As the tragedy at Penn State proves yet again, evil comes in many forms, taking good people and turning them into accomplices by force, neglect, or denial.
He was a doctor, or had been before he came to the United States. Let's call him Jacques. This is not his name, because he was a client, but Jacques will do for this story.
He was from a horrendous place in East Africa. Like most of my clients, he was a refugee, and came here after sitting in a camp for a few years wondering if he would or could ever leave. Unlike most of my clients, Jacques was urbane, upper-class, and something close to suave. Diminutive, he held conversations in slow but colloquial English. His shirts were always ironed to a geometric line. I can still remember his walk: deliberate but smooth, like someone holding the deed to every place he entered in his back pocket.
We met only a few times. We reviewed his plans to recertify as a physician in the United States. We talked briefly about his family. Paperwork was found, strange diplomas and certifications sent for from Africa. He glided in and out of the office promptly and by appointment, sliding in and leaving with the same eerie Nosferatu-on-rails gait. I remember him most for being on-time. Clients were never on time.
Our last appointment was different. It wasn't an appointment at all. He showed up unannounced. His eyes were bloodshot. He stank of booze, and his clothing hung wrinkled and disheveled on his small frame. He said he really needed to speak with me immediately, something clients said all the time for various reasons. Sometimes they did this because they needed to report something to the police or had lost their job. Sometimes they did this because they wanted you to buy them a new car. Everything, sane or not, is urgent when you are a refugee.
I told him I was busy -- I was, for once -- and needed to talk to him another time unless it was a matter of life or death. He demurred, and walked out of the office. I went back to my work without thinking too much of it. Clients had odd requests all the time. I think I met with a few clients that day, and then worked on some report that probably only exists in an old Excel database somewhere deep in the bowels of the Georgia state archives. I went home and probably played some NCAA 2K1 on my old Dreamcast.
Jacques walked out of my office. Later that day, he walked into an apartment and strangled a teenage relative to death, possibly with a hairnet, and left her naked body in the bathtub for the Sheriff's deputies and her grandmother to find.
What the community at Penn State is dealing with right now is beyond comprehension, but there is a word for it: evil. After the uproar over Joe Paterno's firing -- and after the uproar over the uproar -- there will be a long, silent reckoning in the minds of those in the State College community. For years, they lived and worked with Jerry Sandusky, parking cars, sleeping in houses, and eating meals at the restaurants he frequented. For years they worked with someone whose actions fell into the unfathomable category of human taboos we call evil. The unpardonable and the unforgivable was not an abstraction. It lived next door.
I've seen evil's wake, but the closest I have ever been to it in person was the cold chill and wave of nausea the morning I woke up and watched my client's face appear on television in an orange jumpsuit. I didn't know anything, it turns out. His wife was not his legal wife and had refused to marry him. He had not practiced medicine, either, but had been forced out of medical school by a war. He had threatened to kill her if she ever left and allegedly beat her. She had left the common-law marriage with their children. That day in the office, while he pleaded for an appointment, she was getting settled in a battered women's shelter and preparing to move on with her life.
You never know these things at the time. Like many of those capable of the unthinkable, Sandusky was a pillar of the community: a football coach, a mentor, a father of six, and the founder of a charity that may have done great good in the community. Unsticking that figure from the community and replacing it with someone capable of real monstrosity will never, ever be complete. There will always be the memory of the former, the unsullied, the framework of the person not completely annihilated by the horror of the present. Not him, you'll think. Not Jerry.
In costume drama, the devil wears very large horns for a reason. Evil should be in theory recognizable, not cloaked in banality. It should be cartoonish, easily mocked, and thus dismissed. At no point should evil look like you, or your friends. Make it robots, or zombies. Some times I think the most horrifying video game in the world would be one where you had to fight off the denizens of a middle-American Starbucks bent on killing everyone for one hour a day, but who were trying to keep it as quiet as possible. The rest of the game, you would have to perform mundane tasks and act like nothing was happening, and you would never know exactly which hour would bring the evil side out.
This would be the worst video game in the world for a reason: it's too realistic, too contradictory. Evil is terrifyingly normal. When it walks through the door, its gait is only vampiric in the memory, edited by the brain to seem obvious and you less culpable in the remembrance. Jacques seems more evil in my memories because I cannot process the notion that I did not ask enough questions, or notice some obvious criminal physiognomy tipping him off as someone capable of a monstrous act.
I am sure this same process is currently flaring through the synapses of a thousand brains at Penn State. Maybe someone did notice something or simply get a bad feeling they ignored in favor of assuming the normal. Real, creeping evil works like that. On the surface it is indistinguishable from the every day, and its incomprehensibility lends itself to camouflage. You are obligated, on the one hand, to issue the general reminders of vigilance, and to trust your instincts.
You should also know that the cruelest trick evil plays on the world is its permanence. There is no dealing with it: only forgetting, moving on with the quotidian to get past the unthinkable, and coping with the constant pain of memory. There will be not closure, a word that should be obliterated from the human vocabulary. Evil breezes in through your front door and calls you a friend. It takes good people and turns them into accomplices by force, neglect, or denial. Penn State, the victims, and those who knew Sandusky as a father figure will have to deal with this for the rest of their existence.
They are not alone, however. They never will be, and that's both the only cold comfort and the worst part of all of this.