In January 2018, a Michigan Judge sentenced USA Gymnastics Olympic doctor and Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar to prison for up to 175 years for sexually abusing over 260 young women and girls throughout his career. Their experiences are at the center of award-winning author Abigail Pesta‘s latest book, The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
Pesta explains how Nassar was able to serially abuse girls over decades, starting in the 1980s up until his arrest in 2016, through the voices of 25 survivors, some of whom share their stories for the first time. The Girls also opens the conversation to all the other young girls who may have been abused, taken advantage of or manipulated by adults they were supposed to be able to trust.
Starting with Sara Teristi, Nassar’s first victim in the 1980’s, and ending with Emma Ann Miller, his last victim in 2016, Nassar abused young female gymnasts under the guise and protection of Michigan State University and with the backing of USA Olympics.
Teristi’s interview showed Pesta how adults like Nassar could, and do, manipulate positions of trust and authority to abuse. “She didn’t question him,” Pesta notes after speaking to Teristi. “She was a kid, and he was the doctor. Like so many children, she had been taught to trust her doctor.” Miller’s story brings to light the complicated and thorough way Nassar gained familial trust to abuse girls: For years after her mother began seeing Nassar for neck and back pain, he acted as a fatherly figure to Miller—giving her nicknames, bringing her gifts and gaining her trust and respect while she was training as a gymnast—and when she was 10 years old, Nassar started seeing her for monthly back injury appointments and began to abuse her.
Pesta’s book is also peppered with personal anecdotes about her own short-lived gymnastics career, but the core of the story, and the interviews that anchor it, do apt justice to the saga of Nassar. In a twist of fate, that wasn’t always her plan—but Nassar, Geddert and former Michigan University gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, who is currently facing charges for covering up Nassar’s abuse in 1997 when two teenagers reported his abuse to her, declined to be interviewed for the book, forcing Pesta to rely most on the individual experiences and stories of his survivors.
Nassar’s survivors were courageous to tell their stories, to Pesta and on the stand. The Girls honors that bravery. Pesta’s book makes clear the tragedy of a culture in which the bodies of women and girls are commodified and abused, and the losses they suffer personally and professionally in rape culture. In the #MeToo era, The Girls is a powerful addition to the nationwide conversations and reckonings happening around sexual abuse, harassment and violence.