Over the last week I watched somewhere around forty hours of victim impact statements at Larry Nassar’s Ingham County sentencing.
During this time, 158 women spoke out or had their statements read for them by parents, by victim advocates, or by the Attorney General’s office, accounting for about 80% of those who have come forward about their abuse so far.
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina made it quite clear early on that she would honor the plea agreement, so when she went with the maximum allowed by the plea — up to 175 years — it wasn’t a surprise, but it did offer a sense of relief to the survivors who were there to finally get justice after years or even decades had passed since they were abused.
Thanks to our excellent news curator Jessica Price, we have a recap of so much that happened over the past few days both in the courtroom and in response to the victim impact statements and to the sentencing.
But I also wanted to address this personally because after watching every single second of the live stream, hearing every single survivor tell a story that was so similar to the rest but with its own individualized heartbreak — a father going to his grave believing Nassar was innocent, not knowing his own daughter was abused; a coach who sent hundreds of kids to Nassar, his mentor at the time, and now feels unfathomable guilt in knowing that he contributed to his pool of victims; and countless young women who feel unworthy, anxious, depressed, and suicidal because they trusted someone who took advantage of their vulnerability — I can’t just passively share the outcome.
Women between the ages of 15 and 40 shared some of the most personal details of their lives in a courtroom full of reporters, legal teams, the best judge ever, fellow survivors and their support systems, and the “defendant,” Nassar, who had the audacity to write a single-spaced six page letter after sitting through two days of testimony because listening to these statements was “too difficult” for him mentally, as if being abused by a trusted, beloved doctor and spending the next years or decades of your life living in fear, afraid to be touched, and wishing you were dead because of what he did is a piece of cake.
Judge Aquilina laughed off the letter when she read excerpts aloud on day three, contributing a much-needed distraction and easing the tension a bit after an emotionally packed start to the sentencing. But she saved the best for last, and by “best,” I mean the most delusional, narcissistic, self-obsessed nonsense where he reminds us that he is actually the victim here, not the hundreds of women and girls he molested.
“What I did was medical, not sexual, but because of the porn [found on his computer], I lost all support. Thus the guilty plea.”
Ah, yes. “The porn.” As in the 37,000 files containing sexual images of children the FBI found on his laptop, which he attempted to destroy by taking it to a computer shop and spending $50 to have erased before tossing his hard drives in the trash.
His letter went on to say that he “was a good doctor” because his “treatments” worked. “Those patients that are now speaking out were the same ones that praised and came back over and over, and referred family and friends.” His letter implied that the only reason victims think they’re victims is because the media told them that they were because the media wanted to demonize him and turn him into a bad guy.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” he mocked, yes, MOCKED, before going on to say, “I was SO manipulated. All I wanted was to minimize stress to everyone [by pleading guilty].”
The gallery literally burst into laughter at that, which was a welcome change from the sobs, because when Nassar got his chance to speak, he spun around in circles to simultaneously address the judge in front of him and his victims behind him, looking about as crazy as someone could possibly look under the circumstances. While doing this, he thanked his victims for their words, pointing at random into the crowd and yelling “YOUR words, and YOUR words, and YOUR words!” like he was Oprah or Lindsay Lohan breaking up her crown at the end of Mean Girls. I honestly in that moment thought he expected applause for being so “brave” all week, but in reality, his victims sobbed during his attempt to address them head-on and the judge told him to knock it off.
“Would you like to withdraw your plea?” she asked once he stopped rotating.
“No, your honor.”
“Because you’re guilty, aren’t you, sir?”
Nassar paused for a moment. “I accept my plea.”
It is absurd. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t hear him say it, and if I didn’t hear Judge Aquilina read the words in his letter, but this is a man who molested hundreds (if not thousands) of women and girls who thought he was healing them, who took advantage of coaches and parents who trusted him with their children, and who used international competitions to groom athletes from other countries when he wasn’t satisfied with destroying the sport in the United States, and he thinks he is the victim.
Nassar is such a master manipulator that not only did he get every single man, woman, and child he ever came into contact with to believe that he’s this amazing guy, he also manipulated himself into thinking everything he did was legitimate and medically necessary. After listening to 158 women talk about their pain and trauma, emotional tolls that have taken some of them thirty years to process and come to terms with, he actually believes he’s innocent.
Many of the Nassar survivors wanted answers and apologies to help with the healing process, but they’re unlikely to get anything back from him if he can’t admit to himself or others that what he did was wrong.
But even without Nassar admitting to and understanding exactly how he ruined hundreds of lives, you could feel the healing beginning to happen, or continuing to happen, as each woman read her words out loud. The sentencing was about Nassar, but the process was all about the 158 women becoming inspired and empowered through their own words and through the words of their “sister survivors,” to borrow Judge Aquilina’s name for the army of survivors who blazed a trail for change in the culture of gymnastics.
That change has been a long time coming. At the institutional level, shutting down the ranch and wiping the board clean is fine and good, but what we need in this sport is coaches who will take girls at four or five years old and let them know they have autonomy, and that while the coaches will do their best to help them reach their goals, they have the right to step up and say “I am not comfortable with this.”
By telling children “your coaches know what’s best and you’d better listen if you want to get to the Olympics someday,” children are internalizing at an early age that their feelings, opinions, and choices not only don’t matter, but are wrong. In no world should a child be crying on an exam table while a doctor violates her in front of her parents and think that this is how things are supposed to be. In no world should a child purposely bash her head into her bathtub to get out of going to the national team camps. In no world should a child be made to feel invisible because the end results matter more than she does.
Gymnastics is inherently not going to be easy for anyone, no matter how determined or talented, and children will have to make many sacrifices if they want to succeed at the highest levels, but aside from the occasional broken bone or torn ACL, these sacrifices shouldn’t have to include their own physical and mental health.
As Mattie Larson said in her brave and horrifying statement on Tuesday, “There is another way. A healthy and supportive way to make champions.” Change won’t happen overnight, but thanks to the 158 women who spoke this week—and in support of the other 50 or so who came forward but chose not to attend the sentencing and the remaining hundreds who haven’t yet felt comfortable about speaking out and may never will—it’s coming. While Larry Nassar rots in prison and never walks free again in this lifetime, the army of survivors he left in his wake will rise up and make the sport better and safer for future generations.
Thank you to each and every survivor who spoke up over the past seven days of this sentencing. Know you were heard and that your words created lasting change while forever shining a light not only on abuse, but on how easily victims can be silenced.
We hear you.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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