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“The Girls”: The Gymnastics Exposé that Reveals the Mind of a Sexual Predator

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Why You Need to Know What Happened

So It Doesn’t Happen To You, To Someone You Love, or Someone in Your Care

It happens to Girls, To Boys, To Everyone


The 2016 Olympic Medalists in Brazil. Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons. It’s awesome to see such a diverse team, and most especially, a team that looks like it’s for women and not children!

The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down by Abigail Pesta is not a book I had planned to read for The Lois Level, I started reading it when I ran across recently because of its connection to some work I did a few years ago involving the development of policies and procedures to ensure the safety of students and staff in a school.

 Whenever I think of this topic, I get a sense of heaviness in my chest, but I persevere because I realize that if I feel so awful when I just think about it, imagine what it must be like to go through it? 

And I know that many people, when they hear of these things, take the negative feelings that arise and transfer them to the victims. 

Predators, by definition, are usually charming people.   

A second reason that I nearly passed over this book is because I read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes about abuse in gymnastics and figure skating several years ago, and so when I heard about this story, I thought, well yes, USA gymnastics has been corrupt for years.  What else is new?

I used to be pretty interested in following figuring skating, but as the participants started to look younger and younger, I lost interest. They may call it women’s, but the athletes look like little girls. Same in gymnastics. It seemed to me that anyone with eyes could see what was going on.

Well, it seems to me that if you put Little Girls in Pretty Boxes together with The Girls, you find out exactly what I learned in my training on sexual predators:  when you have loose organizations with a power structure that relies on conflicts of interest, “star” staff, and other issues, you have created the ideal situation for a predator to flower.  And that’s what happened here. 

His being able to take advantage of girls studying gymnastics at a private gym is one thing: but being able to corrupt, or should I say take advantage of, a major, big 10, state university?  That even boggles my mind. 

I am proud of all of the women who finally stood up to him, and of all the women and girls who did what they had to do when confronted with this evil, which for some women, meant abandoning a sport they loved.   

This scandal, which if you haven’t heard about it, involved the national team doctor, Larry Nassar, who over decades in the sport, sexual abused hundreds of girls and women, some of them hundreds of time, under the guise of treating their sports injuries.  In many cases, he did it when the parents were in the room, with girls who were so innocent that many of them didn’t realize they were being abused. 

This may sound unbelievable, but when I read the story, I realized that it exactly matches one of the most crucial understandings I gained from my training, which was conducted by a forensic psychologist and involved our watching several videos of different school personnel who were convicted sexual predators.  Doesn’t it seem crazy that anyone would spend so much time “grooming” these families (the process of charming them and winning them over) and seeing these girls for “therapy” at all hours of the day and night? When you hear their stories, and perhaps Larry Nassar’s and perhaps the stories of people you know, you might find it hard to believe because who actually has time to think about setting up these situations, doing all of the “grooming” that’s involved, and then actually wanting sexual release that often?  I mean, that’s what I thought when I heard the convicted predators talk. 

Then I realized: that’s the thing to understand.  Not only do predators have attraction to people they shouldn’t, but they seem to have a fixation on it.  So while the rest of us go through our days thinking about our work, and our families, and about what we’re having for dinner or what we are doing this weekend, these people seem to be thinking of this gratification, and little else.  They set up their whole lives around it. 

I’m not a psychologist, but when I understood that one key thing, I understood what needed to be done.  I understood how easy it is for a predator to infiltrate an organization when everyone else is going about their business and usually, in any organization involving minors, mostly there because they care about kids and want to focus on helping people, rather than doing work that is mostly for personal gain.  So it’s hard for most people to realize that it is, actually, worse than they could imagine.  I don’t think any normal person could imagine this, but then again, I’m not a psychologist. 

The Girls is not the best written book I have ever read.  It’s not poorly written, it’s just not the best prose ever.  To be honest, the story itself is so compelling and so shocking it doesn’t even need any embellishment, and the times when author Abigail Pesta is objectively and straightforwardly reporting what happened, in the survivors’ words, is when the writing is at its best.  Her attempts to build suspense in places are superfluous. 

At the end of the day, however, I have to say I applaud Pesta for having the strength to write this book in addition to the strength it took the women and their families to talk about it and go public with what happened.   

My training took four days, and by the end of the second, I started to feel depressed and was depleted by the end of four. 

When I’m reading any account that is as painful as this, I normally read the book as quickly as possible because I know I’ll feel better when I reach the conclusion. With this book, I actually had to take a break before I finished.   

So do what you need to do, but read this book, especially if you have children in your life in anyway. 

And look through the Pesta’s championing of the women who survived to take him, and the institutions that cosseted him, down to see the profile of someone (and they aren’t always men) that might someday be in your midst. 

Be ready. 

More about Larry Nassar and the Abuse Scandal in U.S.A. Gymnastics




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