"Start by Believing" author: How "money and medals" enabled serial child molester Larry Nassar

ESPN reporter Dan Murphy discusses the convicted gymnastics doctor and toxic competition culture on "Salon Talks"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 27, 2020 4:00PM (EST)

Larry Nassar stands as he is sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham (Getty/Scott Olson)
Larry Nassar stands as he is sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham (Getty/Scott Olson)

It was a shocking sexual abuse story, one that involved hundreds of survivors, a battalion of enablers, and one powerful trusted man. Two years ago, former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexual assault in a case that encompassed decades of crimes. But with many of the figures in the story still not being held accountable and an investigation of former Olympic women's gymnastics coach John Geddert underway this week, the quest for justice is anything but over.

Peabody award winning ESPN journalist Dan Murphy has been covering the Nassar case for years now, and is the co-author, along with John Barr, of "Start by Believing: Larry Nassar's Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster." Salon spoke to Murphy recently on "Salon Talks" about Nassar, and the "medals and money" environment that enabled a serial predator to thrive. Watch our conversation here, or read a transcript of the episode below.

This is a story many of us have been following, involving high profile names and beloved Olympic heroines like Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney. Yet I read this book and there were things that still shocked and surprised me. How do you answer the question: Who is Larry Nassar?

One of the descriptions we hear over and over again was "master manipulator." One of the questions that I don't know that we'll ever really get to the root of is whether he was someone who set out to do this from the very beginning, or someone who fell into this because of the position he was in. He was, on the surface, an incredibly friendly, gregarious, goofy, nerdy guy who earned the trust of not only hundreds of young women and gymnasts, but dozens and dozens of more people around them, and used that for the the worst way you can possibly do that. It's hard to know when the facade faded away and it became a means to an end for him to sexually assault so many of his patients and other women. He was very practiced at being a master manipulator and pedophile.

The title of this book is very meaningful. It is a phrase that has great power and also great irony because, for decades, people did not believe. Tell me what this phrase means, who it comes from, and what changed when someone actually did start by believing.

A lesson to learn from all of this is that so many of the missed warning signs were because people didn't start with the notion that this might be true. They found other ways to explain when women did speak up and tried to stop Nassar. 

Rachael Denhollander was the first woman who spoke up publicly about Nassar and opened the floodgates for the story in the Indianapolis Star when she filed a police report in 2016. When she went to the Michigan State University police for the first time in August 2016, Andrea Munford, who ended up was the lead detective in the case and investigated it in a way that other people hadn't before, took down her contact information. At the top of the page where her contact information was were three words, "Start by believing." 

After we decided we wanted to make that the title of our book, we were looking around a little bit more and realized that that was actually a powerful campaign that had been started by the End Violence Against Women International group that use it as a campaign to try to inform more people how to go about reacting and investigating and learning about sexual assault. We reached out to them, and wanted to make sure that they were okay with us using it in this way and make sure that we were responsibly using what they had created. They were incredibly helpful and wonderful. We had some people from that organization read the book and help us and make sure we handled it in a way that was careful and respectful and didn't cause any more harm than good. We're just so thrilled that they've embraced it and allowed us to go forward and hopefully make that a bold, quick lesson right on the cover that you can get out of this book.

I've interviewed Abigail Pesta, who wrote "The Girls," which is also about the Larry Nassar case. Both of these books, from the titles onward, are about the girls, their experiences and the circumstances around them. That's so important in telling these kinds of stories.

John [Barr] and I had worked on this story for a couple of years before we even decided that perhaps a book was in order, that there was more story to tell. The very first conversation we had was, we're not going to write an exploitative book. We're going to write a book that will probably not be a great business decision, but we're going to focus it less on something that's going to look great on a bookshelf and more on really telling the full, complete, comprehensive story of what happened here in hopes that people might learn something from it. The women who did so much to make this happen deserve a full account that's 100 percent accurate and honest to what actually happened. Luckily, we had a great publisher who was behind that from the very start and allowed us to stick to that. It's very easy to slip into an exploitative type of model when you've got a story that creates headlines like this. And we tried to be very careful to avoid that.

This story is a part of other stories that we have been reckoning with at this moment in our culture. One of the first things that leaps out again and again is the groundwork that is laid even before the sexual abuse takes place, the climate in which this kind of abuse occurs. I want you to talk about this, about the psychological and emotional place these young athletes are in already. It really explains a lot of how this happens.

We tried to dive into the very beginnings or origins of that culture in the gymnastics world. It's not exclusive to gymnastics, it happens in all kinds of sports and all other walks of life as well.

The military, churches. We see where it happens.

