The Victims of Larry Nassar Who Dared to Come Forward First
In the summer of 2016, Rachael Denhollander was scrolling through Facebook at her home in Louisville, Kentucky, when she happened upon the cover story of the day’s Indianapolis Star. It was an investigation into U.S.A. Gymnastics, one of the nation’s most prominent Olympic organizations, concluding that for years the federation’s top officials had mishandled allegations of sexual abuse. Denhollander, a lawyer, a devout Christian, and a mother of four, had competed as a gymnast during her high-school years in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as she explains on “Believed,” a podcast from Michigan Radio and NPR that was released last fall. In 2000, when she was fifteen, her mother managed to nab her physical-therapy sessions with Larry Nassar, the celebrated physician for the women’s national team. During their visits to his clinic, Nassar would drape a sheet over Denhollander’s body and, standing so as to obstruct his movements from her mother, slip his hands beneath the teen-ager’s bra and shorts. Denhollander eventually told her mother about Nassar’s actions; both women agreed that no one would believe a club-level athlete from Kalamazoo over an Olympic doctor. Over the next sixteen years, though, Denhollander assembled her own makeshift case file, saving diary entries from her youth alongside medical records from her visits to Nassar, notes from her therapist, and research from pelvic-rehabilitation practitioners about the proper protocol of the doctor’s invasive treatments. When Denhollander finished reading the Indy Star article, she noticed that it included the number of a tip line.
It wasn’t until the next month, when Denhollander went public with her story, in a follow-up article in the Indy Star, that law enforcement started to take action against Nassar. Since 1997, Nassar’s employer, Michigan State University, had received complaints about him from numerous women, all of which were eventually dismissed. In 2014, during a Title IX investigation that ended up clearing Nassar of wrongdoing, he sat in a cramped interview room at the university’s police department and defended the integrity of his medical treatments. “I do this on a regular basis,” he insisted, suggesting that if he ever “did something wrong,” the news would spread “like wildfire.” Nassar’s crimes did not capture national attention until January of 2018, when more than a hundred women, including the two-time Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, testified against him at a live-streamed sentencing hearing in Michigan. He is now serving forty to a hundred and seventy-five years in prison, in large part because of those testimonies. Media coverage during the trial emphasized the collective courage of his victims, whose cathartic, excoriating chorus coincided with the height of the #MeToo movement. In the time since Nassar’s imprisonment, a number of journalistic investigations—among them “Believed,” the podcast, and “At the Heart of Gold,” a new HBO documentary by Erin Lee Carr—have shifted the public’s focus to the stories of his lesser-known victims, exposing the culture that enabled Nassar’s abuse from the perspective of those who dared to come forward first.
Carr’s best-known documentaries, including “Mommy Dead and Dearest” and “I Love You, Now Die,” have brought context and clarity to true-crime narratives of abuse. She began filming “At the Heart of Gold” in 2017, consulting journalists who had covered early reports of Nassar’s transgressions and travelling to Michigan to interview his survivors themselves. The subjects of Carr’s film are athletes who range in age from their teens to their thirties. They often appear on screen beside their mothers, describing with preternatural composure the admiration they once felt for Nassar. Many of them recall the doctor as a “friend,” a “confidant,” a “guardian angel,” a “God-fearing Catholic man,” or, at the least, a kindly foil to the coaches who worked them to exhaustion. Chatty and personable, Nassar smuggled candy to gymnasts during gruelling practice sessions, disbursing single Skittles from his duffel bag. He iced their bruises and taped up their shin splints. He lent them his cell phone when theirs were prohibited at a remote training camp in Texas. He brought back gifts from his stints at international competitions: water bottles, Olympic jackets, photographs signed by stars of the sport. “At the Heart of Gold” examines the misplaced trust that allowed so many children to rationalize their own suffering. Trinea Gonczar, a former gymnast whose lawyers estimate that she was molested eight hundred and forty-six times, used to justify Nassar’s treatment with reasoning that now sounds like a perversion of the #MeToo movement’s rallying cry. “He does that to me all the time,” Gonczar remembers reassuring teammates who confided in her. “You’re good. You don’t have to worry. It’s not weird. You’re not the only one.”
