book reviews

Reviewing Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams, by Kerri Strug

Bill is off on another business trip and will be gone until Friday. He got me up really early yesterday. He didn’t mean to, but his alarm went off, and once it went off, I was mostly awake. So I decided to read Kerri Strug’s 1997 era book, Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. I don’t know why I am so fascinated with women’s gymnastics, especially since I can’t so much as turn a cartwheel myself. I never could, even when I was much younger, thinner, and more limber than I am today.

Actually, I can’t say I’m that fascinated. I really only have an interest in the gymnasts who are close to my age, and some of the ones who testified against Larry Nassar, the perverted physician who was imprisoned for tormenting hundreds or many even thousands of athletes. Kerri Strug was, indeed, one of his patients, and she does mention him in her book. But her mention of him is more in passing… as this book was published about 20 years before Nassar finally got nailed.

I think I bought Kerri’s book on a whim, too. I had decided to read Bela Karolyi’s book, which hasn’t yet gotten to me. It’s only available in a print edition. I noticed Kerri’s book, which is also only available in print. I decided to chuck a used copy of it in my virtual cart. It got to me pretty quickly. Anyway, on with the review.

Who is Kerri Strug?

Kerri Strug was born and raised in Tuscon, Arizona, where her father, Burt Strug, was a cardio-thoracic surgeon and her mother was a housewife. At the beginning of her book, Kerri writes that her father overcame very long odds to become an esteemed surgeon. His father was also a surgeon, but was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in New York City, where Kerri’s great grandfather worked in the garment district. Burt Strug joked that all of the men in the family made their livings sewing things.

Kerri Strug is five years younger than I am, but she has an older sister named Lisa, and a brother named Kevin, both of whom were also gymnasts. Kerri has a natural ability for the sport and would watch her sister, who was several years older than she was, at her high level classes. Then she’d come home and try some of the skills herself. She also watched the cheesy film, Nadia, over and over again, annoying her friends who weren’t into gymnastics. I’ve seen that movie, too.

Kerri Strug is now a retired Olympic class women’s gymnast. She competed in both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively. But, as she is the youngest child in her family of origin, I got the sense that her parents were initially reluctant to let her do what her big sister was doing. According to Strug, many people in the gymnastics world approached her parents in a bid to get her into the higher echelons of the sport, but living away from home. It wasn’t until Kerri was about 13 years old that she finally got her wish, and was sent to Houston, Texas to train with Bela Karolyi, the flamboyant Romanian-American coach who brought the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to greatness.

Back 1990, when I was finishing high school and starting college, young Kerri was moving in with her very first of several host families. She was quiet, shy, and soft spoken, but she was a very hard worker with a lot of talent and grit, as the whole world saw firsthand at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Kerri Strug famously sprained her ankle during her first attempt at the vault during the vault competition. She was the last gymnast to perform, and two gymnasts before her had also fallen. With just one more chance to score high enough to clinch the gold medal for the “Magnificent Seven”, Kerri shook off the extreme pain she was in, having heard her ankle pop after falling on her first vault. She heard Bela shouting from the sidelines, bore down, and took off running…

And the rest is gymnastics glory history… This was the moment 18 year old Kerri Strug finally stopped being the bridesmaid and became a bride.

Up until that star defining moment in Atlanta, Kerri Strug was known as a very solid and dependable gymnast, who was always being outshone by someone else. She was in the shadows of Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller especially, but I think she also got less attention than some of the flashier women on the ’92 and ’96 women’s gymnastics teams. In 1992, the Olympic teams included exotic Betty Okino, who was mesmerizing on the balance beam, and Dominque Dawes, who was an incredible all around performer, but especially shone on the floor exercise. Dawes had a remarkable career and competed in THREE Olympics! When I think of how much physical, mental, and emotional trauma these young women go through to be gymnasts, I’m amazed anyone ever does more than one Olympic stint in women’s gymnastics. Kerri laments that she was often dependable in her competitions, but she always wound up just missing the cutoff for all around competitions in major meets, or she’d wind up being the alternate. Fortunately, that didn’t happen in 1992 or 1996, when it was time to name the Olympic teams.

A rather fuzzy Strug memory from the ’92 Games.

Kerri mentions that after the 1992 Olympics, she thought maybe she’d like to retire from the sport and be a “normal” teenager. Bela and Marta Karolyi had said they were going to retire from coaching, and it appeared that they were staying true to their word. Kerri’s dad had come up with a plan for making major decisions– to give them 24 hours before acting. After the ’92 Games, Strug’s family took a vacation in Europe, then Kerri went back to Arizona… and decided she wasn’t finished with her career as an athlete. But unlike a lot of her friends, Strug meant to stay a gymnast– she wouldn’t go on to be a cheerleader or a diver, like some of the other gymnasts she knew had after they quit elite gymnastics. But who was going to coach her, if the Karolyis were quitting?

