This morning, in my Introduction to Literature course, I finally addressed what has happened in recent days at State College, Pennsylvania. I write “finally” because I have been thinking about the evolving story, its characters, and its Happy Valley setting, and as someone who is not from there, who has only the media to guide his interpretation of the events, the people, and the place, I wondered if I could be any kind of authority on leading such a class discussion. As an English professor, my mind sought out stories, namely Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” to help me understand the sad events at State College, PA.
This weekend, my friend Dave Housley, a founding editor of Barrelhouse, wrote “Notes from Inside a Burst Bubble: On the Ground in State College, PA.” Dave grew up in Happy Valley, and he made a conscious decision to return there to raise his own family. He works at Pennsylvania State University, and, as his son proclaims throughout the essay, the Housleys are Penn State. The result of the child sex abuse scandal leaves Dave and others like him — people who “are so invested in the idea of Penn State being that better place, this happy valley” — feeling like they have been personally betrayed. The people and place of Happy Valley now face the challenge of asking “are we who we thought we were?”
As I read of Happy Valley, which Dave describes as a “town, where holiday lights [are] strung across the tree-lined streets like the set of some sepia-toned Hollywood movie,” a place where bicycles can be left unlocked in front of the grocery store, I recalled a similar utopia: Omelas, a place “in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer […] the victory they celebrate is that of life.” People in Omelas march in parades; the smell of cooked food wafts from tents; sticky-faced children run around in play; women hand out flowers to passers-by; and boys play sweet flute music. Dave describes similar scenes in his hometown: people camp out on Penn State’s lawns before weekend games; wide green pastures dotted by cows; and streets with names like “Innovation.”
LeGuin admits “Omelas sounds … like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away,” yet Housley’s Happy Valley is one state away from Washington, D.C., less than four hours away from Montgomery County, Maryland, where Dave once lived, where I still work. Of course, we know the emerging dark reality of Happy Valley; LeGuin’s story has an emerging dark reality, too: deep in a basement beneath a beautiful public building exists a naked child that sits in its own excrement. The people of Omelas “understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers… depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
The citizens of Omelas learn of the child when they are between eight and twelve (as I’m sure future generations of children will learn of Happy Valley’s child victims). LeGuin writes, “No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.” Similarly, Dave describes a recent a meeting with colleagues over what he calls the current situation: “We are emotional, angry, sad, confused. Not necessarily in that order. Or, the order is changing on a day to day basis, as new facts come to light and tough decisions finally get made and we all have time to digest exactly what has happened here in our little town known […] as Happy Valley.”
There are striking similarities between the two stories: both places are better places than others in so many ways, we are told, but there is a dark reality that for the people of Omelas is a conscious decision; theirs is a conscious and “terrible paradox,” one they feel cannot be fixed considering what is at stake: “to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.” Was this perhaps the logic behind the child sex abuse cover up? Who knows? What we do know is that the people of Happy Valley are now facing a paradox of their own (in Dave’s words): “One of the most painful things about the whole scandal is that, today, we’re not sure anymore. We can hope, but we realize, more than anything, that we just don’t know what these people were capable of, and that we never really did.”
It is a sad day when one realizes that he doesn’t know at all what he once thought he knew, when greater work must go into remembering what he once thought he loved. In LeGuin’s story, the sadness, anger, and confusion turn into acceptance: “They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion.” And sometimes they fall silent for a day or two, then leave home. “They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone….” I’m not suggesting that the people of Happy Valley should walk away. As Dave notes, there are still many things to love about this little town — Penn State offers health benefits for same sex partners, for example — but surely each one of its citizens must come face to face with the metaphorical child in the basement, and, alone, come to some sense of atonement. The beautiful aspect of a literary comparison is that, although reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, reality’s outcomes depend on our actions. For now, my thoughts are with the victims and with people like Dave, the ones who live in Happy Valley, as they work through their emotions and decide what to do.