I think all of us have seen some of the videos over the past couple of weeks of the more than 150 victim impact statements of the women gymnasts who stood up against Larry Nassar. It was an avalanche of honesty from these exceptional women about what they have struggled through and overcome.
In case you don’t know about this for some reason, Larry Nassar was the doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, and he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing girl gymnasts. He was sentenced to 175 years in prison, and Judge Rosemarie Aquilina called it her “great pleasure” to sentence him.
Some criticized Judge Aquilina for allowing the victims to make impact statements, which is so interesting because making an impact statement is usually one of the only rights a victim has in a criminal proceeding, and it is a crucial right. Judge Aquilina, to my understanding, would have actually had to violate the victims’ rights to keep them from speaking. And, yet, some sided with Nassar, saying it was excessive for him to have to listen to the women he abused talk. If that doesn’t show the power of talking about abuse, I don’t know what does! Although I believe Judge Aquilina was legally required to let the victims give impact statements, the respect she gave to the women making statements is something I truly admire.
Watching the news headlines come through, and the victim impact statements, got me thinking a lot about making our voices heard and what it feels like to be the first one to speak up. I kept looking at articles about Rachael Denhollander who is being called “the first woman to accuse Nassar,” but really it is clear she is not. She was not the first woman to accuse him or to speak out about him – she was the first to have someone with a public platform listen to her. She may have been the first to write a letter to a news outlet – the first to “go public.” But, it seems clear that girls were talking about his abuse long before she wrote her letter to the Indianapolis Star.
So, who was the first to speak out really? In my experience of working with women who have faced the challenge of sexual assault and harassment, every one of them was the first to speak out. We think of the first to speak out against violence and oppression they have experienced as the bravest one – the one who really fought through the fear of hitting resistance. I think that creates the impression that once one person tells her story, it becomes easy for everyone else.
That misses something fundamental about the way our brains work. Our brains are always trying to protect us by seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and conserving energy (the “Motivational Triad”). One way our brains do this is by convincing us that we are different that other people. “The other girls might have been safe when they spoke out,” our brains say, “But you are going to be ridiculed and kicked out of the tribe.” We think there is something different about us and our experience.
Every voice that speaks out against abuse and oppression is important. And the gathering voices of women rising up creates a united force. But, at the same time, every woman who speaks out about her personal experience is the first to speak about that. Every woman who speaks out and shares something true, vulnerable, and strong about herself does something for the first time.
Judge Aquilina honored Rachael Denhollander by saying, “You started the tidal wave. You made all of this happen. You made all of these voices matter. Your sister survivors and I thank you.” What a lovely way to honor the importance of speaking out.
And I say each woman who tells her own story starts a tidal wave of her own. Rachael Denhollander’s bravery was a pivotal moment in creating safety for female athletes in our country. She is a true hero. And so was the next woman who was the first to speak out about her abuse at the hands of Nassar. And so was the next woman who was the first to speak out.
Each of us is the first to speak out about our own experience. It feels like turning around to confront a giant grizzly bear because that is the only move you have left. After our brains have tried to protect us in every way possible by forcing us to hide and ignore abuse, there comes a point where the hiding and staying quiet is actually a bigger threat than what our brains see as the grizzly bear – speaking out. We think, “Man, I might die anyway if I keep trying to ignore this. I think I have to do something.” And then, when we actually speak out, we realize we were strong enough all along and there is nothing the abuser could do that is as bad as our brains imagined up.
Each time I see a woman speak out, I can see how she confronted the grizzly bear and won. It is such a beautiful thing to see.
So how do we do it? We start by not believing our brain's attempts to blame us for someone else's bad behavior. We train our brains to work for us instead of against us. We look for evidence that people have listened to us in the past and that even when they have tried to ignore us, we made them listen. We let ourselves be afraid, and we speak out anyway. We are courageous and it is worth it.
I teach my clients how to speak out in a way that uses their harasser’s bad behavior in their own favor. If you want to learn more, I would love to send you a free copy of my book, Career Defense 101: Is Your Career Safe From Sexism. Reserve your copy here.