One of the most interesting passages in Kerri Strug’s book is about how she “coach hopped” after her first Games. After consulting with Bela Karolyi on who should be his successor as her coach, Kerri started off at Kevin and Rita Brown’s gym near Orlando, Florida. The Browns had also coached Brandy Johnson, who was an ’88 Olympian, as well as Wendy Bruce, who was one of Strug’s teammates on the ’92 team. But that arrangement didn’t work out, because Kevin and Rita Brown were having marital difficulties and Kevin Brown stopped coming to the gym.

So then, Kerri moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to work with Steve Nunno. Nunno was once a coach at Karolyi’s gym before starting his own. He was Shannon Miller’s coach, and Miller was, at that time, the most decorated American women’s gymnast in history. But Nunno’s gym was also not a good fit for Strug. She tore a stomach muscle working with him and also vaguely alludes to flirting with an eating disorder. Her parents– dad in particular– were not going to allow Kerri to neglect her health in the name of pursuing Olympic gold.

Strug worked with a couple more coaches before the Karolyis decided they weren’t done with coaching gymnastics, after all. Apparently, Karolyi was the right coach for Kerri Strug, even though so many people have decried his methods, calling him abusive and manipulative. She went back to Houston and prepared for the Atlanta Games, much to the consternation of at least one coach who was apparently pissed off that he wasn’t going to get a chance to prove himself with an Olympian.

My thoughts on Kerri’s book

As I was reading Strug’s story of her life as an elite gymnast, it occurred to me how very long ago the 1990s were. When the 1996 Games were going on, I was living in Yerevan, Armenia. I think I saw Strug’s historic vault replayed on AFN (Armed Forces Network) more than a couple of times. It was huge news, and in the wake of Kerri’s triumph, there was quite a media sensation. This book, no doubt, was a result of the huge interest in her story.

Overall, I found Landing On My Feet to be a well-written book. Strug had help from ghost writer, John Lopez, who managed to make the story sound as if it came straight from Kerri Strug. She includes a couple of generous photo sections, which have pictures of other famous gymnasts of yore. Strug is fairly humble, and I noticed that her manuscript is meticulous about the finer points of grammar. For instance, more than once, she writes something along the lines of, “… was five years older than I”. I realize that’s technically correct, but it comes across as kind of awkward, particularly when it happens more than once in the span of a page or two.

Another thing I noticed is that the tone of Strug’s book is mostly very positive. Women’s gymnastics, as a sport, has gotten a lot of negative press lately, thanks to the abuses uncovered by people like John Geddert and Larry Nassar. Even in Strug’s day, people were talking about how abusive Bela and Martha Karolyi could be in their methods. But back in the 1990s, there wasn’t such a huge spotlight on the hidden horrors of women’s gymnastics.

The young women who participated were seen as powerful waifs– uniformly pretty in their leotards and ponytails, with toned, muscular, and tiny bodies that seemingly defied physics and gravity. Nobody was thinking about what Larry Nassar was doing in the name of “treatment” to scores of women. Strug does mention Nassar, but there’s no dirt on him at all. In fact, she keeps her comments about the sport very upbeat, save for a few passages about getting hurt. But even those passages are kind of minimized– except for when she describes the pain she felt after her second historic vault at the ’96 Olympics.

So… I wouldn’t call this book gritty or totally realistic, per se. But it is well-written, a fast, easy read, and Strug comes off as a wonderful person. And I think that was what she and her ghost writer, along with the publisher, were going for when they wrote this book. It may not be too interesting for today’s gymnasts, although it was an interesting walk down memory lane for me, a half-hearted gymnastics fan of a certain age. It’s been awhile since I last managed to devour a book in one day.

Where is Kerri Strug now?

Kerri Strug got married in 2010 to Robert Fischer, a lawyer and devout Republican… or, at least he was in the days before Trump. I don’t know how they feel about Republicans now. The two have a son named Tyler William Fischer, who was born in 2012. Unlike a lot of her teammates, Kerri initially opted not to become a professional gymnast and, instead, kept her amateur status so that she could compete as a college gymnast. I read in another article that Strug eventually did go pro, so she wasn’t a college gymnast, but worked behind the scenes as a team manager. Although she enrolled at UCLA, Kerri Strug eventually graduated from Stanford University, where she also earned a master’s degree in sociology. At one time, just after college, she was an elementary school teacher in San Jose, California. She now works full-time, splitting her time between Washington, DC and Arizona, although I’m not sure if she’s still doing now what she was doing last year, when Trump was still president. At that time, she was working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

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tragedies, true crime

Death of a coward…

At about this time last year, I was reading and reviewing a lot of books about the state of U.S. women’s gymnastics. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you might know that about three years ago, former U.S. gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, was outed for the abusive pervert he is. He’s currently sitting in a prison cell for sexually abusing hundreds of female athletes over the course of his career.

