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Writing Through Horror

Post-Katrina New Orleans: The Empty ChurchWe hear a lot of debate about the impact of pop culture on society. Do violent video games provoke killers? Does visceral fiction desensitize an audience in dangerous ways? Wait for the first correlation between the wildly popular FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and sexual assault – it’s coming, I promise you. I’ve engaged in the debate at times, and never considered it from a reversed perspective: how does criminal stigma impact pop culture?

Then came Jerry Sandusky.

I spent 2011 with high school football coaches, following the Bloomington High School North Cougars through a season as research for my novel THE PROPHET. It’s a story about brothers, torn apart by crime, estranged by vehemently different opinions on how to cope with the loss, and then forced back together by another, fresh horror. One of the brothers, Kent Austin, is a high school coach who is active in prison ministry. I live in Bloomington, Indiana and St. Petersburg, Florida, regions where Tony Dungy is a revered figure. For as much success as Dungy had on the field, leading the Colts to a Super Bowl championship and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a conference title game, he was equally well-known for his work off the field, specifically in prison ministry. The concept interested me, the dual roles but particularly the notion of a football coach conducting prison outreach. How would a sociopath react to him, I wondered, and with that in mind I set off to write a crime novel featuring a high school coach and his bail bondsman brother.

I’m a fan of the game but I didn’t play, and I certainly didn’t think I would be able to write about a coach without spending some time in the trenches. It was rewarding on levels I never expected. I learned from the coaches, became friends with them, saw the great work they were doing that carried over into the lives of their student athletes. This was the reality I had seen with my own eyes. Then came word of a different reality, in a place called Happy Valley.

The first time I ever heard the name Jerry Sandusky I was at the house of the coach I followed for that year while researching for THE PROPHET, Scott Bless. I was on his deck, drinking a beer and eating pizza and watching a football game with some of his staff members, when I first heard the news of the indictment. I spent the evening there, listening to Bless and his staff talk about their own team – talk not simply about wins and losses but about the boys they needed to find ways to reach. “Football has been better to our kids than our kids have been to football,” is something I’d heard often from the North staff, and I understood how much pride they took in that. They’re not coaching a dynasty, piling up state championships. Would they like to be? Sure. But they understand that 99% of their athletes will not play at the professional level and 95% won’t play at the college level, and they understand, then, that the primary impact football can make for their players has nothing to do with the scoreboard. They take pride in seeing that the results of their program are better off the field.

Even after months around this attitude and these men, I read the stomach-turning, 26-page indictment of Sandusky and promptly told my fiancée that I was glad I was done with THE PROPHET, finished with the story of a football coaching trying to guide his team through tragedy, because it would have been difficult for me to write about the profession in a positive light in the wake of the Sandusky revelations.

Then I paused to think about just how disturbing that was.

The coaches I knew, coaches I’d watched log countless hours not simply to improve their team’s chances for a win on Friday night but to improve the lives of their student athletes, coaches who were truly and passionately invested in trying to help the young men around them, deserved better than that. They were not, are not, and should not be represented by Jerry Sandusky.

And still they will be.

I brought this up to a psychologist, Adam Grant, whom I interviewed while working on an essay about the topic for the Wall Street Journal, and he wasn’t surprised to hear I’d had that brief initial struggle, that I had made an emotional link between a monster and his profession and found the very idea of writing about that world unappealing in that moment.

“Jerry Sandusky is hugely damaging to coaches,” Grant told me. He’s an organizational psychologist with degrees from Harvard and Michigan, now a professor at The Wharton School. “There are two major reasons. First, bad is stronger than good. Research shows that we view negative publicity three times more powerfully than positive. When it comes to judging integrity and ethics we look first of all for deviations. If you wanted to prove whether you are someone we can trust and rely on, we tend to look for negative examples. The second reason is called the availability bias: when we mistakenly use an event as a cue for likelihood. We have a vivid, awful example right now – but one that is easy to call to mind. So it is easy to think your kid is at risk. I don’t envy coaches in response to this scandal.”

As I admitted my own gut reaction to the story, Grant admitted his. “As a parent,” he told me, “it was so much more visceral. I didn’t want the man to be allowed to exist. The creeping in the back of people’s minds is the murderer-next-door kind of mentality: how well do you really know anybody? Even a coach that you trust? Trust is much harder to build than to destroy. For the profession and for individuals, it is going to be way more difficult to rebuild.”

There’s a difference between heightened awareness and paranoia. That is easy to say, easy to wrap your head around, but harder to carry out. Grant says some of this could be primal, evolutionary – we’re predisposed to search for threats, and particularly for threats to our offspring. If that availability bias sinks its teeth in, then the chain reaction can be swift.

And costly.

Because while there is no denying the horrors of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, there’s also no denying the tremendous impact of coaches. Even Grant, having worked with so many scholars and researchers over the years, said, “Outside of my parents, a coach was the single most influential person in my life.”

I asked Grant if, as a parent, he would consider keeping his children away from those overnight camps and travel teams altogether, and whether in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal he suspected many parents would feel that desire. His hope was that they’d feel motivated toward increased awareness, vigilance, and communication – but that they would also remember what the cost of a total shutdown of trust in coaches might mean.

“For millions of people, coaches are some of the most important role models in their lives,” he said. “So they are reducing the likelihood of the worst, but doing so at the price of the likelihood of the best.”

As a novelist, a journalist, and a former private investigator, I’ve always tried to carry a sense of responsibility to view things from as many angles as possible. It’s the advice Atticus Finch offers to Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” For a year, I’d been thoroughly enjoying my immersion in the game of football and the world of coaches. Then came my boomerang response to hearing about Sandusky: relieved I was done with the book, because there was no way I could write it when the most famous coach in America was also one of the most evil child predators in our history.

But it’s our job – writers, media members, those who for whatever reason have a platform – to offer context. To think a little deeper. The game of football, many would say, is of no concern in the horrors that unfolded at Penn State. But it absolutely needs to be. No one would (at least, no one should) dispute that the priority is in revealing the truth of the Sandusky case and bringing whatever aid may still be offered to his victims and their damaged lives. But as I tried to think a little deeper, I thought that there’s another set of victims waiting in this story, and that’s the children who may lose the chance to be positively impacted by good coaches, good men.

I was done with THE PROPHET by the time the Sandusky story broke, and for that I was relieved. Looking back now, though, I hope I still would have been able to see the forest for the trees, hope that I would have been able to avoid that availability bias of which Grant spoke. It’s the only time I’ve run into anything like that as a fiction writer – the topic you simply want to avoid – but I’m glad I didn’t avoid it. The book’s better for the role football plays in it, I think, but the book is an insignificant thing. A lot of kids are better for their involvement with the program and the coaches I followed, and I had the chance to see that first-hand, and for that I’m grateful, because it provided a counter-balance at a time when I needed one.

Michael Koryta’s THE PROPHET is now available in bookstores everywhere.