Here’s a sample of the kind of comments parents of Larry Nassar’s victims see online these days. Or, for that matter, just overhear at work and the grocery store:
“Why don’t the parents of the Nassar victims take any responsibility?”
“I wonder how many of those girls complained to their parents, and their parents turned a deaf ear about it.”
“The parents are equally to blame. Should be sharing a cell with Nassar.”
Deb McCaul says on some level, she gets it.
“It was unimaginable and hard for me to understand when I first heard it,” McCaul says. “Like, how could you have that happen and not know? Until I found out that that happened, and I didn’t know.”
Logically, knowing they're not to blame, but "that doesn't help when my baby's shattered."
McCaul’s daughter, Morgan, is 18. A ballet dancer with short red curls and big, watchful eyes, she saw Nassar roughly 15 times for treatment, and even spent a day job-shadowing him in high school when she was thinking about pursuing medicine in college.
Initially, when sexual abuse complaints against the former U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics doctor and Michigan State University sports medicine clinician started coming out in the fall of 2016, Morgan insisted to her parents she’d been spared any abuse.
Then Nassar was arrested for possessing tens of thousands of images of child pornography.
“The day I told her that he had been arrested for pornography, I saw something change in her,” McCaul says. “And it was maybe two weeks later that she told me, that he had done that stuff to her as well.”
That was when McCaul realized two things.
First, she suddenly understood the breakdown Morgan experienced months before, when her funny, valedictorian kid with a 4.0 GPA became so paralyzed by anxiety attacks, some days she couldn’t leave her room.
Second, it hit McCaul that not only had her daughter been abused, but she, McCaul, had been sitting just a few feet away the entire time, chatting politely.
“I wasn’t somebody with, like, my nose in the phone,” McCaul says. “I was having conversations with them. And whenever Larry was doing something in that [pelvic] area, I would go up and stand by the table, because I wanted her to feel more comfortable.”
Playing back every moment of every appointment, wondering: how?
McCaul says then Nassar would often have Morgan lay on her stomach, while he leaned over to massage her back with his forearm, “like if you’re giving somebody a really hard massage,” she says. McCaul assumed he was using his other arm to brace against the table. “I couldn’t see that part of it. But I had no reason to question it either.
“It’s one of those things where you’re like, how? And in your head, you see all the people it’s happened to. And you think, ‘Well, he tricked everybody.’ But that still doesn’t help when your baby is shattered. When your kid’s life is completely derailed. That’s hard.”
Intellectually, parents like McCaul say they know Nassar spent a career gaining the personal trust and professional bona fides to manipulate parents and patients into trusting him. They know that parents in law enforcement and medicine also sat in that treatment room, equally unaware of the abuse happening just feet away.
“Logically, my brain tells me, this is what happened and I shouldn’t feel guilty about it,” she says. “[But] she’s my baby and I should have been protecting her. I mean, I’m the mom who made my kids wear helmets even when they were riding their bikes on the grass…. For this to happen on my watch, makes me feel like I really, really messed up.”
Hearing others ask "how could the parents not know?"
Because that trust in Nassar was so complete, McCaul and other parents say they find themselves wondering: Who else could be fooling us?
“We don’t trust anybody anymore,” says Ted, whose daughter was also abused by Nassar during treatment. She wants to remain anonymous, so we’re not using their last name. “I don’t. Our daughter doesn’t. We gotta get over this, you know? Because we can’t let one sicko change how we feel about trusting people.”
Ted says his daughter, who’s away at college, is now so traumatized by doctors, she can’t seek medical treatment by herself. She put off getting care for an ear infection recently, until the pain got so bad she had to ask her mom to drive to campus and take her to the doctor.
“My wife, I owe her a lot,” Ted says, referring to marriage struggles he’s seen other parents at their daughter’s gym experience. “A good friend of mine at the gym, his wife didn’t speak to him for three months. Because she blamed him: ‘Why didn’t you notice anything? You took her to all these appointments.’ I give credit to my wife, she never blamed me.”
But still he blames himself. Ted says of the 40 or so appointments his daughter had with Nassar, he was probably present for 38. “He would talk about his family … he made us feel like family,” Ted says.
“We were all guilty of not knowing. Shame on us, yes. But unless you were there, you can’t understand.”
Sometimes during those appointments, Nassar would block Ted’s view, he says: either by standing between Ted and his daughter, or draping a towel over the patient, always chatting away.
Even today, Ted says, he doesn’t have a good answer when he overhears people at work, who don’t know about his daughter, asking: How could those parents not know?
“I will try to find the answer for the rest of my life. I don’t think I ever will,” he says. “I just can’t imagine how, how we could not see anything after so many dozens and dozens of visits.”
Meeting other moms and dads who understand: "I didn't want them to leave"
Over the last several weeks, as more than 200 women and girls came forward to make victim impact statements during Nassar’s criminal sentencing, their parents have been meeting one another.
“And just during breaks, during lunch hour, after the sentencing, just talking to one another,” Ted says, his eyes filling up. “And especially hugging one another. It helped tremendously…. I was almost sad that the hearing was over, because we were saying goodbye to each other, and maybe we don’t see each other. I wanted them not to leave.”
At that final criminal sentencing, Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis used her closing statement to give a message to anyone blaming the parents for Nassar’s abuse:
“Perhaps the people who parent shame and blame, who post comments online, or call into radio shows to talk about the parents – perhaps what those people are trying to do, is distance themselves,” Povilaitis said. “So that they can believe it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen to them. But it could. It could happen to anybody.”
There’s a push right now to start a support group for these parents. Mick Grewal represents several of the families whose daughters were abused by Nassar. “I have had parents cry to me on the phone that they handed their daughters over to this monster. The guilt is overwhelming,” Grewal says via email. He says he’s asked them if they’d like to get together privately and talk, and the response has been “overwhelming.”
They’re planning to get together soon, he says. “This will allow parent to talk to each other and exchange information much the same as the survivors are doing. This will help them bond and understand that they have no blame in this and they are also in need of healing.”