This article is the third installment of “One Year Later: Larry Nassar And The Women Who Made Us Listen,” a seven-part series that commemorates the seven days women stood in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last year and faced their abuser, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State trainer Larry Nassar. “One Year Later” was produced by reporter Alanna Vagianos. Read more installments: One | Two | Four | Five | Six | Seven
Being a mom was one of those things I just assumed would come easily ― but when I was finally ready to bring babies into my life, my body did not want to cooperate. In the years leading up to Amanda’s birth, I lost two pregnancies and I was almost convinced I would never be able to have a baby of my own.
Then, in July 1989, Amanda Rose came into our lives, and finally I was the mom I had always dreamed I would be. Two years later, I had little Katherine Michelle, and nine years after that, baby Jessica Grace surprised us after I was sure I would never get pregnant again. The days I had my little girls were the best days of my life. Those three little bundles of joy were the biggest blessings in my life, and as their mom, I swore I would do everything I could to protect them and keep them safe from evil.
Raising three girls is a trying gift, full of ups and downs and everything in between. I never knew I could love so much, so deeply, so fully, until they came into my life. My girls are everything, and my world revolves around them. So naturally, when Amanda called me in 2014, when she was 24 years old, to tell me that a doctor had touched her inappropriately, my world shattered.
She was scared on the phone. It was obvious that she didn’t want to talk about it, but she was so freaked out she had to tell me. She gave me the play-by-play, her voice getting softer with every disgusting detail.
I wanted to throw up. I didn’t understand. This couldn’t be right.
My little girl? Larry Nassar had touched my sweet Amanda?
I thought back to when I first met him. I was a third-year medical student, and he was an up-and-coming assistant professor in sports medicine at Michigan State University. Somehow, I managed to land his rotation. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have an opportunity to learn from a rising star in the field.
From the beginning, I knew he was quirky and odd. Maybe he was touchy, and maybe he pushed professional “personal space” boundaries. But hadn’t it always been in a medical way?
He had so much energy. He was so excited to teach us how to heal people, just like he did.
Even in 1994, he was the go-to doctor for any pediatric athletic injury, especially if the athlete was a young female gymnast. I had overlapped with him again and again, professionally, referring my own injured patients to him for evaluations and treatment. I had sent all three of my daughters ― a cheerleader, a soccer player and a gymnast ― to him for various sports injuries. And now my Amanda was telling me he had touched her inappropriately.
As a physician myself, it was unfathomable to me that a colleague would disregard the Hippocratic oath and deliberately harm his own patient. He had listened to the same lectures I did, so I was sure he was aware of the psychological effects of sexual assault. He knew the lifelong physical and emotional scars left behind by such trauma.
How do you wrap your head around something like that? What do you do?
I can tell you now, with everything I have learned, the first and most important thing you do is to listen to every single word your baby tells you. You thank them for trusting you with their story. And then you ask them what they want to do. Because that is what matters.
As I struggled with the information and eventually the outcome of the investigation triggered by Amanda’s report, I did my best to support her. But like many parents faced with a sexually traumatized child, I didn’t have all the tools. My strong and independent firstborn was in pain and coming apart, and she needed a deeper level of support and empowerment than I knew how to give. I didn’t realize just how much she was hurting, and just how alone she felt.
Amanda decided to report to MSU, and I thought this was a good decision. I knew they would start an investigation, and more importantly, I knew Nassar would be put on leave and not have access to patients. Amanda bravely reported to the director of sports medicine, and a Title IX report was initiated. When they told her she didn’t know the “nuanced difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure,” we were infuriated.
Amanda was victimized twice, first by Nassar, then by a deeply flawed investigation led by Nassar’s own friends and colleagues at MSU. I felt so sad for Amanda, angry at the injustice of it all, and angry at Nassar and MSU for what they did to her.
She wanted to move on, and I respected that, so we didn’t talk about it again ― until Amanda called me in August 2016 to tell me someone else had reported Larry.
“I knew it, Mom, I tried to tell them, and now I’m not alone. There are going to be hundreds, Mom, maybe thousands. Just wait, Mom, I knew I wasn’t crazy.” Someone from the MSU police had called her to let her know there’d been another complaint against Larry. This time, the victim was going public.
Shortly after that, Rachael Denhollander became the first victim to publicly report the sexual abuse in a game-changing Indianapolis Star article. My world shattered all over again. I was driving around with Jess when she told me that monster had touched her, too. He hadn’t just gotten one of my babies. He got two of them.
I had spent every waking moment doing everything I could to protect my little girls from something like this. I had warned them about buses and malls. I kept them close on vacations, and checked in with parents when they stayed with friends. I was involved, I was present, I hired trustworthy nannies, and I was always in contact with teachers and coaches. How had this happened? And he was a doctor! A doctor I had looked up to. A doctor I’d told them to trust.
