The Media Zone

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Dorothy Sandusky: A Woman Who Saw Nothing

Were boys' emotional lives sacrificed to save her marital illusions?

Dorothy & Jerry Sandusky
Dorothy (Dottie) Sandusky is the 69-year-old wife of the former Penn State assistant football coach and recently convicted pedophile, 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky.  From the get-go with his 2011 arrest, throughout periods of worldwide spotlight and O.J.-like media coverage, up through her testimony at his trial, and even after his conviction, Dottie did, as the Tammy Wynette song entreats, “stand by her man.” 

The question on virtually everybody’s lips after his arrest has been: Was hers an act of wifely valor or an act of cowardice?  Was she defending an innocent man or denying the reality of all his victims to preserve her world as she once knew it—or thought she knew it?

An answer is critical because it would appear that Dorothy's stance, public and private, may have enabled her husband to continue to violate the bodies and minds of at least ten pre-pubescent males right under her nose and within ear shot, perhaps invisible to eyes blinkered by a fear of a monstrously incredible truth about her husband : He is a serial pedophile who used the home she made with him for 48 years to advance his hidden sexual appetites for young boys.

Perhaps Dottie was an easy mark, quite pliable to a dominating man.  Pedophiles can be quite charming.

From afar, Jerry Sandusky, a football hero at Penn State, was a seemingly wonderful man whom she married when they were in college.  He volunteered much of his time mentoring troubled youth from The Second Mile, a charity that he helped to create in 1977 and that he and Dorothy actively supported while he career-coached at Penn State.

Their life seemed idyllic.  But the picture darkened in 1998 and 2001, when Jerry was investigated for sexual abuse of children. At the time, authorities were given a spot-on profile of Sandusky-like serial predators of young boys by a psychological consultant.  Perversly, failures and still-shadowy pressures on the part of State College police, Penn State administrators and County and State elected officials, led officials away from pursuing the evidence and to dismissing eye-witness reports of on-campus sexual abuse of minors. 

Off police radar, Sandusky pursued his appetites unimpeded on and off the Penn State campus, in his coaching capacity and even after he retired in 1999.  How could Dorothy not know of these investigations?

In 2011 a grand jury was convened because of a mother's complaint to the police about Sandusky molesting her son.  Given the compelling pattern of past and current evidence of possible serial sexual child abuse,  Sandusky was charged with 48 counts of sexual abuse involving 10 alleged victims over a 15-year span.  During the recently concluded trial, eight young men testified about a range of abuse, from kissing and massages to groping, oral sex and anal rape. In her testimony, Dottie Sandusky said she knew several of the accusers, some well. Some of them, she said, were "clingy" around her husband, while another was "charming." Nearly all would stay overnight in the Sandusky basement and her husband "would tell them good night," she said.

One witness testified that he was attacked by Jerry Sandusky in the basement and cried out for help while Dorothy was upstairs. Her rejoinder? The basement was not soundproof and she would have been able to hear shouting upstairs.

Dottie testified that she remembered most of the men who told a jury that her husband sexually abused them as children, but she said he never had inappropriate contact with them as boys. She suggested that the accusers fabricated their claims of abuse, a charge she had made before.

She also rebutted one victim's claim that Sandusky tried to engage in oral sex with him while in a hotel bathroom at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas. The man said the assault was interrupted when Dottie Sandusky walked into an adjoining room.

"They were just standing ... in a hallway kind of thing... they had their clothes on, they were fully clothed," she said. Clearly a damning riposte.  Not!

Dorothy Sandusky learned of many facts and testimonies and letters and emails concerning her husband's relations with the troubled youths from The Second Mile. Why didn't that information raise doubts about her husband predelections and choice of “methods” (as he would delicately describe them) of mentoring and foster parenting?

bob costas-Sandusky interview
And then there’s the explosive, disastrous 2011 Bob Costas telephonic interview with Jerry Sandusky on NBC'sRock Center, an interview suggested by and in the presence of his lawyer, Joe Amendola.  Presumably, the goal was to get out Sandusky’s side of the story without being under oath.  Unless she refused to witness any of it, this is some of what  she heard:

BOB COSTAS: What did happen in the shower the night that Mike McQuery happened upon you and the young boy?

JERRY SANDUSKY: Okay, we—we were showering and—and horsing around. And he actually turned all the showers on and was—actually sliding—across the—the floor. And—and we were—as I recall possibly like snapping a towel, horseplay.

BOB COSTAS: Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?

