When a survivor of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse makes her impact statement to the court, she is first asked to state and spell her name for the record. And then Judge Rosemarie Aquilina asks her, “What would you like me to know?”
Over the last seven days, Aquilina has repeated this question dozens of times. This is my first time watching victim impact statements, and so I don’t know if the language the judge used is standard for this kind of proceeding or if Judge Aquilina has put her own twist on it. Either way, it’s a powerful prompt.
In the year and a half since Rachael Denhollander went to the Indianapolis Star and Jamie Dantzscher filed her lawsuit, Larry Nassar’s victims have come forward and been questioned about what he’d done to them. Whether it was law enforcement or lawyers or the media doing the asking, and no matter how sensitively these interviews were handled, the process demanded that they answer questions. In their answers, the victims could choose what they wanted to say and what they wanted to withhold, but they never got to choose the questions or the manner in which they told their stories. They needed to answer certain questions to build a criminal case against Nassar and other questions to build the civil cases against institutions like Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, and still more questions from the reporters who would publish stories that would generate some—if still not nearly enough—public outrage about both what Nassar did and the individuals and institutions that enabled him.
But during the seven days of victim impact statements in Aquilina’s courtroom, which concluded this morning, the only question that survivors needed to answer was “What would you like me to know?” They were free to answer however they chose. They could reveal specific details of their abuse or they could leave them out. They were free to talk about other aspects of their lives if they wished—the kind of people they were before the abuse started, who they are now, and their hopes for the future—and many did. They were not being guided by what people needed to know to make a case or what the public might have wanted to know but only what they wanted us to know. The cumulative effect of seeing 156 women answer Judge Aquilina’s question was shattering.
The first to answer Aquilina’s question was Kyle Stephens. Her case was the first one that led to charges against Nassar. She is the only non-medical victim—she had never been his patient—to come forward. Stephens’ parents had been friends with Nassar and his wife and the two families would spend time together. It was during those get-togethers, during innocent games of hide-and-seek, that Nassar first exposed himself to Stephens; she was just six years old. The abuse progressed to masturbation and then to molestation. Stephens told the court and us that she didn’t even realize that she had been abused until she was 12, which is when she told her parents that when Nassar touched her feet, he did it with his penis. Nassar convinced her parents that she was lying and for years, Stephens’ father insisted that she needed to apologize to Nassar. “For a long time, I told people I did not have a family,” she said.
In the years after Stephens first accused Nassar, she was cajoled into babysitting for his children. “I needed to be there for those children,” she explained. Stephens is the kind of person who could care deeply for the children of a man who molested her and destroyed her relationship with her family. She remains protective of Nassar’s children. When asked if she would be interested in restitution, Stephens declined, saying that she didn’t want to take anything that might otherwise go to Nassar’s children. This despite the fact that Stephens, like many others who would speak after her, has struggled with figuring out how to pay for the therapy and treatment she so desperately needs to heal from Nassar’s abuse.
“Little girls don’t stay little forever,” Stephens said, addressing Nassar, who was sitting in the witness box, which made it easier for his accusers to face him. “They grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.” This is what Kyle Stephens wanted us to know.
Another victim who spoke on the first day of sentencing was Donna Markham, mother of Chelsea Markham, a former gymnast that Nassar had abused. But before she got into the abuse itself and the toll it took on her daughter—Chelsea quit gymnastics, spiraled into depression, used drugs and committed suicide at 23—she made sure to give us a glimpse of into their relationship. Their bond had been forged when Donna, who adopted Chelsea from Korea, spent nearly every night of their first year together awake with her because she arrived with medical problems. That is what Donna Markham wanted us to know.
She also wanted us to know that she had been in the room with Chelsea as Nassar abused her daughter. This was something that many of the victims spoke about, how their parents were in the room with them as it was happening. In most cases, they weren’t aware that their parents couldn’t see what Nassar was doing to them; he had positioned himself to obscure their parents’ view. The kids didn’t know this, and many said that they thought that since their parents weren’t objecting to what Nassar was doing it must not have been wrong. Nassar weaponized a child’s natural trust in her mother and used it against her.
Madeline Jones, a Nassar survivor, told him in court, “You talked about Catholicism with my mother while sexually violating me.”
Annette Hill went to Nassar for help with knee pain. She wanted us to know that at the time she sought treatment and instead was abused, she had been going through a divorce, which was already taking its toll on her before she even set foot into Nassar’s office. And because of this, she suppressed memories of the abuse for years.
Lindsey Lemke, a Michigan State student and gymnast, wanted us to know who should be sitting in the box right next to Nassar. Her former club coach, John Geddert, who emotionally abused and intimidated his athletes, for one. Also officials at MSU for failing to take action when they were warned. Officials at USA Gymnastics, too, for failing to protect its gymnasts.
