A New Documentary About the Victims of Dr. Larry Nassar Indicts Both the Specific Culture of U.S. Gymnastics, and the More General Disinclination to Believe Women, Sophie Gilbert Writes
The sports doctor was able to assault so many athletes for so long. Erin Lee Carr’s HBO documentary, At the Heart of Gold, explores the environment that protected him.
What’s hard to comprehend, now, is how much of Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of more than 300 preteen and teenage girls was conducted in plain sight.
Erin Lee Carr’s new HBO documentary, At the Heart of Gold, includes excerpts from instructional videos Nassar posted online for other sports doctors to observe.
In them, he runs his hands over girls’ bodies clothed in leotards; points out (and touches) one athlete’s gluteus muscle; massages one girl’s chest; pats yet another on the butt. Nassar went even further in private sessions with athletes, giving procedures he called “intravaginal adjustments” with ungloved hands and without prior warning.
Often, when he did this, the girls’ parents were standing in the same room, watching while Nassar abused their daughters, listening as he talked nonstop the whole time.
Nassar, as At the Heart of Gold documents, was uniquely positioned to get away with what he did.
He was a trusted, even beloved figure in his Michigan community, volunteering at his church and at local high schools, and offering free therapeutic sessions to girls who were cheerleaders, rowers, dancers.
He had almost unchecked access to young athletes in his role as a sports doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. And, crucially, he was operating within a sport in which girls are primed from the beginning to silently endure what happens to their body, one with a philosophy of “athletic Darwinism” where only the strongest and most stoic will go all the way.
“It’s almost like being a wounded animal,” the former Olympic gymnast Kathy Johnson tells Carr. “You don’t show your weakness. You don’t show that you’re hurt.”
….While Nassar had neither the star power nor the money of R. Kelly or Michael Jackson, he did benefit from a culture that closed ranks around him and defended him long after he’d been exposed.
The first time an athlete accused Nassar of abuse, Carr notes, was in 1997. It would be another 18 years—and hundreds of victims—before any of the accusations against him would stick.
…USA Gymnastics, the Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Davis O’Brien says in the film, is a “money machine, and at the heart of it are teenage girls and their bodies. It seems like an arrangement that’s bound to create abuse.”
…Compared with coaches such as Károlyi and John Geddert (whom one gymnast likens to Satan), Nassar wasn’t an obvious bad guy at first acquaintance. He often played good cop to the coaches’ bad ones, being kind to the gymnasts and helping them recover from the physical impact their bodies were taking.
When some girls expressed alarm that Nassar was touching and manipulating their genitals, what they’d hear in response was that it was normal, nothing out of the ordinary.
The gymnast Larissa Boyce recalls how, after reporting Nassar to her coach, Kathie Klages, in 1997, Klages responded by immediately warning her of the consequences of filing a report, both for Boyce and for Nassar. “So I convinced myself I must be the problem,” Boyce says. “And then I hopped back up on that table and he continued to abuse me for the next four years.”
More versions of this scenario played out.
…What Carr manages to indict in the film is both a specific environment and a more general culture disinclined to believe what women say about their own body.
The world of gymnastics, where girls were trained to suffer silently, to tough it out, and to never complain, let an abuser like Nassar operate with impunity for much of his career.
But the ways in which the women who did confront him were silenced speaks to a larger phenomenon.
They were warned that they’d ruin a man’s life, damage his career, hurt his family.
They were told that they were misinterpreting things. They were encouraged even to silence one another.
…Kyle Stephens recalls how she was abused by Nassar, a former family friend, starting at 6 years old, and how her father ended his own life in 2016 shortly after realizing he’d believed Nassar’s word over his own daughter’s. The women speaking that week included some of American gymnastics’ biggest stars.