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.


Jackie Dishner, a Phoenix-based freelancer and author of Backroads and Byways of Arizona, writes and speaks about travel and self-development