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Review: Gymnasts voice their fury in ‘The Girls’

“The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down” by Abigail Pesta.
(Seal Press)

The girls came from small towns and suburbs. All were energetic kids, climbing and tumbling and sending their parents scrambling for outlets for their daughters’ vibrant energy.

They crossed paths with the predator in places where they should have been safe: gym, school, the doctor’s office. And they all came away from the encounters changed — even if it took years before they realized just how much, and why.

In “The Girls,” journalist Abigail Pesta writes about one of the biggest scandals in American sports history: the decades-long sexual abuses carried out by Dr. Larry Nassar. She also chronicles how Nassar was abetted by the institutions he used to gain access to girls, including individual training facilities, Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body.

Pesta tackles a story of massive proportions — at Nassar’s 2018 sentencing, 204 women provided victim impact statements. To tell it, the author focuses on individual testimonies, her interviews with 25 of the survivors about their experiences. The result is devastating.

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Readers hear from Sara Teristi, abused by Nassar in the 1980s. Teristi began her gymnastics career as a 5-year-old growing up in a Michigan town too small for a stoplight. Pesta writes of the girl’s exuberance: “She cartwheeled up and down the halls of her family’s ranch house, rattling vases and photo frames. ... She used her bed as a trampoline, bouncing so high she scraped her nose on the ceiling.”

At 10, Teristi joined a gymnastics club in nearby Lansing. There, she met coach John Geddert, a rising star in the sport who would eventually serve as team coach to the U.S. women in the 2012 Olympics. It was while rehabbing from one of the inevitable injuries that Teristi was introduced to Larry Nassar, an osteopath whose own star was on the rise.

Slight, bespectacled and nerdy, Nassar presented himself as a friend to Teristi and the other young athletes he treated. His treatments were hands-on, and his hands wandered, touching patients in places unrelated to their injuries.

The women Pesta talked with saw Nassar for a variety of complaints, but a common thread runs through their stories: the doctor pushing aside their leotards to touch breasts and genitals, including digitally penetrating them both vaginally and anally. The fact that their mothers often were in the room led many of the girls to doubt their own perceptions: What Nassar did felt wrong (and painful), but if their mothers didn’t object, it must be medically necessary, right?

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Indeed, one reason Nassar got away with the abuses for so long was that his targets were so primed for obedience. The young gymnasts were already accustomed to rigid rules and perfectionism. As Teristi told Pesta, “Any child wants to make the adults in their life happy.”

The girls often were isolated from typical teenager activities, socializing only with other gymnasts. And they talked with each other — which had the paradoxical effect of normalizing behavior that was not normal. After one girl told another she didn’t want to see Dr. Nassar, Pesta reports, another girl sympathized, saying, “Yeah, he touches you funny.”

Over the years, some of Nassar’s patients did complain — to coaches, therapists and the police — but nothing seemed to stop the abuse. Families fractured, the trust between parent and child broken as the girls struggled to understand what had happened to them. Many of the women interviewed faced depression and self-harm.

It took three decades before anyone listened. The Indianapolis Star broke the sexual abuse accusations in 2016, and then several athletes shared their stories on “60 Minutes.” Nassar denied wrongdoing — he explained the touching as medically necessary — but when police found a vast trove of child pornography in his possession, the tide began to turn against him.

This is a story of great evil eventually brought to justice (after his 2018 conviction, Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison). Pesta’s empathy for these girls and women is palpable, and powerful.

There are times when the book threatens to veer toward cliché (the “triumph of the human spirit” is invoked), and I wish Pesta had spent more time probing Nassar’s own story (to explain how the monster was made).

Beyond Nassar, readers also learn just enough about the dark side of gymnastics to want to know more. Is the sport itself irrevocably broken, and are all young athletes at risk for damage in the quest for gold medals? “People don’t understand how many broken girls it takes to produce an elite athlete,” Teristi tells Pesta, an indictment that goes beyond any one individual.

Pesta details changes the Nasser case prompted, including legislation extending the statute of limitations on prosecution and USA Gymnastics cutting ties with problematic coaches, to address the sport’s culture of abuse. Where she’s able to go beyond newspaper accounts is in giving voice to the survivors’ stories.

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At its best, the book has the effect of a chorus of righteous anger, and some of the survivors’ words ring with a beautiful fury. “You might have broken us,” said Amanda Thomashow, the whistleblower who reported Nassar to Michigan State and the police, “but from this rubble we will rise as an army of female warriors.”

The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down

Abigail Pesta

Seal Press: 240 pages, $28

Tuttle is a book critic whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post.


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