Speaker Defends Sandusky, Discussing Malleability of Memory


“There’s one thing I should make clear. There is absolutely no way, in the brief period of time I’m going to speak, that I’m going to convince you of anything in this very complex case.”

Science writer Mark Pendergrast used these words to begin his Tuesday, Feb. 20 lecture “The Malleability of Memory and the Conviction of Jerry Sandusky.” Pendergrast, who has authored 14 books on topics ranging from caffeinated beverages to Japanese renewable energy policies, spoke in the Axinn Center about his latest book, “The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment.”

Pendergrast began his talk by summarizing the well-known case of Jerry Sandusky, the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach who is a convicted serial rapist and child molester. In 1977, Sandusky founded a charity called The Second Mile in State College, Pennsylvania, to provide help and support to atrisk youth. The program also gave Sandusky decades of unsupervised access to vulnerable boys. He was arrested on pedophilia-related charges in 2011 and found guilty in 2012. Yet despite the numerous witnesses who have recounted stories of his abuse, Sandusky insists that he was wrongly convicted.

“I don’t think he’s guilty,” said Pendergrast. “I think he’s entirely innocent.”

Pendergrast explained that much of the case against Sandusky depended on repressed memory therapy, a technique meant to retrieve traumatic experiences that children block from consciousness. Therapists helped Sandusky’s witnesses rebuild memories of abuse that they could not recall. “I’m assuming that everyone knows that repressed memories are pseudoscience,” said Pendergrast. “The idea that you would forget terrible things is not true.”

Pendergrast said that when he first learned about the case, “I was appalled by it, and like everyone, I thought Jerry Sandusky must have done this.” Interviews with Sandusky and his children changed Pendergrast’s mind. Of Sandusky’s six children, five defend their father, describing him as “touchy-feely” but in a paternal way. Adopted son Matt Sandusky started out backing his siblings, but he changed his story after attending repressed memory therapy. He eventually released a statement saying that his father had sexually abused him.

Pendergrast saw Sandusky’s lack of maltreatment toward his own children as an early indication that other witnesses’ stories might not add up. He said, “I would think that if [he were] a pedophile and [he] had four of these interviewed boys, that he would try to do something with them. They weren’t even related by blood. But he didn’t.”

Accusations against Sandusky collected over the years, but former Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary ignited the controversy when he overheard slapping sounds in the locker room shower. It was Sandusky with a boy. Pendergrast emphasized that while McQueary initially spoke only of hearing sounds he interpreted as sexual, his story shifted after he, too, attended repressed memory therapy. There, he remembered seeing Sandusky’s hips moving behind a child’s. The boy in the shower, Allan Myers, later testified that he and Sandusky had been snapping towels and that he could recall nothing sexual about the incident.

Pendergrast recognized that the circumstances of McQueary’s accusation were inherently suspicious. People would question a man in his mid-fifties showering, nude, with a child. Pendergrast responded by describing Sandusky as a “supportive goofball” who was oblivious to what others considered socially acceptable.

Most of the witnesses who ended up testifying against Sandusky said that they had pushed away memories of his abuse until therapy allowed them to recognize what really happened. Pendergrast believes that the therapists implanted the witnesses with false memories. He quoted “Victim 7,” Dustin Struble, as saying, “I had everything blocked out.” Struble also said, “I was good at pushing memories of abuse away. [My therapist] explained a lot to me since this happened.”

“I don’t believe he was abused,” said Pendergrast.

Sandusky’s attorney was, as Pendergrast put it, “completely clueless about repressed memory.” He had no idea how to fight a string of victims who defended Sandusky until they went to therapy and remembered the abuse he had put them through. According to Pendergrast, trial mismanagement and blind trust in repressed memory doomed Sandusky, but because Pennsylvania’s judges are elected rather than appointed, he has little hope of being granted a retrial.

Pendergrast did not expect his brief talk to change anyone’s mind. His stance on Sandusky is so unpopular that he could not find a publisher for his book, which can instead be purchased online in paperback and Kindle form. Pendergrast, who hopes that people will consider his perspective before forming their own conclusions, said, “I beg you to actually read the book.”

When asked whether he believed repressed memory played a role in the #MeToo Movement, Pendergrast said that while repressed memory likely influences some cases, he does not think it is a significant factor. While he sees the #MeToo Movement as “shedding light on the way women have been treated,” he is concerned by events such as the firing of Garrison Keillor. “Where are the details?” Pendergrast said. “The man’s life has been ruined.”