Larry Nassar: An ugly snapshot of American life
More than 150 women told of their abuse at hands of former Olympics gymnastics doctor
They rose, one by one, to take the stand at a small courthouse in suburban Michigan. In a week-long sentencing hearing more than 150 women told their stories about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University and US Olympics gymnastics doctor who was sentenced this week for abusing multiple women.
The case has captured the attention of the American public, succeeding in piercing through the wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump presidency on cable TV.
In an extraordinary act of collective expression, dozens of women delivered powerful personal testimonies, documenting the abuse they suffered and the impact it has had on their lives.
Their audience was primarily their abuser who sat across from the women in the courthouse. But it was also American society, still grappling with the #MeToo movement that has uncovered the dark underbelly of sexual abuse, ranging from assault to harassment, that quietly pervades American life.
The victims’ impact statements were magnified throughout the country through the medium of TV and the internet. Their testimony was livestreamed online, drawing more and more viewers as the days went on, while cable news channels broke off coverage from the White House to run extended clips of the witnesses.
At first 88 women were expected to testify, but as the trial continued others joined, eager to tell their stories. By the time Judge Rosemarie Aquilina had delivered her sentence on Wednesday, 158 women had taken the stand.
While their stories were frighteningly familiar – most were molested by the doctor when they attended his clinic for routine treatment for gymnastic injuries – all were uniquely personal. The witnesses ranged from Olympic medal winners, to teachers, to parents. One was a member of the military. In their diversity and ordinariness they represented a snapshot of US life.
There was Gwen Anderson, a teacher, who chose to break her anonymity at the last moment and read her victim impact statement herself.
“I am a middle school teacher and I teach 12, 13 and 14-year old kids every day,” she said, crying as she delivered her statement. “Every single day I am faced with the reality of how young and defenceless we were when Larry molested us...We were just kids. I still remember flinching from his touch, and I still remember him saying ‘it’s okay, I know you’re not used to being touched there’.”
Former Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber told the court: “I thought that training for the Olympics would be the hardest thing that I would ever have to do. But in fact the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is process that I am a victim of Larry Nassar.”
Kyle Stephens, the first woman to testify, told how she was abused by Nassar between the age of six and 12 during visits to his home as her parents were friends with the Nassar family. She blamed her father’s suicide on the guilt he felt at first believing Nassar.
Donna Markham testified on behalf of her daughter Chelsey who died by suicide in 2009. “It all started with him,” she said, as she described her daughter’s descent into drug abuse.
Throughout the hearings Nassar sat in the courtroom, mostly showing little emotion. In his final statement in court he said that the words he had heard in the previous days had had “a significant effect on myself and have shaken me to my core”.
The 54-year old father of three was already in prison serving 60 years for possession of child pornography. Well-respected as a professional in Michigan where he lived and worked, he had reached the top ranks of the Olympic medical team. His wife filed for divorce a year ago, requesting full custody of their three children.
He wrote to Judge Aquilina last week claiming that he was emotionally distressed by hearing the statements, but she refused to let him absent himself. Sentencing him to up to 175 years in prison, she said it was her “honour and privilege” to sentence him.
The judge’s decision to allow all victims to deliver impact statements was not unusual as this was a sentence hearing rather than a jury trial. But the sheer number of victims who came forward was unexpected.
As Nassar prepares to spend the rest of his life behind bars, his trial has raised serious questions about the systems that protected him. He joined the US Gymnastics national team as a trainer in 1986, and went on to work as team doctor at four Olympic Games between 1996 and 2012. In 1997 he was given a faculty position at Michigan State University.
Allegations of abuse date from 1994, before he joined Michigan State. But it was 2014 before a series of criminal investigations began. Michigan State University’s own police department began investigating Nassar on the back of a complaint. This investigation was then followed up by the local county prosecutor’s office. USA Gymnastics, which received several complaints from its members, and the FBI also opened investigations around this time.
Several victims criticised the authorities over their unwillingness to take complaints seriously in their victim impact statements in court.
“Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure,” Amanda Thomashow said in court as she recalled her attempts to report Nassar’s behaviour to authorities.
Questions have arisen as to why Michigan State University allowed Nassar to work when he was under at least four different investigations between April 2014 before he was fired in September 2016 – around 20 women say they were abused during that period.
Focus has also turned to the role of gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. Accuser Larissa Boyce says she complained to Klages but was encouraged not to pursue the complaint. Klages was suspended last January and then retired.
The university’s president, Lou Anna K Simon, has resigned following protests this week. The board of trustees has established an official investigation and has established a $10 million victim fund. The university is also facing dozens of lawsuits from former students and victims of Nassar.
The Nassar scandal is the latest to beset the US sports world, with memories still fresh of the Penn State University scandal in 2011 which revealed that longtime coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused young boys over a 15-year period.
Three of USA Gymnastics’ senior board members, including the chairman, resigned on Monday, even before the sentence was announced.
The organisation is also feeling the heat financially. AT&T announced it would stop sponsoring the organisation a month after Proctor & Gamble and Kellogg’s declined to renew their sponsorship deals.
The revelations about the failures of multiple organisations to carry out their duty of care coincides with a larger public debate in the US about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and harassment.
The #MeToo movement has prompted a moment of national reckoning. From its beginnings in the field of film and media, it has moved to other industries.
The long-time conductor and former musical director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, James Levine, has been suspended over sexual abuse allegations.
In Washington, Congress has been hit with a series of allegations of sexual harassment, almost all involving older congressmen and their younger female employees.
This week it emerged that Patrick Meehan, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, had used taxpayers’ money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit with an aide decades his junior. The 62 year-old married father of three admitted that he “was struggling” to keep his feelings from interfering with his professional relationship with his employee, but says he believes he will be cleared. The House of Representatives’ Ethics Committee has opened an inquiry.
The Nassar scandal may once have been remembered as simply the latest sexual scandal to engulf the sporting world. But in the current climate its implications may be more far-reaching.
As the allegations of sexual impropriety in the workplace show no sign of abating, America is sitting up and listening. #MeToo may become the social justice issue of our time.