When the allegations against Larry Nassar broke last summer, I thought okay, I’ll write up some quick thoughts about this, what’s going on, and not only how horrible it is, but also how horrible it is that so many people — people we know like coaches and gymnasts — were quick to jump to defend Nassar, because they believed him over the first victims to come forward.
But the story spiraled. And kept spiraling, until dozens and then over a hundred victims came forward, some publicly and others anonymously. I had no idea how to process what was going on in my own head, let alone put my thoughts into coherent, articulate, insightful words thousands of people would read.
I tried to help keep people aware of the situation and every development I came across by retweeting actual journalists covering the story from a news perspective. I was able to “cover” the events unfolding without getting too personally involved, because every time something new came out, I felt like I was being stabbed in the chest all over again.
Though I pride myself on being socially conscious and feel it is our responsibility as human beings to know what’s going on in the world and how it affects other human beings, I’m also someone who is rather obsessive and struggles with massive anxiety, so basically I spend so much of my time reading about every truly awful thing in the world in great detail and literally drive myself insane. Most people who absorb the news like sunlight become desensitized, but I get more and more anxious, and it’s vital that I separate my brain from the real world every now and then because the old adage is true — ignorance is bliss.
It’s so much easier to retweet the work of others writing about Nassar than it is to have to sift through the horrifying details and think about what actually happened to so many innocent girls and women. I’d read the headlines, but not the full articles, feeling guilty about not giving their stories the full attention they deserve but protecting my own brain at the same time because it hurt so badly.
Over the past month, many women I’ve known on a friendly acquaintance level since they were 14 — like 2012 Olympic teammates Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and McKayla Maroney, who came up in the sport as juniors at the same time I began covering meets for The Couch Gymnast in 2010 — revealed themselves as victims, and that changed how I was thinking and reacting to what was going on. Please don’t think I’m saying these three are more important than the other victims because they’re Olympic gold medalists. They’re not. As Raisman said on Twitter yesterday, “one time is too many and one person is too many.” But when you can put a face and a voice and memories to some of the over a hundred names we see in the black and white print of yet another news story, it cuts even deeper.
The 15-year-old Gabby, before she had any media training and whom we still called Gabrielle, telling me the day before she ended up beating reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup that she was so excited to finish up with the competition so she could see the Broadway musical Chicago. The 16-year-old Aly mimicking Martha Karolyi trying to teach her how to dance when she shocked everyone by landing a spot in the floor final at her first world championships, and Aly on her 18th birthday, laughing about putting candles in her salmon because she couldn’t eat cake. The 14-year-old McKayla shrugging, blasé, after I asked her about hitting one of the best Amanars I’d ever seen at nationals in 2010, and the 17-year-old McKayla passionately telling me her dreams for 2016 at nationals a year after London: “It’s the only thing on my mind. It’s the password on my phone.”
I can go on and on. I sobbed on press row when these three, along with Wieber and Kyla Ross, others I essentially watched grow up, were named to the Olympic team in 2012. I ran into an overwhelmed, frantic Aly backstage immediately after and congratulated her but I don’t think she even saw me through her peak emotional state. I woke up at all hours of the night to watch them compete live in London, and I still hold this team in my heart as the most special to me, because this was the first time I was fully immersed on a personal level in an Olympic cycle from beginning to end.
My personal “history” with this team absolutely made the Nassar situation more real to me. It was always something horrible, and from day one I believed the victims and wanted Nassar to spend the rest of his life in misery. But with Maroney, Douglas, and Raisman coming forward, coinciding with the powerful #MeToo movement that has helped so many women be able to open up and talk about their abuse, I began to go through a sort of awakening, about how women are conditioned in society to be ashamed of who we are and what we represent, and how we internalize misogyny in a way that most women will never even realize, let alone confront.
A few people have asked me about my thoughts on the whole “Raisman vs Douglas” drama which isn’t really a drama but rather a misunderstanding that the wrong people got involved in, causing Douglas feel forced to prematurely tell the world about her own abuse at the hands of Nassar. The two have since patched things up, with Raisman expressing her support of Douglas after Douglas came forward, followed by a response from Douglas, who thanked Raisman for forgiving her.
