"These girls became perfect prey": The women who ended Larry Nassar's abuse tell their stories

Salon talks to the author of "The Girls" about the brave women who brought down the Olympic gymnastics doctor

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 14, 2019 1:00PM (EDT)

Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Jordyn Wieber (L) recounts her sexual abuse at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar while testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security Subcommittee with fellow abuse victims speedskater Bridie Farrell and figureskater Craig Maurizi in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The athletes testified during the hearing titled 'Olympic Abuse: The Role of National Governing Bodies in Protecting Our Athletes.' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Jordyn Wieber (L) recounts her sexual abuse at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar while testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security Subcommittee with fellow abuse victims speedskater Bridie Farrell and figureskater Craig Maurizi in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The athletes testified during the hearing titled 'Olympic Abuse: The Role of National Governing Bodies in Protecting Our Athletes.' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It was a stunning, and all too rare, moment of confrontation and of justice. After two days and over two hundred victim impact statements, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar to life in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of girls in his care. But this isn't really about him.

In "The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down," journalist Abigail Pesta reveals a shocking and ultimately inspiring chronicle of what Nassar's survivors endured, and how a decades-long fight to be heard was finally won. Salon spoke recently to Pesta about the evolution of a predator and why it took so long to stop him, but mostly, about the determined women who fought back.

The way that you managed the conversations in this book and let the women shine, that is an act of tremendous journalistic restraint.

The most important thing was that these women all felt comfortable with their stories in the book. I sent them their stories before we went to print. I had to make sure everyone felt comfortable, because it's so personal.

The stories are so emotional, so infuriating. You just have so many emotions doing this. But the overriding emotion was the trust these women placed in me. They all told their stories hoping to help other families recognize the signs of a predator and to help empower women and girls. That was their motivation. They'd had this unthinkable experience and they thought maybe they could use it to bring some kind of good to the world.

These women, spanning decades, from the very first to the very last survivor, are so powerful. One good thing that came from this terrible nightmare is that you see these women coming together and fighting to change the future for other girls and other families. 

The culture that these women were growing up in was, you push through and you never complain. That is part of what made this, as you describe it, perfect storm. The absolute strength and resilience and tenacity of these girls also was a factor in what made them more vulnerable to somebody like this.

We've all heard, yes, gymnastics training is brutal. We have that sense of it, and yet I don't think people have any idea. It was so eye-opening to me to hear these women describe these conditions that they grew up in.

 A lot of the women I talked to, they grew up with Nassar from the time they were little kids. They started going to this gym in Michigan where he volunteered for almost 30 years. Some of them started gymnastics as toddlers.

They get into this gym and there was a coach there, John Geddert, who became an Olympic coach. He and Nassar worked together for nearly 30 years. These were girls who didn't necessarily have Olympic dreams. They were thinking maybe they could get a college scholarship, and they entered this boot camp. They describe it as brainwashing. They would get in there and they would be told injuries are your fault, because if you're injured it means you weren't concentrating, you weren't focusing.

So they learned to hide their injuries, to mask their pain. There was one young woman, Izzy Hutchins, who told me she ended up competing and training with a broken leg and a broken elbow.

The very first survivor of Larry Nassar, Sara Teristi, who met him back in 1988 at that gym, broke her sternum when she fell from the balance beam. She blamed herself because she didn't adjust herself in the air to land better, and she thought she'd be OK landing in this pit of foam blocks. She wasn't. So then she tries to come back from this broken sternum, but her whole world is just turned upside down because now the coach is mad at her because she's injured and she's not on the same trajectory. Her self-esteem, everything, had been trampled, and then she gets sent into the doctor’s lair.

These girls, they became perfect prey because of this abusive training environment. They were yelled at. They told me that Geddert made sexual comments about their bodies. He mocked them, belittled and berated them. He would punish them for getting injured. Amanda Smith told me when she fell from the uneven bars, she had a bloodied, bruised face, and she was told to sit in the oversplits — splits in which you elevate one leg on a block or a chair to go deeper than the regular splits —  for an hour as punishment for getting injured.

The stories that came out of that gym are just horrific. The women told me that Geddert walked in on them in the bathroom and locker room. They felt they had no voice, they felt they had no physical boundaries, and they were injured but trying to hide it. That's the condition that they were in when they were sent to see the doctor. So many women told me that that kind of abusive training enabled the sexual abuse.

