Award-winning journalist and author Abigail Pesta published her latest book, The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down in August this year. The book tells the story of the 25 gymnasts who brought down the celebrated Olympic doctor, Dr Larry Nassar, perhaps the most prolific sex criminal in sports history, detailing how he hunted his prey for decades, enjoyed the access to young girls that his position gave him, until the young women joined together and jailed him for life, in a story that shook the world.
SheThePeople.TV Ideas Editor Kiran Manral spoke to her about the process of writing the book, the research that went into it and how this story has impacted acknowledgment of the wrong done to these young girls for decades.
Congratulations on the publication of “The Girls.” This was perhaps the most explosive story in the world of sports that actually shook all those who were following it. What was the moment when you decided you wanted to write a book on it?
In the early months of the scandal, I met with one of the first brave women to publicly identify herself as a survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse, a college gymnast named Lindsey Lemke. She and her mother sat down with me for a magazine profile, describing how Lindsey had been sexually abused hundreds of times when she was a young girl. Lindsey didn’t know she was being abused at the time—she was a kid, and he was a celebrated doctor, known for treating Olympic gymnasts. She trusted that he was performing a medical procedure. He had befriended her and her parents, and had gained the trust of the entire community in Lansing, Michigan, where he lived.
When Nassar was finally arrested after abusing hundreds of young women and girls for nearly 30 years, Lindsey and her family had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that this trusted doctor was a serial sexual predator. Further, they told me, people were blaming the victims, calling them clueless. People were saying, “How did the parents not know? Why did the kids not tell?” I thought, how awful that this family is dealing with this terrible realization that Lindsey had been abused as a child—and getting blamed for it. I wanted to help people understand how this travesty happened, in the hopes of helping to prevent it from happening again.
As a woman and a journalist, surely there must have been moments when listening to survivor testimonies and gathering information must have been overwhelming. Could you recall any such moments for us?
I spoke with 25 Nassar survivors, spanning nearly three decades, from the very first of his known victims to the very last. Many shared their stories with me for the first time. Most had grown up with him in their close-knit community in Michigan, some from the time they were toddlers. It was a deeply moving experience, meeting these women and hearing their stories—infuriating, heart-wrenching, and ultimately inspiring, as I saw them grab back the power from the predator and share that power with others.
I wanted to help people understand how this travesty happened, in the hopes of helping to prevent it from happening again.
There were so many mind-bending moments. One was when the first known survivor, Sara Teristi, who told her story for the first time in this book, said her coach had witnessed her abuse in the 1980s at a Michigan gym where she trained as a young gymnast. Nassar, who was a medical student at the time, volunteering at the gym, began icing her chest, and touching her nipples, as she tried to recuperate from a rib injury. Sara said her coach, John Geddert, saw the inappropriate touching and did nothing—except mock her body. She had a lump on her chest from her rib injury, and the coach called it her “third boob,” she told me; later he began calling her by the nickname Third Boob, embarrassing her in front of the other girls. She said that if he had reported the abuse, hundreds of girls might have been spared. Nassar and Geddert went on to work together for nearly three decades, eventually becoming Olympic coach and doctor. Sara offers groundbreaking insight into their early days.
She and many other women told me they felt “brainwashed” as kids at this gym. They said they were berated, shoved, belittled, and blamed for their injuries—because if they got injured, it meant they weren’t concentrating. So they tried to hide their injuries. One young woman, Izzy Hutchins, told me she ended up training and competing with a broken leg and broken elbow, for fear of getting in trouble for being injured. She didn’t realize her bones were broken at the time, but she was in excruciating pain, and Nassar taped her up and said she was fine, so she kept going, until she simply couldn’t do it anymore. Then, sure enough, she got in trouble when she couldn’t perform a floor routine in practice. She said Geddert publicly humiliated her, making her perform the routine doing simple somersaults on the ground instead of elaborate flips in the air. She and many others told me that this kind of abusive coaching broke them down and made them vulnerable to the sexual abuse.
No, there are so many layers to this unthinkable saga and so many questions that people wanted answered. The brave women who spoke with me provide those answers, offering news-breaking insight into this scandal. They provide crucial new accounts—of rape, brainwashing, mental and physical abuse, and collusion among the enablers—that significantly advance our knowledge of this travesty.
Many people associate Nassar with Olympic gymnasts, but he also got his hands on kids from across his community in Michigan—young gymnasts in training, dancers, runners, volleyball players. Many told me they felt unheard, yet they had such profound insight to share. I also interviewed family members, legal experts, coaches, activists, and many others, and collected and reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents and police records spanning the decades, to reveal Nassar’s evolution from doctor to predator.
Why do you think Larry Nassar got away with this for so many years? How does the system protect its own?
In the book, I detail many failures among institutions that should have protected kids, including USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport; the U.S. Olympic Committee; and Michigan State University, where Nassar worked. One big problem was that no one listened to the girls. Many kids didn’t know they were being abused, but some did know—and they told people in positions of authority, only to be dismissed and disbelieved. Over the decades, young women and girls told coaches, counselors, even the police, but no one believed them. Everyone believed the doctor.
It’s important to note that for many survivors, the courtroom was just the beginning of the journey. Some women didn’t realize they had been abused as children until they saw the other women stand up in court, and long repressed memories returned.
