Manipulation by Word-Parsing: Lessons from the Sandusky Case

Now that a jury has passed judgment on Jerry Sandusky based on the evidence they reviewed, I thought it would be instructive to take an in-depth look at some of the more well-documented aspects of this case, because they so clearly illustrate how character-impaired individuals engage in the enterprise many have termed “impression-management.”  Impression management is manipulation for the primary purpose of getting someone to form and hold a favorable impression of your character, as opposed to revealing the kind of person you really are.  For a long time, many – especially mental health professionals – viewed most of the behaviors associated with we now call impression management as a person’s unconscious effort to keep from their conscious awareness aspects of themselves that they recognize would invite the disapproval of others or which even they regard as unacceptable to the more ideal image they want to hold of themselves.  But impression management is really the very conscious and deliberate attempt to blind others to aspects of one’s true character, and almost always for some practical purpose.

Sandusky and his attorney Joe Amendola granted TV journalist Bob Costas an interview, which was a remarkable example of impression management.  I have reviewed this interview several times, focusing on key aspects of it as well as other statements made by Sandusky both in the days preceding the trial and following the conviction, and I couldn’t help but want to comment on a few striking things.

Almost everyone is familiar with Sandusky’s seemingly odd reply to one of Costas’ questions, one that directly addressed his sexual interests.  Now, for starters, let me say that I have interviewed and assessed thousands of different characters, including literally hundreds of sexual offenders, and I have never met a person who didn’t know fully and consciously exactlywhat excites or interests them sexually.  And I think most of us intuitively know the truth of this, which is why Sandusky’s verbal and non-verbal response to Costas’ question is so remarkable.  The question itself couldn’t have been more straightforward or simple:

Costas: “Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?”

But Sandusky’s verbal response as well as his non-verbal behavior is nowhere near as simple or straightforward:

Sandusky:  “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys?”

Sandusky responds in a manner suggesting that the question is possibly “loaded” (with innuendo, and could possibly be misinterpreted), or that he’s not sure he heard it or understands it correctly, and restates it as a question that needs further clarification.  Costas replies only “yes,” asserting that the question he asked is exactly the question he wishes answered, and the reply is:

Sandusky:  “Sexually attracted,… you know…, I….. I enjoy young people. I…., I love to be around them. I,… I,… but no I’m not sexually attracted to young boys.”

Now it’s not rocket science to know that a simple “no” would have sufficed here.  But Sandusky can’t help himself, because so much of the preceding part of the interview has been devoted to impression management, so he implies – both verbally and non-verbally – that it’s perfectly fair to say that he is “attracted” to young people, though not in a sexual way.  He also implies (in several parts of the interview) that he begrudgingly accepts the fact that some folks have simply “misinterpreted” his actions, which are only really rooted in affection, as the actions of one trying to satisfy a deviant sexual urge (interestingly, he does not display the kind of righteous indignation most folks would display upon being asked such an indicting question).  And what most folks who have seen the Costas interview don’t  know, is that immediately prior to this  truly awkward moment in the interview, Costas had asked some other questions of Sandusky, and that Sandusky’s answers to to those questions were even more revealing and suggestive, but the most telltale parts were edited out before the interview aired on TV.  But given the statements he had already made, Sandusky probably realized he would need to engage in some “damage control” in his subsequent responses.  The earlier questions and answers went like this:

Costas: “But you’re a man who by his own admission has showered with young boys – highly inappropriate – who has continually put himself in the presence of young boys – volunteer high school coach, volunteer at a small local college, – even after — you were largely disassociated from Penn States. Multiple reports of you getting into bed with young boys who stayed at your house in a room in the basement. How do you account for these things? And if you’re not a pedophile, then what are you?

Sandusky:  Well, I’m a person that has taken a strong interest. I’m a very passionate person in terms of trying to make a difference in the lives of some young people. I worked very hard to try to connect with them. To make them feel good about themselves. To — be something significant in their lives. Maybe this gets misinterpreted, has gotten depending on … — I know a lot of young people where it hasn’t. I have worked with many, many young people where there has been no misinterpretation of my actions and I have made a very significant difference in their lives.

Costas:  But isn’t what you’re just describing the classic M.O. of many pedophiles? And that is that they gain the trust of young people, they don’t necessarily abuse every young person. There were hundreds, if not thousands of young boys you came into contact with, but there are allegations that at least eight of them were victimized. Many people believe there are more to come. So it’s entirely possible that you could’ve helped young boy A in some way that was not objectionable while horribly taking advantage of young boy B, C, D, and E. Isn’t that possible?