I’m not here to rehash what happened. But I wanted to talk about how we as human beings reacted to Douglas’ original comment, which came close to victim-blaming Raisman by suggesting that her nude photos for Sports Illustrated weren’t ‘classy’ and that women should keep themselves modest if they don’t want to become victims.
Now, even though it seemed like Douglas was personally attacking Raisman for her nude photos, I know she wasn’t. Her statement was meant to be a more general response to Raisman’s, and while still entirely inaccurate — as she later corrected in her apology by pointing out that she and her teammates were in leotards when they were abused by Nassar, also stating that “no matter what you wear, it NEVER gives anyone the right to harass or abuse you” — the fact that she, an abuse victim herself, thinks that victims are as equally culpable as the people who abuse them is what was more concerning to me.
Of course, we didn’t know she was a victim when she tweeted her response to Raisman, and so what she was saying just looked ignorant, like something someone who has never experienced abuse would think because they don’t know any better and need to be educated about the fact that the only people responsible for abuse are the abusers. But sadly, because of the way women grow up in a world that tells them they have to be sweet, pure, meek, and small to be “acceptable,” it’s easy to internalize this and it’s why many women who are abused or harassed think “if only I had done X, it wouldn’t have happened.”
When I first saw Douglas’ tweet, I was horrified and offended, as I’m sure many people were, based on the volume of replies she received. She deleted what she said within minutes of posting, but on the internet everything lasts forever, thanks to people who were quick to screen cap, excited to Call Her Out and Drag Her for her Problematic Behavior.
Her tweet was cringe-worthy and terrible, especially in direct response to her teammate of seven years, whom she knew had been abused, whom she hadn’t publicly supported after Raisman came forward with her story. I took to my personal Twitter with a vague “think before you tweet something to your literal one million followers” response, but didn’t want to join those Calling Her Out because I knew it wasn’t what it looked like. I had reason to suspect she was likely also a victim, and based on her general demeanor since returning to the sport, I knew she probably wasn’t dealing with it all that well.
As problematic as her words were, many women who are victims of sexual abuse have full-on battles in their heads about why this happened to them, and what they could’ve done to change it. I’ve been there. I would never victim blame anyone else on the planet, but I’m still not fully convinced that I didn’t do something to cause this and I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I can say “you did nothing wrong.”
I have nearly two decades between what happened and where I am now. For someone like Douglas, forced to spend time with her abuser until two years ago, growing up in a sport where athletes are treated like robots expected to do whatever adults tell them, in a religion that expects women to be subservient to men, it’s not hard to see why she thinks the way she does.
Douglas is also a young woman people tend to hate no matter what she says or does. She became the first African-American gymnast to win the Olympic all-around gold medal and people made fun of her hair. She didn’t smile on the podium or put her hand over her heart during the national anthem and people cyber bullied her. She didn’t attend a few post-Olympic events with her teammates and fans of the sport called her a bitch.
Throughout all of this, Raisman defended her. And when Douglas made her bizarre, tone-deaf, offensive comment to Raisman on Twitter, Raisman didn’t respond with hate as so many other people — including one of Douglas’ own teammates — did. Raisman didn’t say a thing, until Douglas apologized and released her own statement about her own abuse, after which Raisman said the most simple, but the most powerful words.
“I support you.”
Maybe Doulgas isn’t the best of friends with any of her teammates, and maybe they even see her as a bit odd. When I did a six-week science program in a secluded rainforest in college, I’d often retreat to my room with a book after a long day with my 15 classmates, needing a mental break because I’m introverted and it’s physically draining to spend every waking moment with other people. Because of this, people thought I was a bitch who didn’t want to ‘bond’ with the group, so I can see why Douglas, who is similarly introverted, would be seen by her more outgoing teammates as being different in some way. Or maybe she is a gigantic dick to everyone and they just don’t like her.
