Abigail Pesta's The Girls Succeeds by Solely Giving a Voice to Sexual Assault Survivors—Not Their Abuser

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Abigail Pesta's <i>The Girls</i> Succeeds by Solely Giving a Voice to Sexual Assault Survivors&#8212;Not Their Abuser

In 2016, news broke that USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar had been abusing young girls and women since the 1980s. Over 250 survivors accused him of sexual assault, 156 of whom gave victim impact statements at his 2018 trial. These testimonies were made possible by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who praised the women who spoke and who sentenced Nassar to prison for the rest of his life.

In her new book, The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down, Abigail Pesta details Nassar’s decades-long abusive reign via the stories of his victims—from Sara Teristi, who believes Nassar began testing what would become his grooming and manipulation tactics on her, to Emma Ann Miller, who was likely Nassar’s final victim before the Lansing State Journal published their investigation in 2016. Pesta highlights dozens of survivors’ experiences, revealing the patterns of behavior Nassar used to ingratiate himself with families and to obscure the nature of his abusive “treatments.” Nassar gradually developed his ability to win parents’ trust, leveraged his reputation to make his victims question their abuse and threw off investigations by using overwhelming medical jargon. It wasn’t that he denied what he was doing at any time; he just convinced everyone that it wasn’t sexual abuse.

The survivors and those who advocate for them are the only voices telling the story. This is partially due to the fact that numerous others in the larger investigation—people who have been subsequently fired, charged or outed as having aided Nassar—refused to comment or never responded to Pesta’s requests. Pesta also makes no effort to explain Nassar’s motivations or to locate the “man” behind the “monster.” It’s a choice that makes the book stronger, and as a true crime story, it makes a case for how these narratives can be told in a victim-centering way.

If there is a key takeaway from this book, however, it’s not that a doctor sexually abused girls for decades in plain sight. Nassar was one part of a “perfect storm” for predators, as many explain throughout the book. It’s infuriating how many attempts were made to stop Nassar by reporting him to Michigan State University, other coaches or the police, all of which went ignored or were mishandled. John Geddert, a former lead coach in gymnastics in Michigan and at the national level, emerges as a key figure in facilitating Nassar’s abuse. But Geddert’s role goes beyond granting Nassar access to victims. Geddert—and others—fostered a culture in the gym where girls were forced to push themselves through physical pain, become used to adult men hurting them and internalize any doubt in order to maintain their position within the gym’s hierarchy. Not only did this make the girls fearful to speak up, it also gave Nassar a tool to manipulate the girls; he became the good cop to Geddert’s bad cop, using their fear of Geddert to position himself as a trusted advisor.

Pesta seeds the book with details that cut through the near unfathomable abuse that the girls lived through; the fact that some of Nassar’s victims were so young that they enjoyed going to Build-A-Bear is heartbreaking. Pesta also uses her own presence as a conduit for the reader to great effect. She writes about the challenge of honoring one survivor’s request that she show no sympathy or emotion while the woman tells her story, because seeing it on Pesta’s face will make it harder. But Pesta’s approach isn’t without missteps; she relies heavily on concluding sections with reminders that the reader will be brought back to stories or will see what happens next in the coming pages—a move that makes the narrative more fragmented than necessary.

Minor structural flaws aside, The Girls takes a headline-grabbing case and makes it human, which is the true crime genre at its best. The Nassar case, as told by the women and girls who survived his abuse, is not just about one man got away with horrific crimes for decades. It’s a reminder that men like Nassar are aided by structures—cultural and institutional—that break down and dismiss women. Systems too often err on the side of protecting the powerful, Pesta reveals, creating circumstances in which men like Nassar flourish while their victims are ignored.

Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.