Larry Nassar, the gymnastics osteopath convicted of sexually abusing young female gymnasts and other patients under the guise of medical care, has been called a monster by many of the victims and by the judge in the case. New York Times op-ed writer Frank Bruni, who wrote that Nassar was a “familiar monster,” compared him to Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who was also convicted of serial child molestation. Sandusky himself has also been called a monster frequently.
. Yet the two cases are actually quite different. As I argued in The Most Hated Man in America, my book about the Sandusky case, the utterly demonized former Penn State icon may actually be innocent. In distinction from the Nassar case, none of the alleged Sandusky victims ever told anyone at the time that Sandusky was molesting them. Most of the alleged Sandusky victims initially denied that he had abused them. Unlike Nassar, Sandusky has a supportive wife, possessed no pornography, and has consistently maintained his innocence.
In their classic 1994 critique of repressed memory therapy, Making Monsters, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters dissected the process by which innocent people were falsely accused of grotesque child sexual abuse. In my 2017 book, Memory Warp, I did the same, delving into the science of human memory and the unlikelihood of “repressed memories.”
But I don’t like labeling anyone a “monster,” even when, as in Nassar’s case, they are clearly guilty of serial sexual abuse. Calling people monsters provides a convenient stereotypical compartment to make them the “other,” different from us, the good guys, the upstanding, moral, normal people. Most people, in all likelihood even Larry Nassar, believe at the time of their horrendous behavior that they are doing the right thing.
That is, in fact, the more frightening reality.
So let us examine how Nassar got away with this abuse of so many for so long. Why did most of these young women acquiesce in the abuse and return repeatedly for more “treatments” by Nassar? And why did some parents go along with it, even as he did it in their presence? (Some victims assert that their parents couldn’t see what he was doing because of the way he positioned himself, but I presume that many parents had a good idea what he was doing as he “treated” their daughters, and that he had “explained” it to them.)
Nassar practiced “myofascial release” to help alleviate lower back, hamstring, and “pelvic floor pain,” a treatment during which many osteopaths, physical therapists, and others insert their fingers into women’s vaginas and/or anuses to palpate allegedly restricted, misaligned connective tissue.
…a whole body, hands-on form of manual therapy that helps to restore the necessary elasticity to the connective tissue web. The therapist using myofascialrelease applies sustained pressure into areas of restriction allowing the tissue to elongate and reduce the crushing forces on pain-sensitive structures.
Vaginal manipulation is only one aspect of the method, in other words.
Presumably, when Nassar massaged young girls’ breasts, that too was rationalized as part of the myofascial treatment.
A quick search on the internet turns up plenty of vaginal/anal practitioners, both male and female, touting the “advantages of manual internal treatment of the pelvic floor.” Even the federal website of the National Institutes of Health hosts a 2012 article asserting: “The hallmark diagnostic indicator of MFPP [myofascial pelvic pain] is myofascial trigger points in the pelvic floor musculature that refer pain to adjacent sites. Effective treatments are available to reduce MFPP, including myofascial trigger point release” through internal vaginal manipulation.
Practitioners claim that these internal fingerings can cure far-flung bodily pains and even migraine headaches.
In a sympathetic 2010 feature article on the method, headlined “You Want to Do What? Where?” one journalist wrote: “In its most basic sense, internal pelvic floor therapy involves a physical therapist using his/her finger to examine trigger points inside a person’s body that are affecting the bladder, tailbone, urethra, prostate (in men), and other organs. Through this physical examination and treatment, therapists can identify tightness and tenderness and gently stretch the connecting muscle.”
Pelvic floor treatment has been (and still is) recommended for female athletes in particular. A 2013 article on the ATI Physical Therapy site asserts: “It is imperative that women are aware of the importance in [sic] optimal pelvic floor health and function…. If dysfunction is present, skilled physical therapy can help decrease symptoms and improve function.” The Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute is offering a $475 course this summer for the “Athlete and the Pelvic Floor,” for instance. There is no mention of internal vaginal treatment on either website, but it is likely that the treatment includes such ministrations.
Perhaps there really is some kind of benefit to this methodology, beyond a placebo effect, but from what I can ascertain, it appears to be unproven pseudoscience. Yet there is no doubt that sincere professionals use this treatment.
One practitioner, Casie Danenhauer, wrote in a blog condemning Nassar: “I want to take this opportunity to educate the public about internal pelvic floor assessment and treatment, because in the conversations I’ve been having with my patients and the public about this there seems to be a misconception that internal work is inherently on the line of abuse.
“The media doesn’t seem to be explaining that there are indeed times when this type of ‘rare intravaginal treatment’ is actually indicated. In fact, it’s not rare, it can be totally legitimate, and it’s the basis of what my colleagues and I do all day and how we help hundreds of people every year.”
Similarly, another pelvic floor practitioner wrote an editorial, entitled “Nassar’s Atrocities Stigmatize a Legitimate Medical Treatment.”
This background helps to explain why, even when one of Nassar’s patients reported him for sexual abuse, a Title IX internal investigation at Michigan State University in 2014 cleared him, concluding that there was a “nuanced difference” between sexual assault and legitimate medical treatment.
