, the world’s leading memory scientists told me why Freud’s theory of repressed memories of sexual abuse was wrong. (There are many other books on the perils of repressed memories, such as The Myth of Repressed Memory, by Elizabeth Loftus and Remembering Trauma, by Richard McNally).
People do not forget years of traumatic events. Yet all memory is subject to distortion, and through authoritative, suggestive influence, it is relatively easy to generate false memories of abuse – as occurred in thousands of cases during the repressed memory epidemic of the 1990s.
No one can prove a negative. Just as no one can prove that ghosts do not exist, it is impossible to prove that repressed memories are all false. But the concept flies in the face of science and common sense, and I could not find one convincing case. People sometimes avoid thinking about traumatic events that happened to them, but they do not entirely forget them.
So I sought out Dustin Struble, one of the key witnesses against Sandusky.
“Actually both of my therapists have suggested that I have repressed memories,” he emailed. “My therapist has suggested that I may still have more repressed memories that have yet to be revealed, and this could be a big cause of the depression that I still carry today.”
When I asked him in an October 2014 interview what Struble had thought of Sandusky before he went for therapy, he said that he had considered Sandusky a friend and mentor. Before therapy, he recalled no molestation.
Sandusky’s first accuser was Aaron Fisher, “Victim 1,” who went on to co-author a book, Silent No More, with his therapist Mike Gillum. At first, the 15-year-old Fisher said only that he and Sandusky had wrestled around, both fully clothed.
But Gillum just knew that more had occurred.
“I was very blunt with Aaron when I asked questions but gave him the ability to answer with a yes or a no, that relieved him of a lot of burden,” Gillum wrote in the book.
Gillum “just kept saying that Jerry was the exact profile of a predator. When it finally sank in, I felt angry,” Fisher recalled. Yet it took three years of working with Gillum before Fisher would do much more than answer yes or no questions. For a long time, Fisher remained the only witness against Sandusky, and the Pennsylvania attorney general refused to proceed with his testimony alone.
But under Gillum’s tutelage, Fisher eventually agreed that Sandusky had forced him into oral sex.
Gillum told me that he went on to counsel at least two other alleged Sandusky victims. One may have been Jason Simcisko, who testified about why he initially denied any abuse: “Everything that’s coming out now is because I thought about it more. I tried to block this out of my brain for years.” [editor’s note: It is safe to access these trial transcripts, so ignore the warning about “some files can contain viruses.” See p. 122]
From remarks in other testimony, from police reports, and from lawyers’ comments, it becomes apparent that repressed memories or other memory distortion could underpin all of the allegations against Sandusky.
Police used overtly leading questions, telling young men that Sandusky had abused others and that they wanted to hear the same stories now.
“He took advantage of you,” they said. “We need you to tell us this is what happened.” [ed. note: see pp 80-83]
The police got “angry and upset when I would not say what they wanted to hear,” recalled one interview subject.
The police asked uncooperative interviewees to call them if they could “recall anything.”
Civil lawyers sent potential victims to therapy to help unearth memories. As Howard Janet, a civil lawyer for an alleged Sandusky victim, explained in a CNN interview, victims could “create a bit of a Chinese wall in their minds. They bury these events that were so painful to them deep in their subconscious.”
But that’s not all. The well-known sodomy-in-the-shower story is fictional. When Mike McQueary went into the locker room in 2001, he briefly heard slapping sounds in the shower that he interpreted as sexual. As McQueary later put it, “Visualizations come to your head.”
He then saw Sandusky and a boy walk out of the shower.
Nearly ten years later, when the police told McQueary that Sandusky had been accused of sexually abusing a boy, McQueary’s memory changed. This is not unusual because eyewitness testimony is notoriously fallible, especially when much time has passed. Our memories are influenced by our current attitudes and prejudices.
So McQueary now recalled looking directly into the shower and seeing Sandusky standing behind the boy and slowly moving his hips. [ed. note: see pp 195-197]
Allan Myers, who was that boy in the shower, emphatically denied that Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused him. “Never, ever, did anything like that occur,” he said in a statement to Sandusky’s defense team. He said that he and Sandusky had been slap-boxing.
