On January 16, women and girls from across the country began congregating in a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan. Some of us were athletes; some of us were not. Some of us were white; some of us were black. Some of us were married; some of us were still in high school. Many of us had never met.
But we shared one core, unifying experience: Sexual assault at the hands of Larry Nassar. And we had one core, unifying goal: Facing our abuser and confronting the culture that allowed him to prey on us without fear or punishment.
It felt surreal at first — finally putting names and faces to the numbered “Jane Doe” designations I had wanted for so long to protect. But the pain we shared knit us together instantly. We knew what to do when someone began to weep or shake in court, because each of us had cried those tears before. We knew what to say when a grieving survivor expressed guilt or doubt, because we had experienced that same shame.
Over the course of the trial, we became an army determined to expose the greatest sexual assault scandal in sports history. And we succeeded. After 156 of us gave statements, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced him on Wednesday to 40 to 175 years.
But on August 29, 2016, when I filed the first police complaint against Nassar for sexually abusing me when I was a 15-year-old girl and chose to release a very public story detailing what he had done, it felt like a shot in the dark. I came as prepared as possible: I brought medical journals showing what real pelvic floor technique looks like; my medical records, which showed that Larry had never mentioned that he used such techniques even though he had penetrated me; the names of three pelvic floor experts ready to testify to police that Larry’s treatment was not medical; other records from a nurse practitioner documenting my disclosure of abuse in 2004; my journals from that time; and a letter from a neighbouring district attorney vouching for my character. I worried that any less meant I would not be believed — a concern I later learnt was merited.
My education as a lawyer prepared me for the process and presentation. But absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the pain of being the first to go public with my accusations in the Indianapolis Star. I lost my church. I lost my closest friends as a result of advocating for survivors who had been victimised by similar institutional failures in my own community.
I lost every shred of privacy.
When a new friend searched my name online or added me as a friend on Facebook, the most intimate details of my life became available long before we had even exchanged phone numbers. I avoided the grocery stores on some days, to make sure my children didn’t see my face on the newspaper or a magazine. I was asked questions about things no one should know when I least wanted to talk. And the effort it took to move this case forward — especially as some called me an “ambulance chaser” just “looking for a payday” — often felt crushing.
Yet, all of it served as a reminder: These were the very cultural dynamics that had allowed Nassar to remain in power.
I knew that the farthest I could run from my abuser, and the people that let him prey on children for decades, was to choose the opposite of what that man, and his enablers, had become. To choose to find and speak the truth, no matter what it cost.
As the calls began coming in to the Michigan State University Police Department and the number of reports grew, my horror did as well. Victim after victim came forward. Some were abused when they were as young as six years old. Some were victimised nearly three decades ago, others only days before my report was filed. Far worse, victims began to come forward who had tried to sound the alarm years before I walked into that M.S.U. clinic to meet the celebrated doctor. Not only were they suffering the devastation of sexual assault; they were suffering deep wounds from having been silenced, blamed and often even sent back for continued abuse.
More than 200 women have now alleged abuse by Nassar. Even more staggering than that number is the revelation that at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been warned of his abuse. What is truly stomach-turning is the realisation that a vast majority of those victims were abused after his conduct was first reported by two teenagers to M.S.U.’s head gymnastics coach as far back as 1997.
So how did this happen? How, for 30 years, did this monster manage to prey on little girls and young women without being caught?
Partly it is because Larry was an expert predator. He was calculating, deliberate and a master manipulator. Much of the abuse, mine included, took place with our own mothers in the room, their view casually blocked by Larry, his hand hidden under a towel, a sheet or loose clothing.
But Nasser’s cunning is only a small piece of this story. Because most paedophiles present a wholesome persona, they are able to ingratiate themselves into communities. Research shows that paedophiles are also reported at least seven times on an average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them. In many ways, the sexual assault scandal that was 30 years in the making was only a symptom of a much deeper cultural problem — the unwillingness to speak the truth against one’s own community.
The result of putting reputation and popularity ahead of girls and young women? The vile stories you heard in that courtroom this week, all of which could have been prevented. Now that the world has been transfixed by our case, we must make sure not even one more young woman is preyed upon as I was.
The first step towards changing the culture that led to this atrocity is to hold enablers of abuse accountable. There is much that needs to be done legislatively, including extending or removing the statute of limitations on criminal and civil charges related to sexual assault, and strengthening mandatory reporting laws and ensuring truth in sentencing, so that dangerous offenders are not released early to damage more children.
Most important, we need to encourage and support those brave enough to speak out. Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardising some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to wilful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.
Ask yourself: How much is a child worth?
Every decent human being knows the answer to that question. Now it is time to act like it.
— New York Times News Service
Rachael Denhollander is a lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, US.