Yesterday, I became aware that high powered elite gymnastics coach, 63 year old John Geddert, who had once called Larry Nassar a friend and a colleague, was charged with a couple dozen felonies. Mr. Geddert was supposed to turn himself in for arraignment at a sheriff’s office yesterday. When he failed to show up for his 2:15pm appointment, police went looking for him. They found his dead body at 3:24pm ET at a rest stop in Grand Ledge, Michigan. The cause of death was suicide.

I guess he couldn’t face the music.

John Geddert was a successful coach, having been the coach of the 2012 women’s gymnastics Olympic team. But he was also notoriously abusive to his athletes. According to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel:

“John Geddert used force, fraud and coercion against the young athletes that came to him for gymnastics training for financial benefit to him,”

And,

“The victims suffer from disordered eating, including bulimia and anorexia, suicide attempts and self-harm, excessive physical conditioning, repeatedly being forced to perform even when injured, extreme emotional abuse and physical abuse, including sexual assault. Many of these victims still carry these scars from his behavior to this day.”

Indeed, in a number of the books I read about Larry Nassar and the huge sex abuse bombshell that was dropped on U.S. women’s gymnastics, John Geddert’s name came up frequently. He was described as the type of coach who would scream, throw things, and punish his gymnasts. Larry Nassar, by contrast, was described as quiet, gentle, and caring. The two men were said to be best friends, and Larry Nassar worked out of Geddert’s Twistars gym where he would minister to the injured girls. They would come to him looking for kindness and caring, having been beaten down by Geddert’s physically abusive tactics. It created the perfect storm for Nassar’s sexual abuse, which went under the radar for decades.

As the abuse was made public, attention shifted to John Geddert, who lied to police when he was questioned about Larry Nassar. Michigan Assistant Attorney General Danielle Hagaman-Clark said, “Mr. Geddert knew that Nassar was sexually abusing these patients and that he failed to take action. And that when he was asked about it by police officers during the 2016 investigation into Nassar, he lied about that.”

I’m not all that surprised that Geddert killed himself. He no doubt paid close attention to what happened to Larry Nassar. He probably also paid attention to what happened to Jeffrey Epstein, the fabulously wealthy bastard who victimized and trafficked scores of girls for the pleasures of wealthy and perverted men. Epstein was about to go on trial for his crimes when he was found dead of suicide in his jail cell. There was speculation that Epstein was murdered by those who didn’t want him to talk, but the official cause of death was suicide. I think either scenario is plausible, and I’m sure Epstein felt suicide was better than a lifetime in prison. John Geddert clearly felt the same way.

Gymnasts thought of Geddert and Nassar as a “dynamic duo”.

I’m sure there’s a lot of sadness regarding this death. Many of Geddert’s victims no doubt wanted to testify in court about what happened to them. Geddert cheated them out of justice. But Geddert probably also had friends and loved ones who are legitimately shocked by all of this. I feel sad for all of them. I’ve noticed a lot of comments chastising people who express empathy for Geddert’s friends and loved ones. I won’t do that, because I think those people deserve consideration, too. As awful as abusers can be, they usually do have some people in their lives who have no idea or love them regardless… and when the abuse does come to light, they suffer, but get little empathy. So I want to go on record that I empathize with everyone personally affected by Geddert’s suicide, regardless of how and why they are affected.

I feel sad for all of the parents, too. They no doubt thought they were doing a great thing for their daughters, enrolling them in gymnastics. They put their trust in John Geddert and Larry Nassar, paying them a lot of money for the training and medical care… only to find out that they abused their gymnasts, using them for their own pleasure. I know that I would be extremely pissed off if I had a child who was abused by someone. But then to realize that I spent thousands of dollars for my child to be abused and permanently harmed– I think it would send me over the edge.

So… I send my good thoughts out to those who are upset by Geddert’s cowardly decision to take himself out. I think it’s pretty clear that he was guilty as hell. At least he won’t be hurting anyone else. But that may be small comfort for those who were hoping to see him held accountable.

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healthcare, LDS, mental health, Military, religion, true crime

Sweeping stuff under the rug leads to years of abuse…

Thanks to my regular reader, commenter, and friend Alexis, I have fallen down yet another true crime rabbit hole. Yesterday, I reposted a review of the now out-of-print book Doc, by true crime author Jack Olsen. I found out about Doc from the Recovery from Mormonism messageboard, a place where I’ve “hung out” online for years. I know from hanging out on RfM that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no stranger to controversy. It’s also had its share of perverts among its ranks, some of whom have committed crimes that were, unfortunately, “swept under the rug”.

The story of Doc is about a non-Mormon physician named John Story who worked in Lovell, Wyoming, a heavily Mormon populated town. Story took advantage of the local mores and religious customs on Lovell as he perpetrated sex crimes on his female patients, many of whom were faithful members of the LDS church.