Brianne Randall-Gay was among the girls who reported him: She and her mother went to the police in Michigan to report his abuse in 2004. The police interviewed Brianne, then Nassar, and believed him, not her. Case closed. He went on to abuse hundreds of girls over the next 12 years. The police failed again in 2014 when a young woman named Amanda Thomashow reported his abuse to the police and to Michigan State University. The police failed to arrest him, and the university cleared him. In fact, the university issued two separate reports on the case—one for Amanda, saying Nassar had not violated the sexual harassment policy, and another for staff members, saying the case had exposed “significant problems” and potential legal liabilities. She said she felt gaslighted. He continued his abuse for two more years.
We saw some very powerful moments during the court testimony after the survivors were allowed to present victim statements. As someone who was chronicling the case, which ones, to you were the ones that were the ones that personally moved you the most?
Every single testimony moved me, in so many ways. There was one especially heartbreaking statement from a mother, Donna Markham, whose young daughter, Chelsey, had been abused by Nassar, setting her on a tragic path of depression and eventual suicide. It took such courage and strength for Donna, and for everyone, to stand up in court and confront the abuser. Kudos to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina for providing such a powerful platform in her courtroom. She made the case personal.
It’s important to note that for many survivors, the courtroom was just the beginning of the journey. Some women didn’t realize they had been abused as children until they saw the other women stand up in court, and long repressed memories returned. And all of the women have to navigate the continuing emotional fallout from childhood abuse—flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of self-doubt.
While doing your research, how difficult was it to do your interviews with the women and ensure that there was no triggering of the abuse, to get their stories without having them relive that trauma?
The trust these women placed in me meant the world to me. It was crucial that they felt comfortable with the stories they were sharing for the book, since these stories are so deeply personal. I made sure they knew that at any time, if they decided not to move forward, they didn’t have to worry about it—everything was entirely up to them. I let them tell their stories in their own way, in their own time. Sometimes it took weeks, or months. Jessica Howard, a three-time national champion gymnast, talked with me over the course of several weeks. It was the first time she had told her life story in full, and she needed time. She described how she had seen the abuse in gymnastics from both sides—first as a top gymnast, and later as a board member of USA Gymnastics, which she said cared more about “money and medals” than its young athletes. She and many others said that telling their stories ended up feeling therapeutic.
These women have such courage. It’s not easy to publicly identify yourself as a survivor of sexual abuse. When you do so, the people you meet—at a job interview, for instance, or on a first date—know something deeply painful and personal about you before you say hello. All it takes is a quick search online. And if you have children, you have to figure out when and how to tell them before they come across the details on the Internet.
As survivors of systematic abuse, how did they come together to get him convicted? Did you find in your investigation, a tipping point?
I spoke to some of the parents who had been in the room while their child was being abused, and they are devastated. They were victimized by Nassar, just as the kids were. They spoke with me to help other families avoid this fate.
After young women and girls were dismissed and disbelieved for decades, the turning point finally came in 2016. It started when the Indianapolis Star newspaper ran an exposé on how USA Gymnastics had mishandled reports of abuse against coaches. A former gymnast named Rachael Denhollander called the paper and reported Nassar, followed by former gymnasts Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard. The paper investigated and ran a powerful report. The police took action this time too, after having failed in the past; they soon discovered some 37,000 images of child pornography on Nassar’s computer hard drive. More women came forward—dozens, then hundreds. Nassar got arrested, pleaded guilty, and went to jail, where he will spend the rest of his life. The kids he abused grew up and brought him down.
What would you like parents and authority figures to take away from your book as learnings when it comes to possible signs or disclosures of Child Sexual Abuse, especially from an authority figure? What should one watch out for?
The women in this book reveal the full range of diabolical tactics Nassar used over the decades to prey on girls and their families. They describe how he learned to befriend kids and their parents, to ingratiate himself to people in positions of power. For instance, he brought kids gifts from the Olympics to make them feel special; he used social media to stay in their lives, liking their outfits on Facebook and Instagram, complimenting them on their achievements. He always made time for them, including seeing them in his own home, at a makeshift clinic in his basement. The kids felt honored to be “treated” by the Olympic doctor.
Another manipulative tactic he used was to have a parent in the room while he was abusing the child. He would block the parent’s view, so the parent couldn’t see what he was doing. The kids trusted him because he was the renowned doctor. And since Mom or Dad was in the room, the kids figured everything must be OK. I spoke to some of the parents who had been in the room while their child was being abused, and they are devastated. They were victimized by Nassar, just as the kids were. They spoke with me to help other families avoid this fate.
And finally, what made you decide on the structural narrative of presenting the story from the point of view of the 25 women rather than a conventional narrative? Do you feel you achieved what you had set out to do with this format?
The story is told as a narrative spanning decades, starting with the very first known survivor back in 1988 and telling the stories of the women through the years, up until the very last known survivor in 2016. They show how Nassar evolved over the years, and who enabled his abuse. The first known survivor revealed that he was not very nice to her in the beginning; he developed his skills in befriending kids over time. All of the women who bravely shared their stories did so to help people recognize the signs of a predator, and to empower women and girls. This is how things change.
Case in point: The very last known survivor, 15-year-old Emma Ann Miller, told me that after she confronted Nassar in court, a classmate pulled her into the bathroom at school and confided that she was being abused by a relative and hadn’t told anyone. Emma Ann told the girl she could tell her mother, and she did. That’s an immediate example of the power in sharing these stories—the power to stop predators.