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The sad tale of Happy Valley

It's a terrible time for a drought in L.A. All the news about child sex abuse just makes you want to take a shower.

There's the case of Mark Berndt, the elementary school teacher who fed his semen to students in what is now the largest and most expensive child sex abuse case in the history of the L.A. Unified School District.

There's the attorney whose defense of the LAUSD in a lawsuit over a teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old was to blame the girl. "Making a decision as to whether or not to cross the street when traffic is coming," he told KPCC, "...takes a level of maturity and that's a much more dangerous decision than to decide, 'Hey, I want to have sex with my teacher.'"

Child abuse, of course, knows no bounds, geographic, economic or otherwise, and now that L.A. is swarming with smarm, how timely that the documentary "Happy Valley" opens here today at the Laemmle Royal Theater in West L.A.

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It's about what happened to the town of State College after Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with and convicted of molesting boys for years under the cover of an at-risk youth program he founded. Long known as Happy Valley for its bucolic setting and social glue of college football under Head Coach Joe Paterno, the region grows dark in the imperative to apportion blame and shame by a community desperate just to get back into the game.

The audience for a screening Wednesday night at CAA's Ray Kurtzman Theater in Century City was refreshingly spare of "industry" types checking their phones every three minutes. Most of the 126 folks in attendance were people whose jobs and interests concern kids -- teachers, coaches, parents -- and friends invited by Mike Tollin. He's co-founder of PACE (Philanthropy And Community Engagement), and his guests had sharp inquiries during the post-screening Q&A about the coping skills of individuals and the institutions they love and hate.

Moderated by Tollin, whose organization is an L.A.-based network of bigwigs across the country who all want to promote nonprofits that serve kids, the session featured Matt Sandusky, one of the film's stars (only in a perverse parallel universe does someone "star" in a movie about sex abuse) and Jolie Logan, president and CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that educates people about and works to prevent child abuse.

Matt Sandusky is the youngest of Jerry Sandusky's six children, adopted by him and his wife Dottie after the coach plucked him from poverty and elevated him to a lifestyle kids like him only dream about. Before meeting Jerry, Matt lived with 30-some people in a house without running water, and Sandusky's name, he explains in the film, "was a golden ticket. It was good to be next to him, to feel powerful, to feel that people envied me instead of looking down on me."

Later in the film, he captures the prevailing Happy Valley sentiment: "If people thought of Joe Paterno as God, Jerry was like Jesus. They were to me the two most powerful people. They could do whatever they wanted, they could do no wrong."

Jerry did do whatever he wanted, and it was all wrong. By the time his trial began in 2012, Matt was 33, and had maintained his silence about his abuse and supported his father. Because that's what you do when you're family, that's what you do when an abuser has left you traumatized.

As Matt recalled during the Q&A, at trial he heard the testimony of Victim No. 4, a guy he knew well and who seemed to be retelling the story he had lived. Matt, like that witness, had been what he called a "chosen one."

Matt was "chosen" for abuse until he attempted to take his life at 17. After decades of denial, he had watched someone else muster the courage to tell in open court something he had kept hidden out of fear, shame and guilt. After the trial that day, Matt said, he went home and "didn't speak to anyone for two days." Then he came out to the district attorney, offered his testimony (which proved unnecessary) and the only family life he'd ever known was over.

Two years later, he's the only Sandusky to have confirmed Jerry's crimes, and although he sees the disclosure as necessary to heal, if not to survive, it has been an expensive treatment. The family considers him a liar who broke their trust. "That's the child sex abuse norm," he told the crowd.

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Although Matt continues to identify as a Sandusky for the purpose of promoting Peaceful Hearts, his foundation that advocates for abuse survivors and promotes their recovery, he and his family officially have changed their last name to protect his children from being ridiculed in Happy Valley, where they still live.

Someone in the audience asked the question we all had: "Why do you still live in State College? Have you considered leaving?"

"You think about it. But, ultimately, that's our home ... and I've been pushed enough. I'm not going to be pushed out of my home."

Logan said that 5,000 people in Happy Valley have taken the training offered by Darkness to Light to help people recognize child abusers in their midst, and the circumstances that foster them. Someone in the audience mentioned its program in connection with the LAUSD, but I couldn't hear if she was expressing a wish or a reality.

The point of the evening was that child abuse is culturally metastatic, and eradicating it requires a similarly comprehensive response.

The point of the film is more sociological. It's about how idolatry cleaves community when its residents share a sense of what happened, but not why and how to repair the damage.

As director Amir Bar-Lev told Sports Illustrated, "human beings have a deification problem and America has a spectacle problem. There are much bigger issues at work, and that's why this story took on the life that it has. ... For America to point its fingers at Happy Valley and say, 'that town had a problem with football,' that sounds pretty hypocritical to me."

Apart from Jerry Sandusky, the only unanimously acknowledged evil player in "Happy Valley" is the NCAA, for its craven attempts to seem responsive. Everyone else -- the Penn State student struggling with the right thing versus the easy thing, the complicated and complicit Joe Paterno, the local historian who says, when the university dismantled the coach's stadium shrine, "This is why you can't build statues of people who are still alive" -- manifests the symptoms of a cancer on the soul in starkly different ways.

It's Happy Valley's story, and pretty much everyone else's, too.

Photos: Penn State University, Music Box Films


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