Views / Opinion

Rosemary Westwood: Larry Nassar trial highlights how we (don't) respond to sexual violence

Liars, manipulators, and greedy, all of them. That is, until the stories become too painful and plentiful to look away. That is when we listen.

Larry Nassar has admitted sexually assaulting athletes when he was employed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Larry Nassar has admitted sexually assaulting athletes when he was employed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

It took an avalanche.

An avalanche of stories over decades. An avalanche of suffering and abuse.

More than 150 women and girls — so many the judge and prosecutor debated the exact number — spent six days over the last week telling a courtroom in Michigan of their own personal hells created by sexual abuse disguised as medical treatment at the hands of Larry Nassar, a U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor whose predation ended Wednesday when a judge sentenced him to 40 to 175 years in prison.

“You do not deserve to walk outside a prison again," said Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

That decision was a very long time coming, in a case that exemplifies everything wrong — and entirely commonplace — about how we respond to sexual violence.

It takes a long time for us to listen. Complaints of Nassar’s so-called “treatments” made by these women and girls to U.S.A. Gymnastics and the university as many as 20 years ago were not met with exhaustive investigations. In fact, a 2014 investigation by the school actually cleared Nassar’s name.

“I told an adult” in 1997, said Larissa Boyce. “Instead of being protected, I was humiliated, I was in trouble, and brainwashed into believing that I was the problem.”

The case is reminiscent of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church, not least because they share in common abusive men protected by powerful institutions, but also for the echoes of how parents were made complicit in their own child’s abuse in both cases, convinced by those in power that their own children were lying.

Sexual predators often have help. Nassar has colourings of Harvey Weinstein, there, too, a man able to operate with similar impunity from a similar position of power and respect. His crimes resemble rape and abuse scandals within Canadian and U.S. militaries, organizations which have also been slammed for their handling — or lack of handling — of those crimes. The presidents of U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University have resigned, and both organizations face lawsuits.

Like countless sexual abuse scandals of the past, it also took a lengthy and expensive investigation by journalists to be uncovered.

The Indianapolis Star went to court to obtain documents and evidence not just of Nassar’s abuse, but of allegations against 54 coaches associated with U.S.A. Gymnastics. Michigan’s assistant attorney general said this week it was investigative reporting that finally ended Nassar’s decades of abuse.

And yet even after the allegations were published in 2016, the story remained far in the background of national debate. It wasn’t until this week, with the layering and layering of women’s voices from the courtroom, that their experiences came dominate the news cycle, even in the era of #MeToo. Just as it often takes a stream of victims willing to speak to finally draw our attention to monstrous realities — think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the campaign for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Nassar, in a letter he wrote to the judge last week (who read parts of the letter to the court on Wednesday), summed up our collective excuses, the underlying cliches that society routinely levels at abuse victims in order to ignore them.

He blamed the media for “convincing” the women “that everything I did was wrong and bad,” essentially claiming that victims can’t tell abuse for themselves.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” he wrote, insinuating a baseless vindictiveness even in young girls. 

The women, he finally charged, were simply “seeking media attention and financial reward.”

Liars, manipulators, and greedy, all of them. That is, until the stories become too painful and plentiful to look away. That is when we listen.

More on Metronews.ca