Nassar had treated 24-year-old Amanda Thomashow, the complainant, for hip pain, during which he touched her breast and vaginal area for several minutes, purportedly to adjust her shoulder and pelvic bone. In this case, he apparently did not insert his fingers but rubbed nearby. Nassar told an investigator that he was “known for this type of pelvic floor work” and that he included information about it in his presentations because the practice was “ignored by too many physicians.”
He included a Star Trek image in his PowerPoint presentation with a caption: “Pelvic floor: Where no man has gone before.” The MSU investigation concluded that Nassar’s treatment of Thomashow was “medically appropriate,” but an internal report (not given to Thomashow) noted that such treatment might inflict “unnecessary trauma.”
Larry Nassar may have practiced a form of myofascial release, but he did not get informed consent before sticking his ungloved, unlubricated finger into girls’ vaginas or anuses, nor did he usually have a third party present, all of which is part of the recommended protocol. Add to that the fact that he also collected child pornography, and it would appear that Nassar was probably getting sexual pleasure from these myofascial treatment sessions.
In a seven-day sentencing hearing for Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed 156 Nassar victims to speak about what he had done to them and how it had impacted them. The stories were emotional and compelling, but they were also revealing in other ways. Many of the women had not thought of themselves as sexual abuse victims until the massive Nassar media coverage. They may have been uncomfortable, enduring sharp pain, or they may have even experienced pleasure during his internal probes, but they assumed that his treatments were legitimate.
I suspect that many of them thought that the manipulations had actually helped relieve their pain. Many of them had not, in other words, felt traumatized at the time.
In retrospect, however, they were enraged, and many now blamed any subsequent problems in life on the Nassar abuse. Nicole Reeb, for instance, had dealt with depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. As a reporter noted, when she “realized she had been sexually abused, she finally had the answer to her ‘why.’”
From my research on repressed memories, I am familiar with this retrospective searching for the answer to life’s problems. Aha, now I understand why I have been unhappy in my relationships, why I have an eating disorder, why I am depressed, or the like. We all tend to grasp at simple answers to complex problems.
In repressed memory cases, newly self-identified victims had not in fact been abused but had developed illusory memories, as I suspect at least one of those who testified at the Nassar sentencing had done. Annette Hill, who went to Nassar for treatment of her knee pain, said that she had “suppressed memories of the abuse for years.” But other Nassar victims had no problem in always remembering what had occurred.
Coaches in highly competitive sports can sometimes be emotionally abusive towards their athletes. (Ironically, Jerry Sandusky was a clear exception: he treated his players well, by all accounts.) Many gymnastics coaches are notorious for over-controlling their young competitors and putting their bodies through excessive dieting and strain, through which gymnasts often develop tendonitis, sprained ankles, back soreness, rotator cuff tears, shin splints, stress fractures, pinched nerves, and early arthritis. Gymnasts seeking answers for why they developed mental or physical problems might search for explanations, at least in part, in that history.
Jamie Dantzscher, an Olympic bronze medalist, recalled recently how abusive the gymnastics environment was. In an interview last month with ABC’s 20/20, she said:
They controlled what we ate. They controlled how we stood, how they wanted our hair, how we should talk, when we could talk. There were times we got in trouble for just smiling. That’s not even including the injuries that we had to work through. Like, I competed on a fractured back….I mean, I don’t even know how I did it. When I think about it now, I don’t know how any of us did, but it was like that’s all we knew.
For Dantzscher, her treatment time with Larry Nassar served as a refuge.
Going to Dr. Nassar was like a bright light. Larry was my buddy. Larry would make me laugh. Larry would say, “Oh, they’re all horrible. I get it.” It’s hard for me to say now, but I looked forward to treatment because at least I was allowed to laugh and have…some downtime…. Larry was the only adult that I can remember that I trusted right away. I thought he was there to help me, and not only that, I actually thought he might be the only adult around me that actually cared about my health and well-being.
She thought the myofascial treatments were normal medical procedures. But now she regards them as sexually abusive, and she is extremely bitter towards Nassar, and says that she hopes he himself is sexually abused in prison “until the day he dies.”
I do not excuse anything Nassar did, and it is clear that he really did sexually abuse the girls and young women he was supposed to be helping, and that they suffered because of it. But it is not quite the story of unmitigated monstrous evil that the media has portrayed.
There are apparently many other bad actors in the gymnastics world, for whom winning is everything, who are not incarcerated.
During Nassar’s sentencing hearing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina took a strong advocacy position for the victims, whom she called “superheroes.” She relished telling Nassar, “I have signed your death warrant” by giving him 40 to 175 years in prison, in addition to the 60 years he had already received for possessing child pornography. The judge told one victim that “the monster who took advantage of you is going to wither” like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Rachel Marshall, a California public defender, complained that “it is simply unfitting for a judge to broadcast such personal contempt for a defendant in her court,” but the judge has otherwise been widely praised.
Marshall’s complaint is reasonable, but it is not just judges who should refrain from calling Nassar a monster. In a media-fueled moral panic, it has become de rigueur for commentators to heap opprobrium on Nassar.
Yes, he is guilty. He is in prison. But he is also a human being, and the media would do well to examine the possible pseudoscience that apparently made this long-term abuse possible.
Mark Pendergrast is a science writer and independent scholar, the author of The Most Hated Man in America and Memory Warp, among other books. He can be reached through his website, www.markpendergrast.com. Readers’ comments are welcome.