Final Notes on Joe Paterno
“This is the real drama for me; the belief that we all, you see, think of ourselves as oe single person, but it’s not true: each of us is several different people, and all these people live inside us. With one person we seem like this and with another we seem very different. But we always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody and of alway being the the same person in everything we do. But it’s not true! It’s not true! We find this out for ourselves very clearly when by some terrible chance we’re suddenly stopped in the middle of doing something and we’re left dangling there, suspended. We realise then, that every part of us was not involved with what we’d been doing and that it would be a dreadful injustice of other people to judge us only by this one action as we dangle there, hanging in chains, fixed for all eternity, as if the whole of one’s personality were summed up in that single, interrupted action.”
–The Father, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, translated by John Linstrum
I wonder if Joe Paterno ever saw this play, or ever read it, and if he did, whether or not he would recognize himself in the Father. In the play, the Father finds his moment unbearably shameful, so much so that he twists himself in rhetorical pretzels in order to lessen the impact. He is caught in the act of visiting a prostitute who happens to be his stepdaughter (they don’t recognize each other), and when she tells him she can’t accept his gift of a hat because she is in mourning for her biological father, he responds by suggesting that she take off her little black dress. It is a callous moment, shocking in fact, and the first time I read it I felt great loathing for the Father, not because of the incident itself, but because of his unwillingness to simply accept his punishment and move on.
Of course, the problem is that the Father isn’t a real person–he’s a character in an unfinished play, and so can’t move on. He really is trapped, “dangling there, suspended,” doomed to constantly relive this moment. All the audience will ever see–if this play is actually finished–is this moral weakling caught in an intensely awkward moment.
Most of the reactions I’ve seen to Paterno’s death have struck me as extreme. Many point to his long years of service at Penn State, his football team’s graduation rate, the large sums of money he donated to the university and so on. Many of his former players talked about how he influenced their lives for the better. Other reactions point to his inexcusable failure to act when he was told about his long-time friend’s abuse of young boys. As a survivor of molestation myself, I relate to those reactions–I wrote about it for The Rumpus back in November when Paterno was fired.
This is perhaps where the comparison with The Father breaks down a bit. We only really see one compromising moment on the stage–the moment in Madame Pace’s shop when the Father tells the Stepdaughter to slip off that little black dress–though others are hinted at, alluded to. But with Paterno it’s not just one event. What’s the moment which leaves Paterno “dangling there, suspended”? Is it when Mike McQueary steps into his office to report what he’s seen? Or when Paterno decides all he needs to do is tell his athletic director? Or every time after that when he sees Jerry Sandusky on the Penn State campus and wonders if he’s still molesting kids? What haunted him in these last months of his life, I wonder?
But then again, one conceit of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” is that these characters are unfinished, incomplete, abandoned by their author because he couldn’t figure out how to make them whole. All they have are two scenes, both intensely tragic, that they are forced to relive, over and over. Perhaps this is the difference between Joe Paterno the man and JoePa the symbol, the legend, the abettor of child molesters. Joe Paterno is not like the Father–he had a full life, with all the complexities and ugliness and glory that entails. JoePa is–he dangles, suspended in time in one of the more horrible moments of his life. And no one can save him from playing that moment over and over. Not even death.