For decades, Nassar’s status allowed him to exploit the physical contact essential to his profession. One of the most disturbing sequences in “At the Heart of Gold” is a montage of gymnastics highlights from years past. In each snippet, Nassar appears on the sidelines as an unassuming figure in a polo shirt—practically invisible to the casual viewer until summoned to action during crises on the floor. He was there in Atlanta, at the 1996 Summer Olympics, reaching a hand behind the injured Kerri Strug as her coaches carried her toward a stretcher. He was there in Boston, at the 2000 Olympic trials, helping Shannon Miller to her feet after a weak block off the vault scuttled her attempt to qualify for the Sydney Games. Carr’s documentary also includes grainy excerpts of instructional videos that Nassar recorded to model his techniques. They show Nassar moving his palms in swift, assured motions over many anonymous bodies, demonstrating how to knead the muscles under leotards and cinch Kinesio tape around the upper thighs. It was these videos, along with a series of PowerPoints Nassar presented at medical conferences, that he used to legitimize his treatments on the rare occasions when authorities decided to question him.
Not all of Nassar’s abuse, in the end, could be justified as medical treatment. The finale of Carr’s film features the testimony of Kyle Stephens, who grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. Her parents were close friends of the Nassars. In the late nineties, they congregated at the doctor’s house for weekly Sunday dinners. As the adults cooked upstairs, Nassar would offer to entertain Stephens and her brother in his basement, where he’d initiate games of hide and seek to separate the children before masturbating in front of Stephens. On other occasions, he molested her beneath a blanket as they all watched television on the couch. The abuse began when Stephens was six or seven. After six years, Stephens told her parents, but they did not believe her. Her father demanded she apologize to Nassar; the ensuing conflict eventually estranged her from her family. On “Believed,” which includes interviews with Stephens, she recalls that it was Nassar who phoned her at college to inform her that her father had suffered a stroke. In 2016, after reading Rachael Denhollander’s story in the Indy Star, Stephens finally called the police, who were able to obtain a search warrant for Nassar’s house. What they discovered there—thirty-seven thousand images and videos of child pornography, on several external hard drives stuffed in the trash—allowed them to make an arrest.
Since Carr wrapped filming, last year, U.S.A Gymnastics has continued to contend with the fallout of the Nassar scandal. The organization has appointed four presidents since 2017. The most recent, a sports executive and former gymnast named Li Li Leung, left a post at the N.B.A. to take the job in March, out of a “personal calling.” So far, her handling of the issue has instilled little confidence. Last month, on the “Today” show, she described seeing Nassar for clearance on an injured knee when she was sixteen years old. He was not able to abuse her then because her coach was present, she explained, revealing a profound ignorance of the circumstances around much of Nassar’s abuse. (She has since apologized, sort of, acknowledging that her comment might have seemed “insensitive to the survivors and their families.”) Earlier this month, Leung announced the hiring of Edward Nyman, the organization’s first full-time director of sports medicine and science; the next day, U.S.A. Gymnastics reversed course, citing an unspecified “conflict of interest.” It was later revealed that Nyman had failed to disclose allegations of misconduct against a gym owned by his wife and that he is facing misconduct allegations of his own. (Both Nyman and his wife have denied the charges against them.)
The sport’s top athletes, meanwhile, continue to serve as fierce advocates against abuse, in gymnastics and beyond. In April, Raisman joined students from the University of Southern California in a rally, at the state capitol, supporting a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for sexual-misconduct allegations against doctors at student-health centers. Dozens of the women there were victims of George Tyndall, a former gynecologist at U.S.C. who, in 2017, was allowed to retire quietly, with a financial package, after a nurse reported him to the campus rape-crisis center. Tyndall’s first victims, like Nassar’s, had come forward as early as the nineties. By the time the Los Angeles Police Department announced an investigation, the list of his accusers had grown to include hundreds.