How 265 Women and Girls Went from Being Victims to an Army of Survivors

Michelle Riddell Girls

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“We are only as sick as our secrets.” (Alcoholics Anonymous)

It’s over. On Monday, February 5th, 2018, in what was likely his last public appearance, former Michigan State University and USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced for the third and final time to what amounts to a lifetime in prison. In addition to pleading guilty in July 2017 to federal child-pornography charges, Nassar pleaded guilty in November 2017 to numerous accounts of criminal sexual assault in two separate Michigan counties. The case, which involves at least 265 individual charges and spans nearly three decades, is the biggest sex abuse scandal in sports history.

As part of the plea agreement, each of Nassar’s victims had the opportunity to make a victim-impact statement at the sentencing trials. Both Circuit Court Judges who presided over the hearings agreed to clear their dockets for as long as needed so every voice could be heard. Over the course of ten days, 204 women and girls stood up in a courtroom, faced Larry Nassar, who was seated in the witness stand, identified themselves publicly by name, and allowed their testimony to be broadcast live. One after another, they recounted stories of abuse so horrifying, so flagrant and frequent, so sordid, so perverse, systematically planned and enduring—that the entire country is reeling in shock.

To be clear, this is no longer about Larry Nassar, whom we already know is a monster and does not deserve another moment of notoriety.

This is no longer a story of hundreds of incredulous parents, destroyed by guilt, who will go to their graves carrying an immeasurable burden of regret. Whatever part they played in facilitating the abuse was unintentional, despite the collective question, How could this happen?

This is no longer a story about Lou Anna Simon, the former president of Michigan State University, who learned in 2014 that police reports had been filed against Nassar yet did nothing, and who, in recent years, sat on a flurry of incriminating information, therefore abdicating her responsibility to protect MSU students.

This is no longer a story about former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, who was accused in civil court filings of brushing off a gymnast’s complaints about Dr. Larry Nassar in the late 1990s — nearly 20 years before his crimes were publicly exposed—and who, when she was told in 1997 by several gymnasts that Nassar was performing “intravaginal adjustments” on them, warned the athletes not to go public and passionately defended his techniques.

This is no longer a story about the many, many MSU representatives including athletic trainers, assistant coaches, a university police detective, the board of trustees, and an official who is now MSU’s assistant general counsel, who knew about the abuse for two decades and deliberately withheld information. Two decades.

This is no longer a story about Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, whose approach to the sentencing hearings was striking and uncommon, playing dual roles as magistrate and therapist, roundly rejecting a letter from Nassar that bemoaned the trauma of having to listen to accounts of the very trauma he inflicted, telling him, “Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.”

This is no longer a story about Eaton County Circuit Court Judge Janice Cunningham who told her courtroom, “Each voice and each story does make a difference,” then went on to tell Nassar she doesn’t believe he can be rehabilitated, citing his methodical planning and the effort he put into gaining the trust of his victims’ families.

This is not even about the prosecutors who fervently negotiated the plea deal to include the victim-impact forum, knowing the best way to return power, dignity, and control to their clients was by shedding the shroud of secrecy.

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This is now the story of 265 girls and women who were groomed from a very young age to be coachable, malleable, and obedient. As elite athletes, they were rewarded for their stoic composure and ability to defy physical pain. They were treated like trinkets, medal-bearers trained to perform on command. They were told it was a privilege to be under the care of the famous Dr. Larry Nassar and if you complained, you risked being blackballed from the sport.

The ones who did come forward to the USA Gymnastics coaches were dismissed as being overly sensitive about invasive vaginal and anal exams. The ones who went to MSU authorities weren’t believed or were told they would lose their scholarships if they pressed charges or were discouraged from “ruining careers and reputations.” They were patronized, exploited, gaslighted, and bullied into silence, but nevertheless, they persisted. And finally, after 37,000 images and videos of child pornography belonging to Nassar surfaced, proving he was a predator, the 265 girls and women were heard.

265 people. That’s more than double the graduating class in my town. That’s one victim a month for twenty-two years, some as young as 5 years old. That’s more victims than in the Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein scandals combined. Their statements detailed embarrassing, shameful, painful, repulsive acts, horrendous acts that changed the trajectory of their lives—eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, and even suicide. Acts that tore families apart, eroded trust, and seeded doubt.

During the sentencing hearings, their truths spilled forth like a roiling swell against a decaying damn. Choked voices, shaky voices, voices joining voices, voices overlapping. Years of being violated, foul and putrid tales, nightmares, stolen innocence, the shame and shame and shame, all of it overflowing, rushing out of the past and into the open—into the courtroom. Gushing like a geyser, crashing like an angry sea, its volume swiftly rising to drown Larry Nassar, those who knew, and those who kept his secrets. For shame, we must do better.

About the Author

Michelle Riddell

Michelle Riddell lives with her husband, daughter, and poodles in rural mid-Michigan where traffic stops for turtles, tractors, and threshers. She is a free-lance writer and an editor at Mothers Always Write. She substitute teaches at the local elementary school and is continually surprised by how much she loves it.

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