Betrayals of trust are a special brand of injury with a unique trajectory of psyche pain and enduring effects.
For the past thirty years as a psychotherapist specializing in relational trauma, I’ve worked with individuals who were abused by a “trusted “person. Seldom have I seen such a collective airing of trust betrayals as we’ve seen in the Larry Nassar case.
Over 200 hundred girls were abused by Larry Nassar. The chorus of voices continues to surge. In a piercing harmony, girls and women are telling us their accounts of the abuse they endured by their trusted doctor. Their stories fill the chambers of courtrooms and the faces of victims confronting their perpetrator continue to reach the front pages for all to see. The outpouring of victim statements and testimonies allow Larry Nassar to be held accountable for his crimes. They also provide a unique source of learning for those seeking to better understand the field.
I’m starting to use these narratives in my trainings because they are particularly apt. They raise all the questions: How was this allowed to happen? How could this have been done by him? Gymnastics’ bodies are their instruments of their trade. Their strength and ability to twist and turn is the source of their dreams and aspirations. The girls have uncanny discipline. They train for weeks, months and years to master their art. To reach their Olympics dreams they leave their families for rigorous training required. They rely on the institutions and individuals whose job it is to care for them. Larry Nassar had the responsibility to treat these athletes when their bodies were injured. Their success and well-being depended on him and on his treatment. The Olympic committee believed in him. “Revered,” “a miracle worker” –these were the words many used to describe him.
Nassar is important to study, because he did not just groom his victims, he groomed families, organizations and the entire community in order to continue to have access to the girls while hiding the abuse. He abused his victims under a sheet when their mothers were standing in the room. If that’s not a metaphor for something, I don’t know what is.
After injuring her hip during a competition, 13-year-old Jade was desperate to find a doctor who could help her return to the sport she loved. Jade heard Dr. Larry Nassar was a “miracle worker” who treated Olympic athletes. Jade and 200 others were placed in his hands. Nassar assured them that he would give them the best medical care. He promised these female athletes with their young bodies and extraordinary talent that he would help them attain their cherished dreams.
Ally Riesman, a six-time Olympic medal winner now twenty-three, reflects on her abuse. “Anytime I thought Larry was weird, I just said, ‘Well, he’s a doctor’. I felt bad for thinking badly of him.” Vulnerability, dependency and the belief in a trusted adult set the scene and created ample opportunity for self-doubt, leaving the girls to question their own best instincts. The victims became isolated in their pain and self-doubt.
And here’s why the girls’ narratives are so instructional: Betrayal trauma occurs when a trusted person, someone a person depends on, abuses them. To acknowledge the abuse is incompatible with the desire to experience safety and care. Our normal instinct to be aware of harm, mistreatment, or injustice. But for those who experience betrayal trauma, the recognition of abuse or the extent of the harm being done is trumped by our need to maintain important relationships they depend on.
For Nassar’s victims, much was at stake. The injuries Nassar was changed with treating stood between them and the Olympics. The girls believed he was on their side. He gave them presents and encouraged them when their confidence was at a low. He also placed his fingers ungloved into the girls’ vaginas he told them that this tried and true special procedure would help heal them. It hurt and even repulsed them but this revered doctor was on their team helping them reach their dreams.
“You were not just my doctor you were a trusted friend,” Emily Morales said in the courtroom facing her perpetrator. “You made me feel special; you took care of me when I was injured. I have been in denial for so long. I did not want to believe that you betrayed me and deceived me.”
The psyche is clever, it protects us from devastation of betrayal. A blend of knowing and not knowing about the abuse allows the treasured relationship to continue and allows an illusion of a trustworthiness to persist.
The more isolated and dependent one is on the abuser, the more difficult it is to see the abuser as dangerous and hurtful. Knowing and not knowing is the twilight of interpersonal betrayals.
The odds are stacked against the athletes. The man who claimed to be their savior when they were injured and vulnerable was a child molester in drag.
Abuse perpetrated within a trusted relationship is more harmful than that perpetrated by a stranger. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD), anxiety depression and dissociation are more prevalent.
In situations of abuse, the perpetrator narrates the story. His words, his pleasure, his certainty with his authority. While the abuse continued, everyone seemed to believe Nassar’s version of his story. The victims had no words for what was happening. No one ever told them that some doctors sexually abuse their patients. The perpetrator owns the narrative and the abuse continues from one girl to the next. Each silenced. Often the perpetrators encourage the blame and shame to be placed on the victim, and that’s what happened here.
Betrayal trauma damages the ability to trust and to know whom to trust. In the courtroom Kaylee looked at Larry Nassar and says, “You took away my trust in myself and in others. I questioned if I knew the difference between right and wrong.” The relational impact of abuse committed by someone who is supposed to be trustworthy is cruel and massive.
What’s more, the gymnastics experienced multiple betrayals in addition to Nassar’s. Some tried to tell their story, but it fell on deaf ears. The very institutions the girls relied on for guidance and protection did not protect them. The first time the abuse was reported to someone was 1997. Nassar was convicted of his crimes on January 26, 2018. Institutional betrayals, indifference and cover ups exacerbate psychological effects and damage of the trauma.
But when the victims began to speak in public and name the sexual abuse they experienced behind the closed doors, the trance lifted. The twilight of knowing and not knowing moved to clarity. We can learn from the girls’ narratives not just “how it happened,” but the damage the abuse has done.