They prefer to be called survivors, not victims.
Jim Polo, Matt Bodenschatz, Gini Tucker and Maggie Gould were sexually abused as children. The trauma they experienced created permanent, invisible wounds that they say have changed them forever.
All four have a connection either with Penn State or with State College. For each, the arrest of former assistant football coach and Second Mile founder Jerry Sandusky on child sexual abuse charges, and the allegations that university administrators might have played a role in covering up Sandusky’s actions triggered especially strong feelings of revulsion and contempt.
Here are their stories.
Polo, 40, of State College, was abused by his Boy Scout leader when he was 12 years old, he said.
“They violate you like that, and it just wrecks your brain. Not a day has gone by in my life that it didn’t affect something I said or did,” said Polo.
Polo notified police and soon other Scouts came forward with their own allegations. Polo’s perpetrator was charged with indecent assault, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children, but a plea deal — he was represented by Joe Amendola, who is Sandusky’s attorney — allowed the man to remain free. The man died several years ago, Polo said.
Although Polo went on to play professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs organization, throughout his adolescence and into adulthood he struggled with feelings of separation and isolation, which he said led to drug and alcohol abuse and contemplation of suicide.
“People don’t understand what you’re going through, then you feel like it’s your fault for feeling the way you do,” Polo said. “It sometimes gets to that point in your life where you say, ‘I wish I was dead.’ ”
The worst part, Polo said, is the misconception that most of those abused as children go on to become predators themselves.
“They steal everything from you as a child, then you have to bear the cross that you may become that when you grow up,” he said. “It’s a dirty thing to put on a kid.”
Since the allegations against Sandusky became public, Polo has experienced bouts of extreme emotion, shifting between anger over Sandusky’s alleged actions and sorrow for the victimized children.
“I’m absolutely disgusted at how many kids there were and what he did to those kids,” he said. “Oh my God, it’s devastating.”
A Cambria County native, Bodenschatz, 38, is working on a bachelor’s degree in English at Penn State.
Bodenschatz left Pennsylvania soon after graduating high school and joining the military. He’s lived all over the U.S.
His path back to central Pennsylvania, and his life now, have been complicated by the difficulties of coping with the abuse he suffered when he was a child.
“My course was altered. I was radically interrupted,” he said. “Anything I did, anything I evolved to be from that point on wasn’t necessarily just me as I might have been without the abuse. It’s as if I’ve been moving along this parallel plane — that there’s two versions of myself. My dysfunctions, my issues, can’t be judged by a pure version of me, because that got taken away.”
Bodenschatz isn’t exactly sure when he was abused; it was around when he was 8 to 10 years old. Repression of memories of abuse is a common occurrence among victims, he said. What he does feel — acutely — is how the abuse has affected him.
“When someone encroaches into your body, there’s definitely something that’s taken and is gone forever,” he said. “Even if the police find the person who stole what was taken from you, there’s no restitution. There’s a hole that’s always going to be a hole.”
Bodenschatz’s life has not turned out the way he once imagined it.
“I’m unmarried; that’s not what I would have pictured for my life. How could that not have happened by now? I have no children despite my love for children and my eagerness to be a parent,” he said. “I’m constantly having things in my life get started but not finished. Things get interrupted or uprooted, and I can’t say that to be fair I know why. ... The elusiveness of it, I can’t lay all that on feet of me without the abuse.”
He calls the abuse he suffered his “invisible malady.”
“Because it’s not a physical manifestation, you exist out there in the same world (as) everybody else,” he said. “People being conversational or flippant will say something, and because they don’t see a marker on you, it comes out unabated, raw, unprefaced, and that hurts incredibly badly. And that’s going to happen to you all of your life.”
Witnessing firsthand the response to the firing of Joe Paterno by the Penn State campus was disturbing, Bodenschatz said.
“Students were (bestowing) adoration on somebody who failed — knowingly failed — to protect abused kids, who enabled an abuser, who continued to treat him like a friend. To show up at his house with unconditional love, that stings people like me very deeply,” he said. “The man who abused me is dead. What he did lives on, but he’s dead. I have a campus full of people missing the point, (who are) more concerned about school pride, when there so much more at stake than that.”
Tucker, 60, of State College, spent about 15 years and thousands of dollars coming to grips with being sexually abused as a child by men close to her family.
Until her early 40s, when repressed memories came to light, she felt disconnected, vulnerable and fearful of people — even as she earned a doctorate and pursued a successful career with Corning and on the Penn State Smeal College of Business faculty.
Counseling and therapy helped her become a “whole adult,” she said.
“This is something that happened to me,” she said. “It wasn’t me.”
