“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” How many times have you heard that? It’s good advice, but hard to follow. We’re hard-wired to make judgments about others. It’s how we have survived as a species. Making relatively quick assessments about whether the person we’re encountering is a friend or foe…a danger or a threat, is a valuable skill. But making those judgments should be based on what we see, hear and feel when we interact with a person. They’re only valid assessments when we really see the other person. “Judging a book by its cover” refers to those times when we have stopped looking, stopped seeing the other person, and judged them instead by a superficial facade.
Most of the time, “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been used to remind us that people we might judge as bad (or a threat) based on their outward appearance, are really good people if we would just look more closely. Let’s face it – we are mostly really bad at this. We see an obese person and we assume undisciplined. We see a toothless person and assume uneducated. We see a hoodie and assume a thug.
Abusers know this, and they use it to their advantage. They know that we also assume good characteristics in people based on the superficial exterior. We see active in charitable causes and assume selfless. We see teacher and assume role model. We see a talented celebrity and assume noble artist. We see minister/priest and assume righteous. We see captain of the football team and assume good kid.
My abuser chose the cover of ministry and public service. Jerry Sandusky chose the cover of role model for at-risk boys. Bill Cosby chose the cover of Cliff Huxtable. And it worked so well, that even when people caught glimpses of the real truth, caught wind of allegations, they refused to look behind the covers.
There were signs. The man who was molesting me caught the attention of the church secretary. She used to look at me anxiously when I would come to the church and head down to the basement to sort the archives as an after school project. She knew it was creepy that he would lavish so much attention on a young girl like me. But she never said anything. There were other signs too. When he repeatedly lost his temper at basketball games and used his booming voice to make vicious statements directed at the referees. It made everyone in earshot uncomfortable. So he became President of the Rotary Club, and they dismissed his outbursts as an overzealous fan under stress.
Being sexually abused is a horrible, painful thing to endure. I think we can all agree on that. And the blame lies 100 percent with the abuser, not the abused. I think more people are beginning to see that. But not enough people understand the unbearable pain of watching your abuser enjoy the respect, admiration and accolades of people who are judging him by his cover…a cover that has been so easy for him to build because no one is looking, really looking, at him.
Less than 10 percent of abusers ever serve time for their crimes. Victims don’t report because they know that they will not only need to confront their abuser, they will also have to confront the public’s perception of him. Often, it is the latter that is the greater adversary. Every survivor who has ever threatened to tell, has heard the perpetrator say, “Go ahead…they’ll never believe you.” The reason a flood of victims tend to come forward after the first case makes headlines is because there is finally a crack in the cover.
My abuser retired from ministry to become mayor and a volunteer for hospice. Don’t judge a book by his cover.