In hearing the stories coming out of Penn State about the years of lack of follow through on the reports of coach Jerry Sandusky’s clearly inappropriate conduct with young men, it is hard not to wonder how this could have happened. How did all those otherwise caring and intelligent men who either witnessed or heard about what was going on just put it out of their minds? How did they do that? As Mark Twain so famously quipped, "Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt." I have started to wonder if it might be a river in Pennsylvania.
It seems every time I turn on the news lately there is another report of some kind of sexual scandal that is being denied by those who are close to the person who has been accused. Sandusky’s fellow coaches and associates at Penn State somehow managed to find a way to put aside what they had directly seen or heard regarding his inappropriate behavior with young men. Somehow they did not feel the need to further confront the situation.
The news services have also offered up a taped phone call with Syracuse coach Bernie Fine’s wife in which she apparently knew that her husband had been sexually inappropriate with young men and yet she seems to placing responsibility not with her husband, but on the young victim. How did she manage to deny her responsibility to these young men?
Although former presidential candidate Herman Cain’s alleged sexual misbehaviors cannot be compared to those in the sports world, the denials are just as firmly a part of the story. His wife, Gloria, seemingly continues to believe her husband could not have engaged in acts of sexual harassment in spite of mounting evidence. Even the revelations of a 13-year affair do not seem to have convinced her that something might be amiss in her assessment of her husband. In a recent televised interview she stated, "I know that’s not the person he is."
In the face of all this very public denial, I found myself wondering, "Do these people really believe what they are saying and if so, how could they be so blind?" It is always possible that any of these denials are a case of knowing the truth but not being willing to admit it, of lying. But what about those times when the truth cannot be recognized or acknowledged even in the face of facts, evidence, or confirmation?
I suspect that most of us would like to believe that if we were in a situation where we saw harm or wrongdoing occurring that we would first be able to recognize it and secondly that we would do something to stop it. I’d certainly like to think I would. But as I more closely begin to investigate my own lack of ability to immediately discern the truth, not to mention my capacity to overlook and deny facts that are right in front of me, I can’t help but begin to feel like I might be living in a glass house with a gang outside holding big ‘ole rocks in their hands.
I remember Bill Clinton on my television proclaiming with that wagging finger that he "…did not have sexual relations with that woman…" I believed him. I wanted to believe him. I felt myself standing with Hillary, believing her assessment of the situation that this was all just a conspiracy of political character bashing. But history showed how Hillary was in denial about Bill, and I was too.
So maybe the power of denial is a force that bears some investigation. How in the face of clear evidence do we manage to avoid the obvious truth? What role does denial play? How and why do we deny?
Over a hundred years ago, Freud postulated that denial is a defense mechanism. We all quite naturally attempt to avoid the unpleasant and painful and attempt to get more of what feels good and comfortable. When faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept, we reject it, maintaining that it is not true even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In the late 60’s, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, in her groundbreaking work on death and dying, listed denial as the first step in what is now widely known as the "Five Stages of Grief." It seems that our psychological structure needs some time to adapt to new and disturbing information—and denial is part of the process.
I can’t help but wonder, that being the case, is there anything I can do to become aware when I’m in denial? If I’m in denial, then that means awareness has been pushed below consciousness—it’s a blind spot. But how can anyone see what they cannot see, what is hidden from view? If denial creates a protective pocket of unawareness that can actually be harmful at times, then gaining some clarity, understanding, and skill about the denial mechanism seems important.
The capacity to deny is a protection from feeling, experiencing, or acknowledging the existence of something that seems unthinkable, unacceptable, or unbearable. So the more I am able to show myself internally that whatever I am thinking, feeling, or experiencing internally will not destroy me, then the mechanism of denial does not have to remain on "red alert." Every time I experience myself, for example, feeling enraged or overwhelmed, and just sit back and let myself feel the emotion, encounter that wave of energy without defense, I build confidence that I can bear the next unwanted wave of life. With that courage then maybe, just maybe, I can face what is actually occurring without denial. Hopefully the next time I feel a wave of anger, fear, or overwhelm, I will be able to be quiet and let the wave wash over. This is the practice of dissolving the need for denial.
It is possible that all this denial that’s been in the news can bring with it a gentle nudge, a reminder to question—what might I be denying? To first, with internal compassion, recognize that denial is a part of the human protective mechanism. Most of us will continue to (at least temporarily) deny in the face of information that is unthinkable, in the face of input that contradicts our view of what is true or of how the world works. With the strength and courage that is built by facing what seems unfaceable, hopefully we can each gain the internal strength required to step past denial and undeniably acknowledge the truth.
Paldrom Collins is a former Tibetan Buddhist nun and co-author of A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction: A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust & Restore Intimacy. Working with her husband and sex addiction expert George Collins at Compulsion Solutions, Paldrom counsels individuals and couples across the country.