Time to Say No to “Jerry”

I’m no football fan. It’s not a game I understand. But I am familiar with the latest rule from Penn State’s playbook: “You can’t say no to Jerry.”

Or, is it that you just don’t know how?

Thanks to Penn State football, “Jerry” now symbolizes a predator who molests, sodomizes or otherwise victimizes our children. And we’re not empowering our children with the voice, the instincts or the inner strength to stand up to “him.”

It doesn’t help that there are enablers out there who don’t know how to respond, either.

I can say this because I was a molested, tortured and verbally abused child. And my mother was the enabler. I couldn’t say no. And she didn’t show me that it was even possible. How much she knew, or what she preferred not to know about my abuse, I do not know. I do know that I wasn’t the only child hurt in my family. I also know that this pain follows you into adulthood in ways you won’t realize till it appears as yet another inappropriate touch or remark that you respond to inappropriately—freezing, for instance, and feeling those same childhood fears: I better not say anything; it might make him mad. Maybe if I pretend I’m asleep he’ll leave me alone. I’ll just tuck my blanket in tighter. Oh no, please, not again!

I suspect that’s what the 10-year-old boy raped in the Penn State locker room shower felt.

Years ago, when one of my co-workers—a married man—put his hands on my shoulders and offered me a massage as I sat at my office computer rewriting a story I’d failed to save properly, I couldn’t tell him, “Get your hands off me.” Even though I didn’t want his touch, I didn’t know what to do about it. Whatever thoughts came stumbling out were lost in the biggest lie I had learned to tell myself: You can’t tell him no.

In that moment, I was the scared five-year-old being touched in her private parts by her stepbrother and his friends in his grandfather’s house. Or I was the six-year-old with my stepfather in bed, and he’s whispering into my ear, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” Or I was the eight-year-old trying to wriggle free from the family “friend” giving me a hickey on my neck, while my own mother is sitting on the couch across from us, laughing

When the authority figures in your life are calling the plays like that, no one says no to Jerry. Not the child being sodomized, not the graduate assistant who witnesses it, not even the head coach who you’d think would have more chutzpah than anyone. No one says no.

It’s a lesson well learned at Penn State, and will take much more conditioning to unlearn it. If the abused get intensive trauma therapy, they’ll be coached through letting go of any guilt they might have because of other people’s behavior. It’ll take God knows how many years of practice to earn those five letters: Let go. They’ll learn the truth about the lies—and it will be devastating. To deal, maybe they’ll take a u-turn toward some kind of addiction. Maybe not. Whatever positive steps they tackle, they’ll need to repeat them over and over until self-esteem replaces the damage.

I nearly high-fived myself the first time I recognized I could, in fact, say no—and did—to a man who touched me without my permission. Those who remain victims (even if only inside their minds) won’t ever feel that sense of victory. They’ll shoot themselves in the head first, or they’ll drown in their addictions, or find their way inside of a jail cell due to the rage that has no other way to escape but through crime. From my own experience, and from what I’ve witnessed in helping others at homeless shelters with similar background stories, I know there will always be a part of us that’s wounded. It’s the part that makes me cry for the little boys who are now living inside men’s bodies. It’s the part that makes me cry for the little damaged girl still inside of me.

Do not let “Jerry” convince you this is horseplay. Abuse is systematic, deliberate and requires enablers. So if there’s any game at all, it’s called pretense, and there are no winners. The abuser makes the first move, then pretends what he’s done is okay. If an enabler appears, s/he pretends s/he didn’t see anything. The “game” continues as long as enablers continue making space for abuses to occur.

Time for a different ballgame. Time to step up to do what Penn State, Paterno and all the parents of the world need to be doing every single day for our children. Let’s tell our children that everyone can say no to “Jerry,” and then let’s show them how.

Photo from Flickr user Dru Bloomfield under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Thank you for this article – you hit the feelings of freezing, not knowing what to say or do etc etc. – those feelings of that little girl are so real and true as a forty something adult …….

  2. This should be required reading for everyone in the country. So few people really understand what happened at Penn State. And that it happens all the time. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Gorgeous.

    Thank you.

    Even I didn’t say “No” when I easily could have,

    and I don’t know why.

  5. Wow, what a great essay – definitely the best of the many I’ve read on this subject. Thanks, Jackie Dishner, for sharing your brave journey, and thank you Ms., for giving this space to an article with the clear message: enablers are as culpable as the abusers, an integral part of the sick dynamic that harms so many of our children – and adults.

  6. You are awesome. You are awesome. You are awesome.

    What an amazing job you did, reaching back across the years to give voice to the kids for those of us who can’t imagine. Thank you.

