I just finished my fourth book about former doctor turned sex pest, Larry Nassar. This one, entitled Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, was written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, two very experienced reporters who have both worked for ESPN. ESPN, for my non-American readers, is a very well respected and long established all sports cable television channel. Not surprisingly, this book about Larry Nassar’s crimes is the best researched of the four I’ve written so far. It’s also extremely well-written.
Since this is my fourth review about this topic, I’m not going to go too much into detail what Larry Nassar did. By now, we all know that he sexually molested hundreds of women under the guise of providing them “medical treatment”. He was labeled a genius– doctor to gymnastic stars– and his office was littered with photos and autographs of famous young women athletes he’d “helped” with his controversial pelvic floor treatments. His victims included people such as Simone Biles, and every single one of the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team that competed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012. But they also included people were comparative “nobodies”, like Rachael Denhollander, who was interviewed extensively for this book, as well as past stars like Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher, and even a very young friend of Nassar’s family, Kyle Stephens, who was not an athlete.
Barr and Murphy conducted many interviews to gather material for this book, but they really concentrated on Rachael Denhollander’s and Jamie Dantzscher’s stories. I have already read and reviewed Denhollander’s own book, What is A Girl Worth?, also an excellent read. But what made Start by Believing even better than Denhollander’s book was that the journalists also shared Jamie Dantzscher’s story. I remembered watching Dantzscher, strangely enough, when she was on an ESPN gymnastics special back in 1997. I remember I was fresh from Armenia, staying at my eldest sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I turned on the TV to see the most famous gymnasts of the day flipping and tumbling to rock music.
I was too busy with graduate school during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to watch Dantzscher go for the gold. I later read that the women’s gymnastics team had a rather poor showing there. China was awarded the bronze medal ahead of them, but it later came out that the Chinese team had broken some rules which stripped them of their team medal for women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team was later awarded the bronze medal ten years after the fact. I also didn’t know that Jamie Dantzscher had been forced out of the competition. Her very large family had scrimped and saved to come to Australia to see her perform, all for naught. As they were enjoying their time Down Under, Jamie’s father, John, and sister, Jennifer, were broadsided by a bus while running an errand. Jennifer suffered cuts and bruises, but John Dantzscher was badly hurt to the point at which it was feared he would die. He spent weeks in a Sydney hospital before he could go back to California to relearn everything that made him independent. Years later, Jamie’s sister, Jennifer, died from asthma related causes.
It turns out Jamie Dantzscher is a Latter-day Saint. However, she apparently uses a lot of foul language and is unusually outspoken. During the 2000 Olympics, she came under fire for criticizing famed women’s gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, calling him a “puppeteer”. She was also one of the very first women to take legal action against Larry Nassar, although she did so anonymously at first. Barr and Murphy did a great job of sharing Jamie Dantzscher’s brave story. I came away from their book with more respect and admiration for Jamie than I previously had.
The authors also share Rachael Denhollander’s story, which, because I had already read her book, felt a little like a rerun. However, had I not read What is a Girl Worth?, I think I would have really appreciated how Barr and Murphy explained her situation. To a lesser extent, the authors share the stories of a wide array of gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nassar, and they explain how Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he had. Larry Nassar is a world class manipulator who used every trick in the book to get people to trust him and believe in what he was doing, even when the abuse was obvious and had been reported for years before his career fell into a shambles and he lost the right to freedom.
Maybe I should be angry and horrified reading books about Larry Nassar’s sex crimes, but when I read Start By Believing, I felt an odd sense of power and pride for the victims who became victors. This book is about brave women who came forward to bring a monster to justice, many of whom eventually became friends in the process. I often like to say that something good comes out of almost every situation. Despite Larry Nassar’s despicable acts of abuse against women, many of the women involved in this case have formed a kind of sisterhood. And they all got to watch their abuser FINALLY meet justice. Frankly, as someone who has also been repeatedly screwed over and abused by other people, I found it an unusually empowering and inspiring read.
I also liked the fact that Barr and Murphy had clearly read a lot of other, earlier books about the abuses suffered in gymnastics. They specifically mention Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, Chalked Up, by Jennifer Sey, and Off Balance, by Dominique Moceanu. I have read all three of these books, and though Sey and Moceanu were not victimized by Larry Nassar, they were both elite gymnasts who suffered abuse from their coaches. Joan Ryan was a sports reporter in San Francisco before her book about the celebrated abuses in women’s gymnastics and figure skating exploded in 1995. All three books are outstanding, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the life stories, because even when they are about a common topic, like abuse in gymnastics, there are interesting side stories. Dominique Moceanu, for instance, is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who had escaped Nicholai Ceausescu’s horrifying regime. Jennifer Sey is about my age, and I can relate to what it was like for her to grow up in the 70s and 80s, when parents were a hell of a lot less hands on and obsessed with safety as they are now.
And finally, Barr and Murphy include several interesting color photos. The one that made me stop and pause the longest was the picture of several tiny gymnasts pushing former coach, John Geddert, in his blue Corvette as part of their athletic training. Geddert was well known for his aggressive, abusive tactics to get his women to win, but I had no idea that he’d employed making them push him in his very expensive sports car. Talk about an asshole!
Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about Larry Nassar’s crimes, I think I would put Start By Believing at the top of the required reading list. In fact, I think it’s my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far, followed closely by Rachael Denhollander’s book, because Start By Believing is so comprehensive, extremely professionally written, yet very engaging, and it’s so well-researched. Highly recommended with five stars!
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