One year later: Nassar victims work to honor the past, change the future
Trinea Gonczar never saw it coming. More than a thousand messages poured into her social media and email accounts after she testified during the fourth day of the Ingham County sentencing hearing for serial pedophile Larry Nassar.
Gonczar thought her message to Nassar about surviving his sexual abuse would reach some of her fellow gymnasts in the Lansing area. Instead, she heard from women all over the world, including one she will never forget: the woman who wrote from Sweden, saying she wouldn't kill herself and would fight harder because Gonczar and the others who had testified were fighting hard, too.
There were others who shaped Gonczar's path, like the 15-year-old girl who attempted suicide twice after she testified against Nassar. Their stories led Gonczar to leave her job at a creative company and begin working for Wayne County SAFE, which provides free counseling and advocacy for sexual assault victims, and processes rape kits.
"Somebody has got to fight for these survivors," Gonczar said. "My sister survivors and every other survivor is why I am never going to stop doing what I am doing."
One year ago today, the criminal proceedings against Nassar ended. He left the Eaton County Courthouse to begin serving one of his three prison sentences that will essentially keep him behind bars for life.
It came after he admitted to his crimes — criminal sexual conduct and child pornography possession — and more than 200 young women testified in two courtrooms over nine days during epic hearings that reverberated around the world.
Since then, it's been a whirlwind of a year for the women who testified against Nassar as they have worked to honor the past and change the future.
The one-year anniversary of Nassar's imprisonment comes on the first day of former Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon's preliminary hearing, in the same Eaton County courtroom, on charges that she lied to police about what she knew about Nassar.
During the past year, the woman who testified again Nassar, dubbed the "sister survivors," have changed laws, started nonprofits, created art and worked to advocate for others and find accountability in the institutions that failed them.
The women who testified also have been recognized in many ways, from the nationally televised ESPY awards to Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman's cameo in Maroon 5's "Girls Like You" video to future books and an upcoming HBO documentary.
The victims also reached a historic $500 million settlement with Michigan State under whichpayments were issued for the first time at the end of last month. But lawyers for Nassar's victims remain in litigation with other institutions they sued for allegedly failing to protect the women: USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Geddert's Twistars USA.
Many agree it's been a roller coaster of a year.
After finally getting justice for women harmed by Nassar's decades of abuse, the Michigan Attorney General launched an investigation into MSU, bringing criminal charges against Simon, former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages and William Strampel, the former dean of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine and Nassar's ex-boss.
The young women endured a year in which many of them felt re-victimized by leaders at Michigan State, especially former interim President John Engler.
But the tone recently began to change. Engler resigned under pressure last month after a string of comments that outraged the victims and their allies. His replacement, acting President Satish Udpa, made his first move last week and dismissed longtime Engler ally Robert Young as MSU vice president and general counsel.
“It’s been an up-and-down year for all the survivors,” said Mick Grewal, an Okemos-based lawyer who represents one-third of the victims. “They got to continue their healing process; however, it did not help having Engler at the helm and did not help having Young at MSU, because change that they thought would occur did not occur.
“This is the first time now, a year later, that they are actually seeing a change of leadership at Michigan State,” Grewal said. “So once again, they remain hopeful with the changes that are there.”
In spite of the lows many have gone through, many are hopeful.
For one victim, Zach Ashcraft, the Nassar scandal and the aftermath helped him find the courage to be who he really is.
Before the hearings, Ashcraft, who is transgender, didn't know any of the other victims. He went to the Ingham County hearings alone and asked someone else to read his statement because he's no longer the young girl he was years ago when he was assaulted by Nassar.
Ashcraft said there is a stereotype around being transgender and a victim of sexual assault, and he didn't want people to think Nassar's abuse led him to transition. But in the last year, his experience with the women who testified against Nassar helped him grow.
"I met a lot of the sister survivors who helped me feel safer and stronger," Ashcraft said. "They accepted me for who I was, and that made me feel good that there are people out there, even though we live in totally different worlds, when we come together we can accept each other for who we really are. And that really made me feel more comfortable with who I am, because it's not easy."
Things changed for him when he was invited to go to Los Angeles last summer to join the victims who were bestowed with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
There, he got to know the other victims during the three days, and they accepted him, he said. When he stepped on stage he realized that he had an army of people who had his back and the work they were doing around sexual assault was bigger than him.
"It was empowering," Ashcraft said. "We are starting a movement. We are changing the world. People are talking about sexual assault. It's being talked about all over the world. And it's not going to stop."
Others named their newborns after people who helped bring Nassar to justice.
Gonczar, who planned to attend the ESPYs, went into labor just beforehand and named her son Ashton — "Ashe" — for short, as her fellow survivors accepted the courage award.
A few months earlier, Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault, gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter she named Elora, and gave her the middle name Renee to honor MSU Detective Lt. Andrea Renee Munford, who helped build the case against Nassar.
In March, when Marta Stern had her first child, she and her husband struggled to find a name. They came up with Rosalind, to honor Rosalind Frankin, a scientist, and also to pay homage to Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who spoke in support of the victims while sentencing Nassar to 40-175 years in prison.
"I remember her being such a support for all of us," Stern said of Aquilina. "She took her time to make sure we were all comfortable. She gave encouraging words to each one of us. She was just very much an advocate for us ...It was her allowing us to speak publicly that started to change the perception of us. People started to listen."
Meanwhile, Alexandra Bourque, a 27-year old Nassar victim from Hamtramck, was creating an art installation for the window of a clothing boutique she opened with her mother and stepfather in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood late last year. She decided to make a dress out of silk butterflies that she dyed different shades of teal, the color symbolizing sexual assault awareness and prevention, among other colors. She needed hundreds of butterflies to create the piece.
"As I was cutting it out, it made me think how many of us it took to get the attention and how many of us it took for us to be heard," Bourque said. "As I was creating the dress, it unveiled itself (that) it was much more about my sisters than it was about the store. It reiterated how much work it took to get to this place, to have a moment of healing."
Bourque didn't tell anyone the piece had anything to do with the case or the other victims. She wrote a letter and put it next to the installation in the shop of her new store, Brightly Twisted, explaining the metaphor behind it.
Her installation got noticed and will be part of an exhibition at the MSU Museum, "Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak," which opens April 16, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and continues through Martin Luther King Day, 2020.
"To know that it is going to have a life after this is an exciting and wonderful feeling," Bourque said.
The pivotal hearings, the recognition and the changes that resulted were monumental for so many others, too. Nassar survivor Grace French capitalized on the momentum and started a nonprofit to create awareness and bring accountability around sexual violence involving athletes.
The nonprofit, the Army of Survivors, has the backing of 40 diverse athletes who were abused by Nassar, plus partnerships with organizations such as the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and Champion Women. One of its projects will include research on sexual violence among athletes.
"This problem is not just with Larry Nassar," said French, a University of Michigan graduate who was assaulted by Nassar when she was a dancer in middle school. "It's something that is created throughout the culture of athletics and not just in elite athletics, but even down to elementary schools.
"It's so important to address that problem, understand where it comes from and what we can do to help instead of putting a Band-Aid over it and create a different culture so this never happens again."