Alumna suggests compassion instead of scapegoating

Please, let’s take a minute of your time to address some difficult material. In the wake of some heavy news, I’ve been thinking a lot about humanity, responsibility, and forgiveness.

Professor, colleague, distinguished Allegheny faculty member, friend, dog lover, artist, author, and frontman of a band….. and now felon? Child pornography connoisseur?  It’s hard to believe. It’s shocking, staggering, unbelievable. Unbelievable. As we as a family, a community of Alleghenians, we must try to process this information as best we can. If you are anything like me, you are wrestling with this news. What is so difficult is that we are being asked to acknowledge something that is inherent in all of our natures, as human beings, and that is the darkness that lies within. The possibility that we all carry around to choose to do something “wrong” everyday. No one has a pure soul, we all have corners of darkness and tarnished surfaces. Just like an addict never means to end up on the streets, a person who has sexually deviant thoughts and desires doesn’t necessarily mean to hurt anyone. Were his choices poor? Absolutely. Are charges appropriate? Indeed. But I can assure that this man, human like the rest of us, is experiencing silence that is deafening and a loneliness that can only be found in death. And the guilt and shame that he is piling on himself is far worse than the condemnation of others.

Let me be perfectly clear: I, in no way, condone the exploitation of children, sexual, or otherwise. I have two children of my own and I have spent a decade working in early childhood education. The protection of children is something I hold near and dear to my heart both personally and professionally. I find the charges against Professor Nesset vile and difficult to even consider but I have to decide if this news should change my feelings towards him, negate the work that I have done with him and rewrite the history we have together. People come into our lives and we create meaningful relationships with them. We can go a week, a year or a whole lifetime and still find out something about them that makes you feel that you never knew them at all. But do the charges erase the fact that he was my professor? Does it make his literature any less compelling? Does it make his humanity any less gentle or loyal? Does it make his teaching any less valuable? No, I don’t think it does. In fact, it makes it harder for me to believe he was capable of such depravity, and even as I write this, I am keeping in mind the key concepts of storytelling, the power of persuasion and imagery, all invaluable lessons Nesset taught me in class.

And so I find myself swinging back and forth between pity and condemnation, between sorrow and anger. I think what makes this so difficult for those who were close to him is that it isn’t black and white. It isn’t about his guilt or innocence. It’s about the man that we know him to be and the obvious fires of uncontrollable desires that he unfortunately chose to stoke. It is easy to say “guilty- he’s a terrible person” and write him off. It’s much harder for those of us who cannot come down on one side of the argument or the other 100%, because we are still able to see that good part of him. To brand him one way or the other is simple. 

To wrestle with the totality of human nature, the good and the bad, to allow compassion to creep in, if even just a little bit, that’s the difficult stuff.

— Siobhan Peterson-Walsh,'09

If Allegheny has taught me anything, it has been to question everything, assume nothing, seek out facts, and never stop seeking the truth. Truth, as it turns out, is not always pretty, not always wrapped up with a bow. Au contraire, truth can be very ugly, can be that pill that’s hard to swallow.  We all wake up everyday and face choices, easy choices, difficult choices and choices that change our lives and those of the people around us. Professor Nesset made some reprehensible choices, ones that that will also affect all those people around him. Now, we can’t control the choices that he made, but we can control how we react to them.

And so I ask you, fellow Allegheny community members, what choice will you make? Will you choose to perpetuate the ugly and the pain, or will you choose to set an example of empathy for your fellow man? It can be easy to climb up on our soap box, shake our fingers, and look down our noses in disdain, but let me remind you we don’t walk on water or part the seas. And I’m not asking you to excuse his actions or even forgive him. I’m asking you to condemn the act while finding some amount of compassion for the individual we still know and once loved. I’m asking you to step back and consider your personal and professional relationships, your work together and any other influence there might have been, and not to be so quick (as some have been) to cleave all remnants of him from your life. It isn’t when times are good and everyone gets along that defines a community, it’s when times are difficult, when what is right and wrong is murky and the truth lies somewhere in the gray area that we strengthen and our resolve, redefine ourselves and do what is right.


Siobhan Peterson-Walsh

Class of 2009

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