Abigail Pesta on “The Girls” and the Therapeutic Power of Storytelling

By now everyone knows the infamous story of Larry Nassar, the former Olympic doctor who, over the course of three decades, sexually abused hundreds of young athletes. The story of the majority of his victims, on the contrary, is much less known. 

Giving voice to the unheard was the main goal of Abigail Pesta’s masterful book “The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.”

“The book really focuses on women whose stories were not getting told,” Pesta explained in a phone interview. “Many of them told me that they felt that they had not been heard because Nassar became known for preying on Olympic gymnasts. But there were hundreds of kids in his home town in Lansing, Michigan, whom he had been abusing for almost three decades. And their stories hadn’t been heard and they had so much groundbreaking insight into how he became this master predator.” 

Tracing the genealogy of how Nassar became the most prolific sexual predator in the history of sports is indeed what makes Pesta’s book so insightful, original and all in all a must-read for anyone who wishes to learn more about both the Nassar scandal and predatory behavior in general. 

“The Girls” recounts the traumatic yet inspiring stories of 25 survivors, from the very first—Sara Teristi, a gymnast in the 1980s who is believed to be the first of Nassar’s victims, to the last—Emma Ann Miller, a dancer who, abused in 2016, is likely to be the disgraced doctor’s very last victim.

Pesta’s book, then, is not as much about the Olympians, the Karolyi Ranch and USA Gymnastics as it is about the unheard. The Olympic aspect, Pesta said, “is a very important story, but it’s a different story than the one in the book.” Rather, it is an insight into the small community of Lansing, and its university, gyms and cruel coaches where many knew about the sexual abuse but no one spoke up, enabling the trusted doctor to prey on hundreds of teenage girls for over three decades.

Pesta’s interviews provide readers with tremendous insight into Nassar’s predatory behavior and his evolution over time. Teristi’s account, which she unveiled for the first time in Pesta’s book, is especially unique and eye-opening. As the first survivor, she witnessed Nassar’s very first day as a volunteer doctor at her gym, Great Lakes Gymnastics, and the ways in which he began to prey on her and to develop into a master predator.

It was the realization that people failed to understand how predatory behavior works that prompted Pesta to write “The Girls.” It all started when she was interviewing Lindsey Lemke, then a gymnast at Michigan State, and her mother for an article, she recounted. It was before the Nassar trial in January 2018 and at the time Lemke was one of the very first survivors to publicly recognize herself as such.

What Lemke and her mother told Pesta struck her deeply. They were dealing with the terrible revelation that the family’s trusted doctor and friend had abused Lemke hundreds of times as a child while they believed that he was performing medical treatment. Yet “they said people were blaming them,” Pesta said. “People were saying things like: ‘Why didn’t the parents know? Why didn’t the kids tell?’ And I thought: There’s so much people don’t understand about this. For [the family] to be blamed for being preyed upon by a master predator… It added to the travesty.”

If many gymnasts did not realize that the treatment was in fact abuse, others did. The book includes the heartbreaking stories of several survivors who, over the decades, reported Nassar to coaches, councilors and the police. Frustratingly, they were all dismissed and were left traumatized and doubting themselves.

The kafkaesque farce of dismissal and disbelief on the part of the adults in charge is probably the most enraging part of the Nassar saga. “There were many cases in which kids did realize that they were being abused and they did tell and no one listened,” Pesta said. “There were [many] missed opportunities to stop him.”

While some of Nassar’s enablers, including former Michigan State head coach Kathie Klages, have been charged and convicted, the man many gymnasts recognize, in Pesta’s words, as Nassar’s “key enabler”, John Geddert, is still free.

A coach with Klages at Great Lakes and later at his own gym, Twistars, Geddert is best known for becoming Olympic head coach in 2012 and coach to Olympic champion Jordyn Wieber. What “The Girls” also poignantly reveals, though, is that he and Nassar worked together for almost 30 years, with Nassar moving gyms when Geddert opened his own. 

The book details how Geddert’s abusive coaching techniques created the perfect environment in which Nassar could turn into a master predator. His cruel coaching, Pesta explained, contributed to making gymnasts “vulnerable to sexual abuse because Nassar could be the good guy, and when they were feeling physically and mentally trampled by Geddert, they would be sent to see Nassar and he would pretend to be their friend.” 

Geddert has been under investigation since 2018. 

Reporting on such traumatic stories is difficult. “It’s a very emotional experience,” Pesta said. She knows something about it—as a journalist, she has built a career writing about women fighting crime and injustice. Nevertheless, listening to survivors “boldly sharing their stories” left her “completely inspired.”

It takes a lot of courage for survivors to share their story with the world and have it out in the open, Pesta reminds us. “You’re telling something so personal about yourself. Anyone who googles you knows. If you’re a parent and tell your story, your kids are going to find out, so you have to figure out when and how to tell them; or if you’re going for a job interview or on a first date, no matter who you meet, they probably know something very personal about you even before they meet you.”

Yet these survivors decided to share their stories with Pesta because they hope that “they can help other families, help prevent future predators.” They felt that “they can use their own terrible experience to help others,” Pesta said. “That’s a really powerful and incredible thing about this story. It’s the power of the human spirit to say, ‘OK, this terrible thing happened to me. I don’t want it to happen to someone else, so I’m going to do what I can.’ This is what is really inspiring about this terrible story: that all these women came together to help other women and girls. [This is why] it was very important to them to get their stories out there.”

The parents, too, are trying to cope with the awareness that they entrusted their child to an abusive doctor and that he manipulated them as well. “It was so courageous of them to talk to me, too, because there’s so much blame and lack of understanding about how [manipulation works],” Pesta said.

This is why parents are speaking out alongside their children. “It’s a trauma they’re trying to find ways to cope with, and one of those ways [is] to tell their stories and help other people.”

Additionally, storytelling was helpful to victims, too. “A lot of women have told me that it was kind of therapeutic for them,” Pesta said. “It was the first time that they sat down with someone and really told the whole story.”

Was she satisfied with the book? “If the women feel good about their stories in the book, then I feel good,” is Pesta’s answer.

Before the publication of the book, Pesta sent a copy of the manuscript to each survivor, telling them to feel free to change their mind about going public. “These are such deeply personal stories, everyone had to feel comfortable and not worry about what was going into the book,” Pesta said. No one changed their mind, though. Everyone said, “That’s what I wanted to say.”

“That was really powerful,” Pesta said. “They were ready, they said what they wanted to say, they felt comfortable with it.”

That the survivors were comfortable with the way their story was told is a testament to Pesta’s empathetic, emotional yet rigorously-reported narrative style. The book is a cry for justice, but by empowering women’s voices, provides a form of justice itself.

With the Nassar trial behind us, where do we go from here? 

According to Pesta, the whole culture of the sport needs to change, starting with making gymnastics about the gymnasts, “not about the win.” 

Since the publication of the book last year, she added, she has spoken with several gymnasts from around the country who felt empowered by the new hashtag #gymnastalliance, a campaign through which gymnasts from around the world are denouncing stories of abusive coaching. “I think that [it] helps bring change,” Pesta said. “Because it just makes everyone more aware. It makes parents more aware [and pay] more attention to what goes on at the gym, and helps make kids more aware that they can speak out about these things. Hopefully it will bring more awareness, which will hopefully lead to change. But I also think that we’ve got a long way to go.”

READ THIS NEXT: William & Mary to Reinstate Women’s Gymnastics

Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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