No longer alone, some of Nassar's accusers find support together
This year, more than 120 women and girls found out they’re part of the same terrible club.
As children and teens, they were all allegedly abused by former Michigan State University and Olympic gymnastics sports doctor, Larry Nassar.
Now, as Nassar considers a plea deal next week on multiple sexual assault charges, some of these women and girls are meeting for the first time.
Maybe it sounds like a bad Lifetime movie to say they’ve bonded, that they get each other, but they don’t care. They spent years of their lives believing this powerful doctor was a kind and trusted friend. Now they’ve spent the last 12 months watching that same man unravel, and reckoning with the shared belief that they were sexually abused.
They’ve got a lot to talk about.
“We felt like we were alone for so long.”
It’s Monday morning, and we’re at a legal office just outside of Lansing, setting up in one of those conference rooms with buzzing fluorescent lights and shelves of law books lining the walls.
Half a dozen women file in together, chatting, polite, maybe a little nervous. Some are in their 30’s with kids at home, others are in college, and the youngest is just 17.
They first met through their lawyers a couple weeks ago (they’re part of a civil lawsuit involving Nassar and his former employer, Michigan State University). One of them, Jessica Smith, is a dance teacher and student at Ferris State University.
“Immediately from talking with each other, I walked in and hugged Larissa [Boyce, one of the other women in this group] and I cried. Like ‘Ok, yes, I love you, and I feel your support.’ That support and understanding coming from each other was one of the most powerful things.”
Slowly, they say, they started realizing they even had health issues in common.
“So actually going into detail with what happened, and how it made us feel...migraines, anxiety, stomach issues, endometriosis, chest pains, can’t eat, can’t sleep,” says Christine Harrison, a student at Michigan State University. “Just knowing that you’re not alone. You’re not crazy and other people are having them too.”
After the high of meeting each other, Smith says, being on her own again felt like returning to “the real world.” One day she told a friend at school she didn’t have the will to get out of bed. “Oh I felt like that just the other day,” the friend said. But really, Smith thought, she didn’t get it.
“I wanted to be alone,” says Smith. “I was at the grocery store, I didn’t want people to look at me, I just was angry and confused with my emotions. Ten minutes later, someone texted into our group chat: ‘Oh my God, does anyone else want to stay in bed today?’ And I was like yes! You understand!” she laughs.
“We felt like we were alone for so long,” Christine Harrison says, her voice raspy from a cold. “And since I’ve met these girls, there hasn’t been one day where we haven’t talked. Just knowing that we are not alone anymore? I can’t even put it into words.”
“It made you feel like something was wrong with you mentally.”
One particularly cruel element in Nassar’s alleged abuse, was that when he would digitally penetrate young girls (without wearing gloves or getting consent) their parents were frequently in the room. Numerous women say he covered up the lower half of their bodies with towels, baggy shorts, or by positioning his body to block their parents’ view.
Among the women who’ve met here, family reactions to this revelation vary. Some parents can’t talk about anything Nassar-related. They’ve just shut down, two of the women say. Others parents, like Harrison’s, are supportive even as they process this nightmare.
“It breaks my heart to see that they’re sad,” she says. “Especially for my mom, because when I was assaulted, sometimes she was in the room. And she’s having a hard time accepting that she took me to MSU, where I was treated and sexually assaulted. She’s having a really hard time with it.”
Most outsiders can understand these women and girls are angry, obviously, or that they’re grieving.
But it’s only with each other, they say, that they can talk about the feelings even they don’t understand.
Like when Jessica Smith catches herself feeling sad for Nassar.
“To see Larry skinny, and you know, in a courtroom, on TV; and how can that ever make me sad to see that?” she asks. “But it really made you feel like something was wrong with you mentally [to feel that way] and that’s challenging as well.”
But the others here understand.
“Because we felt like we had such a connection, like he truly cared about us,” Boyce says. “How do you stop the feeling of caring for somebody who you thought helped you, but really was hurting you?”
“If we were football players, this would be handled a lot differently.”
Sometimes, though, it’s just too hard to talk.
One young woman starts crying while we’re sitting here, and gasps that she can’t speak right now. She goes outside and sits in her car until her anxiety ebbs. When she returns, the others wrap her up and tell her about all the times they’ve lost it, too. Another says she hasn’t been able to tell her relatives about the abuse she experienced – they’re “going through a lot right now,” she says.
And while on one level, these women feel stunned and hopeful about Nassar potentially pleading guilty next week, they also share the same frustrations.
“Yeah, I feel like if we were football players or if we were males, this would be handled a lot differently,” says Alexis Alvarado, a college student. It’s a theme these women return to repeatedly. "If we were boys," they say, "or, if this had been football, not gymnastics."
When sexual abuse was uncovered at Penn State University, there were outside investigations. The NCAA got involved. It was the top story across the country.
And these women know the Nassar case is news, sure, but they feel like the outrage is missing.
“It’s like they don’t see us as, we’re as important as like, the football players,” Alvarado says. “Or it’s just not as big of a deal.”
If this had been 120-plus boys, or football players, would adults have accepted Nassar’s techniques just as “medical treatment” for so long? These women and girls say they can’t be sure.
But if every girl had been believed or support from the start, they say, then none of them would have to be here, in this law office on a Monday morning, swapping stories of trauma and abuse.
What these women actually want, they say, is not to have to have groups like this.