book reviews

A review of Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture, by Rachel Haines

A few weeks ago, I bought several books regarding the huge women’s gymnastics scandal involving former osteopathic physician, Larry Nassar. I have already reviewed two of them– The Girls, by Abigail Pesta, and What is a Girl Worth, by Rachael Denhollander. I’m not sure why I bought so many books about this topic, other than my lifelong idiosyncratic habit of buying things in bulk. I do the same thing with clothes. If I see a shirt I like, I’ll buy it in two or three colors. Or if I decide to buy an album from one of my favorite musicians, I’ll often end up buying a couple of different ones. In any case, this is the third of four titles I bought on a recent buying spree of books about Larry Nassar’s egregious crimes against his patients, most of whom were children.

Today’s review is about Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture, by Rachel Haines. Haines, a Michigan native and former gymnast at the University of Minnesota, was one of hundreds of Larry Nassar’s victims. Like so many other athletes who had gone to Nassar for his thoroughly unorthodox brand of “treatment”, Rachel Haines had once thought of Nassar as “selfless”, “benevolent”, and a “genius”. Like so many of Nassar’s former patients, Haines came to realize that she was duped and Nassar had fooled her into thinking he was helping her when he inserted his ungloved fingers into her vagina in a bid to “fix” her back pain.

In Haines’ case, the back pain was very severe. She had fractured her back in three places. Other doctors had told Rachel that she should quit gymnastics or risk becoming paralyzed and unable to control her bladder. Only Larry Nassar had offered to help her so that she could continue being a gymnast and get a “full ride” at the University of Minnesota. That “full ride” seemed to mean everything to Haines, who writes that after a devastating injury, a lot of programs that had seemed to really want her on their teams had stopped caring about her.

In her book, Abused, Haines starts at the very beginning. She writes that she showed a talent for gymnastics before she could even walk. She had boundless energy and loved to hang from things. Her mom and put her in a Mommy and Me class and Rachel showed an incredible aptitude for tumbling. The instructors in the Mommy and Me class encouraged Rachel’s mom to let her continue in the sport. That set off 21 years of punishing workouts, competitions, and injuries culminating with Rachel’s college years. She was also a club gymnast at Twistars, coached by John Geddert, a man who is also in some legal hot water right now. Larry Nassar used to help gymnasts at the Twistars club every Monday night.

An ad for Twistars Gymnastics Club…

John Geddert was considered one of the best women’s gymnastics coaches in the United States, but he had a pretty horrible reputation for being overly strict and abusive. I did not get the sense that Haines felt Geddert was abusive. If he was, she didn’t seem to mention much about it. However, in other accounts I’ve read, gymnasts have alleged that Geddert’s demanding coaching style set the perfect stage for Nassar’s abuse. Nassar was quiet and gentle, while Geddert was known to yell, throw things, and even physically abuse the athletes in his gym. Haines also visited the infamous Karolyi Ranch in Texas, although she’s pretty vague about her experiences there. She basically just mentions it in passing.

I just finished Abused this morning and, frankly, I think this book was mis-titled. Haines doesn’t delve into her experiences of being abused in the gymnastics world until the last 20% of the book. Leading up to that point, she writes about how gifted a gymnast she was, how much she loved the sport, and about her competitions. She makes it very clear that she had real talent for gymnastics and claims that kids in her school looked forward to her performing gymnastics for the annual talent show every year. One year, she planned to sing a song instead, but she did a gymnastics routine because she claims students and teachers had heard she wasn’t going to tumble and were “disappointed”. Maybe her account is the truth, but it kind of sounded like humble bragging to me, which was a bit of a turn off for me.

There are a few editing glitches in the book, too, especially at the end. There were several typos and some awkward sentence constructions. Haines has a habit of writing in the passive voice. Sometimes passive voice works better than active voice, but when it’s habitually done, it makes reading more difficult. More than once, I caught myself mentally editing her writing.

I think the most compelling part of Haines’ book was at the end, when after she retired from gymnastics, she finally went to a surgeon who performed very complicated back surgery on her. Larry Nassar had evidently lied to Haines about how seriously injured her back was, and had been for years. She had gone to a surgeon in Chicago, expecting to just have a discectomy– two or three discs removed from her spine to relieve pain and improve her mobility. When the surgeon had another MRI done, it became clear that Haines was going to have to have spinal fusion surgery, which was a lot more serious. Haines writes that most people don’t have that kind of surgery until they are in their 60s. She had hers done at age 22. Haines makes the recovery sound traumatic, although she doesn’t dwell on that topic for very long. She also writes that she’s glad she had the surgery, since it vastly improved her condition.

But then, after the surgery, she writes about how very upsetting it was to retire from gymnastics. She repeatedly writes about how distressing it was to gain weight, get out of shape, and more than once, she refers to her talent in the past tense, as if she is no longer a gifted athlete because she’s no longer a gymnast. More than once, she writes that she’s no longer “special”, again something I found a bit off putting. There’s a hell of a lot more to life than gymnastics, and now that she’s retired, Rachel can devote time to finding her next passion. Maybe it’s overwhelming to make a choice when you’ve spent your whole life in a gym, being told what to eat, how much to sleep, where to go, and how to spend your time, but that freedom is just normal life for most people.

It might be more informative to watch this interview than read Rachel’s book.

It’s clear to me that Rachel Haines didn’t really want to write about being abused by Larry Nassar. She doesn’t really write that much about him and, in fact, didn’t realize she’d been a victim of his abuse until the first news broke of the scandal, back in 2016. I felt sad for Rachel when I read her reaction to finding out that Larry Nassar had abused her. I had a similar experience when I was growing up. A neighbor sexually abused me, although not at the level that Nassar abused his victims. I didn’t realize that what my neighbor had done was abusive until I sought help for depression and anxiety and described what he did to my therapist, who told me that my neighbor belonged in prison.

So I understand, on some level, what Rachel’s reaction must have been when she found out years after the fact that she was betrayed by someone she had trusted and respected. But although Rachel’s book mentions Nassar in the title, she doesn’t really write that much about Nassar or his treatments. I get the sense he’s mentioned only because it will sell books. What Rachel Haines has written is mostly a book about what it’s like to be a top gymnast– and I think her account is fairly sugar coated, at that. Indeed, she doesn’t even write much about John Geddert, who has a notoriously abusive reputation. Based on her account, he sounds like he was a pretty nice guy.

I didn’t really get a sense that Rachel Haines was in a “toxic environment” in the gymnastics world. I know she was in that kind of environment, though, because I have read other, more honest accounts of what it’s like to be a top gymnast. Jennifer Sey’s book, Chalked Up, comes to mind. I read that book over ten years ago, before Larry Nassar was ever mentioned in the news. Sey, who was one of Bill and Donna Strauss’s “Parkettes”, wrote candidly about former elite gymnastics coach, Don Peters, who abused his gymnasts and was later banned from coaching. Sey wrote about that before Peters was even sanctioned, which I initially thought wasn’t right… but then it turned out she wrote the truth.

Anyway… Rachel Haines’ book, Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture, isn’t a terrible read. It moved fast for me, includes some photos, and wasn’t horribly written. I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Rachael Denhollander’s book, What is a Girl Worth, which really focuses on the abusive environment of women’s gymnastics more than Abused does and provides a lot more candid examples. Rachel Haines is clearly a brave, strong, determined, and talented woman, and she’s no doubt still an amazing athlete. But this book definitely could have been better than it is.

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