But that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be best friends with people or even like them to stand up for them and support them in something that goes beyond pettiness. Women are each other’s own biggest enemies, constantly pitting women against women and getting so inundated in drama that they forget what really matters, which is why nothing ever gets done. When you’re more concerned about tweeting hate to a gymnast you don’t know because she made a mistake than you are about working to help educate women about the internalized misogyny that makes them think women deserve to be abused, manipulated, and exploited, you are part of the problem.
Raisman stepping up like this to forgive and support her teammate is what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving. Raisman has always been a gymnast I’ve admired for her sheer passion and work ethic, so much so that I wrote a young adult series with a main character loosely based on her and her story.
She has always inspired me to work harder and be better, and since she began stepping up this summer as a voice for victims, the only national-level gymnast who has been outspoken against an organization she hopes to continue to compete for in the future, she has also inspired me in my commitment to social responsibility and using my voice for those who can’t.
Her maturity, her commitment to spreading kindness, her passion for helping others, and her dedication to being the best version of herself in everything she does, from gymnastics to educating people about abuse so that future generations will grow up in a world better than she did, everything Raisman stands for is what I aspire to be as a human being. She inspires me every single day, and I’m grateful that she is such an incredible role model for women and girls.
I’ve recently stepped back from certain areas of the gymternet because of the sheer hate and atrocious behavior toward women like Douglas and others who have been accused, tried, and convicted in the gymternet’s court, many of whom have done nothing more serious than expressing something in a problematic way, making an unpopular political comment, and even for not showing public support for something on social media. If you create scenarios and spread speculative rumors based on knowing five percent of the facts, you are part of the problem. If you are judging someone based on what they don’t share online, you are part of the problem. If you are spreading hate about a gymnast who made a mistake, you are part of the problem.
Douglas made a mistake, as have many gymnasts, as has nearly every human being on this planet. But the hate she receives is absolutely unwarranted as a response. Letting someone know they made a mistake and forgiving them when they correct their behavior is okay, but getting super excited to drag someone and pull receipts and shame them, especially as someone not even remotely connected to the situation, is not okay.
I hope people can see Raisman as an example of how to be someone who can address someone’s problematic behavior in a classy and respectful way that separates who the person is from what the person did and focuses more on educating than shaming. That is the definition of an advocate, and if we could all be more like this instead of judgmental, catty, and excited to call people out when they do something wrong, women would be able to trust and rely on one another more easily, making for an environment in which women can openly discuss and confront their issues without feeling like they’ll be attacked if they say something wrong.
Yesterday, finally, Nassar pled guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual assault, admitting that the “treatments” he performed on hundreds of girls and women across multiple sports were “not medically necessary.” Nassar is also awaiting sentencing after having pleaded guilty in federal court on child pornography charges, and he, USA Gymnastics, Martha Karolyi, Michigan State University, and a number of club coaches across the country all face civil suits filed on behalf of many of Nassar’s victims.
It’s not the end of the road for Nassar or his victims, but it’s one of many small victories for those who have been harmed by him in his marathon stretch of abuse, during which he exploited mostly sheltered children who trusted him to help, not harm, and also found him to be an ally in a sport where the majority of athletes are underage girls expected to do what they’re told and not question authority.
As Jacob Denhollander tweeted after his wife Rachael — the first woman to bravely come forward with her accusations against Nassar, exposing one of the biggest predators in the history of sports and inspiring over a hundred more to follow — spoke at Nassar’s hearing yesterday, Nassar “didn’t account for the fact that the scared little girls would become brave, fearless women who would turn the tables and see him rot in jail.”
Thank you to Rachael for sparking a revolution that will change the culture in gymnastics at every level. Thank you to all of the survivors of sexual assault and abuse who use your voices to fight back against the systemic expectation that women will quietly submit. And thank you to Aly for inspiring me to be the best version of myself, to take responsibility for correcting my behavior when I judge someone, and to use my voice for good.
Happy Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for?
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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