Alexis, who shares my interest in Mormonism, alerted me to a similar story about the late LaVar Withers, a Mormon physician from Rexburg, Idaho who similarly abused his patients. Rexburg, Idaho, like Lovell, Wyoming, is a town that is chock full of LDS church members. And, just as Dr. John Story took advantage of his patients, many of whom were sexually inexperienced and very vulnerable, Dr. LaVar Withers also took advantage of his patients. According to the Los Angeles Times, Withers was forced to give up his medical license in 1996 when someone finally spoke up about his unconventional examinations. He had been “practicing medicine” by giving his female patients inappropriate breast and vagina exams for over thirty years. Yes, people talked about it in town, but no one ever officially reported him to the police until the 1990s. He victimized women, but he also victimized young girls, under the guise of giving them “care”. LaVar Withers died in 2005.

Before I go any further, I want to state that I’m not specifically trying to pick on the Mormons. Having heard and read so much about disgraced Dr. Larry Nassar’s sex crimes against hundreds of female athletes, I know that this is a problem that doesn’t just affect members of the LDS church. However, I think it’s true that highly restrictive religions or other groups that emphasize sexual purity, virginity, patriarchy, and taking care of issues “internally” can lead to a lot of innocent people being abused by people with authority. Although gymnastics is not a religion, per se, it is a discipline that requires a lot of obedience. Gymnasts are taught to do what they’re told. Female gymnasts, in particular, are vulnerable because they’re usually children who are not yet ready to stand up to adults, particularly ones in authority like coaches and doctors. In that sense, women who are devout members of patriarchal religions, like Mormonism, may also be vulnerable to abuse by male church leaders or physicians.

Because my husband was a victim of domestic violence in his first marriage, as well as a former convert member of the LDS church, I am more aware of the cases affecting Mormons. I do know, however, that this is an issue that transcends a lot of communities– particularly those that are “closed” somehow. I would say that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its somewhat secretive (they say “sacred) rituals, patriarchal authority systems, and emphasis on “callings”, may make some members more ripe for the picking by abusive people with authority, like Dr. John Story and Dr. LaVar Withers. Story was not LDS, but he served a heavily Mormon population. And his patients, particularly the females, were trained to trust and obey people like him.

Also consider that the LDS church does not have a professional clergy. The church is led by high ranking males who tend to be pillars of the community somehow, not necessarily people with training in religion or counseling. A man with a white collar career, say a doctor, professor, lawyer, or dentist, is likely to climb the highest echelons of church hierarchy. A lowly woman, especially one who doesn’t have a career, was not likely to be believed when she complains about someone like LaVar Withers, who was a popular and well-known physician and a pillar of the community.

But there were complaints– in fact, the earliest one dated from the mid 1960s. A woman named Carol Hannah visited Dr. Withers because she was having trouble shaking a bad cold. Somehow, her complaint about her cold turned into a very intimate breast and vagina exam. When she reported him to the police, they laughed at her and accused her of “misunderstanding” what he was doing. She was dismissed and her complaints were completely ignored. Other women who complained over the years were also ignored, and none of them were willing to sign their complaints against him, anyway. It was too shameful and scandalous for them.

In 1992, a parent wrote to the Madison Memorial Hospital’s then executive director, Keith Steiner, about how Withers had examined, without a nurse present, her daughter’s breast and pelvic area after she went to the emergency room having been hit in the head by a volleyball. Instead of thoroughly investigating the issue, Mr. Steiner wrote back that he had received an “absolute denial” of the allegations from Dr. Withers. Steiner added  “I will say that I have not had any indication of this type of behavior from the doctor. He is greatly respected in our community.”

In the L.A. Times article about LaVar Withers, journalist Barry Siegel writes about what happened when a female church member confronted her bishop about Dr. LaVar Withers’ unconventional medical exams. The woman, Tee Andrew, was a convert to the church. She was highly respected and married to an accountant. Because her regular doctor had retired, she visited Dr. Withers, complaining of a severe migraine. She had heard stories about him, but figured he wouldn’t try anything with her, because her husband was in the room. And yet, even though Andrew’s husband was present, Dr. Withers still managed to feel up Tee Andrew’s breasts. He did so with a straight face, as if this was a perfectly normal and natural part of an exam for a migraine headache.

Tee Andrew then called the Idaho Board of Medicine, which reported that Dr. Withers had never been sanctioned by them. That was because there had never been any formal allegations against Dr. Withers, even though many people had informally complained. When Andrew called her former physician, Dr. Jud Miller, he said that he’d heard of “some problems”, but thought Withers had stopped. Then he advised Andrew to contact LaVar Williams’ “stake president”– that is the church leader above his bishop. Note that Miller didn’t tell his former patient to call the police or speak to the licensing authorities. She was told to keep this within the church. So she called LaVar Withers’ stake president, Farrell Young, a dentist who was the great great grandson of Brigham Young himself. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“I’m not going to mince words,” Andrew began. Then she told her story, and offered to take a polygraph test. According to Andrew, Young mainly expressed his sorrow and appreciation for her call, right up until she told him she meant to notify the police.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that now,” Young responded. “I’d appreciate you letting me take care of things from my end.”

