After a swift trial and a unanimous verdict, Jerry Sandusky faces a lifetime in prison for 45 counts of child sexual abuse. The conviction would come as no surprise to those who watched his accusers deliver powerful and painful testimonies against the former Penn State Football assistant coach regarding inappropriate relations he had with them years prior. Try as they might, Sankdusky’s wily defense team could not shake the inevitable stigma of such monstrous crimes.
And they did try. Defense attorney Joseph Amendola’s last Hail Mary attempt at reasonable doubt was claiming that Sandusky suffers from Histrionic Personality Disorder, a psychological condition marked by overly-dramatic and exaggerated (however superficial) displays of emotion, according to Dr. David M. Reiss, Psychiatrist and recent Interim Medical Director of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital. With this diagnosis, Amendola presumably hoped to justify his client’s then-alleged behaviors and squeeze some semblance of empathy from an otherwise calloused public.
Even while the argument fell flat with the jurors, it did arouse interest in a condition that could even begin to explain the warped psychosis of a child molester.
Dr. Reiss explains the typical profile of someone with the disorder. “A person who is histrionic will tend be seen as exhibiting a high degree of emotional reactivity, but largely in the service [of] drawing attention to themselves and having their needs met, rather than being an expression of deeply-felt or ‘sincere’ affect or emotion….There can be an intense, child-like flight from one emotional state to another in response to interpersonal interactions.”
Like a child, those with the disorder typically think and act on emotion rather than fact or logic. “The person will view themselves, others, ‘causes’ for behaviors and consequences of behavior based upon their emotional impression
of the situation.” Dr. Reiss offers the example that if a histrionic person felt
like paying rent, he will react as if his landlord should be happy, regardless of whether he actually
paid rent or not. “Needless to say, this can be very disruptive of practical functioning.”
Dr. Julie Gurner, clinical psychologist and expert in adult psychopathology, adds, “People with Histrionic Personality disorder tend to enjoy being the center of attention, are very self-focused (even a bit narcissistic –it’s all about them!), they can be dramatic in their expression of emotion, and can be quite demanding in their quest for attention. Some people describe them as having difficulty delaying gratification in their seeking of attention, so they may come across as provocative or manipulative to get it.”
Manipulative tendencies are often apparent in those who commit sexual abuse
, but what about Sandusky’s case specifically?
While Dr. Reiss would not offer specific diagnostic conclusions without having personally evaluated Sandusky, he does not rule out this diagnosis. “What I can say is that as Sandusky has been portrayed in the media, by himself and by his attorney and others, it appears
that he probably does have significant histrionic personality traits. But,” he continues, “there is a wide overlap between histrionic pathology and narcissistic pathology; and the behaviors he is accused of also can fall into the sociopathic spectrum.”
Dr. Gurner also has alternate theories regarding the psychological root of Sandusky’s behavior. “Histrionic Personality Disorder is being used to describe his emotionality in writing the boys ‘love letters.’ While this may contribute to the intense nature of the emotion expressed in these letters, the disorder itself has nothing to do with the abuse of children
. Someone with another type of disorder (such as Pedophilia) might be just as likely to have written these letters. Pedophilia may also better explain the writing of the letters to the children. It is common for those who have this disorder to genuinely believe that they are in a loving relationship with the child they are abusing.”
Dr. Gurner describes Pedophilia as a condition in which the individual has a sexual attraction to children and can receive sexual gratification even through watching children (live or in images), touching them, or conducting sexual acts with them. She sees many indicators that suggest this is perhaps a more apt diagnosis for Sandusky. “It is common for those with Pedophilia to structure their life so they have ongoing contact with children. Mr. Sandusky chose to live so close to an elementary school that the playground is practically in his backyard, he started an organization for children of which he is quite an active participant, he admitted having numerous ‘sleepovers’ in his home, and reported that he was shy in asking out his wife prior to marriage. Often those with Pedophilia are socially and sexually awkward with age-appropriate dating, and he reports this even in his history with his wife.”
Dr. Carole Lieberman, forensic psychiatrist on the Clinical Faculty of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, speculates that there are even deeper issues in play where Sandusky’s behavior is concerned. “He was undoubtedly molested as a child, himself. And one has to wonder about whether his father ever sexually abused him, as well as other boys, since his dad ran a community center for children.”
There is no proof as to whether or not Sandusky’s father was abusive, either to him or to other children, and his role with the community center alone is certainly not conclusive; still, a history of abuse could potentially trigger like behavior later in life. “People who commit sex crimes, often have personality disorders
, but this is not the explanation for their crime. They have usually been abused themselves and are identifying with the aggressor, the person who abused them, and taking control of a situation that they did not have control of as a little child,” Dr. Lieberman explains. “In other words, children feel powerless when they are being abused. And some of these little boys are driven to try to undo what happened to them as children, by overpowering little boys themselves.”
Regardless of the diagnosis, our sources seem to agree that few disorders would constitute a legal or moral explanation for the type of behavior that Sandusky was convicted of. Dr. Reiss stresses that “No
histrionic personality disorder is so severe that the person does not have the capability of appreciating ‘right from wrong’ or the consequences of major
He continues, “A person who is histrionic may not be fully aware of how dramatic or seductive they appear to others and they may have little insight to their general
interpersonal style – but they certainly have full capability to appreciate that sexually or physically abusing a child is wrong.”
This consciousness was conveyed in Sandusky’s attempts to cover up or deny his behavior, which, Dr. Reiss maintains, is an aspect of criminality more than disordered personality.
Dr. Gurner corroborates, “Histrionic Personality Disorder is real, but the very nature of it has little relevance to sexually abusing children or being inappropriate with them. They also [could not] argue that this disorder impaired his functioning significantly because evidence seems to suggest that he has held a stable marriage and job for years.”
And so, it appears, Sandusky is reduced to a criminal who thought he could evade the long arm of the law and the longer arm of causality. While his heinous actions indicate that he is not of sound moral or psychological health, he still possesses that underlying humanism that will likely lead to a remorseful prison sentence… up to 450 years.
The defense does plan on appealing the conviction on the grounds that the prosecution presented misleading evidence (specifically, an edited NBC interview.) But there will presumably be no more discussion of Sandusky’s psychological state as a means of exoneration. The public consensus would seem to align with Dr. Reiss’ summary, “Unless suffering from dementia, psychosis and/or neurological disorder, we all have responsibility for controlling our behaviors.”
Reiss, M.D., David M. E-mail Interview. 20062012.
Gurner, Psy.D., Julie A. E-mail Interview. 20062012.
Lieberman, M.D. Carole. E-mail Interview 20062012.