Sandusky:  Well — you might think that. I don’t know. (LAUGHS) In terms of — my relationship with so many, many young people. I would — I would guess that there are many young people who would come forward. Many more young people who would come forward and say that my methods and — and what I had done for them made a very positive impact on their life. And I didn’t go around seeking out every young person for sexual needs that I’ve helped. There are many that I didn’t have — I hardly had any contact with who I have helped in many, many ways.”

To summarize the aforementioned and a large part of the interview, Sandusky continually tries to  make the case that one could say that he is attracted to young persons, but not in a sexual way.  He also acknowledges that he engages in behaviors and “methods” that some might have “misinterpreted” but that many others did not misinterpret.  Still, he “slips” and says that there were many young persons with whom he did not have “contact” and that it would not be fair to say that he went around seeking every young person for sexual needs.

What neither the interviewer or Sandusky ever really comes back to or focuses on is why anyone who really cares about children, his own reputation, the  reputation of the institution he represents (especially in light his full awareness that many of his actions have been “misinterpreted” in a seriously malevolent way in the past), would ever again put himself in a position to have his behavior “misinterpreted” again.  And the reason that question doesn’t get the attention it deserves is likely because of the interviewer’s unconscious response to Sandusky’s efforts at impression management.

There is so much more that can be learned from this case, but it would take many posts to explore all the issues.  For example, I could write several posts just on the popularly-held but erroneous notion that most pedophiles really believe they are just showing love to their victims.  But it’s very important to recognize a few well-established facts: 1) not all individuals who molest children are pedophiles; 2) not all pedophiles or individuals that have an unusual attraction to young persons, sexually molest them (i.e. some individuals recognize their deviant inclinations, are cognizant of the socially unacceptable character of those inclinations and the damage acting upon them could inflict on others, and, accordingly, in good conscience do not permit themselves to gratify their impulses at the expense of a child); and 3) character-impaired individuals know all to well what their intentions and motivations really are but do their best to conceal these from others through the manipulative technique known as “impression management.”

The careful word-parsing that has always been present in this case will likely rear its ugly head in the future.  From the beginning, Sandusky (as well as his attorney) has always been careful to insist that he “didn’t do the things they said [he] did.”  This is the manipulator’s code for: “Not everything they said I did is true, and I can prove that, so therefore you should write my accusers off as liars even though I know I did plenty that I knew was wrong and that testifies to my deviancy.”  But, as I outline in my book Character Disturbance, trying to escape guilt or blame on a “technicality” is one of the disturbed character’s favorite tactics.  And should that tactic prove effective in upcoming appeals (i.e. should the defense show conclusively that some claims of the victims were either exaggerated or cannot be supported) it would be a travesty indeed.  For my part, I’ll be keeping a close watch on this case, because there’s so much that can still be learned from it.

12 thoughts on “Manipulation by Word-Parsing: Lessons from the Sandusky Case

  1. Most creeptacular utterance: “And I didn’t go around seeking out every young person for sexual needs that I’ve helped.”

    Yeah, just *some* of them. It’s like he thinks he should get a special exemption for hey, not molesting everyone he wants to. Sometimes he’s a giver! He’s “helped” a lot of people. So who are we to judge him?

    I think of this as the “poor sausage” defense. Creepy predator abuser wing nuts like him always seem to indulge in some sort of self pity in their impression management. Sandusky is misunderstood. He’s a helper, a guy who likes young people. This is the thanks he gets?

    I’d enjoyed reading your impressions of the Sandusky case. Hope you’ll post more. He’s definitely a poster child for character disturbance.

  2. Dr Simon, as I am reading your new book, I wonder if you would post more on “confrontation” and what you mean by it in the context of not therapy but rather the everyday person dealing with the manipulators in their life.

    It worries me that the term invites coping behavior that is sure to provoke vengefulness from the CA, which I doubt you intended.

