LANSING, Mich. — She watched him the whole time. Kyle Stephens stood in Courtroom 5 of the Veterans Memorial Courthouse, steps away from the man who molested her throughout her childhood, and she looked right at him. Stephens decided two weeks ago to go public—to let the world know her name and see her face. But Larry Nassar needed no introduction. He has known Stephens since she was six years old and he showed her his penis.
Stephens delivered the most memorable of many verbal hammers that kept dropping on Larry Nassar:
“Little girls don't stay little forever,” Stephens told Nassar. “They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
When Stephens was done, she sat for the rest of the day, “numb,” watching the parade of women give their statements, and watching Nassar.
“He kept shaking his head,” she said. “He didn’t want to make eye contact. He is certainly extremely ashamed. He is so embarrassed. I think that’s a big part of it for him. I think he feels badly, maybe. But it’s hard to tell: Who does he feel bad for? Is it for us, for what he did? Or is it for himself? I’m really not sure.”
You can ask that question of a lot of people in this case.
Does USA Gymnastics feel bad for what happened on its campus, or for the publicity it brought? Is Michigan State University embarrassed because one of its doctors was a pedophile, or ashamed because school employees had ample opportunity to stop him and never did?
For more than two decades, these girls and women needed somebody to show some courage, to stand up for what was right.
Finally, on Tuesday, they did it themselves.
It was tear-inducing and breathtaking. Two dozen women spoke Tuesday. By the end of the week, the number will be close to 100. A few were understandably not ready to use their name. But Stephens finally decided to do it, one women empowered by others: “With so many other girls speaking up, seeing them speak publicly, I felt that my choice not to was rooted in shame. I’m trying to take every step I can in this process to liberate myself from it so I can move on. That was me doing that.”
During one court break, Stephens Googled her name. She was surprised her statement had become a national story. But it did not upset her.
Another victim planned to remain anonymous, but then told the court: “I decided to finally put a name to it. I am Jade Capua, and I am a survivor.” Another, Danielle Moore, said that after the esteemed Dr. Nassar assaulted her, she has had moments when, “I no longer wanted to live.” But she persevered, earned three graduate degrees, and now she takes some pleasure in knowing that while he will be known by his prisoner number, “I will be known as Dr. Danielle Moore.”
Some of them called him “Mr. Nassar,” and there was a subtle dig in that apparent honorific: It stripped Nassar of his medical title, but also of the intimacy of being called “Larry,” which he always preferred. Larry would take care of them. Larry was their friend.
Larry assaulted them—hundreds of them, probably—often with one of their parents in the room. He would strategically position himself between his patients’ midsections and their mothers and speak calmly as he used his hands to assault them. It was up to the girls to decide what was normal and what was not. One survivor, Alexis Moore, said Nassar assaulted her “hundreds of times,” starting when she was a nine-year-old with a broken pelvis.
Sometimes, they said, he misdiagnosed or hid their injuries just to keep them coming back.
While they talked, Larry Nassar clasped his hands. He looked down. It was not until the sixth woman of the day testified that I saw him finally reach for a tissue.
To some of the women, he did not look like the man they knew years ago, the one who has haunted their nights ever since. He is smaller now, both in physical weight and as a presence. He has apparently lost the social charms that convinced so many he was looking out for them. He looks hollowed-out.
Reading a deranged mind is tricky business. When most of the victims spoke, Nassar looked down. But at the end of the day, when two victim-impact statements were shown on video, Nassar stared right at the screen. On some level, maybe he did see them as humans.
He seemed to shake his head at odd times, like when a victim described being “groomed” by him so he could attack later. As another victim described Nassar giving her a “stern chastising,” he mouthed, incredulously: “What?” and then turned to his lawyer, as though that were the most serious accusation against him. But when women kept describing him vaginally and digitally penetrating them against their will, he was mostly still, as though, in his twisted mind, he divorced those sick physical acts from the emotional fallout … well, again: Reading a deranged mind is tricky business.
We may never know what Larry Nassar was thinking all these years.
But what about everybody else?
There are a thousand tragedies here, and at the heart of all of them is this painful truth: the wrong people blamed themselves.
Victims figured this was their fault. They wondered what they did to deserve this abuse. They couldn’t trust their bodies again.
Parents blamed themselves for trusting a renowned doctor. They wondered if they should have known.
But what about USA Gymnastics head Steve Penny and his minions? They executed one of the most disgraceful cover-your-tracks efforts anyone can imagine rather than risk the public-relations fallout that justice would bring. What they did was beyond disgraceful and should have brought a complete housecleaning.
What about the Michigan State employees who covered their ears for many years rather than hear the alarms that were blaring? On just the first day of sentencing, we heard from athletes on the Spartan gymnastics, rowing, volleyball and cheerleading teams. The volleyball team referred to him as “The Crotch Doctor.” Several victims complained directly to trainers or to gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. Klages routinely dismissed the complaints of her own gymnasts because she was loyal to Nassar.
It’s not clear just how high the complaints rose at MSU. But since the scandal broke, school president Lou Anna Simon has spoken of the scandal in cold terms, as though it were theoretical instead of a tragedy that happened on her watch: “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator.”
Simon should have been in the courtroom Tuesday. But that would have meant hearing several of her former students tell the court how angry they are at MSU. Instead, Michigan State has continually tried to distance itself from its own campus.
Simon could have shown a bit of courage by showing up … but really, only a bit. Real courage is what Donna Markham did. She told the court the story of her daughter Chelsey: adopted from South Korea in 1985, a promising gymnast until she was assaulted by Nassar. Chelsey was not silent. She bawled in the car on the way home, telling her mom, then begging her not to report Nassar. Donna felt trapped. Chelsey, she said Tuesday, fell off every apparatus the next time she saw Nassar at a meet and went down “a path of destruction.” After that: “She never truly recovered.”
In 2009, Donna got a call at work. She had to go home. When she got there, she learned Chelsey was in a body bag. She had taken her own life at age 23.
“Every day I miss her,” she said, “and it all started with him.” She spoke, she said, because “I felt it was the last thing I could do for her.”
Real courage was the victims who said they forgave Nassar, or were trying – not because he deserved it, but because they did not want to live angry lives. Real courage was the women who spoke of the intimacy issues Nassar caused, the self-harm they committed, the fears they have every day.
Real courage was Kyle Stephens, who used to tell people she did not have a family because Nassar had torn it apart, detailing his horrific crimes as he sat just a few feet away. Yes, she kept looking at him. He looked away.
If Nassar looked close, he would have seen a small tattoo on Stephens’ left arm, script that says attraversiamo. It’s Italian for “cross over,” and many Italians use it to describe crossing the street. Stephens got it when her father died. He had not believed Kyle’s insistence that his friend Larry had assaulted her. When she finally convinced him, years later, he was crushed at letting his little girl down. He later killed himself.
And if Nassar listened to Kyle Stephens, he would have heard her say the most amazing thing. It wasn’t the clip about a little girl growing up to destroy his world. It happened toward the end of Stephens’ statement.
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina asked Stephens if she was interested in restitution.
Stephens had not anticipated the question. She had not thought about restitution in months.
But you think about it. She was so young when Nassar started rubbing his penis on her feet, her favorite books were Clifford the Big Red Dog and Junie B. Jones. He violated her for years.
Larry Nassar had destroyed her childhood. He robbed her of a chance at a normal, peaceful, happy life. He wrecked her family.
Stephens told the judge:
“I’m not interested in any money that would take anything from his children. So no. Thank you.”