Gymnastics is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. A linebacker’s grit is packaged in a sparkly, spangly leotard. Adult demands are made of girls who still have their baby teeth. While other athletes perform the pain they feel — think of male soccer players, writhing and howling at the slightest contact — gymnasts are expected to smile, smile, smile, as their sternums break, as their ribs crack.
For decades in U.S. gymnastics, there was one more secret vile contradiction: The doctor who treated thousands of young athletes, supposedly tending to their injuries and ensuring their healthy recovery, was in fact “the most prolific sex criminal in American sports history.”
This is how Abigail Pesta, author of “The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down,” introduces Larry Nassar. For 30 years or so, Nassar had unfettered access to some of the most promising athletes in the world as he rose from volunteer doctor at a Lansing, Mich., gym to Michigan State University and, ultimately, the USA Gymnastics team.
His violence was relentless and breathtaking in scope. By his accusers’ accounts, Nassar abused Olympians at the 2012 London Games and raped children in his home; he assaulted girls in front of their unknowing parents, his body and a sheet obscuring the view as he penetrated his patients with gloveless hands. At his sentencing hearing, presided over by a judge with a real flair for the pull-quote — “I just signed your death warrant” — more than 150 survivors addressed Nassar directly. Their profoundly moving testimony, made all the more powerful for how long its speakers had been silenced, streamed live online and dominated the news cycle. Nassar, who at the time already had been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography convictions, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years more for his battery of sex crimes.
Pesta explores how Nassar found in these girls’ formidable abilities an exploitable vulnerability: His targets were trained to withstand brutality, to power through without complaint. A serial predator hunting for victims, he discovered that the gymnastics community was perfectly suited to his goals. It offered him girls who were sheltered from boys and age-appropriate sexual experiences; who were taught to treat their bodies like machines that could function without feeling; who obsessed over their Olympic prospects, the windows for which were brief and rare as eclipses, and would be strongly disinclined to complain and jeopardize their dreams.
The Nassar case has made headlines for years, and Pesta’s book aims to disclose what is not already known about a much-discussed national scandal through interviews with 25 survivors. In this effort, she is only partly successful. The biggest revelation by far is the never-before told story of Sara Teristi, a former gymnast who met Nassar in 1988 and, Pesta writes, “may have been his very first target.”
“People don’t understand how many broken girls it takes to produce an elite athlete,” Teristi tells Pesta. “A coach can easily go through 300 girls or more.”
When Teristi met Nassar, he was volunteering at a gym run by John Geddert, who would go on to coach the U.S. women’s gymnastics Olympic team and is under criminal investigation for his role in the Nassar case. In Teristi’s telling, Geddert was a physically violent, mentally abusive tyrant whose reprimands were laced with sexually graphic comments about the bodies of his very young, female charges. She says that she was brainwashed by Geddert, and that it was in this emotionally obliterated state that she found herself in Nassar’s office, struggling to train through what turned out to be a broken rib. As her injuries worsened over the years, so, too, did Nassar’s abuse. The most harrowing episode was one that she had buried so deeply that it was inaccessible to her when she first spoke with Pesta. When the memory eventually surfaced, the full force of the recollection made Teristi physically ill.
Teristi’s is a vital entry in the public files on Nassar. It is also among the few aspects of Pesta’s book that lives up to the “untold story” promise of its title. Much of what Pesta includes here has been covered extensively elsewhere.
Pesta is a gentle, empathetic narrator, taking care to show readers the emotional toll of reliving trauma. (She describes interviewing Teristi at an art museum because Teristi “doesn’t want this tale anywhere near her home, her children.”) Though her interviews span the full known arc of Nassar’s violence, her actual access is relatively limited. Nassar, unsurprisingly, declined to be interviewed, as did the multitude of his alleged conspirators and enablers, including Geddert and former Michigan State University gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, who also is facing charges in this matter. The survivors with names most readers would recognize — Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney — did not speak with Pesta. (Rachael Denhollander, the first survivor to go on the record publicly with abuse allegations against Nassar, wrote her own book: “What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics,” which comes out next month.)
Pesta has plenty of experience reporting on sexual and gender violence, from sex slavery in Cambodia to the “honor killing” of a girl by her father in Arizona. She also profiled a Nassar survivor in 2017. But “The Girls” doesn’t have the lived-in expertise of “Soulless,” by Jim DeRogatis, who broke the R. Kelly story and has followed it ever since; or of Dave Cullen’s “Columbine,” the result of 10 years of reporting, of sticking around in a community long after the national media moved on. Pesta’s writing lacks the lyrical ache and intensity of Piper Weiss’s reported memoir, “You All Grow Up and Leave Me,” about her close encounter with tennis instructor Gary Wilensky, a stalker and predator who killed himself after a thwarted attempt at kidnapping one of his other students.
Although Pesta’s reporting and analysis give a thorough, damning portrait of the culture that aided and abetted Nassar, she rarely steps back to put the story in a broader context. The first Indianapolis Star story on Nassar, which broke the sexual abuse allegations of Denhollander and one other former gymnast, was published in September 2016 — two months before the election of Donald Trump, who by then had been accused by several women of sexual violence and would soon be caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women; about nine months before Bill Cosby first went on trial for sexual assault; a year before the Harvey Weinstein story broke and #MeToo exploded across the Internet.
There are parallels among all of these stories — for instance, that Nassar “normalized” his abuse “by doing it to everyone,” like Weinstein allegedly did with his “casting couch” practices — but Pesta does not draw them. The scope of “The Girls” is much smaller. In some ways, her writing mirrors the cloistered space in which these women were groomed and abused, where there is no world beyond the walls of the gym.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that “The Girls” quoted Simone Biles and Aly Raisman from other sources, which the book did not. It also stated that Pesta never reported on the Nassar case, but she wrote about abuse survivor Lindsey Lemke for Cosmopolitan. This version has been updated.
Jessica M. Goldstein is a freelance writer in the District who writes for The Washington Post, Vulture, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others.
By Abigail Pesta
Seal. 233 pp. $28