Tuesday, October 8

Gladwell: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Amusing

Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers"is an interesting, albeit sometimes inaccurate, read and lacks a strong ending

Ray Blehar
October 9, 2019. 11:30 PM, EDT

Rating 3.0/5

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Talking to Strangers -- What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know, was written over a three-year period and to the casual reader appears to be meticulously researched.  An informative read, it takes readers through a long history of misinterpretation and miscommunication among strangers, starting with Cortez and Montezuma and ending with the tragic case of Sandra Bland.   In between, Gladwell touches on the interactions of Chamberlain and Hitler, the Intelligence Community and spies (e.g. Ana Montes and Aldrich Ames), fraudster Bernie Madoff and sex offenders Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar and their victims, the Italian Police and Amanda Knox, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- among others.

Many of the stories are fascinating, especially that of the suicide of Sylvia Plath that was enabled by her easy access to carbon monoxide in her kitchen oven.   In this instance, Gladwell uses the story as a pathway to describe "coupling" and that suicidal individuals may not commit suicide had it not been for the convenience of the death instrument -- including, for example,  San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

While the book does a great job showing that most people's ability to discern truth telling from lying is quite terrible with a complete stranger and only gets worse after they've met with the stranger on several occasions.

Gladwell writes: "it is human nature to default to the truth and the world is better for it."  

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, Gladwell writes there are "Holy Fools" in the world who are not in tune with societal norms and don't trust anyone.  The world needs Holy Fools -- like Harry Markopolos -- who figured out that the math behind Bernie Madoff's earnings was impossible and that we was running a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme -- a decade before Madoff gave himself up. 

The book makes it rather clear that you can't trust your gut, or the stranger's facial expressions and/or body language to determine if the person is telling the truth.  With those out to deceive, it is practically impossible.

Gladwell confirms that figuring out if someone is lying is highly dependent upon having information and data that reveals the inconsistencies their stories.  Unfortunately, our (human) nature to default to the truth causes many to rationalize away the inconsistencies.   Investigator Scott Carmichael rationalized away some of the inexcusable behaviors of Cuban spy Ana Montes much in the same manner as the caseworkers who rationalized away the inexcusable behaviors of Jerry Sandusky.

If I were judging the book as figure skating or gymnastics, it scores a 4.0 for artistic impression but just a 2.0 for technical merit (accuracy).  In summary, it's a 3.

It is truly a good read, but I gave it a mediocre rating because of the considerable number of inaccuracies I found combined with an ending that was entirely lacking.  In my opinion, part of Gladwell's passage on page 260 would have been the start to a good ending to the book:

"But the harder we work at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become.  Chamberlain would have been better off never meeting Hitler at all.  He should have stayed home and read Mein Kampf."

Unfortunately, the next sentence of the passage was entirely inaccurate.

"The police in the Sandusky case searched high and low for his victims for two years.  What did their efforts yield? Not clarity, but confusion..."

According to the Moulton Report, the police and Office of Attorney General (OAG) investigators essentially sat idle and relied only on Aaron Fisher and his family for names of possible victims from March 2009 until March 2011.  On March 24, 2011, a grand jury subpoena was issued for the names of children participating in The Second Mile (TSM) programs (Moulton at 152).   The police didn't start contacting the participants until July 2011.  In short, the search for victims was only five months long and didn't find any new victims -- even though the investigators had the name, address, phone number and mother's name of Victim 9 who later came forward after the November 2011 presentment.

As I mentioned earlier to the casual reader it appears meticulously researched, but for me it was maddening at times -- like reading the factually challenged Freeh Report or Mark Pendergrast's Most Hated Man In America.   Interestingly, both were used as sources for the section on "The Boy In the Shower."

Gladwell would have been better served to rely on the Moulton Report and court filings to accurately report on the ambiguities in the Sandusky case.

I had similar issues with the accuracy of some of the details in the Montes and Madoff sections.

