Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault, abuse, and suicide.
When author and journalist Abigail Pesta talks about her book, The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down, it’s as if she didn’t write it. Instead, she makes it sound like the survivors themselves wrote it, the stories they so bravely shared stringing the chapters to one another and binding the pages together.
You’ll never hear her say things like “when I wrote” or “my book.” It’s always “well, she told me this, she said this, she was brave enough to share this.” This is quite possibly the most admirable characteristic of this book and its author.
It’s as if the book was never hers, to begin with, always belonging to the survivors and the readers.
The idea for writing The Girls began with Pesta interviewing the first woman to come out as a Nassar survivor, Lindsey Lemke, and her mother for a magazine piece. Lemke had estimated that Nassar had abused her hundreds of times over the years that she and her family knew him.
The news had just broken about the decades of abuse that Nassar had inflicted on numerous gymnasts. As Pesta said, it wasn’t a huge global story yet, and not a lot of survivors had come out against Nassar at that point.
“She and her mom said they were having a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that this trusted, beloved doctor, a friend of the family, had really abused their daughter and so many others for so many years,” Pesta said.
Pesta discovered that once Lemke had bravely shared her story, she became subject to victim blaming almost immediately on social media platforms like Facebook.
“What I got from sitting with the mother and daughter was that people were blaming them. They said on Facebook, people who they knew, friends, people would say, ‘how did the parents not know?’ ‘Why did the kids not tell?'” Pesta said. “Lindsey didn’t realize she was being abused. She was a kid.”
“You know, Lindsay and her mom were such an example of how people don’t understand,” Pesta said. “And it broke my heart to think of what their family was going through, learning Lindsey had been abused, you know, and just by this person they trusted and then to be blamed for it.”
By writing a book documenting the stories of so many survivors, Pesta hoped to prevent this from ever happening again.
What Pesta found was that Nassar had a disturbing pattern as she talked to numerous survivors. He often befriended the gymnasts and their families, integrating himself in their personal lives as well as their professional careers. As an Olympic gymnast in a small town in Michigan, he was regarded with a level of celebrity that automatically set up an imbalance of power between the doctor and the gymnasts who felt lucky to receive his attention.
And this pattern built up over time, refined into a seamless strategy of abuse, starting with the first survivor, Sara Teristi from the late 1980s, all the way up to the last, Emma Ann Miller, a high school student. She famously testified against Nassar at his trial at just 15-years-old, sharing how the clinic where he abused her was still trying to bill her family.
“Nassar abused girls for almost three decades, and I wanted to show his evolution over time to help people understand how he became this master predator,” Pesta said.
Pesta described how she took the time to prove to the subjects of her book that she was trustworthy, and would do justice to the stories they were so bravely sharing, sometimes for the first time.
“I wanted to talk to people of different generations, different experiences to get the full picture. And what I found is once I would talk to people and they would realize they could trust me and they could open up to me. They would recommend someone else,” Pesta said. “Trust was so important because these stories are so deeply personal, and I also found that it’s not easy for people to talk about, but so many of them told me they actually found the kind of therapeutic because, for some of them, it was the first time they were publicly telling their stories.”
Pesta said that the power that coaches and doctors held over the gymnasts also contributed to the cycle of abuse. Many of the gymnasts came from Midwest families that weren’t particularly wealthy. Most of the gymnasts she spoke to didn’t hold Olympic ambitions, instead relying on gymnastics for a chance at a college scholarship.
“They started the sport because they loved it and they just wanted to keep learning and growing and getting better and trying more complex tricks and flips,” Pesta said. “And they just they loved the sport itself, but it made them especially vulnerable to coaches and doctors and people who had their futures in their hands.”
Pesta said that the simultaneous abusive behavior of ex-Olympic coach John Geddert left gymnasts vulnerable to Nassar’s predatory behavior. Michigan state officials charged Geddert with 24 felonies, including 20 counts of human trafficking and forced labor, one count of first-degree sexual assault. Geddert died by suicide before he could ever be imprisoned.
The charges directly linked him to Nassar, alleging that Geddert knew of the abuse his gymnasts were suffering under, even going so far as to lie to police about it.
“A lot of the girls in this book who grew up with Nassar also grew up with this coach,” Pesta said. “And what I learned, too, is that this was not unusual, that this is the kind of coaching that’s happening all around the country.”
While Pesta said that she believed all athletes remained vulnerable to abuse at the hands of trusted doctors and coaches, gymnasts especially suffer from this imbalance of power in general. Some athletes didn’t even know they were being abused by Nassar, thinking his inappropriate behavior was a part of their treatment.
“They did grow up just putting their faith and their trust in coaches who make all the decisions, and so many of them felt like they couldn’t speak up or they wouldn’t make the team, they wouldn’t get to go to the competitions., they wouldn’t be in the top group of girls who got to compete around the country because their coaches held that power,” Pesta said.