SANDUSKY: (PAUSE) “sexually attracted…” No.

BOB COSTAS: Did you do anything wrong with boys?

JERRY SANDUSKY: Wrong? (pause) Wrong to have showered with them comes to mind.  Hugged them … touched their legs.”

The central Pennsylvania Patriot-News reported that the nationally broadcast interview triggered more of the coach's alleged victims to come forward.  Yet for Dottie no bells went off?  No moments filled with anxiety?  Horror?  Some flash of uncertainty about her husband of 48 years, who spent a great deal of time, both days and nights, with young boys, at home, at the university, on the road?

And when her daughter-in-law, wife of her adopted son, claimed Jerry abused one of his grandchildren and refused to let Sandusky see him again, no voice in the back of her mind started to scream “Red alert, Dottie!  Red Alert!"?  If not, Dottie, why not?

Finally this: When the jury was deliberating, Dottie's adopted son, 33-year-old Matt Sandusky, revealed that he too had been molested by her husband, a declaration that shortly followed by the jury’s guilty verdict. At this moment, with all that evidence and the 45 count-conviction, Dottie Sandusky still has not publicly recanted her support of her husband, not publicly recanted her disbelief of the accusers, or retracted the aspersions cast upon their motives and veracity.

How are we to understand this woman?

Women fearful of losing their husband — marriage — anchoring point — status — lifestyle, find ways to deny, ignore, minimize, and rationalize away their spouse’s bad behavior.  Big  example:  Wives of Mafia dons and enforcers have learned to look away or accept the flimsy, implausible, absurd covers proffered by their husbands.  The Gotti family members, wives, daughters and sons, were real life examples of this willful blindness.  Fictionally, the Corleone and Soprano women are iconic wives, children and lovers of these career mobsters, correctly mimicking real life. Perhaps before his arrest, Mrs. Bernie Madoff was a blind-eyed wife too       

 As I researched this case, I read many, many comments about Dottie. I saw only one comment that was pro-Dottie:

"If she knew, so what?  You marry for better or worse. That's  her husband. That's why there are so many divorces. You are suppose to stand by your better half."

The writer was a male.

The rest were by women  who, mostly to a person, invoked woman’s intuition, their sixth sense about a lover/husband’s faithfulness or cheating, or his other sexual fetishes and paraphilias:

"She knew. Wives know. Period! she loved him. She dismissed it. She knew. She tucked it away in her lingerie drawer, where promises were made and lost. She knew. She's as guilty as he is."

"We're women. We can tell if our husbands are cheating with a fly. And YES Sandusky was not only a pervert but a CHEATER...The only women who don't know what their husbands are doing are the ones who don't want to know. The lifestyle or their perception of their great lifestyle is way too good and they don't want to give it up."

How wives respond to the revelation of this sort of abuse varies greatly — from reporting it immediately to convincing themselves, time after time, that it won’t happen again.  Indeed there's an online support group for women with experiences similar to Dorothy Sandusky's, HealingWives.com.

Ironically, there's also an online activist group for sexual predators and pedophiles like Jerry Sandusky, B4U-ACT which is  committed to helping get these people therapy and to not act on their sexual impulses.  Perhaps a symbol of the times and our semantic sensibilities, the organization discards "loaded" terms an labels like predator and pedophile, and has created the label MAP = Minor-attracted people [yes, you read it right.]

In the end, what do we make of Dorothy Sandusky?  She might be a woman of her time, as some have argued, whose life had meaning and purpose as a wife and mother; to accept the ugly truths about her husband would leave her rootless, anomic, even suicidal because she did nothing—we know of—to stop his predation and deceit.  So, her mind closed to all the suspicions and suggestive evidence about the “real” Jerry Sandusky while she stayed married to the fiction.

Or she might be someone who had invested so much in her life with Jerry Sandusky that she saw no alternative but to recommit to her allegiance to the idea of Jerry’s innocence, and hope, against all odds and rationality, that a miracle happens, and he would be acquitted and that their lives would be pulled back from this shadow world they've inhabited for so long.

A third possibility is that Dottie eventually saw it all but hoped that age would quiet Jerry's predatory beast and return the man whose charms still stirred her.

All these possibilities have one dreadful thing in common: the emotional lives of the molested children. Yes, I am saying they were sacrificed for the preservation of the Sandusky marriage.

Her marriage is gone.  Dottie must face a very nasty, conscience-screaming abyss that is filled with young boys' calling out for her courage and compassion, cries that Dorothy Sandusky failed to answer.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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