Due to my prior employment, I was quite familiar with the Montes case and had number colleagues who had worked along side the so-called Queen of Cuba.  Montes joined the DIA not long after I entered government service in 1985.    As a former Inspector General and DOD financial audit liaison, I had taken quite an interest in the Madoff case, read Harry Markopolous' book, No One Would Listen, and read through Markopolous' testimony to Congress.  And of course, I've written a number of financially related blogs regarding the Sandusky scandal.

In the acknowledgements of the book, he thanks his fact checker -- who I will be contacting in the near term to provide long list of corrections.  As for this blogpost, I will highlight the only the most salient of the errors with regard to the chapter about the Jerry Sandusky case.

But first, the good.

The Good
Frequent readers of notpsu.blogspot.com will be pleased to know that Gladwell highlights the ambiguities and inconsistencies in the stories provided by Mike McQueary regarding the 2001 shower incident on the Penn State University campus. 

Among the most important points, it recounts (pps. 120-122) the testimony of Dr. Jonathan Dranov.  The passages drive home the point that a medical doctor received a first hand account from McQueary and didn't feel there was enough there to call the police.   If a doctor didn't call the police on a first hand account, why would anyone expect Graham Spanier to call the police based on a third hand account?    By the time the Dranov story went public, the majority of the news media, and therefore, the public, had already made up their minds about the case.  Gladwell's book may help the public understand the case was not as simple as the media made it out to be.

The book also details some of the inconsistencies in McQueary's versions of events.

On page 124, Gladwell highlights (p.124) the email McQueary sent to to the OAG prosecutor, Jonelle Eshbach, wanting to the correct the record.  The email stated "my words were slightly twisted and  not portrayed accurately in the presentment...I cannot say 1000 percent sure that it was sodomy.  I did not see insertion..."   Gladwell wrote in summarizing the issue, "..prosecutors, in order to serve their own ends, had turned gray into black and white."

He also pointed out that McQueary, along with getting the date/year of the incident wrong, stated the campus was vacant on that Friday night, when in fact, the part of campus he visited was bustling because the Barenaked Ladies were playing at the Bryce Jordan Center that night (p. 122).

Turning back to the presentment, Gladwell noted: "The prosecution in the Sandusky case pretended these uncertainties and ambiguities didn't exist.  They told the public it was open and shut.

The devastating 23-page indictment handed down in November of 2011 states that the "graduate assistant" -- meaning McQueary -- "saw a naked boy in the shower...being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky."  The next day McQueary "went to Paterno's home where he reported what he had seen."

Gladwell wrote:  "But neither of those claims matches the facts, does it?"

The book also highlights, but not in great detail, the 1998 incident and that representatives from the police and child protective services also defaulted to the truth when they interviewed Jerry Sandusky.

Gladwell points out that (Graham Spanier, et al) defaulting to the truth is not a crime -- it is a fundamental human tendency.

The Bad
Parts of the Sandusky chapter seemingly rely on false information that the OAG promulgated (i.e. leaked) to the Harrisburg Patriot News that resulted in Sara Ganim and other reporters unwittingly (or wittingly) covering up the government failures in the case.  Sandusky could have been arrested in 2009 had the OAG actually done any real investigating.  Pennsylvania DHS (formerly, the Department of Public Welfare) could have stopped Sandusky's access to children in 1998 if it relied on the indicators of child sexual abuse.

The OAG's strategy was to cause a firestorm around the 2001 incident to deflect attention away from the aforementioned failures.   With the help of the Patriot News, it succeeded magnificently.

Gladwell, like the majority of the public, fell for it.

The Sandusky chapter overstates the importance of the 2001 shower incident and McQueary eye-witness account with regard to making the case against Sandusky.

The fact is that the 2001/McQueary incident was critical for the case against Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier, not Sandusky

The most significant outcome of the McQueary incident, according to the Moulton Report, was that it resulted in the investigators recovering the 1998 police report.   The 1998 police report provided the leads that were critical to finding the majority of the victims who testified at the Sandusky trial.