This time, I did better. I let Jessica get it all out, and then I asked her what she wanted to do. We went to the police station because she wanted to report it, and I let her lead the way. I used the basic principles of a victim-centered approach. I let her talk, I empowered her, and I knew just how much my baby girl was suffering.
Driving to the station, I thought about all the red flags I had missed. His goofy, hands-on approach. The nicknames he had for the girls. The Olympic pin he gave my Jess. All of the grooming techniques he used to put us at ease, before he exploited our trust and used our little girls’ bodies for his own disgusting pleasure.
Later that night, alone after a long day of reliving painful memories and cursing the day I met Larry Nassar, it really hit me. Only a few women had reported abuse at that point, but I couldn’t get Amanda’s words out of my head: “There are going to be hundreds, Mom, maybe thousands.” She was so sure, and again, she was so right.
I’d wanted so badly to believe MSU when they told us this had never happened before and would never happen again. I had trusted my alma mater to do the right thing. And all they had done was enable the predator who hurt not one but two of my girls.
Now, years after those first, world-shattering conversations, and a year after Larry Nassar was effectively sentenced to life behind bars, we know that my baby girls are just two of many. We know that he targeted young female athletes, and likely chose a profession that would give him easy access to his ideal victims. We know he disguised himself as a selfless advocate for the very athletes he abused. He was the “good guy,” smuggling Skittles to starving gymnasts and taping their bodies back together when their sport tore them apart.
He was silly and quickly gained parents’ trust, with his walls full of awards and his never-ending list of achievements. He made his patients feel comfortable, and then special, showering them with gifts, sharing inside jokes and hugging them goodbye after every appointment. He progressed from nonsexual to sexual touch, and now we know that Larry Nassar, through grooming and manipulation, sexually assaulted hundreds (probably thousands) of young girls.
We also know about the institutions that enabled him, and prioritized their reputations and dollars over our little girls’ lives. We know he could have been stopped back in 1997, before my little Jessica had even been born, if the first known victim to tell an official about Nassar had been listened to. We know there were numerous opportunities to stop him in the years following, if only the adults in authority with the information had done the right thing.
Today all three of my girls are in recovery mode. Katherine Michelle, who saw Nassar for an injured soccer knee but was not abused, has been a pillar of strength, love and support for her siblings. Amanda Rose has pulled herself up and out of a very sad place, and landed a career working for all assault victims as a campus sexual assault coordinator for the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board. As she heals, she is making important headway in an area of great need in our society. Jessica Grace is a freshman in college, trying to be normal. She feels good about her role putting Nassar behind bars where he cannot hurt another little girl ever again. She helped drive both criminal assault trials with her “victim A” testimony ― no small task for a girl who was then a junior in high school. She still fears “men in authority” and has “the nightmare” whenever she is forced to think back, but each day is a little better than the last.
So, where do we go from here?
Well, there is only one direction. We go forward.
We take the lessons we have learned from the army of survivors who brought down Larry Nassar, and we do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
We protect our little ones from monsters like Larry, and we try our hardest to stay vigilant. We do not allow ourselves to be blinded by a person’s reputation, no matter how outstanding it may be. We know, now, that this is how evil hides in plain sight.
We do everything we can to keep our little ones safe from predators, but we also understand that we can’t always be there. So we educate our kids about things like consent and inappropriate touch, even if talking about it scares us.
We tell our little ones they can refuse a hug or a handshake, and we teach them that they own their bodies. We give them permission to advocate for themselves, and we encourage them to do so. We show them what respecting a “no” looks like, and we explain to them the importance of listening to each other’s words.
We teach our kids to trust their guts, and we empower them so they feel comfortable speaking up for themselves. We teach them that their feelings, their thoughts and their voices matter, and we give them a safe space so they can come to us if they ever need to talk.
Because we know that no matter how prepared we are, how watchful and careful and wary, sometimes awful things happen anyway.
And if something awful does happen, we listen. When someone tells us they have been violated, we do not question them or their motives. We give them our support and ask them what they need.
We believe survivors, and we respect them. We thank them for coming forward, if they do, and we understand that the mere act of getting out of bed after being sexually assaulted is so courageous, it is worth every award.
We cannot forget the group of women who took down Larry Nassar. We cannot forget all they have taught us.
We have to learn from what happened to our girls, and we have to learn the lesson now, because that is the only way we make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
“One Year Later: Larry Nassar And The Women Who Made Us Listen” is a seven-part series that commemorates the seven days women stood in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last January and read powerful victim impact statements to former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State trainer Larry Nassar. Their words made history, forcing the country to finally listen and confront the abuse Nassar perpetrated. This series highlights the people who helped take Nassar down, as well as those he hurt for so long.
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Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.