Understanding How American Female Gymnasts Felt Gagged

It was most assuredly a momentous culmination of reckoning in January of 2018 when Judge Rosemarie Aquilna delivered the 175-year sentence to Larry Nasser, the ex-USA Gymnastics doctor, declaring, “I just signed your death warrant.”  More than 160 women had come forward to claim sexual misconduct against Nasser. As a result of this scandal, the entire board of USA Gymnastics had resigned along with Steve Penny, who had been the CEO of USA Gymnastics for more than 10 years.

This shocking story of abuse, conviction and sentencing was made possible, starting with Rachael Denhollander of Louisville, Kentucky who was brave enough to be the first to claim that Nassar had sexually abused her in 2000, when she was 15 years old.

Seeing these women coming forward and coming together to expose and convict this monster was deeply moving.  The fact that after all the years of silence, they had a platform for their voices to be heard was inspirational.  They finally could witness Nasser’s exposure, annihilation, imprisonment and shame. They finally could experience public vindication and observe punishing permanent retribution.

We all  looked on horrified and in surprise. It was appalling that this abuse had been perpetrated for such an extended period of time.  It was outrageous that these young girls had been made to feel over a period of many years that they had no choice, that they had no voice, that they had no recourse.

I wanted to understand how it was possible that no coach or parent had awareness of this horrific misconduct. I couldn’t comprehend how this behavior had never been uncovered. How was it that none of these girls had ever openly successfully challenged what was happening to them? How was it that they had felt so gagged and without options. As much sympathy as I felt for them, I still had a hard time understanding how they hadn’t shared and come forward to protest what was occurring.

And then I remembered: from out of my past came memories of my childhood dentist. I never said a word to anyone about how Dr. Graham had pressed himself against me as he filled my cavities. There was definitely a hard protrusion there in his pants. He was our family dentist. I adored him. He was funny and kind and attentive to my comfort when filling and cleaning my teeth. He pressed himself against me. I thought it was part of dentistry. I was a little girl. I didn’t think he was doing something harmful or unnecessary. He never touched my body with his hands or asked me to touch him. He just leaned against me with his hard penis against the side of my arm. I didn’t know what an erection was. I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong or purposeful. I just thought that was what dentists did when they were being dentists. What would I have said? “Dr. Graham, please don’t lean against me. I don’t like feeling your hard penis against my arm. What you’re doing is very inappropriate.” It never occurred to me to say anything like that to him. I never thought to say anything at all to him or to my parents. Now, all these years later, I am shocked that this vivid memory has sprung forth. I am left with the dirty residue of this experience, while also wondering if those were actual cavities that needed filling or just the self-indulgences of a dirty old man.

And then there was my violin teacher. I was in second grade and was one of only two students in my class selected to learn to play the violin. We were all given a music appreciation test and I scored very high. Evidentially, my ear had perfect pitch and I could distinguish very slight differences in notes that were played. Or maybe, like my “cavities,” I was selected to be a violin student because Mr. Griffon wanted to lean his body against mine like my dentist Dr. Graham.

I thought I hated the violin. I never attached my extreme negative feelings toward the violin teacher. I know I refused to continue the private lessons. I know there were big disappointments from my parents, my teacher and Mr. Griffon. I never said anything about how uncomfortable I was that Mr. Griffon stood or kneeled so close behind me and wrapped his arms around me from behind to place my fingers correctly against the strings on the neck of the violin and to make sure I was holding the bow correctly with my other hand. I thought that was how you taught a student to play the violin. My discomfort was extreme and yet I never thought to share it with anyone. As I write these words and feel these unpleasant feelings, I am suddenly making an association with the claustrophobia I have often experienced and the extreme displeasure I feel if anyone tries to hold me in place or confine/constrain me in any way. These are new associations I’ve never made before. I’ve never spoken to anyone about these memories or the associations I just made about them.

Neither of my experiences were as harmful as the explicitly and repeatedly sexual abuse stories that the female gymnasts endured from Larry Nasser. Suddenly I can see and understand exactly why these girls said nothing and continued to endure his misconduct. It is sad to understand how gagged they must have felt.

It is imperative that there are safeguards established to make sure these types of abuses can never happen again.

With empowered  words and in solidarity,                                                                                                                                    Cindy




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