How important was McQueary to the Sandusky trial?  Not very.

According to the jury foreman, he and his fellow jurors had determined Sandusky's guilt on Day 1 of the trial after hearing the testimony of Victim 4.   McQueary testified on Day 2 and was the 8th person to testify -- following Victims 1 and 4, Mark McCann, Dawn Fisher, Mandy Musser, Cynthia Burns and Jessica Dershem.

His testimony resulted in one of the three acquittals in the case.  Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 charges.

In my view, Gladwell "lost the bubble" on the theme of his book in his discussion of the 2001 incident because he didn't write about the only two people to talk to the stranger (Sandusky) about the incident.  Former Penn State University (PSU) Athletic Director Tim Curley and former TSM Executive Director, Dr. Jack Raykovitz were the only two people to discuss the incident with Sandusky -- and they both defaulted to the truth.  Instead, on page 124, he (inaccurately) writes that Sandusky was a stranger to McQueary and that's why he couldn't make sense of the situation.  Both were well acquainted with each other.  Sandusky took part in recruiting McQueary out of high school and, obviously, was on the coaching staff the entire time Mike played at PSU.   Sandusky was also well known in the community for his work with children.

McQueary's testimony alluded to the latter, when he remarked "I didn't know what to think" when he observed the incident in the shower.

It wasn't a stranger situation at all, but a familiarity situation.

How does one account for McQueary's inconsistent stories and the lack of urgency of Dranov and his father in reporting the incident to the police.

Gladwell should have referred to the chapter about Brock Turner and the campus Fraternity Party.

Perhaps McQueary was intoxicated (it was a Friday night, after all) and that's why he had a hazy memory of the night in question, that he didn't notice that there was a concert at the Bryce Jordan Center, and that's why his father and Dr. Dranov couldn't call the police.

Had Gladwell stuck to the theme of the book, Jessica Dershem would have been quite prominent in this chapter.   The Clinton County CYS caseworker talked to the "stranger" on January 15, 2009 and didn't rationalize away his inexcusable behaviors (as Carmichael did with Montes or as CYS investigators did with Sandusky in 1998).  Dershem compared his admissions with the facts she had already obtained and used her training, experience, and common sense to determine that Sandusky was a danger to children. The very next day (i.e., January 16, 2009) she indicated Sandusky for child abuse.

Dershem, unlike 1998 caseworker John Miller, had no familiarity with Sandusky and that was likely one of the reasons she got it right.  Had Gladwell dove deeper into the 1998 case, he would have seen that Miller (and his Centre County Children and Youth Services counterparts) were reluctant to even investigate Sandusky.  Miller's interview transcript of the 11.5 year-old Victim 6 reads like he (Miller) was Sandusky's defense attorney.

One of the key problems in understanding the Sandusky case was that the OAG and media downplayed the roles of children and youth services.

Gladwell, unfortunately, does the same.

The Ugly

On page 116, Gladwell writes that Victim 1, Aaron Fisher, in November 2008, told his mother, Dawn Daniels, that he was uneasy about Sandusky's behavior and falsely states that Fisher told his mother about Sandusky cracking his back and wrestling with him.   The reality was the Fisher told her he was upset about Sandusky taking him out of classes and study halls at school and that his fellow students thought he was being called to the principals office because he was in trouble.

Gladwell next writes that Fisher was referred to Mike Gillum for therapy.

In between the two data points, Fisher met with the Central Mountain High School (CMHS) Principal, Karen Probst, and the guidance counselor, Mrs. Smith.  At that point, he disclosed he was molested by Sandusky. 

That's a rather significant omission, but Gladwell also omitted that Fisher met with child and youth services (aka, CYS).

CYS documented Probst's call and interviewed Fisher on or about November 20, 2008.  Based on that information and the Sandusky interview, it concluded that Fisher was the victim of a "Sexual Assault." Legally, the correct terminology is "Indecent Assault."

