Move It Forward

April 30, 2012

Two weeks ago, when a friend twittered in all caps, WHAT DO YOU MEAN NO AWARD?, I was pretty sure I knew what she was talking about. I knew that the Pulitzer Prizes for 2012 were being announced that day, and I figured she was expressing something about the award in Fiction, since she is a fiction writer. But I googled to verify the information, and discovered that, indeed, No Award was made in fiction this year. But I also discovered something else, Pulitzer news that made me so happy you’d think I’d won something myself.

Sara Ganim, of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, for her work on The Events in State College, Pennsylvania, involving Jerry Sandusky and allegations of his sexual abuse of boys, both during and after his tenure as an assistant football coach at The Pennsylvania State University. (For convenience, these matters are referred to as the “Sandusky Investigation.”)

Ms. Ganim, at 24, is the second youngest person ever to be awarded a Pulitzer. She broke the Sandusky story only a few months after she started working at the Harrisburg newspaper. A native of Florida, she graduated from Penn State in 2008 and went to work at the Centre Daily Times, the local paper that serves the community the comprises the university and the town of State College, Pa. She is a crime reporter, not a sportswriter, and in covering this story she had to develop leads and rely on contacts in a milieu that sought to protect beloved figures, primarily the legendary Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, who died a few months after the story gained national attention and became known as “the Penn State sex abuse scandal,” even though it involved no players.

Jerry Sandusky is accused of crimes against children that many people find unspeakable. In December I wrote about how so often we don’t even use the “ferocious words” that actually name the acts. I wrote a story in which a neighborhood has to come to grips with the fact that a popular family is being torn apart by the discovery that the father has been abusing his daughters. It was the manuscript I sent as my application piece to Bread Loaf in 2009, and I have for these three years harbored a suspicion that it was the subject matter that put a first reader off and led to my intial rejection. I have returned to that manuscript in recent weeks, to discover that even I don’t use any ferocious words. I defend my word choices by noting that all of the references to the acts are in dialogue, and I am being faithful to the way people talk.

Sara Ganim’s work in reporting this story has been tough, relentless, fierce. She was determined to keep the focus on the [alleged] victims, the brave young men who came forward with their stories of how they had been befriended and then betrayed by someone whom they trusted. Her motto for this work has been “Move it Forward,” ask questions and cover aspects of the story that the national media would be unlikely to address, even after the story captured the attention of readers, child-protection activists, and sports fans far from central Pennsylvania.

Sara Ganim continues to work this story. The trial is set for June, and there are few days that go by without some piece that notes efforts by the defense to enforce burdensome subpoenas that probe the personal lives of the accusers in areas that would seem to have little to do with the cases, or ask for more and more indulgences from the court so that the accused can enjoy a more or less “normal” life. It is a measure of her commitment to this story that her blog hasn’t been updated since September and her website doesn’t mention that she has won a Pulitzer. A Pulitzer, for cryin’ out loud!

Sara Ganim serves as an inspiration to me. This is the last day of April. I’ve moved out of my usual winter blahs, complicated this year by a stubborn virus that would not quit me. I’ve picked up some projects that I let languish. This is Bite Your Nails and Wait for the News season. I’ve applied to both the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf. What to do until my Gallivants are set? This afternoon I devised Plan A, in which I get accepted by both conferences, Plan B, in which Sewanee takes a pass but Bread Loaf welcomes me back, and Plan C, in which both conferences say no but I go to Vermont anyway (I already have a deposit on an off-campus house) and look at the leaves and the light.

I’ll be working, working, on the troubled neighborhood story, reading several collections of linked stories, studying form, practicing craft, moving it forward.

Thank you for reading, so much, so often.

(To see Sara Ganim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, go to the Jerry Sandusky Invesitgation pages at the Harrisburg Patriot-News.)

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