  7. Powerful story, Jackie! Thanks for sharing it with the world.

  8. Jackie – you are one of the bravest people I know. And you are an amazing writer. You said it so poignantly, with such clarity. We are there with you and we are there with these kids.

    Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. You give voice and hope to those who haven’t had the ability or the courage yet to say something.

  9. Marla Markman says:

    Very well-written article. I’m so glad you were able to heal from this and that you are helping others do the same.

  10. Thank you for all of the very kind comments. Please know that healing is a lifetime commitment. Sometimes writing about the abuse is part of that process. But that’s another message for another time.

  11. Thank you, Jackie, for writing such a powerful and personal account. You have my deepest empathy.


  12. Jackie, I can’t imagine how hard it was to live through what you did and then to write about it, but I hope your honesty will touch people and give them courage. Thanks for putting yourself out there to tackle a very important subject and reminding people this goes way beyond a winning record in football and a man’s coaching legacy.

  13. Jackie, in this essay you have spoken in such an empowered and courageous voice!

    I salute you for being so honest in writing about such personal experiences.

    We all need to speak out loudly and clearly for all the children who are too young to understand enough to even protect themselves.

    Thank you for being the amazing human being that you are!


  14. Ruth Bonapace says:

    Terrific commentary – to the point, heartfelt and poignant. If I could only add one thing to the conversation, it would be that we need to create a culture that fully supports those with the courage to speak truth to power (thinking here of the grad student who could have intervened on the spot but didn’t – probably because of the type of intimidation by authority described in the article) Everyone can and must say no to “Jerry”, not just the victims.

  15. Difficult to write, but so important to tell. For me, the best line, the one that just stood up and shouted out “READ THIS!” is:”Do not let “Jerry” convince you this is horseplay. Abuse is systematic, deliberate and requires enablers. So if there’s any game at all, it’s called pretense, and there are no winners.”

    So much abuse happens when the abuser says, “Hey, lighten up! You are such a stick in the mud,” and the victim believes it.

    The saddest part of all is that many abusers, who learn that abuse is power, become abusers themselves. The cycle is hard to break, and everybody has to learn to “say no to Jerry” –victims, enablers, and witnesses. Everybody.

    The hardest thing is that systems (schools, corporations, churches) have as their main goal protection of their own money-making abilities. Everything else–even young children–get ground up under those wheels.

  16. Jackie, you have SO captured the essence of the issue, and so powerfully. Abuse is pervasive in any age, culture, country, religion, and socio-economic strata. As a fellow victim, I know that speaking out and saying NO is a scary yet oh-so-freeing action. It’s good this came to light; and hopefully all the awareness will have an impact…. especially if we keep the Jerrys in jail and stop letting them out with light bail, via “enablers” in the justice system. Appalling. Thank you for your incisive message!

  17. A hell of an article, Jackie. I’m proud of you, as always.

  18. This is great, and necessary reading for . . . just about everyone. As I read about the Penn State scandal, and I read and hear comments expressing outrage, I’m asking myself how many of those outraged people would have actually done differently–I’m not sure their idealized vision of their moral fortitude would match up with the reality, unfortunately.

    I say this ss a clinical social worker who has dealt with both child sufferers of abuse (sexual and other forms), and adult survivors of abuse. What I see and hear is that sexual abuse is far more common than a lot of people are willing to admit, and that people are far too willing to forget who it is we need to protect. It disgusts me how many families go to great lengths to protect abusers within the family, and even some outside the family, even when they know about it. Apart from the obvious message of helplessness this send to children, it also emboldens abusers who now feel they can continue with impunity.

    Given what we know about most sex offenders having *multiple* victims (sometimes in the 100’s), this doesn’t only represent a failure to protect the children we know are abused, but it’s a failure to protect a great many others. People need to understand this, and need to start doing more than saying no–they need to go to bat to make sure the offenders face consequences and are prevented from harming others.

    Protecting them and going to authorities fulfills a basic role of a parent that goes beyond protection–it models for children that they *can* stand up, speak out, and hold others accountable. It models for them our most basic responsibility as human beings, to take care of each other.

    Thanks for this article.



  19. Something I can’t wrap my head around is that asst. Coach walking in on it and turning around and walking away. Why didn’t he yank that poor 10 year old boy out of that shower? That boy must have felt tremendous relief that another adult showed up, only to be heartbroken that he turned his back on it all and left him to be raped again. Why isn’t that coach being charged?

    I’m so sorry this all happened. A child’s most basic relationship involving trust is that of their parents. When they turn a blind eye, there’s no reason to believe anyone else will care.

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