In an interview months later with the Idaho Statesman newspaper, Young didn’t dispute this account. Yes, he agreed, he “may have said do not go to the police immediately,” because Mormon doctrine stresses forgiveness. “When people have a hurt, they should leave it alone. Put it away and look for the good.”

Sure enough… Andrew waited a month for action from Farrell Young against LaVar Withers. None ever came. He never contacted her with an update about the situation. So Tee Andrew finally went to the police and made her complaint. Then she started talking to other women in the community. Sure enough, the stories came pouring out. And that was what finally led to LaVar Withers’ resignation from medicine. However, he managed to leave the profession with a cheery news article, his reputation– temporarily– intact.

Again– these specific incidents have to do with the LDS church, mainly because that church was a specific interest of mine for a long time. It’s less so now, since Bill’s daughters are grown. But it’s not just the Mormons who have these issues with sweeping crimes under the rug and handling them “internally”. As anyone who has followed the Duggar family over the years knows, the Mormons do not corner the market on abusing women. Back in 2015, the entire planet was made aware of Josh Duggar’s propensity toward molesting women. It came out that Josh had sexually abused four of his sisters and a babysitter. And instead of reporting the issue to the police and having Josh deal with legal consequences, his parents chose to sweep the issue under the rug. Instead of getting counseling for their son, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar made him shave his head and sent him away to do hard labor for a family friend.

Years later, it came out that not only did Josh molest his sisters and a babysitter, he also cheated on his wife, Anna. Sadly, instead of divorcing Josh and taking their children away from him, Anna has stood by her man and had more children with him. Although we have not heard more reports about his misdeeds with women, I would not be surprised if the abuse continues. I’m all for letting people redeem themselves, but I don’t think the way religious groups handle these kinds of issues is particularly effective. Sweeping things under the rug doesn’t solve anything. There have to be real consequences and a commitment to contrition and restitution. Unfortunately, proven abusers, particularly those who get away with the behavior for many years, don’t tend to change their ways.

LaVar Withers was eventually sentenced to 30 days in jail on a misdemeanor battery charge against his patients. That is a ridiculously light sentence, especially given that Withers had complaints against him going back over 30 years. The LDS church also disciplined him by taking his “temple recommend” and placing him on probation. However, the whole thing was handled privately. It seems that restrictive religions tend to want to come up with their own discipline against members who violate the law. And those practices can lead to more abuse of the innocent.

Restrictive religions can also help create predators and allow them to flourish, even among non members. I reposted my articles about Heath J. Sommer, a Mormon psychotherapist who convinced female patients in the military that having sex with him would be therapeutic. After reading about Sommer, I started getting LDS vibes. I looked him up, and sure enough, he was a church member. And he no doubt used his church affiliation to make himself seem more trustworthy and humane as he told some of his clients that they should be giving him blow jobs as part of their therapy. I don’t know what Sommer’s specific issues are. I kind of wonder if maybe he has a problem with women in power, and that’s why he worked with females in the military. One of his victims was an Air Force colonel. Many people felt she should have known better, but she trusted him and expected that he would be competent. In some ways, the military can be as bad as strict religions in covering up and perpetuating abuse.

Many people will give religious people the benefit of the doubt, especially when the churchgoer is a man with multiple academic degrees and a successful career. Another example of this is Dr. Martin MacNeill, a Mormon doctor, lawyer, and bishop who murdered his wife after she’d had plastic surgery. People trusted Dr. MacNeill because of his lofty career and church status. But if anyone had taken the time to look beneath Dr. MacNeill’s “respectable” surface, they might have seen that he wasn’t as good a person as he seemed to be.

Anyway… I could write about this subject all day. It’s probably time I closed this particular post. But I will probably revisit this topic soon, because I think it’s an important one. I think our culture, especially, hates confrontation. Too many of us are willing to let things slide and sweep egregiously bad behavior under the rug. We blame ourselves when people do wrong. We look back on what we said and did for any indication that something bad that happened was our fault. This happens a lot with women, especially, and if you’re a part of a strict patriarchal group, such as a religion, the military, or even a sport like women’s gymnastics, it can be all too easy to surrender common sense and self-respect.

It can be so easy to let a fear of humiliation and shame scare us into keeping silent. It’s happened to me. Fighting back is hard, and sometimes it leads to disaster. I’m writing about this to encourage my readers to speak up rather than sweep up. Don’t let abusive people get away with their bad behavior. The longer they do it, the more emboldened they become. And if you don’t do your part to stop them, you become part of the problem and even a bit complicit when the next person suffers.

