5 Things We Learned from Interviewing Nassar Survivors

Survivors like Rachael Denhollander, pictured here baking with her children, want people to know abuse can happen to anyone. Credit: Lindsey Smith

by Lindsey Smith

Thursday, December 20 at 2:00 p.m.

The Larry Nassar case gives us an idea about how some serial predators operate. There are lessons we can and should take from this case.

As I mentioned in Episode 1, I’m a mom to two wonderful little girls. I worried that as parents and guardians of small humans, many of us were missing some incredibly valuable lessons. That’s part of the reason I pushed Kate to help me do a big project on the Larry Nassar case. Because, as a parent, I was feeling a tad insecure myself.

I worried that even as the Larry Nassar case dominated the headlines, many of us naturally averted our eyes and our minds. We may have mentally assigned blame, distanced ourselves and moved on to something else.

But something compelled me to not look away. And I had the privilege to ask every person we interviewed: what should I learn from this case? Now I’m sharing some of those lessons with you.

 

Don’t think this only happens to ‘other people.’

 

It’s tempting to think of Larry Nassar as a boogie man. A creep you could spot a mile away.

Trinea Gonczar (you can hear her story in Episodes 1 and 7) is here to tell you: It’s not that obvious.

“Like this case, because it’s so public and so global and so massive, people think like that could never be our doctor, that could never be our neighbor. That could never be our trainer, that could never be my friend,” Trinea said.

“It's not as far fetched as everyone thinks it is.”
— Trinea Gonczar

Trinea met Larry at the gym when her mom signed her up for a gymnastics class.

“I’m a normal person. Literally, I was just a little girl doing backflips off a couch that my mom, frankly, I think she mostly just didn’t want me to break a table,” she said.

There’s this balance, Trinea says. Plenty of others talked about this too – they’re not saying walk around paranoid of everyone. But don’t think this couldn’t happen to to you.

 

For criminals like Larry, trust is their weapon.

 

One of the first things an effective predator is going to do is try to figure out ways to gain a kid’s trust, or their parent’s trust.

For Larry, that meant being the understanding, gentle trainer at an otherwise high-pressure gym.

“It was not a healthy environment, I feel. Lots of just yelling and putting down and saying you’re not good enough,” Jessica Thomashow said of the gym Larry volunteered at for decades.

Jessica and lots of other survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse, they really did look up to this guy. They trusted him.

Larry would  “groom” girls and their families, giving them time, attention and gifts in ways that made him appear selfless.

Larry followed hundreds of girls on Instagram, liking and commenting about how beautiful they were in their selfies. He made jokes with his co-workers at the office that Facebook froze his account because he was friends with too many young women.

Jessica remembered an appointment right after the 2012 Olympic games.

“He asked me what my future plans were. And at that time I said, well actually I want to be just like you, I want to be a sports medicine doctor for gymnastics and then go on to be the Olympic doctor,” Jessica said.

Jessica remembered Larry smiled and fished out a little Olympic pin. He handed it to her and told her to hang onto it until she reached her goal.

“I felt like I was so special. I was like, oh my gosh, he loves me.” — Jessica Thomashow

Larry was really good at this. Really good at making people think he loved them. This is textbook grooming.

Jessica said there were some conversations about Larry within the tight-knit group of kids at the gym.

“Everyone would just say like, ‘He’s just touchy, like he’s a little weird,’ but no one would exactly say what they meant by that. And so for me, I thought okay, like this is, that’s just what he does. Like, it’s normal,” Jessica said.

Ellen Randall-Speckman, Brianne Randall-Gay’s mom (Episode 2) talked about this as well. Randall-Speckman thinks the fact that Brianne was not part of the gymnastics community made it easier for her daughter to report Larry’s abuse to police right away.

“Bree’s was different because she, I just took her to the doctor,” Ellen said.

Ellen was impressed by Larry, sure, but she didn’t view him as anything but a doctor.

“The vast majority of the [survivors] were in gymnastics, which is, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not just a sport, it’s their entire socialization. It’s what they do after school, on weekends,” says Randall-Speckman. “If they were to say something like, ‘the Olympic doctor touched me inappropriately,’ they’re really stepping out and maybe ostracizing themselves from everybody in their life.”

 

Talk to the kids in your life … repeatedly

 

The second reason Ellen thinks Brianne’s complaint got all the way to police has to do with how she raised her kids. Ellen talked to all three of her kids, when they were really little, about what I’ll call body safety. Inappropriate touching.

Brianne remembered her mom Ellen talked to her about it all the time.

She says, “I remember always being really annoyed that my mom would be having these conversations with me. I would feel really uncomfortable, but looking back, I’m so glad that she did.”

And this one of the two big things Kyle Stephens (Episodes 3 and 8) wants you to learn from this case.

 

Have an open line of communication with your kids.

 

Kyle urges parents to tell their kids, plainly: You’re never going to be in trouble for being honest. No secrets.

Kyle loved a story she remembers reading about one mom who hung up posters about body safety in her kids’ bedrooms when a babysitter came over.

“I know those might be uncomfortable situations or uncomfortable conversations… but it’s a lot less uncomfortable than having to deal with the fact that your kids have been sexually abused,” says Kyle.

When Larry assaulted Brianne, she was 17. And it is different as a 17-year-old to talk to your mom or dad about this kind of thing than say, a 6-year-old, or a 9-year-old. That’s another lesson I’ve taken from this case.

Kids don’t always talk about abuse the way you might expect.

They might be embarrassed or scared or confused. The words might not come out straightforward or how you’d imagine they would. And that’s another reason that line of communication needs to be open and safe.

 

Ask yourself: What would I do if someone disclosed abuse to me?

 

One night last May, I was talking to Jacob Denhollander, Rachael’s husband, in his kitchen. (You heard from Jacob briefly in Episode 5.) While he was cutting up cheese and veggies snacks for the kids, he said something that’s stuck with me.

It’s easy to condemn Larry Nassar now.

Which seems obvious.

But, the real test, he said, cuts a lot closer to home.

“When you’re sitting in your friend’s living room and she’s weeping, telling you what your dad did to her 10 years ago, what your pastor did to her… What are you going to do then?” Jacob asked.

Are you going to support the victim no matter the uncomfortable conversations? No matter how well you think you know the accused? No matter the potential costs?

It’s easy to criticize institutions when you’re outside of them and to tell them what to do, Jacob says. That’s not to say he’s planning on stopping or should stop doing just that.

But he is thinking about how these lessons may play out, long into his future.

“How am I, how am I going to ensure that I do the right thing?” he wonders. “It’s like the hippies, they all grew up to be CEOs. You know, it’s easy to be a hippie when you’re 20, 25, but then you know that the pull of power and prestige and money, it can attract anybody.”

Our first instinct, if someone were to accuse someone we love and trust, may not be to automatically believe that the worst could be true. More often, we’re apt to rationalize it. To assume there must be some misunderstanding. To disbelieve.

Jacob and the survivors in this story want you to think about these very human reactions. And they want you, and me, to consider starting by believing instead.