Those that did speak up, Pesta said, didn’t receive the help they so desperately needed.
“Some of the kids did realize they were being abused and some of the kids did, in fact, speak up. And they told coaches, they told counselors, they told the police. Over the decades, no one listened to the girls. No one,” Pesta said. “The police interviewed the girl and then they interviewed Nassar, and then believed Nassar. Twice over the decades that happened.”
With the 2020 Olympics coming to a close in the next week, and more certainly to come, Pesta shared the evergreen importance of the gymnasts’ stories.
“The reason these women told me their story is that they wanted to help other families, they wanted to help them recognize the signs of a predator. They wanted to let other survivors know they’re not alone in how they’re feeling,” Pesta said. “I have found that the messages I continue to get regularly, they there are so moving because what these women did has they opened up a conversation that allowed other people to come forward and empowered other people. It helped them understand the feelings that they had.”
An important part of the story, Pesta said, was that many of the survivors only realized they had been abused by Nassar as adults, reading The Girls and listening to survivors as the story grew nationally, and eventually globally. The book also made survivors that were never on a global stage like the Olympics feel as if their stories were finally getting the attention they deserved.
“A lot of them told me they felt like they had not been heard because they weren’t the famous gymnast, because they weren’t the Olympic gymnast,” Pesta said. “They had never told their stories. Some of them didn’t even realize until Nasser was in court; that’s when they realized they, too, had been abused. So they didn’t have a chance to tell their stories. So their trust in me just meant everything to me.”
Talking to so many gymnasts about the abuse they had suffered for so long was quite an emotional process for the gymnasts and Pesta herself. Their interviews would often turn into therapy sessions, Pesta said, as she stayed in touch with them for weeks or months at a time just to get the whole story as they recalled it
The potential to help so many other athletes through the stories that gymnasts shared through Pesta kept her going as she molded the book into a complete saga of Nassar’s abuse. She cherished the opportunity that so many survivors gave her to finally share their experiences with the rest of the world, with the goal of saving others from the same experience.
“These women went through something unthinkable, and they saw that they could use their experience to help other people avoid that experience or cope with that experience,” Pesta said. “And for me, it was just a profoundly moving experience and an honor, honestly, to be able to help them tell their stories.”
While she understood the importance of sharing their stories, Pesta made sure to show them the finished product before it went out to the world. She wanted to ensure that they felt extra confident in their newfound vulnerability as they released their legacy of survival.
“Once you put that story out there and the whole world knows your story, someone Googles you on a first date, you go on a job interview, people you meet for the first time know something about something deeply personal about you,” Pesta said.
Pesta said her main goal when starting the book goes back to the fierce opposition that Lemke and her mother received when she first shared the abuse she suffered under Nassar, and how little she felt people understood about assault and those that survive it.
“I want people to take away an understanding of what that means over a lifetime, the trauma of it, how you cope with it,” Pesta said. “But also I really want them to take away the feeling of power that all these women have and the courage they have in telling these really deeply personal stories.“
The terrible tragedy that haunted US gymnastics for so many years brought about a fortified story of resilience and bravery, making Pesta hope that it eventually encourages others to do the same. The message of believing survivors the first time also remains central to this book, Pesta said.
“I hope people take away that we need to listen to girls. As I said, over the decades, there were so many times when young women and girls starting back in the 1990s reported Nasser to coaches, to counselors, to the police, and no one listened and it’s it’s time to listen,” Pesta said. “We have a long way to go, but I feel like these women are helping us get there.”
One of the detectives that had dismissed a gymnasts’ complaints of abuse eventually apologized for not believing her initially, but the perpetual denial of survivors and the fear of such denial remains a huge issue, and one of the main reasons that sexual assault goes underreported.
Pesta cited this need to listen to survivors, especially those that identify as women, as a major lesson behind The Girls. Some of the survivors themselves, now coaches, now ask their athletes to come to them with any problems they may have, a simple but revolutionary change in the world of gymnastics according to Pesta.
The message of The Girls continues to reverberate through the world of gymnastics, with gymnasts using the hashtag #GymnastAlliance to share the verbal and physical abuse that coaches unfairly subject them to on a regular basis.
The story of Nassar’s abusive legacy isn’t finished either. Ex-Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney recently shared how she competed with a broken foot at the 2021 Olympics after Nassar lied to downplay the severity of the injury. It is worth noting that while headlines claimed Maroney was forced to compete, she has since come out and said she wanted to do so and was not forced.
A new york times article came out in the middle of July, detailing how the FBI botched an investigation into Nassar that allowed him to continue abusing athletes after he had been reported. One thing is for certain; the tale of resilience and bravery found in The Girls will long outlast Nassar’s reign of terror over the sport of gymnastics.
featured images via audible, seal press