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mental health, Military, psychology, true crime

Repost: It’s never the client’s fault when a therapist commits sexual abuse…

Yesterday, I reposted my review of Doc, a book about a Wyoming doctor who sexually abused his patients. My friend Alexis, who was a loyal reader and commenter for years until her own career in medicine kicked up, commented about another doctor– this one in Idaho– who molested patients. I was reminded of Dr. Heath J. Sommer, who was in the news in December 2018 and early 2019 for convincing his patients that having sex with him was “therapy”. Because I might write more about the case Alexis brought to my attention, I am reposting my two posts about the Sommer case, as/is.

Alright then.  Now I have a topic I need to discuss.

This morning, I read an article from the Air Force Times about a lowlife “psychologist” named Heath Sommer, who was working at Travis Air Force Base.  Sommer was convicted of six sexual assault charges, which included one count of rape.  He is now sitting in jail, awaiting his sentencing, scheduled to be handed down on January 25th.  According to the Air Force Times, he could be sentenced to a maximum of eleven years and eight months.

Three of Sommer’s clients, all of whom were female Air Force officers, came forward during the trial to tell their stories.  They had gone to Sommer seeking help with trauma caused by sexual assault and other ordeals.  Sommer’s brand of “help” was more sexual assault.  He used his position to manipulate the women, abuse their trust, and re-victimize them by telling them his assault was part of their “therapy”.

A somewhat longer article about this case explains in more detail the nature of Sommer’s “therapy sessions”.  In one case, a colonel was convinced to meet Sommer at his home, where he had her repeatedly describe the sexual assault she experienced in Afghanistan.  The Afghans had served her partially cooked goat meat before assaulting her, so Sommer had her put dirt in her mouth and eat meat from leftover Chinese food.  Then he told her that she needed a “positive” and “loving” sexual experience, which he was prepared to provide.  Over the course of two months, this woman had sex with Sommer nine times.

Now…  I suppose it’s easy to wonder what made this colonel think what she was getting was “therapy”.  Indeed, I read the comments for this article, which was an Air Force Times piece, but was also shared by the Army Times.  The comments I read on the Air Force Times article are, so far, appropriately empathetic to the victims.  I can’t say I was surprised to read several less empathetic comments from Army Times readers.

The first comment I encountered questioning the victim was this…

I’m confused as to why the victims went along with this “therapy”

It was followed by this comment…

I was asking myself the same thing, especially since one of the victims is a colonel. But then again you never know what their state of mind is having been assaulted before. I feel that they must be evaluated to determine if they can continue serving in the military; after all, they were manipulated by him. I’m not so sure I would trust them with sensitive information.

That’s right.  Colonels are supposed to know better, right?  In case it’s not obvious, that’s sarcasm.  It doesn’t matter that the victim was a colonel.  She went to Sommer looking for help.  He was supposedly a qualified psychologist.  He violated his position of trust and took advantage of her.  He broke the law and disregarded his code of professional ethics.  Sommer is completely to blame for this.

Reading on, I encountered this comment.

Hey everybody! The faceless edgelord is here to virtue signal…. Please make sure to give him your undivided attention and adulation….God knows what this country needs is more habitually triggered, SJW, liberals with savior complexes. Where would we be if we didnt have them constantly lecturing us in every related and unrelated comment thread about the plight of (insert alleged victim group).

Um… maybe if there weren’t so many ignorant, offensive, obnoxious comments from people who have their heads so firmly lodged in their assholes, the social justice warriors wouldn’t feel the need to set them straight.  It’s clear that this person didn’t listen to enough lectures from smart people when he was growing up; therefore, he is in need of some schooling from the more evolved.

OMG..who would believe that sexual assalt was a treatment for sexual assalt????

Sadly, it’s not just the men who have their heads in their asses.  This comment was left by a spelling challenged woman.  Granted… I suppose it does seem crazy that sexual intercourse would be offered as therapy for sexual assault.  However, many people are conditioned to trust healthcare providers.  That’s why it’s so very important for healthcare providers to be ethical.

Why do people think so many gymnasts submitted to Larry Nassar’s “therapeutic” efforts for so long?  It’s because he was a doctor, and people in authority were telling the gymnasts that he was an expert.  They wanted to make the Olympic team.  Nassar was “nice” to them and convinced them that his brand of therapy was real.  They liked and trusted him, so he was able to victimize hundreds of them.  No, the gymnasts weren’t “dumb”.  They were abused.  Same thing goes for Heath Sommer’s victims.

I would imagine the situation Nassar’s victims were in is similar for people in the military, who must regularly see doctors and other healthcare professionals.  Often, the providers people in the military see are not necessarily of their choosing.  Obviously, Sommer was hired to work with the military population.  His victims believed he was qualified and they trusted him to help them.  They did not approach him for sex; he convinced them that sex was what they needed in order to get well.

