Malcolm Gladwell defends child abuse theory

Sports blog Deadspin isn't buying the pop sociologist's take. The author responded in the comments section

Topics: Sexual abuse, Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, deadspin,

Deadspin‘s Dom Cosentino has challenged Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on “How child molesters get away with it.” Gladwell suggests  that child molesters are professional people-pleasers, expert at insinuating themselves in trusted places in the lives of their victims and their victims’ circle.  This is all more or less true at the 5,000-foot level, but in an effort to build a cohesive theory around the case of Jerry Sandusky, Cosentino says Gladwell misrepresents aspects of the case. This type of criticism is not foreign to Gladwell, the buzzword-neologizing journalist who can make you think you’re thinking without thinking at all.

Cosentino writes:

Gladwell is right that Jerry Sandusky had a public persona that could fool anyone. He was a successful defensive coordinator, the man who made Penn State into Linebacker U. He was the trusted lieutenant of Joe Paterno, famous for his own rectitude. And Sandusky had founded a charity to help underprivileged youth. Why would anyone suspect he was a monster?

But Penn State officials were dealing with more than first impressions. And to try to fit the Sandusky case into his story of how regular people are manipulated by molesters, Gladwell leaves out a number of facts that indicated that Penn State officials seemed to understand what they were dealing with.

Cosentino then demonstrates how Gladwell is overstating the confusion or naivete of several people — a police detective, a child psychologist and an assistant coach who knew Sandusky —  by using case files and court testimony to show otherwise. In the end, Cosentino restates the obvious rather than the counterintuitive: Child molesters are creepy and hard to identify, yes, but there was also a major institutional and individual failing on many levels, which included covering up heinous crimes.

Gladwell responded in the comments section:

Thanks for the piece Dom. (This is Malcolm Gladwell, by the way). I guess my response is that I have a lot less faith than you in the credibility of things people say to grand juries, when their reputations are on the line. McCreary, for example, says now that he witnessed something sexual. But what he told his family friend Dranov, at the time, was something a lot more vague. Schreffler says now that he thought there was enough evidence to press charges. But he would say that—wouldn’t he? Do you honestly believe he would stand up in front of a grand jury investigating Sandusky for child molestation and admit that he was confused in 1998? And Lauro says today he would certainly have suspected Sandusky, had he seen the Chambers report. Really? You mean — he would have happily jettisoned his own independent analysis of Sandusky the minute he heard that someone else had a different opinion? I’m not familiar with psychologists who behave that way. There is an awful lot of after-the-fact rationalization going on here, in other words, and I think we have to be careful in how we interpret these kinds of self-serving memories — which goes to the point of my piece. Child molestation cases are really really hard. They bring out the worse in all of us. Nobody wants to see the truth. Everyone is looking for a less damning way to explain away the facts. I suspect you and I are in agreement on that.

Cosentino fires back with the testimony, and concludes “That, to me, isn’t an indication these men were confused. It tells me they intended to deceive.”

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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