How did former American gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar get away with it? How did one of the country’s worst sexual abusers, operating for a period spanning at least two decades, evaded justice for so long? The answer, as the new Netflix documentary “Athlete A” eerily illuminates, is simple. He had help.
Abuse is such an isolated experience for victims, and abuse thrives on that sense of isolation. “No one else is saying what you are saying.” That’s what one of Nassar’s victims heard when he approached a coach. It took a whole system, carefully designed to physically and psychologically break down young girls, for Nassar to prosper. It took an astonishing number of people willing to ignore their complaints, to overlook their suffering. And it took another massive group of people – ruthless reporters, determined lawyers, and members of the police, and fed up families and survivors – to finally make a claim.
The horrifying details of Nassar’s story have already been explored in several recent books. Abigail Pesta’s book “The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor” and the untold story of the gymnasts who shot him down in 2019 used firsthand accounts of the women he abused to narrate Nassar’s predatory escalation . ESPN reporters Dan Murphy and John Barr “Begin by Believing: The crimes of Larry Nassar, the institutions that trained him, and the brave women who arrested a monster” revealed the story from multiple angles, including the Indianapolis Star’s groundbreaking investigation. And former gymnast Rachael Denhollander wrote about her experience as Nassar’s first public prosecutor in her memoirs “What Is a Girl Worth?”. It is gratifying, then, to see that this heartbreaking and irritating narrative is once again in the hands of skilled and sensitive storytellers.
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who co-directed 2017’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” clearly already know the way through difficult material. There are moments in “Athlete A”, the name of the court document of Nassar survivor Maggie Nichols, that will make you gasp at the blatant brutality of Nassar’s crimes. However, she never feels itchy or sensational. Instead, it is a specially constructed story of survival and support, one that reveals what is possible when we join forces and tell the truth.
The film wisely spends most of its time with survivors and their advocates, keeping the focus, and our attention, appropriately where it should be. She represents her athletes not only as women who have been abused, but as the formidable teammates and allies that they are. When “Athlete A” spends time with Nassar, especially during an interrogation that will make her skin stand on end, she looks exactly like the piece of trash she is. The film also lingers long enough about former USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny pleading with the Fifth to ignite her chagrin without overwhelming the whole picture. The images of the gymnasts themselves, powerful women like McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, offer a strong contrast.
Using Nichols’ story as his central narrative, “Athlete A” delves directly into the storm of circumstances surrounding Nassar’s crimes. It meticulously explains the extreme culture of women’s gymnastics, created almost alone by Béla and Márta Károlyi. The Romanian-born coaches were gold medalists of the then 14-year-old Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, and then brought their Nicolae Ceaușescu-approved techniques to the United States when they defected a few years later. Before long, the United States was producing its own supply of superstar female gymnasts. As ex-gymnast Jennifer Sey explains in the film, after Nadia: “There was a very, very young aesthetic. Childish. It created a really dangerous environment [because] people really believed that for the most difficult skills you had to be small. “And he points out:” There is also the benefit that coaches have more control when girls are younger. “
Generations of young gymnasts have trained in expectation not only of regular effort and injury, but of what Sey calls “cruelty,” a cruelty rooted in them when they were too young to recognize it as such. As one gymnast recalls: “Every time I got hurt, they didn’t believe me. Back then I didn’t consider it an abuse. I almost felt bad for telling the truth.” And in that environment, where girls were routinely taught not to complain, or even believe what their bodies were experiencing, Dr. Larry Nassar arrived.
Nassar, distinguishing himself from tough trainers, introduced himself as the “good adult” in the room, the one who would take care of the girls’ wounds and sneak them sweet. He earned their trust, raped them, sometimes while their parents were in the same room, and made them question their own reality. No wonder their survivors remember feeling something was wrong with them and being embarrassed to think that it was happening to them. Some spoke and were ignored. Most simply resisted the abuse in silence.
You only have to look at the staggering amount of sexual abuse investigations by the Catholic Church, or the story of Jerry Sandusky, or that of Jeffrey Epstein, or that of R. Kelly, to see clear and discouraging patterns. Seeing children being abused by people they trusted and even believed were concerned that their abusers and the institutions they represented were considered too valuable to lose. Abusers were consistently protected by the adult beneficiaries of the money and power that those abusers could provide. Over and over again.
Larry Nassar now spends the rest of his days in prison accused of sexually assaulting minors and possession of child pornography. Their accused facilitators have not yet been similarly considered. “Athlete A” makes it clear that the story is not over. But the film remains, ultimately, a story of the “empowerment drive.” During Nassar’s 2018 sentencing, a deluge of survivors and their family members gave impact statements in court. That unprecedented moment of public recognition provides the highlight of the film, a cathartic display of strength and unity. Justice is a continuous process. Healing is not always smooth; He is often furious and persistent. And empowerment will always require our sustained momentum.
“Athlete A” is currently airing on Netflix.