This week in a Michigan courtroom, serial pedophile Larry Nassar — who used his position as an elite doctor with USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University to groom and sexually abuse young girls and women — will be sentenced for a total of 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, charges to which he pleaded guilty back in November.
But before his additional sentence is handed down — Nassar is already serving a 60-year sentence in federal prison on separate child pornography charges — Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is providing space for the more than 150 women who have accused Nassar of sexual abuse to read (or have someone read on their behalf) a victim impact statement in open court, directly to him. More than 100 survivors are expected to take up the judge on her offer by the end of the week.
On Tuesday, the first day of the sentencing hearing, more than two dozen shared their stories. Listening to their collective accounts of the abuse they suffered at the hands of the man in a navy blue jumpsuit handcuffed to the seat in front of them, I was overcome with admiration for their bravery, relief that Nassar was finally being brought to justice, and mounting outrage at the systems that enabled him to prey on so many girls and women over so many years.
But more than anything, I was devastated by how much these women — and their families — have suffered due to Nassar’s abuse. The cost of not believing women is immeasurable; the damage it leaves behind might be manageable for some, but it’s permanent for all.
“Sexual abuse is so much more than a disturbing physical act. It changes the trajectory of a victim’s life, and that is something that nobody has the right to do,” said Kyle Stephens, the first Nassar victim to speak in court on Tuesday.
“You blame yourself for not being able to pull yourself out of the darkness, and therefore the feeling of worthlessness increases.”
She’s experienced the breadth of that statement. Unlike most of the victims, Stephens wasn’t abused by Nassar under the guise of a medical procedure; Nassar was a close family friend who she says first exposed himself to her in a boiler room with her parents close by when she was six, and sexually abused her until she was 12 years old — sometimes pleasuring himself in front of her, rubbing his genitals on her bare feet, or digitally penetrating her vagina.
Stephens told her parents what Nassar was doing, but they were so close with Nassar they simply couldn’t bring themselves to believe it was true. She had a tumultuous relationship with her family for years. Her father only realized she was telling the truth about the abuse when she was 18 years old; overcome with guilt, he committed suicide a couple of years later. He suffered from chronic pain, but Stephens said that the shame he felt from enabling Nassar’s abuse and ignoring his daughter’s accusation was insurmountable. Nassar hung his head while Stephens described in excruciating detail how Nassar’s abuse destroyed her family.
Jessica Thomashow, a 17 year old who was formerly known as Victim A, says she was assaulted by Nassar when she was nine and 12 years old. Growing up, she dreamed of becoming an elite sports doctor, just like Nassar. She doesn’t anymore. Now, the senior in high school has social anxiety disorder, has trouble focusing in school, and avoids male teachers.
“My dream of becoming a sports doctor ended [the day Nassar first abused me], as did my happy and trusting self,” Thomashow said on Tuesday. “He had broken me.”
Danielle Moore, who says she was abused by Nassar for years as a young teenager, echoed the same sentiment — that Nassar “broke” her. She went into devastating detail about how much her self esteem, mental health, and physical health has suffered in the years since the abuse.
He broke me, he stole my innocence, and he exploited me for his own self satisfaction. All aspects of my young life was torn apart. I struggled in silence, shame, and confusion, attempting to put the pieces of my life back together, but I will never be whole again. The pain of the abuse continues to make me feel broken, insecure, fearful, and overall worthless. At times these feelings become completely overwhelming that I engage in self destructive behavior and thought about killing myself. Feeling worthless is an extremely difficult emotion to describe. I would like you to imagine a time when you turned off all of the lights in the room, and it was pitch black for a few moments before your eyes adjusted. Feeling worthless is like that pitch blackness where your eyes never adjust. You are just stuck in the darkness, a dark and empty space, and the more you search for any kind of light, the deeper you go into the desolate, apathetic, and fearful trap the darkness created. You blame yourself for not being able to pull yourself out of the darkness, and therefore the feeling of worthlessness increases. For other individuals, their eyes would adjust, or they would eventually be able to find a light. This is not the case for me. Since this pitch blackness is in my mind, and the darkness has grown and entangled itself in every facet of my life. I’ve tried to fight back against this darkness, to feel worthwhile and worthy.
