book reviews

A review of Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, by John Barr and Dan Murphy

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.

The first time I remember ever seeing 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher…

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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book reviews

A review of What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, by Rachael Denhollander

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to download several books about the scandal involving former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, and the hundreds of women and children he abused under the guise of proving “medical treatment”. I reviewed one of the books I bought on that spree, The Girls, written by award winning journalist, Abigail Pesta. Today, I’m going to review a book written by one of Nassar’s victims, Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and one of the first women to come forward publicly about Larry Nassar’s abuses.

In the late 1990s, Rachael Denhollander, nee Moxson, was a fifteen year old Michigan teen who loved gymnastics. She’d gotten her start in gymnastics too late to be an Olympian, having caught the bug after watching the Magnificent Seven win gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Rachael’s mom and dad, “hands on parents” by Rachael’s description, were so strict that they wouldn’t let their then eleven year old daughter stay up late to watch the women’s gymnastics team win gold on live television. Instead, they taped the coverage and hid the newspaper the next day, so Rachael could watch the coverage and experience the thrill as if she were seeing it live. Rachael was captivated by gymnastics, and wanted so badly to become a gymnast herself, even though she was “too old” and “gangly”.

I kind of know how Rachael felt. I was in Armenia when the 1996 Summer Olympics were going on, and I didn’t get to see the dramatic, history making win until later. That was the year Kerri Strug stuck an incredible vault, then collapsed to the mats in excruciating pain. It made for great press, and like a lot of people, I remember the photos and videos of Strug in Coach Bela Karolyi’s arms surrounded by people. Among those reaching out to Strug with a helping hand was Dr. Larry Nassar, the team doctor, who just happened to practice in Lansing, Michigan at Michigan State University.

A few years later, when Rachael was a gymnast, she had problems with her lower back and glutes, as well as her wrists. After several unsatisfying visits with ordinary doctors near her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan failed to help, a mom at the gym where she trained recommended that Rachael go see Larry Nassar. He was supposedly a miracle worker. Rachael was shocked that a big shot like Larry would want to see a nobody like her, but the mom at her gym assured her that Larry’s door was open to everyone.

So Rachael’s mom, who had repeatedly told her daughter that if her health, safety, or schoolwork were ever adversely affected by gymnastics, she’d have to quit, called Larry’s office and quickly scored some time to see him. Rachael was told to bring a pair of loose gym shorts and a comfortable top to the appointment. She was very happy that she’d managed to get an appointment to see such a well-regarded doctor. He’d even written a book about conditioning that was considered required reading among coaches. Both Rachael and her ever vigilant mother, who’d even arranged to clean the gym to help defray the costs of Rachael’s training, were excited that they would be seen by Larry Nassar.

On the day of the first appointment, Rachael was immediately impressed by how friendly and engaging Larry was. He did a very thorough exam– much more thorough than any of the other doctors had done. And then, as he casually spoke to Rachael’s mom, who was sitting right there in the office with them, Larry forced his fingers into Rachael’s vagina. At the time, Rachael was shocked. The “treatment” hurt. But she and her mom had heard of some therapists using an internal technique called pelvic floor massage in an attempt to relieve pain. Nassar had seemed so incredibly professional that they figured he must be employing that same internal technique on Rachael.

Even though the invasive “pelvic floor” treatment didn’t seem to relieve Rachael’s pain, and Nassar did nothing to treat her wrists, they went back to him for more treatment. Then, one day, Larry unhooked Rachael’s bra and massaged her breasts. She noticed that he was flushed, then spotted his visible erection. That was when she began to doubt that Larry Nassar was helping her so much as he was helping himself.

Complicating matters was the fact that Rachael was sexually abused when she was seven years old. Her parents were committed Christians and they took their kids to church. That was where Rachael came into contact with a male college aged student who molested her.

Rachael stayed involved with gymnastics for a few more years. She coached young girls. When one of them had an injury and Rachael heard that Larry Nassar was being recommended, Rachael did her best to discourage the head coach from recommending Larry. The little girl went anyway.

Meanwhile, Rachael got older and went to law school. She met her husband, Jacob, online. They fell in love and married, bought a house in Louisville, Kentucky, and started a family. Then, Rachael heard about an article that appeared in the Indy Star about her old doctor, Larry Nassar. He’d been accused of sexual abuse. Rachael was compelled to send an email to the reporter who had covered the story… and soon, she was on a wild legal ride that ended with Larry Nassar being uncovered for the depraved deviant he is.

Rachael Denhollander is definitely incredible… She is amazingly articulate, intelligent, and brave.

What Is A Girl Worth? is Rachael Denhollander’s story. She starts at the beginning, writing in a clear, confident, engaging style, explaining how she became one of Larry Nassar’s many victims and what led her to help bring him to justice. It was about sixteen years after her last visit with Larry that Rachael came forward. Because her abuse had occurred so many years prior, she wasn’t sure how much help she would be. It turned out that Rachael’s willingness to speak out so candidly was everything.

Despite the pain and stress of going public and enduring everything that comes from publicly standing up for one’s rights, Rachael bravely soldiered on, and soon hundreds of Larry’s former patients and even a family friend who was victimized, came forward to tell their stories. And Larry, who had been brazenly getting away with abusing patients for decades, finally got the end he deserves, and now sits in a prison cell for the rest of his life. He took down several corrupt Michigan State University officials with him, including the former president of the university, Lou Anna Simon, and former gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, who had blatantly ignored repeated complaints about the former doctor.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina praises Rachael Denhollander for being brave enough to come forward and advocating for change.

One thing I noticed about Rachael Denhollander’s story is that despite everything, she remains a very committed Christian. She admits to wondering why God would allow such horrible things to happen to innocent young girls, especially since she was also molested in church. She writes of elders at a church she and her husband attended, who accused her of going against church leadership by speaking out against sexual abuse. One would think she might lose the faith, particularly in organized religion, if not in God. But she’s still very religious and still attends church faithfully. I’m impressed by that, because she’s also very clearly an intelligent and assertive woman. I would expect a lot of people would lose their faith in religion over the traumas she’s experienced.

I appreciated that Rachael Denhollander also praised the legal and law enforcement professionals who helped bring down Larry Nassar. It’s gratifying to read her story, especially since Larry had been given a pass before by corrupt USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University officials. Other women had reported Larry, but their complaints were brushed off or covered up. Maybe Rachael’s involvement in this case really is God at work. She wasn’t meant to be an elite gymnast, but she was meant to blow the whistle on a notorious abuser and bring him to justice. She’s tenacious, and has a strong moral compass, perhaps partly thanks to her religious beliefs (because I don’t think you have to be religious to be moral); yet she’s also extremely intelligent, well-spoken, and definitely not looking for a payoff. She was just what this case needed, and it’s because of her that a monster can no longer hurt anyone. I highly recommend her book.

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