Friday, November 11, 2011

Albus Dumbledore on Joe Paterno

 I've not been sleeping well this week. When you've been sexually abused as a child, you can do years of therapy and think "okay, I've dealt with that and I'm 'cured'" but then when you least expect it, something will happen that triggers this reaction from your reptilian brain, the one where the trauma was imprinted when you were young and scared and voiceless. I wrote about that here

So ever since I heard about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, it's been one massive trigger after another. I wrote this initially, but watching the PSU students riot in support of Coach Joe Paterno was incredibly disturbing.

And then I read this piece by Joe Posnanski, Paterno's biographer.

Here's the part that really got me:

 Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors. I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him, of the way he stuck with people in their worst moments, of the belief he had that everybody could do a little bit better — as a football player, as a student, as a human being. I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.
But I will say that I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.

I've been thinking about this a lot, and although I realize my perspective is colored by my experience, I still disagree with Posnanski and here's why. I'll let Dumbledore explain, because he is so much wiser than I am:

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
         Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  JK Rowling

When I teach writing workshops, I always start with character, because to me exploring the human character is the most interesting part of writing a novel. When we talk about plot, I explain the need to throw create tension by throwing stumbling blocks in the way of our character, because that forces the character to make choices, and it's through choices that the character experiences growth - or, conversely, exhibits the fatal flaw that leads to his or her downfall.

When I think about Joe Paterno, I think about the decent, good man that Posnanski sees, who had superlative abilities and indeed helped many young people. But who nonetheless had a tragic flaw.

Why did he make the choice he did? Is it because he was concerned about his legacy? Was it out of loyalty to a colleague whom he'd worked for years? We don't know the truth yet. But what we do know is that he made a despicable choice, for as yet to be ascertained reasons. And no matter what Joe Posnanski says, despite everything that has gone before, Joe Paterno deserves a tarnished legacy. Because our choices DO show what we truly are.

1 comment: