Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crime in a Small Town: State College and a Clash of Narratives

Walk into a bookstore, any bookstore (if Amazon still has left any in your town), and go to the mystery section. Pick up a book, any book. Flip it over. Read the back. See if the words "small town" and "secrets" or "crime" are on the back. I bet you find it in about 10 books or less. The theme is well-known. What usually then happens is the story evolves down two paths.
Path 1: The Hidden Mastermind. The town is terrorized by a hidden mastermind, who delights in tormenting the innocent townspeople. The police are powerless to apprehend him/her, even perhaps seeing them at the scene of the crime but still not able to comprehend that such an icon of the community (or quiet member) is the criminal.

Path 2: The Cover-up. Several people in town know who the criminal is, but the criminal is protected by corrupt small-town politics and judges. Those few who know struggle to turn the tide and get justice, trying to force the town to face the evil within.

A few weeks ago, all we knew is that crime had occurred in State College. A man, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested for horrific crimes against young boys. It was not clear exactly who knew what and when, but it was clear the crimes had been taking place for years without true punishment being carried out.

Over time, public opinion quickly consolidated on The Cover-up explanation. The grand jury recommended that two of Jerry's former bosses be indicted, after all. A wave of outrage led to the school coach and president being ousted. Information emerged to support our choice of The Cover-up. Jerry Sandusky's bizarre interview with Bob Costas made him look like a bumbling fool, the type of dumb criminal who all but wrote "ASK JERRY WHAT HE KNOWS" at the crime scene. Joe Paterno apparently tried to cover up other crimes within the program, or at least limit punishment. We got it right! High-five for Encyclopedia Brown!

Or...did we? Because what I see is that when this story first broke, Path 1 was just as viable. Jerry Sandusky had an airtight alibi. His parents were involved in charity work for children. He started his own charity when he was 33, an age where some of us are still trying to figure out how to be adults, let alone think about children. He had adopted six children of his own. He then subsequently quit football to focus on his charity. There was every reason to see Jerry Sandusky as the type of warped mastermind who could indeed fool everyone. Penn State officials knew Jerry when he was a vibrant, talented young man, not Jerry the tired, slow-witted old pervert (allegedly). Such a Jerry could indeed make one showering incident sound like the warped imagination of a tired, impressionable graduate assistant. Yet that narrative of Jerry Sandusky as Criminal Mastermind never made it into the stories I read. Why not?

In the end, we (writers, commenters, etc.) got it right. I'm pretty sure about that, even given our ability to create new stories to confirm our existing biases and choices. And yet, I still am a bit afraid. I see how quickly we, supposed critical thinkers, settled on one narrative or possibility without even considering the possibility of another. I see the cost if we were wrong, and it concerns me. "We" were right when we flip to the back of the book for the answer...but I don't think it's anything to crow about to Encyclopedia Brown.

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