Moreover, there is such a thing as a “sexual surrogate“, which are people who legitimately have sex with their clients as a form of therapy.  Sexual surrogates are not “romantic”; the point of it is to help clients get past sexual hangups.  There’s even a documentary about this, which I have seen (it used to be available on Netflix).  Although it sounds a little like prostitution, if you watch the documentary, you see that it’s a very clinical process that truly has helped some people.  I’m not saying Sommer’s victims thought of him in a “sexual surrogate” role, but I do think it’s plausible that he had convinced them that what he was doing was “therapeutic”.

A trailer for the documentary, The Story of a Sex Surrogate.

This man should burn in hell for sure but at the same time, how did he get away with having sex with the woman 9 times. She came to his house for 8 of those times. Another woman gave him oral sex?!?! Seriouslly!!! Who else read the article? I feel like I’m missing some important information. I don’t understand how a woman can be forced to drive over and have sex with you 8 times after doing it once in the office. I understand he may have been manipulative but still….

Here’s another comment from someone who thinks the victims should have known better.  If you’re mentally healthy and haven’t been sexually traumatized, I can imagine that it seems “stupid” that a client could be convinced that Sommer’s brand of therapy was legit.  But again… consider that the victims were traumatized and vulnerable, and they trusted their therapist.  He violated their trust.  It’s 100% his fault, and he belongs in prison.

As a psychologist, Sommer has more knowledge of the human psyche than most laypeople do.  He had a professional role and was hired to perform that role by people who should have been able to judge his qualifications.  I would certainly expect he had a valid license to practice, which would have been granted to him by other professionals who, one would hope, knew what they were doing.  I don’t know anything about Sommer, but as someone with a master’s degree in social work, I do know something about this subject myself.  From day one in my accredited MSW program, it was impressed upon us that we had a code of ethics that we must adhere to and that the client’s needs came first.  Sommer is a psychologist, but I would expect that he was bound by similar ethics.

More of the same…

This guy deserves to be beat to death, but at the same time, how dumb are you to fall for therapy that requires you to have sex with the therapist under the guise of “exposure therapy”? I mean c’mon, you’ve got to be pretty dumb to fall for that…

Logically I can see your point. But I think those females were so hurt and traumatized that once they fully trusted him, they truly thought he was there to help them. The human mind is complex and I think when someone’s mind gets screwed up from terrible things the mind can really get wacky

I get that, but you can Google anything. If something doesn’t sound right, I.E. “having sex with your therapist and calling it exposure therapy” you can look it up. At what point do you not ask yourself, does this seem right?

…that’s very true. He could have taken advantage of their vulnerability and maybe those females could have ended up developing feelings for him because of that.

These women weren’t “dumb”.  They got help from the wrong person, who took advantage of his position and their trust.  It is not their fault that he victimized them.  In fact, they are to be commended for coming forward so that Sommer was taken out of service.  Moronic, ignorant attitudes like the ones displayed in the comment sections on Facebook can prevent people from seeking a legal remedy when they are victimized.  When people don’t come forward, lowlife scumbags like Heath Sommer are allowed to continue committing crimes, damaging innocent people, and ruining lives.  So please don’t blame the victims.  It’s not their fault at all.

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bad TV, Netflix

Tiny Pretty Things is cringeworthy viewing…

Once again, I’m going to avoid some of the serious topics bouncing around in my head today. The news is chock full of potentially explosive things to write about– everything from the fact that Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Putin finally recognized Joe Biden as our next president to a haunting story I read about a middle aged adoptee from Romania, born during Ceausescu’s reign of terror. And, of course, COVID-19 is a topic for every day, too… but I’m sick of writing about that, and much of what I would write is stuff I’ve already written.

Instead, I’m going to write about Netflix’s latest “YA” series, Tiny Pretty Things, which was made available for streaming on Monday. Now, I’ve been a Netflix subscriber for years. I started when I was in graduate school, at Bill’s prompting, when the service involved renting DVDs that were sent in the mail. I quit for a few years when we had cable TV, then enrolled again when we moved back to Germany. I quit again for awhile, when I couldn’t get around the VPN filters and all of the content in Germany was in German. Then, when 13 Reasons Why came out, I resumed my membership. I hated 13 Reasons Why, by the way. I thought it was vastly overhyped and never bothered to watch the second or subsequent seasons.

If a ballerina falls in the forest when no one is near, does she make a sound? Oh brother… (that’s not what she actually says, but it’s kind of close and just as stupid…)

However, even though I have Netflix, I don’t watch it as much as I should. I often go months without logging in to watch anything. I have yet to see a single episode of Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things. I have seen The Crown, but I just now watched all four seasons of it in a massive binge. I frequently get reminders from Netflix to log in and use my membership. This week, I was lured by an ad for Tiny Pretty Things, a drama supposedly aimed at teenagers about very dysfunctional teens studying at The Archer School of Ballet, a “prestigious” ballet school in Chicago.