As the CY-48 (below) shows, Clinton County indicated "Sexual Assault" based on Fisher's first report.  The fine print at the bottom states that "Mandated referral source...believes there has been inappropriate conduct by AP (Alleged Perpetrator) to C (Child)....  C reported to RS (Referral Source) that AP and him have slept in the same bed and AP has touched him inappropriately over clothes."  The RS in this instance is CMHS Principal, Karen Probst.

Probst's statement that Fisher alleged that Sandusky fondled his genitals over his clothing was confirmed by the testimony of Mike Gillum at Sandusky's August 2017 PCRA hearing.

Doubling down on the faulty information, Gladwell launched into provably false passage that it was only through the retrieval of buried memories in therapy that Fisher could remember being sexually abused (p. 116).

As the CY48 showed, Fisher alleged sex abuse allegations the first time he disclosed on November 20, 2008 and Gillum testified under oath (in August 2017) that he does not use RMT, stating: "No.  I don't deal with repressed memory."

While it is true that it took Fisher many months to be able to articulate more than fondling, this wasn't due to repressed memory, but rather shame and embarrassment over his victimization.  Many sex abuse victims never disclose their abuse and even those that do may not describe the full extent of it.  They also often disclose what happened to them incrementally, as Fisher did.   This is all well documented.

Given Gladwell's well-written and seemingly well-researched 2012 New Yorker column, titled In Plain View that explained Sandusky's and others ability to groom victims and those around them and his writings about victim behaviors in the Larry Nassar case, I was quite shocked that he went along with the narrative that incremental disclosure was memory recovery via therapy.

Gladwell perpetuated another falsehood about Fisher (p. 188), writing: "but it seems the grand jury didn't find him (Fisher) credible.  They declined to indict Sandusky."

You can read the truth below.

Prosecutor Eshbach began drafting a presentment (indictment) based solely on the testimony of Aaron Fisher (Moulton at 146).  The July 2010 email from Eshbach states the jury has been asking for the presentment for four months.

Sadly, the media, based on their OAG sources, made Fisher the scapegoat for the inexcusable delays in the Sandusky investigation.  The Moulton Report debunked their narrative and put the onus where it belonged -- on the critical missteps in the investigation.

Gladwell's seeming lack of knowledge about victim behavior -- as well as selective omission of evidence -- wasn't confined to just Fisher.  It was also present in the writings about Victims 4 and 6.

Gladwell calls the visit of Victim 4 and his girlfriend and baby to the Sandusky home (i.e., the home of his abuser) a "perplexing behavior" (p. 136).   Under oath, Victim 4 stated that he dropped by because his girlfriend had heard jokes that he was Jerry's "butt-buddy" and that she asked if that was the reason he never brought her to meet the famous coach.   He did so in an attempt to prove that everything in his relationship with Sandusky was normal.  (Sandusky Jury Trial, June 11, 2012, pages 138-139)

The situation is not perplexing at all if you are familiar with the facts of the case.

In discussing the 1998 incident, Gladwell selectively uses a somewhat benign statement, that Sandusky "didn't mean anything by it," (that the boy told psychologist Dr. Alycia Chambers) to show that there was insufficient evidence to determine Sandusky was a danger to children.

However, the interview report contained a number of statements that infers some type of affectionate/inappropriate behavior occurred.  Victim 6 described the behavior as "sorta weird" and also stated, "He's married, so I don't think he meant anything."   Additionally, Sandusky had made the boy promises to convince him that their relationship was special, kissed him on the forehead, and made him change out of his workout clothing and put on larger sized Penn State gym clothes.  

What was the reason for the latter?

According to book Undaunted, the changing into larger clothing was done so that Jerry could more easily get his hands inside his gym pants when they were wrestling.   And perhaps that's why Victim 6 took two showers within the next 12 hours after he showered with Sandusky

At the end of the book, Gladwell wrote: "what do we do when things go awry with strangers?  We blame the stranger."