It is gut-wrenching to listen to these stories; we’ve been taught to look for happy endings in tales of suffering. We hone in on bravery, and force protagonists into the role of conquering hero, whether they’re comfortable with that or not. We prefer to talk about their trauma in terms of what they have overcome; as if it’s all in their past, not a part of their present. It’s easier to wade through the wreckage if we can keep one eye on the light at the end of the tunnel.
But it’s also important to accept the reality that for many of these survivors, that light is hard to come by. That’s not because they are weak, or because they’re less brave or resilient than other victims. It’s because what Nassar did to these women was an unthinkable betrayal of trust, and because trauma impacts everyone differently.
And while the exercise of coming forward with their stories, being believed, and confronting Nassar is clearly a cathartic one for many victims, it’s also painful and traumatic on its own.
“The past year and few months have been the most difficult and trying of my life, as the sexual abuse resurfaced with even more intensity and I have constantly relived the abuse,” Moore said on Tuesday. “Because of this I had to resign from my job, as I fell deeper into depression and no longer wanted to live.”
Most of the survivors talked about the depression and anxiety that has become a regular part of their lives in the wake of the abuse, and how much energy it takes them just to survive each day — energy that takes away from the time they want to spend at work or with their families.
“The world that we live in does not allow time to heal, and it never will.”
“I always try to be strong for my children and I can’t be that strong person anymore,” said Annette Hill, who was abused by Nassar when she was a young woman going through a tough divorce. “I often think about suicide so that I can turn off the thoughts of him, get rid of the nightmares, but I know that’s not the answer.”
Olivia Cowan sobbed as she listed the demands of her life, and how it doesn’t provide ample space for recovery.
“The world that we live in does not allow time to heal, and it never will,” Cowan said. “The world continues to come at lightning speed, my career continues to demand my very best, and my family responsibilities do not take a time out. What’s left is a tank on empty due to the emotional stress of the afterlife of what you have done. My children and my husband get less than my best.”
Megan Halicek said she put all of her trust in Nassar, not only to treat her body but to save her dream. Now, she sleeps with a nightlight; sometimes she goes months without leaving her room. “The world feels unsafe,” she said. “Men feel unsafe.”
Ashley Erickson has lost jobs and alienated her family and friends due to her PTSD; Lindsey Lemke’s entire family, including her parents and brother, are “scarred forever” because of Nassar’s abuse and because of the guilt they feel for trusting Nassar with their daughter. Donna Markham, the mother of Chelsea Markham, said her formerly close-knit family had been “destroyed” because of Nassar’s abuse. Chelsea committed suicide nine years ago.
“In 2009, she took her own life because she couldn’t deal with the pain anymore,” Donna said. “She was 23 years old. Every day I miss her. Every day. And it all started with him, it just became worse as the years came by and she didn’t do it anymore.”
Pithy one-liners, gold medals, and #MeToos are only a part of the story. The statements being read by victims in court this week paint a much messier and hard-to-face reality of what it means to be a survivor — a reality that doesn’t come with capes or suits of armor, and that doesn’t end when the distressing-yet-hopeful overcomer puff piece goes off the air. The statements are almost unbearable to hear, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to listen to them.
Nassar will likely spend the rest of his life rotting in prison. His victims had an opportunity to reclaim their voices. It’s absolutely crucial to lift up and praise these strong women for coming forward, and to turn the pitchforks towards the institutions that allowed this victim count to climb so high.
But, unfortunately, none of that will erase the suffering that has already happened — nor will it take away the suffering that will continue long after the spotlight on this case goes away.