The first episode made me groan. The writing was very cheesy and melodramatic, with lots of hackneyed expressions that were intended to be clever, but came across as dumb. The storyline was ridiculous. Talented dancer, Neveah Stroyer (played by Kylie Jefferson), from Englewood, California is plucked from obscurity to learn how to dance for the big leagues. Her mom is in prison for killing a man who “hit her baby”, Neveah’s older brother, who is now in a wheelchair.

Lauren Holly, who is 57 and looks like she’s had work done, or at least a few collagen injections, is a ballet madame called Monique Dubois who is running the school. She comes off as snooty, fake, and kind of cruel. The kids are multicultural and there’s a veritable rainbow of boys and girls (who are actually all in their 20s) of all shades and sexual orientations. Many of the “actors” are actually dancers in real life, and they are much better at dancing than delivering their lines. I think Kylie Jefferson is a pretty decent actress, and she’s also a legit dancer, but most of the rest of them are not very convincing in their roles. They don’t look like they are the teens they’re supposed to be, and they aren’t good actors.

What really gets me, though, besides the ridiculous storyline involving a dancer who was pushed off a fourth story building and survives, languishing on life support to be the narrator (a la Mary Alice Young in Desperate Housewives), are the huge number of sex scenes, copious nude scenes, drug references, and, yes, I’m just gonna say it– the language. Everything I’ve read about Tiny Pretty Things indicates that it’s intended for a YA audience. That means it’s for teens, and teens encompass an age group ranging from 13 to 18. In most cases, there’s a huge difference in the maturity level of a 13 year old and an 18 year old. And yet we’re supposed to be okay with kids watching a very dark and macabre series about a ballet company planning a dance about Jack the Ripper? Meanwhile, there’s also a cop with a French braid sniffing around, trying to figure out who pushed Cassie Shore, the ballerina narrator who is actually in a coma, from the roof.

I don’t have children, but when I was growing up, my parents let me watch almost anything I wanted to watch. Every once in awhile, my dad would attempt to stop me from watching something he found inappropriate, but most of the time, I watched anything and everything that interested me. Consequently, I saw a whole lot of stuff that I wouldn’t want a child of mine seeing. I don’t know how different the world is for kids today… I can only imagine that it’s very different now. Still, it does seem a bit much for 8th graders to be watching a nude gay sex scene and listening to talk of blow jobs. When I was 13, I didn’t even know what “getting laid” meant, let alone what a blow job is.

There are some rather gory dream sequences and, at this point, I’ve also seen a closeup of a pretty necrotic looking injured foot that I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing. Aside from that, one of the choreographers is very pervy and sleazy. Watching him makes me think of Larry Nassar.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the cast is so inclusive of people who aren’t white or straight. I do enjoy watching the dancing, too, much of which is beautifully done. But all watching this show has shown me so far is that you don’t have to be a rich white kid to be shown as really fucked up and on TV. It also makes me think that if I’d ever had children, I would not want them to be involved in ballet, even though my sister was involved in ballet when she was growing up and this adaptation probably doesn’t even venture close to representing the norm.

I didn’t think I would get past the first episode, it made me sigh so hard. But I did end up watching several more episodes, mainly because I had nothing better to do yesterday. I’ll probably finish this season, but if it gets renewed, I probably won’t bother with any subsequent ones. Besides the gratuitous sex scenes, the acting is pretty cringeworthy, and the storyline is both very cliched and rather implausible. I’d rather watch 80s era episodes of Fame, which included plenty of cheesy acting and dance numbers, but at least it was somewhat clean.

Tiny Pretty Things is based on a YA novel, which has just got to be better than the show is. It’s just got to. It appears that the authors, Sona Charaiprota and Dhonielle Clayton, have made it into a book series that got popular, hence Netflix’s decision to turn it into a series one can stream. It appears that, as usual, the books are better than the on screen interpretation. I might one day be persuaded to read one of the books, just to see how far the streaming series has sunk.

I have a lot of tolerance for bad TV, but this series is really pretty awful, and it makes me roll my eyes a lot. As an adult, the sex scenes don’t trouble me too much, but I don’t think they’re particularly appropriate for young teens. I might have had less of an issue with that, though, if the quality of the show was better and the sex scenes didn’t feel like they were added to flesh out a thin and ridiculous premise. And the acting and writing both suck enough that I wouldn’t recommend Tiny Pretty Things to almost anyone else, either, at least not if they’re looking for something that is legitimately high quality. On the other hand, if you want to watch something cringeworthy, Tiny Pretty Things might be just the ticket. I think I’d like to watch it with my friend Joann, who has a real knack for critiquing bad TV in a hilarious way.

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