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OPINION: Larry Nassar and A Heartbreaking Case of Power Abuse

Nisha Desai, Reporter

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Tears streaming down faces.  Shaking hands.  Trembling shoulders.  These were just some of the most heartbreaking events unfolding in court at the Larry Nassar trials.  I sat in the living room, my eyes glued to the screen with an equal mix of apprehension and horror as hundreds of young women stepped behind the podium in succession and faced their tormentor.  I almost forgot to breathe as I sat there, my hands involuntarily clutching the leather of the sofa.  Was this even real?  I felt like I was in someone else’s nightmare, a nightmare that I wanted no part of.

Larry Nassar used to be a highly esteemed doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, the latter of which earned him his deepest disgrace.  Shielded from the public eye until just a few months ago, Nassar had been sexually assaulting his female patients for decades, most of them young gymnasts in training for the Olympics.     

The door of this scandal was first opened by 32-year-old Rachael Denhollander, who was the first to come forward out of more than 150 women who claimed that Nassar had molested them under the guise of medical treatment.

When I first heard about the Larry Nassar scandal, I was shocked.  How had this been going on for so long without anyone speaking out?  How had such a highly respected doctor gotten away with molesting hundreds of patients?

These questions continued to race through my mind as hundreds of other women stepped forward with similar testimonies.  It seemed that Denhollander had set off a stack of dominoes.

However before the domino effect, Denhollander had stood alone for six months as the only accuser of Nassar.  Six entire months.  It was hard to understand why so many women were choosing to remain silent even after the first person had come forward.  What had been going through their minds in those months?  What had finally driven them to speak out and gain justice for the way Nassar had violated them?   

The true seriousness of the situation started to register inside me as I saw the numbers.  156 victims speaking out in court.  For years, they had stayed tight-lipped about what they had gone through.  For years, they had let this man take advantage of them, weaseling his way into their lives in more ways than one.  He knew he had the power, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.

Over stories of forced treatments and gymnasts’ accounts of “clenching their fists” while Nassar inappropriately touched them, I felt a mix of disgust and horror rise inside me.  What had held the girls’ back from speaking out and telling the truth about the monster that was their doctor?

I never truly understood the answer to this question until I heard the testimony of Lindsey Lemke, a former gymnast who claimed that she didn’t even realize that she was being molested, trusting that everything Nassar did was legit medical treatment. It was only when she saw an article on Facebook explaining the signs of a predator did she realize she had been violated. But she still didn’t speak out, instead rereading the article with frustration and telling herself that the gymnastics world was different.  She thought of all the sacrifices gymnasts and their parents had to make to make the Olympic dream possible.  And that’s when I realized the truth, the real thing holding victims back from speaking out: they were afraid of jeopardizing their dream.

 The Olympics was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a single moment that millions of athletes all around the world trained for since a very young age.  The gymnasts that Nassar “treated” were no different.  All of them had a single-minded view on their dream.  As they trained at camps, they envisioned gleaming gold medals and glory for themselves and their country.  They learned to block out all distractions and any events that took them away from achieving their dream.  They must have viewed their doctor’s treatment in such a way, telling themselves that it wasn’t worth it to speak up when there was too much at risk.  What if reporting Nassar somehow disqualified them from competing at the Olympics?  After everything their families had sacrificed for them, they felt like they had no choice but to remain silent.

One of the most heartbreaking testimonies I watched was that of 18-year-old Emily Morales, a former gymnast who recounted her friendship with Nassar.  She remembered how he made her feel better when she was out on the sidelines with gifts and words of encouragement.  With tears streaming down her face, she accused him of  making her believe that he was her friend, when he was truly just a master manipulator.

But the most heartbreaking moment was when she looked him in the eye and told him to apologize, explaining that she believed in forgiveness and wanted to put the matter behind her.   Despite all the disgusting things he had done and all the pain he had caused her and hundreds of other victims, she was accepting an artificial apology.

Other victims were less forgiving, more vicious with their words and their attitudes.  I wanted to clap when Aly Raisman was up at the podium, shooting daggers with her eyes at the man she called a monster.   Other gymnasts acted similarly, all expressing their uncontained triumph that Nassar would spend the rest of his life behind bars.  But no matter who the victim was or what their story was, I felt my heart swell with admiration for every single one of them.  If facing someone who has ruined your life and done everything in their power to torture you isn’t the definition of bravery, I don’t know what is.

Watching women speak up after years and years of sexual abuse reminded me of the true dangers of power.  Larry Nassar knew that his patients were powerless against him and used this knowledge to violate them in the worst ways.  Even more alarming was the allegation that USA Gymnastics “covered up” this scandal, prioritizing the organization’s reputation above the protection of its athletes.  Now we know that there were many more people involved in Nassar’s despicable abuse of power.

As bystanders, we have a choice.  Will we let this go on, or will we step forward and put a stop to it? The USA Gymnastics scandal is only one of many still unrevealed cases of corruption around the world.   It’s important to constantly reinforce the message that no matter how powerful someone is, or how favorably they are viewed by society, it is never okay for them to hurt someone else.   Sexual assault is a rising problem in this world, and the only way to combat it is by speaking out.  Let’s use our voices to make a change.

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