After I graduated from college, I made it to the final round of interviews for an administrative assistant job in the Office of the President. I remember meeting with then-president Lou Anna K. Simon and talking about her needs from someone in the position and challenges to be expected. I remember being struck by the apathy with which she talked about issues like Black Lives Matter and the loss of safe spaces for women on campus. As if the students and community members protesting these issues were an inconvenience, not valid voices to be heard. As if the students it was her job to support and protect were getting in the way of a relaxing year. I did my best to smile and nod as one does in an interview (especially with the president of one’s alma mater), but let’s be honest: I am not Boyfriend. I suck at poker.
I didn’t get the job.
A month or so later, Rachael Denhollander filed a police report against Larry Nassar on the day I started my first full-time job. A couple of weeks after that, her interview with the IndyStar was published. By now, most of us know how Larry Nassar’s story ended.
I’ve thought a lot about that interview with President Simon in recent days, and how grateful I am to have been passed up for that job. Because I would have been the one responding to that correspondence (or, perhaps, simply turning away as if it was an annoyance). I would have been the one putting words to the face of an administration I cannot support.
I’ve thought about when I was in 8th grade and learned my outer labia were detaching from my body. About how terrifying it was to know my doctor, a man, was going to examine me “down there.” About how sick it is that I call myself lucky because he explained what he needed to do, asked questions, ensured my comfort, gloved and lubricated his hands, showed my mother (with my consent) everything he was doing so she could understand as she held my hand. Who left the room when the exam was done so I could put my clothes back on and have a minute to cry because I was scared. Who explained to me (in a way a 14-year-old girl can understand) what was happening to my body and explained how it could be healed. Who asked me if I had a preference of a female or male gynecologist, and got me an appointment with one that day. Who gave me the gift (which should be a given, not a gift) of doing everything right to soften the inevitable trauma I still carry with me, despite his professionalism and compassion.
I’ve thought about the ER nurse I met in the summer after my sophomore year of high school, the year I had my first panic attack. I remember describing to her a friend who put his hand down my shirt when I was asleep on the couch. Who, when I woke up and asked what he was doing, said, “Come on. There’s no way you could have been sleeping through that.” Who said, “You just looked so good in that new dress. What did you expect me to do?” Who said, “Just don’t tell your mom about this.” Who, years later, Facebook messaged me when I removed him from my friends list and said, “Oh, I guess we aren’t friends anymore.” The ER nurse listened to me and said, “You know that’s sexual assault, right? It might be a good idea to talk to a therapist.”
I’ve thought about my senior year of high school, and the boy who stripped himself down in his bed and laughed at me when I asked him to cover himself. Repeatedly. Who laughed when I turned away and held my hands up, saying I wasn’t ready for this. Repeatedly. The boy who had continued to press, saying he thought I would “really like” oral sex and that “this was a mature relationship” so I should stop acting like a child. Who Facebook messaged my mother when we broke up to say, “Remember there are two sides to every story.”
I’ve thought about the times when I was a student at Michigan State University, receiving unsolicited vulgar text messages from boys who I had only ever exchanged class notes with. When boys got angry at me for not feeling the same way about them that they did about me, saying, “You’re never going to find someone who would be as good to you as me. Do you think [he] cares about you? He doesn’t. He can never give you what you need.” The unwelcome advances from coworkers I didn’t know how to stop or was too afraid to say, “This is wrong” to; advances I inadvertently became complicit in because I couldn’t figure out why it felt so wrong until it was too late. Because I was tricked into believing that kind of sexual attention was the same as caring about me as a person. Because I was afraid that if I said “stop” I would lose the friend I never really had.
I’ve thought about how I am still sometimes nervous when Boyfriend touches me unexpectedly because I carry these wounds and more, like most women I know. I feel the betrayal and pain of these experiences every time there is a new allegation of assault in this seemingly unending barrage of men who don’t know a woman’s body is not theirs to take. Who don’t know the difference between fear and consent. Who don’t seem to know how to not use their power to grab whatever they want and pretend it’s not a human person and life that hangs in the balance.
No story of abuse or assault is easy to stomach, but the story of Nassar’s victims (because it is their voices and their stories I care about, not his) feels particularly heinous. Perhaps it is because there’s a special cruelty in exacting these wounds upon children. Perhaps it is because of the sheer number of victims who have come forward (because we are kidding ourselves if we think their voices are the only ones that make up this tale). Perhaps it is because this happened in my hometown, at my alma mater. Perhaps it is because of any number of these factors and more.
I suspect, however, the pain is just as much caused by the MSU administration’s utter lack of ownership for their role in this terrible, terrible scandal. The fact that every opportunity for our so-called leaders to own up to how badly they failed these women and this university was instead used as another opportunity to deflect blame with heartless platitudes and martyr-like cries of scapegoating. The fact that coaches were approached as early as 1997. The fact that young girls’ stories were brushed off as unimportant or dramatic, as is so often the case when those who are abused try to come forward. The fact that these victims who have grown into strong and resilient warriors were told they didn’t understand instead of being asked to explain further so the adults could understand.
But, if I’m honest, the problem is that these leaders didn’t want to understand. Because comfort and power are so often more important than protecting our most vulnerable. Because it is easier to silence those whose voices are quiet instead of amplifying them to reveal the truth. Because, as far as we’ve come as a society, we still do not see women as equal players. Even if we are not like Larry Nassar, taking pleasure from a body that we view only as an object to control, we may be like the at least 14 leaders who were warned, shrugging away the complaints of a child instead of facing the possibility that a friend and colleague is abusing their power. Why is it so easy to deny the warnings of abuse to protect our own comfort?
After the November election, I remember reading a quote: “Many countries have bad leaders. That does not make their citizens bad.” It has been brutal to reconcile the MSU I call home with the MSU that enabled this tragedy for almost as long as I have been alive. I stood before families as a campus tour guide, promising them it was a safe place for their daughters to call home. Promising that the Spartan family takes care of each other. I still want to believe that, despite the systemic failure of my alma mater’s leadership, the MSU I know, love, and believe in is still there. It is there in the student vigils, in the faculty leadership calling for change, in the Rock painted with the names of the women who are so much more important than this cruel man.
I believe in the power of my MSU to cleanse the darkness of complacent and complicit leadership that enables predators like Nassar and ignores the voices of women like Rachael Denhollander until it is too late. I think about how different this story may have been if Kathy Klages hadn’t been afraid to see what was right in front of her in 1997. But that is not the world we live in. I call upon my alma mater to be unafraid of holding this lacking administration accountable. Every. Single. Person. Who knew something, who suspected something, who silenced something. This is the only way to move forward.
The time has passed to scoff at the hard work we know must be done to change our culture and thus change these outcomes. This is not just an MSU problem. This is a university problem. This is a United States problem. This is a systemic problem that has manifested itself in all its intensity and ugliness through the story of an Olympic doctor who exploited our society’s flaws and was allowed to get away with it. Call upon leaders of all ranks to do better, so one day our women (and all people) do not have to live in fear that this is the only fate they can expect.