Sara Teristi told me that Geddert witnessed the abuse. He saw Nassar touching her nipples while pretending to ice her chest. She said Geddert not only didn't tell any authorities about it, but actually made fun of her. She said he mocked her breasts and made fun of the lump on her chest from an injury and called it her "third boob." That's the kind of environment so many of these girls grew up in when they met Nassar.

All of his targets weren't gymnasts. Some were people throughout the community because he worked at a sports medicine clinic. He got his hands on dancers, on cheerleaders, all kinds of people across the community. But, yes, the gymnasts growing up in that gymnastics world, they were such vulnerable targets.

This speaks to another point — that victims often don't recognize that they are being abused. It's such a powerful thing to think about that and to realize that these women were saying, "What? He was accused of what?” This was not uncommon with his victims, because of the way that abuse works.

What a lot of people don't understand about this case is that these were kids. Here was a doctor, and he rose to become the Olympic doctor, so kids trusted him. A lot of these kids were growing up in that very isolated world of gymnastics. They had already been taught not to question, not to make noise, they were told to fall in line.

They go in to see this doctor and he abuses them and they think, “Well, he said it's a medical treatment. He's a doctor, so it must be.” They just didn't have a lot of outside experience. They were mired in training, for hours a day, and on weekends. That was their whole life, even into their teens. They weren't dating; they weren't going out with boys. So many of them told me they'd never held a boy's hand or kissed a boy. Sexual abuse was just not on their radar. Their parents thought they were safe. They were just training all the time. A lot of kids didn't realize that what the doctor was doing was abuse. 

These women show how over the decades he evolved into a master predator. The very first survivor says he wasn't very nice to her, but then he figured out how to befriend the kids and how to befriend their parents. He had so many tactics for gaining people's trust. Once he became the Olympic doctor he would bring them gifts back from the Olympics to make them feel special. Another tactic he used was he would have a parent in the room while he was abusing the kids, and he would block the parent's view. Then the kid would think, “My mom or dad is here so it must be OK." He figured out that the child wouldn't say anything because probably the kid wouldn't realize that it was abuse, and it's awkward, it's embarrassing. 

I spoke to some of those parents who had been in the room and it's just devastating. He had also ensnared them; he had gained their trust too. He had such powerful backing as he rose through the ranks. He became the US National Team Doctor for the gymnastics team. He became the Olympic doctor. He became a doctor and professor at Michigan State University. He had the backing of these powerful institutions. He used that to help gain people's trust too. He really did weave just an incredible web.

It's astonishing because, as we see again, and again, and again, the more power someone has, the easier it is to conflate power with trustworthiness. 

It took decades for some of these women to realize that he had abused them. Even after his arrest, many of them still couldn't believe that what he had done was abuse. Their brains wanted to believe it must have been medical, because he was that good at befriending them and they just couldn't see their friend as a predator, this manipulator.

That was another theme in this book. What's it like to be an adult, raising your own kids, and realizing then that you were abused and manipulated as a kid yourself by someone you trusted so deeply? That's something that some of these women are struggling with still. It raised so many issues for people looking back and questioning themselves and doubting themselves and blaming themselves.

Sara Teristi said she still blames herself for getting injured. It was just so drilled into her head. She thinks of that moment in the air when she could have adjusted herself to land better while she was falling. She's in her 40s. She has kids of her own. She knows rationally that it's not her fault, but emotionally she can't get there. She's not there yet. This is the kind of thing that predators do to people. The blame is on the predator, but they make people blame themselves, and it's such a brain battle.

Though you spend really as little time on Larry himself as possible, you do also explain that a predator evolves. 

That's a thing that women really showed through the decades. Right in the very beginning he was just testing, testing, seeing what he could get away with. What would scare Sara Teristi? Would she speak up as he began touching her chest and moving her leotard lower and taking it farther and farther? That's what they do, they start with just a hand on the child's knee, testing to see how far they can go. From there, over the decades, the women describe how decade after decade he just honed his skills, figuring out how to befriend the kids and their families and the whole community.