But then Myers apparently changed his mind. He found a civil attorney, joined the other alleged victims, and eventually collected a great deal of money. Myers did not testify at the trial. The prosecution didn’t want his statement introduced by the defense, and the defense was also afraid to call him. So he remained the anonymous “Victim 2.”
“Victim 8” didn’t testify, not just because he was never identified, but because he may never have existed. A Penn State janitor told the jury [ed. note: see pp 222-248] what another temporary janitor, Jim Calhoun, had allegedly told him in 2000, twelve years before. The reason Calhoun didn’t testify is that he was allegedly suffering from dementia at the time of the trial.
Yet in a taped interview with the police, Calhoun said that Sandusky was not the man he saw abusing a boy. Inexplicably, this tape was not used in Sandusky’s defense during the trial, probably because his lawyer was overwhelmed and never listened to it.
Then there’s Matt Sandusky, the last of the six children the couple adopted, who “flipped” to accuse his father mid-trial. “Based upon what you’re telling me,” Oprah Winfrey asked him on camera, “you actually repressed a lot of it.”
“Uh-huh, absolutely,” Matt replied. “The physical part is the part that, you know, you can erase…. I didn’t have these memories of the sexual abuse.”
At an interview following Sandusky’s conviction on June 22, 2012, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly affirmed that repressed memories were key to the case, explaining: “It’s a long process…to have that many young boys come forward and say what they did and to have to unearth those memories that they buried for all those years.”
Author’s Note: This quote is from an interview with Linda Kelly by Jeremy Schaap and Roger Cossack on June 22, 2012, from an ESPN website: It has since been removed from the internet, but there is a mention of it here.
Jerry Sandusky did take showers with boys, but that is not a crime. He grew up in a recreation center run by his parents, where such showers were the norm.
If Sandusky were a pedophile, he would probably have molested his other four adopted sons. Yet when I interviewed them, they denied any abuse. “My parents gave me morals,” a son told me. “They taught me how to live my life. They modeled things I’m striving to be as a parent myself.” But none of the sons would allow me to use their names, for fear of reprisals against them or their families.
Sandusky founded the Second Mile program to help troubled youth. Of the hundreds of Second Mile alums the police interviewed during the Sandusky investigation, the vast majority did not claim abuse, despite extensive pressure to do so.
“We have recently been interviewing kids who don’t believe the allegations as published and believe Sandusky is a great role model for them and others to emulate,” complained one investigator in a frustrated email to his team. [ed. note: see Appendix N in this link, p. 261]
During the June 2012 trial, alleged victims gave graphic, disturbing testimony. While much of it had evolved and grown over time, it is not clear that it all stemmed from repressed memories. Barring a new trial for Sandusky, it is difficult to determine what had always been remembered and which memories were created more recently through suggestion.
After the explosive allegations were broadcast by the media in November 2011, and it became clear that alleged victims might make a great deal of money, financial motivations may have become more of an issue for the last two trial “Victims 9 and 10” and other anonymous claimants who then came forward.
In response to a brief filed by Sandusky’s attorneys Al Lindsay and Andrew Salemme on August 31, 2016, it appears that Judge John Cleland, who also presided over the rushed 2012 trial, may allow a hearing regarding repressed-memory therapy, the unacknowledged linchpin of the case.
Ed. note: See also: “Sandusky Wants Judge to Review Victim Therapy Records” (Centre Daily Times/September 2).
After these hearings, if Cleland refuses to grant Sandusky a new trial – despite an appallingly ineffective trial defense effort and illegally leaked grand jury information – Sandusky’s lawyers can appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts.
If he fails there, his only option will be a federal court.
Let’s hope that the justices will allow testimony about repressed memories in the Sandusky case.
Mark Pendergrast’s Victims of Memory was one of the first investigations of the repressed memory epidemic. He is currently preparing a book about the Sandusky case. He can be reached through his website, www.markpendergrast.com.