Ironically, as Gladwell'a fact-checking went awry, he ended up blaming the victims for ambiguities about Sandusky's guilt.

The Amusing
On page 357 of the Notes section, I am credited with obtaining McQueary's infamous email to Jonelle Eshbach that stated his "words were somewhat twisted."

"McQueary's email to Jonelle Eshbach was obtained by Ray Blehar, a blogger in the Penn State area.  Ray Blehar, "Correcting the Record: Part 1: McQueary's 2001  Eye-Witness Report," Second Mile -- Sandusky Scandal (SMSS): Searching for the Truth In a Fog of Deception (Blog), October 9, 2017. https://notpsu.blogspot.com/2017/10/correcting-record-part-1-mcquearys-2001.html#more

Not true!

This email has been on the public record since December 19, 2016.
I simply wrote about it in October 2017 and heightened its visibility (and notoriety).

Perhaps if I added the link to it when I wrote the blog post there would have been one less error in Talking to Strangers.


  1. The August issue of Scientific American makes Gladwell's book an entertaining, but sophomoric probe into why people believe lies.

    The concept of a media fueled moral panic (McMartin, Wee Care, Coakley, etc.) should certainly have been explored. Injustices have been part of our society for millenia and will continue to be until people can think rationally...fat chance!

    As I have remarked before, I am far more skeptical of the victim's stories than you are. I have yet to see any testimony not subject to manipulation, tampering, or promises of riches. The data supports a conclusion that Fisher, McQuerry, and Matt Sandusky are pathological liars. I do support your posit that repressed memory had nothing to do with the case...they all lied for money. I don't know a street wise kid who forgets anything or who wouldn't lie his ass off if he could get something.

    I do know this, though. The real story here is corruption, especially judges and prosecutors who have them in their pocket. In this case, the corruption permeated every institution in Pennsylvania from the Governor to the Supreme Court. The OAG itself committed felonies. Even "nobody is above the law" Shapiro suborned perjury in Spanier's trial...A felony. Any why was Shapiro (and Kane before him) so ignorant of the existence of a Federal investigative report? Certainly Moulton could have and should have obtained it..that dog did't bark.

    1. Gregory,
      Thanks for your comments. I always enjoy your thoughts on the posts.

      We can agree to disagree on the veracity of the victim's stories, however, I believe that your skepticism of Aaron Fisher and Matt Sandusky is fueled by persistence false narratives that have come from the media. Sara Ganim pushed the idea that Fisher wasn't credible to cover the asses of the lazy investigators who didn't search for victims for nearly two years. Other media members have questioned Matt Sandusky because he DARED to say that Jerry Sandusky was adept at fooling on-lookers and really was the Great Pretender. And the media couldn't have that situation because its narrative was that Paterno "knew."

      We are in agreement on McQueary.

      "Repressed memory therapy" had NO IMPACT on the Sandusky trial -- however, I believe it became part of the settlement process. The bloodsucking civil attorneys sent their clients to psychologists to give them a license to lie when they put forth claims to Penn State. I don't believe for one minute that the victims actually changed their stories, but that their civil attorneys (e.g., Shubin, Kline, Androezzi, etc) wrote up fantastic lies about what their clients endured. Kline met with Lubert during the settlement process and I'm sure Lubert let him know that PSU wasn't going to verify anything. Kline likely spread the word to the others and that's why the civil claims contained all sorts of nonsense.

      Which brings us to...

      "They all lied for money." Argued twice before the court and was a two time loser. The lying was part of the settlement process...and in a few instances some victims (V4, V9, and V10) stretched the truth at the trial about their victimization. Of course, V5 lied about the date.

      Finally, we are in complete agreement that the story here is corruption....but you left the PSU and 2nd Mile Boards out of the corruption equation and they were definitely in on this gig.

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