It's a power dynamics thing, where there are few gatekeepers to some very prized spots and they end up getting a lot of control. In the gymnastics world, that was powerful coaches, people like Bela and Martha Karolyi who came over from Romania and established the US as an international power in gymnastics. They changed what USA was in the gymnastics world, and they did so with really strict, cruel, abusive in many ways, coaching practices. That filtered down through everyone else who started coaching in gymnastics. Both coaches who wanted to have a career as an elite gymnastics coaches and the gymnasts themselves started to believe that the only way to get to that next level was a coach who was going to push you that way. It was hard to draw the line between a demanding coach and one who's demeaning and cruel in an abusive way. That environment created a lot of bad cops in a bad cop/good cop scenario, and an environment where a lot of the gymnasts were afraid of their coaches, intimidated, afraid to speak up when they weren't comfortable or weren't eating properly or weren't getting the care they needed.

We're looking at a culture where girls are pushing through injuries, where there are eating disorders.

Going back for decades and decades of that being a big problem in gymnastics. The safe haven for so many of them was Larry Nassar. He pitted himself as the person they could trust. He would sneak them little candy bars and snacks when they weren't getting enough food. He would occasionally speak up to a coach and say, "Hey, you need to ease off of this girl right now. She's coming back from an injury." Or even just be there as emotional support for so many of them. These women loved him and he took advantage of that. That's how he earned that trust that he got.

That's the dynamic that you get in abuse, where you give the victim something to cling to. This is why so many of his victims didn't even know that they were victims for a long time, and had to come after that reckoning so many years later.

A lot of these women we spoke to had manifestations of abuse — whether it was mental health issues or physical health issues — and they didn't know the roots of where all that was coming from. Suddenly, a couple of years ago when this news came out and they understood what happened to them. All of a sudden a little light went off. They said, "Oh, this is why I have all of these issues." Many of them still deal with those issues.

It would be  nice to think Larry Nassar was one bad guy and we got the bad guy and now he's in jail and this is all over. But this book is so much about the protections and the culture of silence around him. You use a phrase that really leaps out: "This was about money and medals."

We can just look at what happened to Simone Biles and what she was not told and not able to participate in. 

There are plenty of moments where you want to scream when you hear this stuff. One of the more recent missed opportunities to stop Nassar occurred in the summer of 2015, when a few women who were at the Karolyi ranch, the famed training center of US Olympics, started chatting and expressed that they were concerned or uncomfortable with the way that Larry Nassar was treating them when he saw them. The coach overheard this and raised it up the ladder to, eventually, Steve Penny, who was then the CEO and president of USA Gymnastics.

Their initial response, even though by law they're required to inform law enforcement, was to hire an HR consultant to come and investigate things and try to get a better handle of what this story was. They talked to a few gymnasts, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman. But there were others who had expressed concerns including Simone Biles, who was at the time the world champion, the top gymnast in the world, remains the top gymnast in the world, and training for the 2016 Summer Olympics where she would become not just a gymnastics star, but a breakout American star and heroine for tons of little girls all across the country.

But they decided not to talk to Simone. They decided, despite hearing some pretty damning things from McKayla Maroney and others about pretty clear claims of sexual assault. I don't see any other way where you can view what they heard from those women. They went to the FBI eventually, five or six weeks after they first heard these complaints. A few months later, when they had to explain why Larry Nassar was no longer attending some of these meets, they had an opportunity to let people know what they had learned, to warn others, like people at Michigan State where he was still seeing patients. But they decided that the negative publicity from that and the potential legal liability they might open themselves up to if they were to explain why Nassar wasn't at some of these events was not worth protecting other young girls. They let him quietly retire from USA Gymnastics. For nearly another year, he continued to see patients. There are dozens of girls — we really can't call them women, they're still teenagers — who've said they were abused during that time.

There are countless examples like that, going back to the late '90s, [and] the earliest claims that we have of people speaking up about Nassar and making explicit claims about what he was doing, where he was touching them. Time and time again, the adults in charge, whether they were coaches or trainers or on the executive side of some of these places, decided not to believe these women. Decided that they weren't credible claims and that these girls must be confused or there must be some other answer. Part of me understands that it's so hard to get your head around the idea that this could be happening, especially with a guy who had groomed people so well around him to think he was this friendly guy. But I think there were a lot of motivations into why you wouldn't want to speak up. There was a lot at stake. For USA Gymnastics, that was needing to overhaul the culture to stop this kind of thing and potentially damaging a crystal clear, America's sweethearts reputation that they had, which was very profitable for USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee. The people that were profiting off that weren't interested in putting that at risk.

