Friday, October 19, 2018

Abuse survivor confronts gymnastics doctor: ‘I have been coming for you for a long time’

Two yearbook photos floated side-by-side on a projection screen in the Michigan courtroom.

Both images caught the same small girl - in one, all gawky smile and bangs; the next, braces and long hair - a few years apart. Until this week, the child in the snapshots had been officially identified only as "Victim Z.A." or "a family friend."

But on Tuesday, Kyle Stephens, now a grown young woman, stepped out from the curtain of anonymity to directly address disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar before a judge in Lansing.

"I was the first to testify in this case, and worried of the attention that could come of that, I asked for complete anonymity," Stephens explained, the pictures of her projected over her shoulder stemming from the time of her abuse. "I’m addressing you publicly today as a final step and statement to myself that I have nothing to be ashamed of."

Stephens was the first of the nearly 100 survivors expected to testify at a four-day sentencing hearing for Nassar this week in state court. Last November, the 54-year-old pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree sexual conduct with minors. Nearly 140 other survivors have accused the former Michigan State University faculty member of assault, including Olympic superstars Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.

In a separate federal case in December, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography charges.

"Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever," Stephens told Nassar, according to news video. "They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world."

But unlike other identified victims, Stephens’s abuse did not involve elite athletics. A close friend of her family, Nassar began assaulting Stephens when she was in kindergarten. When she told her parents about the abuse, they believed Nassar.

In a case dominated by celebrity victims and open questions about USA Gymnastics’s response to the scandal, Stephens’s powerful leadoff testimony this week underscored the human toll of Nassar’s runaway abuse - which, for Stephens, included broken family ties and possibly her father’s suicide.

"I have been coming for you for a long time," she told Nassar, who hid his eyes beneath his hand through the testimony. "I’ve told counselors your name in hopes they would report you. I’ve told your name to child protective services twice. I gave a testament to get your medical license revoked. You were first arrested on my charges. And now as the only nonmedical victim to come forward, I testify to let the world know you are a repulsive liar."

Stephens told the court her mother and father became close to Nassar and his wife, Stephanie, when Stephens was five. "They were all medical professionals and shared a passion for the subject," she said. "Most Sundays, Stephanie and my mother would cook dinner for both families. We shared sporting events, holidays, and many weekends in between."

At the time, she was a typical child, Stephens explained. Her favorite television show was "Clifford the Big Red Dog;" her favorite book was "Junie B. Jones;" she had not yet lost all her baby teeth.

All this shattered, Stephens said, when Nassar first exposed his genitals to her in the dark boiler room of his house’s basement when she was only six. "He told me, ‘If you ever want to see it, all you have to do is ask.’"

Stephens described an escalating pattern of abuse: Nassar started masturbating in front of the child; he rubbed his exposed genitalia on her bare feet; he penetrated her vagina with his fingers. "All of which took place with my parents, my sibling, his wife and his children in the same house," she said.

When she was 12-year-old, thanks to news accounts of the Catholic Church priest abuse and a friend’s own story about molestation, Stephens realized what was happening. She told her parents about what Nassar had been doing to her. Her parents confronted their friend.

"Due to complex details that I won’t get into here, my parents choose to believe Larry Nassar over me," she said. Convinced their daughter had made a false allegation against a friend, Stephens’s parents brought Nassar over to their home to speak to her. Nassar told her, "No one should ever do that, and if they do, you should tell someone," Stephens told the court.

The fallout from her confrontation with Nassar and her parents was its own tormenting ordeal. The father-daughter connection frayed. "His belief that I lied seeped into the foundation of our relationship," she said. "Every time we got into a fight, he would tell me, ‘You need to apologize to Larry.’"

Then a year after her accusation, the two families began interacting again. The Nassars continuously asked Stephens to babysit for their own three children. As she explained to the court, when she was at the Nassars, she wasn’t the lying daughter, but accepted. "I began to feel brainwashed," she said. "It was as if I had never accused him. I felt I was losing my grip on reality. I started to question whether the abuse ever happened."

For her own sanity, Stephens forced herself to replay her molestation step by step in detail "so I didn’t forget that I was not a liar." Suicidal and traumatized, she also sought out mental health treatment, but she could not turn to her parents for help; rather she was forced to "search for grants, participate in post-traumatic studies, ask for sliding scales, and babysit for the Nassars to pay for my own counseling."

Before leaving for college at 18, Stephens confronted her father again about Nassar. "I told him I wasn’t lying," she told the court. This time, he believed her.

"My father and I did out best to patch up our tattered relationship before he committed suicide in 2016," Stephens said, her voice bobbing on a swell of tears. "Admittedly, my father was experiencing debilitating health issues, but had he not had to bear the shame and self-loathing that stemmed from his defense of Larry Nassar, I believe he would have had a fighting chance for life."

In closing her remarks, Stephens asked the judge to sentence Nassar to a minimum of 40 and a maximum of 125 years in prison.

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