Many of the victims wanted us to know that the responsibility for what happened to them did not solely reside with the man who was essentially sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison today. Several women spoke about coming forward before Rachael Denhollander went to the Indianapolis Star with her story. Larissa Boyce told MSU head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. Tiffany Thomas-Lopez, an MSU softball player, told trainers repeatedly. Amanda Thomashow’s report of sexual abuse instigated a Title IX investigation in 2014 that cleared Nassar. They told her that she, a woman in her mid-20s, couldn’t discern the “nuanced difference” between sexual assault and legitimate medical treatment. They wanted us to know that they had tried to stop Nassar and protect the women and girls and the institutions chose to believe Nassar. They protected him instead of his patients.
One survivor, Jennifer Hayes, who had been a figure skater when Nassar was “treating” her at MSU, went into graphic detail when describing he had done to her. Not only were his fingers ungloved when Nassar stuck them into Hayes’ vagina—they were dry. I’ve been writing about this case for nearly a year and have read many victim accounts of Nassar penetrating them with his fingers. Many mentioned that he did so without gloves and without lubricant. The “without lubricant” alluded to what Hayes spelled out in her testimony. It meant pain, both physical and psychological. Hayes also said she hadn’t yet been to a gynecologist when Nassar assaulted her, that his “treatments” never seemed to be recorded in her medical records. This, among many other things, is what Hayes thought we should know.
Amy Labadie wanted us to know how much she had loved gymnastics, the excitement of putting her warmup suit, of slicking her hair back with an inch of gel before competitions. These are the kinds of details that anyone who did gymnastics could identify with. (I know I did.) But then there were the gruesome details. She told the court that she got a bacterial infection because Nassar had moved his fingers from her anus to her vagina without washing them.
Nicole Reeb wanted us to know about the impact Nassar’s abuse had on her mental health. She spoke at length about dealing with depression and an anxiety and an increasing reliance on alcohol to self-medicate. She spent years searching for the answer to why she was depressed and anxious when she had had a happy childhood without trauma, good parents, and strong relationships with her siblings. Reeb was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at one point as she and her clinicians tried to understand what was happening to her. And when she saw the first news of accounts and realized she had been sexually abused, she finally had the answer to her “why.” She was finally given the correct diagnosis—post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jordyn Wieber wanted us to know that she had been sexually abused by Nassar. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2011 world champion used Nassar’s sentencing and the space that Judge Aquilina’s question opened up to tell us that she had been abused along with three other members of the 2012 Olympic team. The day after making her statement, Wieber was on the floor coaching the UCLA’s women’s gymnastics team.
Two sisters who testified together anonymously wanted us to know that the taboo against speaking about sexual abuse is so powerful that they didn’t realize until relatively recently that they had both been abused by the same man. So far, at least based on the statements we’ve heard, Nassar abused five sets of sisters.
So many of the women wanted us to know that up until the moment that they addressed the judge, Nassar, and the rest of us, they had all been identified as Jane Doe, victims identified by numbers and letters to protect their privacy. Now they were allowing their names and faces to become public.
Danielle Moore said, “You were stripped [of] your title of doctor, and soon you will be known by your prison number. I find this fitting because a number is what I was to you. I will no longer be known as a number. I will be known as Dr. Danielle Moore.”
Many of the survivors let us know who they had to lean on in their lives by the people they chose to stand next to them as they delivered their statements—parents, siblings, partners, attorneys. In one instance, a gymnastics coach, when addressing Nassar, let us know exactly where he thought Nassar should go. Some other survivors were not ready to be identified. They weren’t ready for us to know who they were, and that lets us know how much work needs to be done to make a world where these women and all sexual assault survivors can feel that it’s safe to come forward and be embraced.
Melody Posthuma-Vanderveen brought her new husband, a man she met because she had had a panic attack about the case in public and he rushed over to her, asking if he could pray with her. Posthuma-Vanderveen had been one of the victims whose abuse Nassar was being charged with in a separate case in Michigan’s Ingham County; she felt like she couldn’t endure that ordeal, and the attorney general’s office withdrew her charges. But several months after her charges were withdrawn, not only was she able to speak in, she was willing to be identified and talk about what happened to her.
I wish I was able to pull from every single woman’s testimony that I’ve watched and listened to over the last seven days. I recognize that what I’ve only drawn from a handful of the women who spoke before the court in this sentencing. It’s not because I feel that any one of them is more important than another. It’s just the limitations of time and space, even on the internet.
Many of these women had been doubted when they spoke up about what Nassar was doing to them, or doubted themselves when they felt uncomfortable on his table. To see them finally being allowed to say exactly what they wanted to say, and to be heard, believed, and embraced was incredibly powerful. The Payne sisters—Katie and Maureen, another pair that Nassar had abused—wanted us to listen to Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” at the end of their statements, which were read by their mother. Here it is.