The nonstop media coverage of the charges against Sandusky, and inescapable talk of child sex abuse, shook her, making her feel as if “she were falling back into a pit.”
She hasn’t been sleeping or working well lately, wrenched back to the days when she carried a hole inside her.
“That hole is closed up, but right now, it’s feeling like that’s not as strong a cover now, a thin membrane,” she said.
Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., she was abused around ages 4, 11 and 13 by different men, she said. Through her teens, she seemed well-adjusted, getting good grades and participating in Girl Scouts.
But she kept to herself. Social gatherings made her uncomfortable; she didn’t date much. She felt “totally detached” from her body, as though it belonged to someone else. Easily emotional, she came to hate her femininity.
She chalked it all up to her weakness.
“It’s like your whole world is shattered,” she said.
After two divorces, she sought help and successfully confronted her past. She thought her old feelings were gone, but the child abuse allegations reawakened them. Suddenly, in her retirement, the world was as dangerous as it once was long ago.
“With this, my first reaction on that Monday (after Sandusky’s arrest) was total fear,” she said. “I was in a state of fear.”
Then she knew why. “Nobody protected those kids,” she said. “That was my first gut reaction. Nobody protected them. That’s scary.”
As painful as the past two weeks sometimes have been for her, she hopes the flood of stories will raise awareness of child abuse — to the point where it’s talked about as calmly as breast cancer.
But, as she now realizes, it will never lose its power over her. She’ll never truly heal.
“It still impacts, and it knocks your feet out from you,” she said.
Gould, a Boalsburg resident, won’t say how old she is, other than to say she’s the mother of four teenagers.
After suffering sexual abuse as a child, and having her daughter live through similar abuse, Gould became engaged in spreading awareness as part of the Coalition of Pennsylvania Crime Victim Organizations.
“Emotionally, at that age your body and mind just isn’t ready for it, and that’s devastating. It creates a detachment from society, from everything,” Gould said. “It’s not just a detachment from being able to grow up and have a romantic relationship with somebody else. It’s a detachment from loving and trusting other people, even how food tastes, how you look at yourself in the mirror; how you judge yourself and others. It’s a detachment from being able to go out into the community and be comfortable.”
Gould said her abuse happened at a young age, and she, like many survivors, repressed its memories. She said such repression may be so common among victims partly because “it’s still not an accepting environment” to be open about sexual abuse.
The time since Sandusky’s arrest has been as stressful for her as the trial of her daughter’s abuser, she said.
“It’s so easy to feel the pain as if it was actually happening to you all over again,” she said. “Reading in the grand jury report how each time the victims had to talk to more people from the court, had to repeat their story over and over again, it was very easy to get caught in reliving those terrible days we went through.”
The task that remains for the State College and Penn State communities is to learn more about preventing such crimes and to spread the word to others. Her voice wavered as she talked about the candlelight vigil held Nov. 11 in front of Old Main.
“There were 10,000 people there. I’ve been to a lot of vigils and rallies ... geared toward sexual abuse, and I’ve never seen close to that many people,” she said. “Penn State (alumni) and students vowed they’re going to change this, and that was a good start.”
According to The National Center for Victims of Crime, about 90,000 reports of child sexual abuse are filed in the U.S. every year, and about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will have experienced an episode of sexual abuse before they turn 18.
Kenneth Levy, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, said childhood sexual abuse results in wide-ranging outcomes for survivors.
“A healthy kid in a healthy environment with a relatively truncated experience, where adults rally to protect the child, can have acute short-term effects, but results in a better long-term adjustment,” Levy said. “You see worse long-term effects when there’s long-term abuse by an adult who is in a trusting relationship with the child, and that’s intertwined with malevolence or threats and people not protecting the child or ignoring their reports of abuse.”
Children and adolescents who have been abused often become irritable, impulsive and have difficulty concentrating. If they’re not given help during that stage of their lives, or if their peer group is not accepting of them, “problems can edge into their developing sense of themselves,” Levy said.
Abuse can lead to depression, anxiety, disassociative behavior such as feelings of isolation or separation from others, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders — “A whole host of issues,” Levy said.
The best treatment is therapy, particularly with a specialist in treating child sexual abuse, Levy said.
“I would say it’s an imperative,” he said.
All of those interviewed for this story agreed that therapy was a vitally important part of their lives and attempts to heal themselves. Even with therapy, however, it’s impossible for many victims to regain the sense of normalcy they had before the abuse.
“What therapy has done for me is teach me how to deal with it a little better,” Polo said. “It’s taken me so long to figure out what I need.”
Cliff White can be reached at 235-3928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620 or email@example.com.