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Abigail Pesta raises voices of 'The Girls,' not their abuser

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Abigail Pesta’s new book, “The Girls,” shares the stories of 25 survivors involved in the federal sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and U.S. Olympic doctor. The young women’s stories trace his three-decade predation over athletes, resulting in a piece that is as inspirational as it is disturbing.

Ever since a sliver of the horrors of Nassar’s sexual abuse was exposed by the Indianapolis Star in 2016, it’s been a slow drip with each day revealing another outrage or deserved condemnation of MSU’s role.

As examples, a “Grid of Shame” pictogram in a recent Wall Street Journal shows “Sparty” in the bottom right corner, pulled down by the Nassar scandal. Then there’s the recent fine from the U.S. Department of Education of $4.5 million for the university’s violations of Title IX law.

Forget the slow drip reading Pesta’s book is an ice-cold bucket of water dumped on your head.  Most everyone in mid-Michigan has lived through the recriminations, the trial, the finger pointing, and the blaming and shaming of victims, so we think we know everything there is to know about the case.

However, Pesta’s compassionate in-depth reporting is startling in its entirety and candor and should be read by coaches, counselors, therapists, law enforcement officers, sports writers, parents of young athletes and athletes, university officials and especially university presidents. Parental discretion should be used with younger athletes.

Pesta is a highly regarded freelance journalist, with bylines in the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazine. Her writing is straight forward and compelling without straying into sensationalism. Above all, she was able to connect personally with 25 survivors, most of them lesser known athletes, with them telling her intimate stories of Nassar’s sexual abuse.

The author said in an interview from her Brooklyn, New York, home she became interested in writing a book only after Nassar’s highly-publicized trial in Lansing. Pesta had previously authored an article in Cosmopolitan about one of the survivors, Lindsey Lemke, who was one of the first to publicly identify herself amid a flurry of victim-blaming on social media.

Pesta said when she first started talking to editors about a book, she was told the story would soon grow cold. 

She said, “They couldn’t have been more wrong.”

This was before Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed the survivors to make victim statements.

“She made the case personal and did something incredible in the courtroom,” Pesta said.

Also to hit shelves this month was Rachael Denhollander’s memoir,  “How Much is a Little Girl Worth.” Denhollander was the first survivor to go on the record after the article ran in the Indianapolis Star.

Pesta used a chronological approach in telling the maturation of Larry Nassar into a master predator over three decades. He had been successful in grooming young patients, their parents and convinced the university, medical and gymnastic officials that his actions were approved medical treatments.

“He was effective and over decades he honed his skills,” she said. “Decades later the survivors didn’t want to believe they were sexually abused,” she said.

Pesta said the nature of gymnastics contributes to this psyche of disbelief and self-blaming.

“Athletes are isolated from their parents,” she said. “Kids want college scholarships, they are taught to trust and obey their coaches.”

One survivor, now a coach, told her, “If you are a kid, you’ll do anything to please the coach.”

Pesta said that coaches, gymnastic officials, police and university employees were enablers. In the book she documents that 13 women reported the abuse to 11 employees at Michigan State University including trainers, coaches and doctors. It was a panel of Nassar’s peers who on review gave him a green light to return to abusing young girls.

Pesta writes, “The bottom line: Larry, the all-important doctor, was widely trusted. The young women were not.”

In one instance, Pesta chronicles a survivor who did report abuse to a coach, later discovering the coach reported the conversation to Nassar. She also makes the case for heightened awareness and an understanding of how predators groom and prey on victims.

“It’s important to know the signs of predators. It’s not like a segment of “Law and Order” when the creepy music comes on as a predator enters the room,” Pesta said.

As mentioned earlier, the situations of abuse described in the book are in the survivor’s own words and they are graphic and real. In addition, the brutality of some coaches is disturbing.

“Hopefully, they will help prevent something like this happening in the future,” the author said. “What if one person had listened?”

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