Another tactic was not billing the families’ health insurer. He said it was because he saw such potential in their child and they would think, “Wow, this renowned doctor, this Olympic doctor, sees the potential in my child.” Looking back, they realized, he didn't bill the health insurer because there are no medical records. No one could see what he was doing.

When social media came around, he figured out how to use that to befriend kids. He would text them and like their Instagram posts and Facebook posts and compliment them on their looks and their wins and their outfits. These kids felt honored. He was the Olympic doctor.

Over the decades, he just kept learning and growing. Another thing people don't realize was that a number of young women and girls did realize they were being abused and did report him to coaches and counselors and the police over the decades. No one listened; no one believed them. Here were these young women and girls reporting him to authorities, to the police, and everyone believed him. That too, just gave him more and more power as a predator.

It's the same story again, and again, and again, whether it's Cosby or R. Kelly, coercing the family into trusting this person as well. If my mom thinks this person is OK, then he must be OK. If my family thinks he's this generous, wonderful guy, then he must be OK. It's taken so long, and it takes a village of aiders and abetters. What happened here?

This story, like the ones that you mentioned, shows, over the decades, society's complete failure to listen to women and girls, to listen and believe them.

With Nassar, girls started reporting him back in the '90s. Larissa Boyce, in 1997, went to the coach at Michigan State and reported what he was doing. She said the coach just gaslighted her. She said the coach didn't tell authorities, didn't tell her parents, but called Nassar. There's Larissa, a teenage girl, who got in trouble then from Nassar for doubting him. She thought, “Oh, I must have a dirty mind!” Then to prove that she didn't, she got back up on the table and he abused her worse than ever that day and continued to abuse her for years.

Before her, earlier in the '90s, Nassar's first survivor hadn't quite figured it out yet, but she was starting to think that this could have been abuse. She tried to talk to a campus counselor and got ignored. It went on for decades, women and girls reporting and being dismissed and disbelieved. Finally, in 2016, the Indianapolis Star newspaper ran an exposé about abusive coaches in gymnastics and about how USA Gymnastics, the governing body for this sport, was mishandling reports of abuse against coaches. Then a gymnast named Rachael Denhollander called the paper and said Nassar abused her. Two more gymnasts called the paper and said the same. Then the Star ran a report and that's really what set his demise into motion. This time people were a little more inclined to listen.

The police this time investigated. Twice before they had failed when young women had reported Nassar to the police. Back in 2004 and then again in 2014 they failed. This time they did a real investigation, more women came forward, and things changed.

Part of it I think was really good journalism. Part of it was just the bravery and persistence of these women who knew what had happened and came forward with it. And part of it was, I think, finally we were starting as a society to understand and listen to women and girls. People are still not listening. There is such a long way to go still. But we are making a little progress.

That moment of the impact statements and the sentencing felt like such a vindication. It felt like this exhalation and a sense of there can be justice.

What is the view like from where you stand? What's changed specifically in gymnastics and in athletics? Do you feel like there are better protections now? That they're actually effective? And that there are more deterrents for a guy like Larry?

In court, that was such a powerful moment and it was so cathartic. Kudos to Judge Aquilina. It was a trailblazing moment in her courtroom because she made this personal. People started paying attention.

It didn't end there because so many of these women didn't even realize they had been abused until they saw the women stand up in court. Then all the memories came flooding back, and they realized it was true. It had happened to them too.

So many of the women I talked to also said they feel dismissed and unheard still for many different reasons. They're not famous and they think the media are only interested in the famous survivors, not them. Some of them weren't gymnasts. Some were dancers, some were just people in the community. Amanda Thomashow in 2014 went to see the doctor for an old cheerleading injury, and she reported him to the police and to MSU. She also got gaslighted.  

That moment in court was a profound and phenomenal moment and I think definitely we need more judges like Judge Aquilina. It definitely made this case personal and made people pay attention.

There are still so many struggles that the women face afterward. I can tell you that dozens of officials have been fired or arrested from these major institutions from Michigan State University, from USA Gymnastics, US Olympic Committee. Congress has proposed a law that would give Congress oversight over the Olympic Committee, and the gymnasts tell me that they feel like this is progress. They like seeing that Congress is trying to do something about this, but they feel there's such a long way to go and so much more accountability that they want to see. The coach John Geddert, they told me they feel he is the key enabler of this abuse over nearly 30 years. They say he has not yet been held accountable and, not only was he the biggest enabler, but, as Sara said, he witnessed the abuse and did nothing.