Even before claims against Nassar specifically, we can go back to the mid-'90s, when there was an outcry about what was going on in US gymnastics and the culture of potential abuse and certainly psychological and physical abuse. Nothing changed then. Women were complaining. [. . . ] when they won the award for courage and they talk about there were complaints in 1999, 2000, again and again and again. And then when Larry Nassar was confronted just a few years ago, he said, "I think it's remarkable that there's never been a complaint against me."

We had a chance to watch the interviews he did with police over the years, as part of our research. It was mind-boggling and head-shaking a lot of times. Even before Nassar was the central focus, a woman named Joan Ryan, who's a fantastic journalist, [had written] a book about some of the abusive practices in both gymnastics and the figure skating world. Then it was more a lot of eating disorders and physical abuse and troubling fat shaming and the horrible things you shouldn't be saying to young girls who are already rail thin and great athletes.

There was a brief groundswell we found with people trying to think, "Maybe we need to change this culture." There was even a moment in the late '90s when a woman named Nancy Thies Marshall was hired by USA Gymnastics to be in charge of athlete wellness, and they were trying to turn the page. Back then it was a lot about eating disorders and making sure nutrition was proper with the gymnasts. But that was quickly snuffed out when they started to lose. They had a couple underwhelming Olympic performances and performances on the world national stage as Bela Karolyi had retired and the Karolyis were stepping back. The Karolyis were quickly invited back in and they decided that they didn't need this athlete wellness program, so the funding for that dried up right away. I think there isn't a direct line there, but I don't think it takes too much of a leap to understand that the priorities there were making sure they continue to win gold medals and bring in huge endorsement contracts. That was put in front of making sure that the well-being of all their athletes was properly taken care of.

In the past couple of years, there has been this moment of reckoning — or at least the appearance of it. Nassar is behind bars on multiple charges of assault and child pornography, which is another element of the story that we often forget because his crimes are so overwhelming and heinous. Yet we see a lot of the key players either are still working or got golden parachutes. We see the fury around that, the justice that parents want. There was one particular father who asked for five minutes. Three of his daughters had been assaulted. What happened with him?

It was at the Eaton County sentencing hearing, which is actually the second sentencing hearing that Nassar went through and one that people forget as sort of a afterthought. [The father] ended up charging at Nassar in the middle of the courtroom. I think a lot of people could sympathize with and could understand the rage. I spoke with him briefly afterwards and did not go there that day to do that. It kind of got the better of him, because he was hearing his daughters describe what happened to them. We spoke to a lot of parents as part of the research for this book and for our other reporting. Those were some of the tougher interviews that John and I did. You're sitting across from parents blaming themselves for letting their daughters down and feeling guilty.

One of the things we learned in reporting this from many different angles, Nassar was just as effective at earning the trust of the parents. He would do things while some mothers and fathers were in the exam room. He would be assaulting their daughters. It's horrific to think that. He was so practiced at this that he knew exactly how to do it. He used that to his advantage. There were girls who thought, "This doesn't feel right, but my mom is sitting right there.This must be okay, this must be right." On the other end there were parents who thought, "Well, my daughter looks comfortable and she's excited to see this world famous doctor. He must know what he's doing." There were plenty of parents, plenty of medical professionals, he also manipulated and fooled as part of this decades-long scandal.

As monstrous and horrific as he is and his crimes are, this is not just one isolated story; this is not just one person. This is about the culture that enables this. This is about systemic prioritizing of money, medals, other people's reputations over the claims of people who say they have been hurt. You've now been covering this story for a long time. You know where we are right now in it today. What, if anything, has changed?

There has been change. I don't want to say there hasn't been any. As much as anything, it's been the general public's feeling and sentiment toward these things and demand for change, whether that shows up in where they put their dollars or where they put their attention. That moment two years ago now, in the sentencing hearings in Michigan, was a turning point of sorts where a lot of women shed the stigma of sexual assault and felt more comfortable speaking up. That was going on, really, right as the #MeToo movement was taking off and becoming a very popular cultural shift. I think they played a large role in that. So on that front, there has been change.

Institutionally, there are still people who should be held accountable for what happened, who are digging in not to be, mostly for self preservation reasons. That's locked in some stalemates that are still ongoing civil litigation both with USA Gymnastics and the Olympic Committee. There are a few folks that'll be on criminal trial here in the coming year. And Michigan state has still mired in some legal battles with some of the documents they have and really thoroughly examining who knew what, and when, and how much did they know?

I don't know exactly what real justice looks like. I don't know that anybody can be fully restored from what happened to them. There was a moment of justice that these women got when Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for effectively the rest of his life. That's an incredibly rare thing in sexual assault cases, as you know. To win that was incredibly hard won moment of justice, but it was just a moment. There are still a lot of them that are fighting, that want to see laws changed and rules changed. Those are the ways that we can reflect that we're taking this seriously.

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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