Friday, February 16, 2018

. . . And How Aly Raisman Informed My Writing

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will almost certainly be aware of the upheaval that has been taking place in USA Gymnastics. Just in case you aren't aware, former team doctor Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing well over a hundred and fifty young women and girls, all of it under the guise of "medical treatment." He worked with the national team for decades, and so many of the gymnasts I have known and loved were among those who came forward publicly as victims: Alexandra Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas, Jordyn Weiber, Simone Biles, Jamie Dantzscher and many, many others. These facts were in the news; the story was getting a lot of coverge. But what really gave this story its power (and got the attention of newspapers and the evening news) was the sentencing phase. Part of the sentencing phase was the "victim statements". Since Nassar had already pleaded guilty, the only question was how much time he would serve for his crimes (hint: a very long time). Originally, something like 80 young women were going to make statements. However, as things got underway, there were more and more of these young women (I don't like the terms "victim" or "survivor", really; "victim" seems to take away any sense of power, and "survivor" makes the thing they went through sound passive or internal, like cancer). Over 160 women and girls ended up telling their stories.

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world." --Kyle Stephens

I'm not the only one who was moved. People from all over the world were blown away by these young women's stories and the power with which the stories were told. Their words were put on banners for women's marches and repeated all across social media. Their words became soundbites. There stories were everywhere.

I may have been more touched than your average person (though less so than some!). I knew so many of these young ladies as athletes, because I follow gymnastics avidly (and have done so since 1996--and if you look closely, you can see Larry Nassar at Kerri Strug's side after she injured her ankle so famously). So I was floored to hear about all this sordid slime going on behind the scenes. And while I do, of course, mean Nassar, I also mean the enabling, destructive atmosphere that allowed him to continue his abusive behavior.

Make no mistake: those who are familiar with the sport know--have always known--that ugly things are always lurking around its edges. Things like verbal and emotional abuse and eating disorders and political intrigue are open secrets. To hear this all cracked wide open, however, was intense and illuminating.

It was so intense and so illuminating because this was about sexual abuse, but it was also about so much more. It was about how abuse happens, how people are manipulated and brainwashed and tricked. It was about what happens to the psyche of those who experience it. It was about what it does to individuals and families.

"The tables have turned, Larry. We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere." --Aly Raisman
Mattie Larson talked about banging her head on the tub so that she wouldn't have to go to practice, because she couldn't stand to be there anymore, in an environment of mental and sexual assault. Several young woman talked about suicidal moments. One woman's father didn't believe her when she told him as a girl about Larry; when he finally believed her, his guilt may have contributed his suicide.

It was only tangentially about Larry Nassar, only tangentially about even these particular cases. It was about the human toll that it all takes. One thing that was repeated over and over was the fact that the people who experienced the abuse thought it must be alright--he's a doctor or he's worked with so many Olympians or I'm making too big a deal of this.

I took so much away from what I heard from the 156 people who gave impact statements, and it informed me as a writer. I'm currently working on a project where the main character, a young woman, is taken advantage of and then abused physically and emotionally. The question is, what does that do to a person? I've never experienced such abuse. Many of those who suffer abuse don't speak about it openly (as is their right).

Listening to the impact statements at the trial helped me understand the way such abuse seeps into the minds of the abused and causes all kinds of havoc. It causes doubt--it causes confusion--it causes shame--it causes a disconnect from one's own personality and feelings. Over and over, those who were abused described being confused, because everyone and everything around them told them that what was happening was alright, that their feelings of discomfort were simply wrong. They began to doubt everything they thought and felt. It didn't just affect them sometimes, or when they were in the gym. It affected how they thought and felt all the time.

I wanted to show how such an abusive atmosphere could affect my character. I considered the way it might change her entire thought process. Will it make him angry. I thought of how it might change her reactions to things and how she sees herself and even what she does. Most of all, I wanted to show that she was still very much herself.

There are a thousand reasons why the stores of these young ladies are so important. The real impact of abuse is so often hidden away. It's important for such stories to be told.

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