The most important message about this book is of survival and grit and tenacity and strength. But there are also long term consequences the women who feel terrible guilt about this. And the parents who feel such guilt. This sense of "I could have stopped this," even though clearly, no, you couldn't have.

I heard that from so many women, no matter what their experience. Their experiences were all unique. Tasha Schwikert, an Olympic medalist, wrote the book's foreword with her sister Jordan Schwikert, and they also didn't realize they'd been abused until after Nassar was arrested. Tasha said, “I thought I was a strong, tough, impermeable, African-American athlete. Nobody could manipulate me, nobody could take advantage of me.” Tasha was raising a young daughter and pregnant with another child when this news broke. To be wrestling with that in your head, while you're trying to raise your family and do your job, to come to grips with that, has been so hard. 

Larissa Boyce, who reported Nassar back in 1997, said that when the allegations came out in 2016 she didn't want to believe them. Her brain wouldn't let her accept that. It meant she was right all those years ago, and it meant maybe she could have stopped it.

Same with Brianne Randall. She reported him to the police in 2004 with her mom, and the police just believed him. They didn't interview any outside medical experts to see if this so-called treatment was legit. They just talked to her, talked to him, believed him, case closed.

Decades later, she's thinking back. She was right and she went to the police and they didn't listen. The police ended up apologizing to her after the Nassar hearings. She very generously, very graciously said she kind of feels sorry for [the cop] too because he has to live with the fact that he could have stopped a predator back in 2004. Instead, Nassar continued to prey for 12 more years after that.

People who did know and tried to report it, they're wrestling with these demons, thinking, “I was right and no one listened and I could have stopped it.” They were kids. It wasn't their fault. Someone should have listened.

Then people who didn't know, look back and realize they'd been abused, now they're thinking, “Why didn't I know? I should have known.”

There was an evening that was so powerful. It was the night when these two women, Presley Allison and Taylor Stevens, came to meet with me. They talked about how they had grown up in that boot camp, in the gym in Michigan called Twistars. They ended up leaving it for their high school team because it was just too insane. They told me they were a little less brainwashed because they had kind of gotten out of it. Even still, they had been ensnared by Nassar. 

Taylor told me that when he abused her, she thought it was probably abuse. She talked to Presley and their friends to get their take on it. They said, “He does it to everyone.”  Taylor thought, “It must be normal. He's not singling me out.” The fact that he did it to everyone actually helped protect him too. These are kids, and they thought if he's doing it to everyone then it must be a medical treatment. It's not like he's targeting me for abuse.

Now Taylor looks back and thinks, ”I was right. Why didn't I trust myself?” That's the kind of thing all of these people are wrestling with. And, of course, the answer is, he's a predator. The blame is on him; it is not on you. You were a kid. People know this but this is what predators do. They make everyone doubt themselves.

Now that you've come out the other side and this book is in the world, what can you can look back on and say, “I didn't understand this before, and these women really taught me this”?

I've spent my career writing about women fighting back against crime and injustice, about resilience and coming through terrible circumstances and coming out the other side. How you do that and what you do with your experience has always been so interesting to me. All of these people went through something so painful. It broke apart families. One family ended up getting divorced.

The realization of abuse created so many problems as the women battled to try to come to grips with it. Their brains initially couldn't accept and wouldn't accept what had happened. But gradually their brains started to come around to accepting. Acceptance was just the first phase.

Then the next step was figuring out how to deal with all the emotions, all of the blame and the guilt. All the feelings the predator brought up in them.

The next step was figuring out how to advance and move forward and that's what I was seeing. Everyone is still in different stages. 

All of these women are sharing these deeply personal, painful stories. That's not easy to do. People know things about them before they ever meet them because they see in a Google search something deeply personal about them. Their boss at an interview sees it, their first date sees it. They have to figure out how to tell their kids because it's on the internet. It's not easy to put yourself out there and they all did it to help other people avoid what had happened to them.

That is the most powerful takeaway I had from the experience. When I think about the overwhelming message, it's that triumph of the human spirit. That so many women were able to come together in that way, that does my heart good.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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