Two 2018 ESPY winners, one I met in person and another I saw via video, factored heavily in my experience of the International City/County Management Association conference in October.
Another was Brianne Randall-Gay, who won an ESPY in 2018 alongside her fellow Sister Survivors, the women who spoke out against serial abuser Larry Nassar.
I am positive every one of the hundreds of “sister survivors” would have traded the trophy, the time on the national stage and the acclaim to have lived a childhood free of sexual abuse.
During the readalong, Pesta said one of her goals had been to capture the experiences of some of the athletes who may not have been as much on the public stage as gymnasts such as Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.
Pesta’s book was thoroughly researched, and the research was perfectly complemented by her human, compassionate treatment (without glossing over extremely graphic details) of the young women she interviewed (along with their families).
If a book could be said to have a mission statement, I think this one’s is: “Help heal the past while protecting people, especially children, from being victims in the future.”
As survivor Natalie Venuto said in a Goodreads comment, “…reading this book triggered a lot of painful memories, but I know that it will help me heal.”
Meridian Township apologizes
I downloaded “The Girls” on Audible immediately after hearing Pesta speak on the readalong. As coincidence would have it, I was reading the passage about Brianne Randall-Gay’s attempt to tell the Meridian Township police about Nassar’s abuse in 2004 right before I heard Township Manager Frank Walsh and Chief of Police Ken Plaga iave a presentation, “A National and Personal Apology,” at the ICMA conference. It was one of the top sessions out of hundreds of options.
Here’s the police report:
The police called Brianne’s family in after they completed their investigation, told them Nassar had confirmed his practices were accepted medical standards, and explained they were not pursuing any charges.
In 2018, after it became apparent that Nassar had gone on to abuse hundreds of athletes after Brianne, the Meridian Township in Michigan issued a public apology.
Walsh outlined five main takeaways other local government professionals should learn from this experience. The last one was, “investigate, apologize and foster change.”
Meridian Township has made drastic changes in their investigation protocol since this situation was mishandled. Walsh noted how the police report described in detail where Nassar inserted his finger into Brianne’s vagina, but it also says that he repeatedly massaged her breasts. Walsh discusses the powerpoint Nassar gave to supposedly document the medical nature of the treatment, but it does not refer at all to a breast massage. When a reporter pointed out the breast massage and its total irrelevance to the “treatment,” the reporter asked “How did you miss that?” A valid question, and the township is addressing that by the revisions to training and procedures.
Although the title of the session was “A National Apology,” and the apology was its centerpiece, the “foster change” part is undoubtedly the township’s most lasting legacy (that and whatever healing it allowed Brianne and her fellow survivors to experience).
This is a video made by Brianne that is now used in Michigan for training law enforcement and others. Even if you click out of this blog, please do it after taking the seven minutes to watch this.
A former gym mom’s perspective
The New York Times Readalong community has become a close-knit group over its four years. This was pretty candid on my part, but I am comfortable enough in this group that I knew I could say it with support. One of my first comments as we were talking with Abigail Pesta and I was processing her description of her interactions with the survivors was, “I hope as a gym mom I would have had the strength to put aside my stage mom tendencies and see what was happening to my child.”
I’m not especially proud of it, but I had my own agenda that was a counterpoint to my daughter’s gymnastics goals. (And obviously, her gymnastics life is her story to tell, but it was a significant piece of my parenting, so I’m speaking strictly from my perspective.) I had been a fat, nonathletic kid who was always chosen last in elementary school for PE, and when I realized my child was an excellent athlete with the accompanying discipline and artistry, I was mainly relieved that her childhood wouldn’t be plagued by the self-doubt and ostracism that I had experienced on the sidelines of what appeared to be an athletic world I didn’t fit in.
We (probably more me!) would seek out private lessons anytime we traveled. There was a lengthy period where she didn’t feel well most days and I would give her a motrin and a decongestant — a combination that seemed to help her get through practice. Our expenditures were probably somewhat modest compared to some competitive gymnastics programs (thank you TGC for being so affordable!), but they were significant and included doctor visits to check out little physical twinges, nights spent worrying about a variety of things and the loss of perspective regarding whether she was happy or not.
She won the Level 4 state championship in 2006 and decided to leave the sport in 2007.
In retrospect, gymnastics was good for her (even with my stage mom-ness), and she left at the right time.
Most important, she was at a gym where she did not end up being sexually abused. I can only hope if I had been sitting in a room where a “doctor” was putting his bare fingers in her vagina on the premise that it was “helping” her (Nassar often conducted his abuse with a parent in the room, by strategically placing himself in a way that he disrupted the parent’s line of vision), my good sense would have overridden my ambition and I would have said, unequivocally and persistently, “THIS IS NOT RIGHT.”
I also think you could delete all of the references to gymnastics apparatus, leotards and the US Gymnastics Association from this book and it would stand alone as a testament to a culture that encourages children and their parents to trade a somewhat normal childhood for a regimented one that leads to scholarships and (potentially) money.
We will always be a culture that praises accomplishment, I think, but where does it end? Where do we as parents (and relatives/friends of young people) reinforce the message that “you are enough” whether you are an accomplished young athlete or not?
Communities protect predators
Another thread through Pesta’s book and the speech by Walsh and Plaga was the way people who abuse children often infuse themselves into the community and position themselves as a “good guy.”
Walsh noted that Nassar was running for school board in his community in 2016. Nassar got “over 2,000 votes” even after the initial story about his abuse was released. Walsh also commented about the 35,000 images of child pornography found in Nassar’s dumpster in front of his house when police conducted an investigation. Walsh said many people think it may be the pornography, not the experiences of the hundreds of his victims, that ensured he got jail time.
Nassar befriended these young women (it was grooming, not true friendship), gained the trust of their families, fooled almost everyone.
Preventing future sexual abuse
When I was sexually abused by a trusted adult when I was 13, I was fortunate that my parents believed me. Yet I am still haunted all these years later by the fact that it can’t have been just me that he was taking advantage of.
It’s one of the reasons “The Girls” and the presentation by the Meridian Township officials has resonated so much with me.
What if that officer in 2004 had had better training regarding how to interview a victim of sexual abuse?
What if the guarantee of the nurse who processed Brianne’s rape kit when she worried that she would be perceived as lying “it’ll be OK – they’ll believe you” … had been correct?
What if hundreds of girls could have had their confidence and childhood innocence preserved because Nassar had been stopped in 2004 rather than 2016?
What if? What if? What if?
Here are some tips from Stop It Now! in the event a child in your life says they are being abused:
- Stay steady
- Believe what they say
- Reestablish safety
- Free them of self-blame
- Express your rage to appropriate people
- Get help
Brianne gets the last word
In the video I shared from Brianne, she says, “I have a wonderful family, a fulfilling career. I still suffer severe anxiety and nightmares related to the abuse.” She goes on to say “Today, myself and over 200 of my sister survivors stand together, bring awareness to childhood sexual abuse and promote a culture that no longer enables predators but empowers survivors.”
The ESPY was nice and well-deserved, but why did things have to go so far in the first place? Why are anxiety and nightmares still a part of Brianne’s life instead of just enjoying her young family and her adulthood?
Thank you, Brianne and sister survivors, for helping change this narrative. You are more than “the girls.” You are victors in every way.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.