    1. So glad you asked the question, Vera. “Confrontation” has really gotten a bad rap lately. To assertively face and focus on a behavior is not synonymous with malicious “provocation.” And it’s also important to recognize that given their very nature, aggressive personalities never really need a reason to go to war, even though they will often try to justify their conduct by insisting they were only responding to or “coping” with a perceived attack. Add to that our traditional notions that no one in their right mind ever wants to aggress unless they feel provoked, and you can get yourself into some really distorted notions on the subject. I always like to think of the example of the aggressive driver who weaves through freeway traffic from lane to lane firmly committed to shaving off that two-tenths of a second and beating the guy behind them to the exit ramp. You could say (and they would probably tell you) that they were “provoked” by the cars in front of them that were going only 80 mph when they wanted to go 90. But the reality is that aggressive personalities always have their goals in mind and overcoming any and all obstacles in their way. And when “confronted” by an officer of the law with the objective radar evidence, and even after paying a dear price in the form of a fine, you can expect them to be out there the next day doing the same old thing. Confronting aggressive behavior in all of its forms is like putting up a speed limit sign. Setting a limit and calling attention to the behavior that needs limiting is not an inherently provocative enterprise. And just because you’ve set the limit doesn’t mean that it will be respected. And in therapy, confronting and correcting dysfunctional behavior is a true art – especially if you expect the client to stick around more than five seconds.

      I have a post already scheduled for release Friday. But because I think the issue you raise merits more attention, I’ll fashion an article on confrontation for next week.

  3. Hi there,
    I’m really looking forward to next week’s post. I really like the vignettes in your books where you give that benign, gentle confrontational approach actual language. For example, “It’s my opinion that you might want to consider doing some things differently” (it is something close to that). This is SOOO different than anything I would ever normally say. And I get that there’s a fine line between playing therapist and being in a relationship with a C-A, but having this kind of language in my back pocket is very helpful, and it can be tweaked to suit the relationship. I recently said something that was a variation on this example sentence to the CA in my life, something like, “I’m not at all comfortable with the way you did (that thing you did) and I want for you to try doing it differently next time”. And I said it like I was talking to a child. (Oh if only the whole package was a 6-year old, it’d be so much easier!) This stuff works- to the extent that I expect it to, which is only to balance the power in the relationship out, make it clear what my boundaries are, and only put up with so much. Really, just knowing how CA’s think makes all the difference, and the balance of power is restored once you understand and accept it (and in my case, make it clear that the kind of behavior that is driven by that kind of thinking is really icky and unacceptable). A million thanks!

  4. Yes, and most of us do not have the skills for this “true art” and need to cope anyways. Also, the scope for a manipulator’s vengefulness is far greater in an intimate relationship or friendship. Please don’t think that I mean that they need to be provoked before they go to war on us. I don’t. I just mean that the person confronting could place themselves in a more difficult position by making it known that they indeed do “have their number.”

    And in the case of the more predatory ones, it might place the spouse’s life in danger.

    Looking forward to your post. :-)

    1. Thanks for the comments, Vera. And you’re spot on about the risks involved when the “jig is up” for any of the dominance-seeking types. And if I’m not mistaken, I have written an article on that very issue, if not on this blog then on the site. I’ll search the archives, and if there’s not one here, I’ll fashion one in the near future.

  5. I would also be interested in hearing more on vengeance from the CA. It’s disconcerting to set boundaries with a CA when you have to consistantly weigh the possibilities for a sneaky and destructive response from them.

    Also, can you explain this sentence for me? “1) not all individuals who molest children are pedophiles.” Pedophilia being the preference for or exclusive insterest in prepubescent children? If they’re not a pedophile why would they molest? Power assertiveness? Revenge on the parent?

    1. I’ll do a post on the vindictiveness aspect sometime. As for the question you ask, there are many reasons a person not actually sexually-oriented to the physical characteristics of pre-pubescence will molest, some of which you already mention, and others include, simply exploiting the vulnerability and trust of the child, desensitizing a child to sexual contact to pave the way for more intrusive acts post-puberty, and many, many more. And, BTW, history is also filled with pedophiles (those with an abnormal attraction to pre-pubescent children which may or may not include sexual arousal to their physical characteristics) who don’t molest either. Why? Because they actually have enough conscience that they can’t bring themselves to do harm, and enough conscience not to deceive themselves about the harm they could do if they acted on an urge. So, they choose safer, more socially acceptable ways to express their unusual devotion to children. In the end, the decision to harm, whatever the source of the impetus, is always a character issue.

  6. Thank-you. Fascinating. Seems to me all adults should have some understanding of the predator mind-set in order to protect our children. Maybe you could do an article on suggested reading materials for the layman sometime?

    Btw, I have one daughter reading “In Sheep’s Clothing” out of curiosity. Another has chosen to read “Character Disturbance” (and deBecker’s “The Gift of Fear”) for her psych class. I can’t thank you enough for publishing these books. I’ll feel so much better about them entering the adult world with this information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *