The Ability to Withstand

The blinds were supposed to be closed.  School shooter policies, my boss reminded me with a chuckle. Then he patted me on the knee. He placed his hand on my knee. On my shoulder. On the edge of the desk. Back on my knee. His knee. His hand was warm, too warm, sweaty. 

I wasn’t worried about school shooters.

Last month, a friend sent me an article from The New York Times. The article, in its flat, reporterly style, recounted the criminal charges against Lawrence G. Nassar, a doctor who had worked with USA Gymnastics since 1986.  Doctor Nassar has been charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving at least seven athlete victims, some as young as ten years old. I read the whole article in a furious gulp, then I read it again.

My boss never knew when to shut up. Even his most basic instructions came in non-sequitur rambles, and disjointed turns of phrase. He’d start in one direction, retract, start a parable, circle back, finish one thought. Eventually, he’d wrap back around to the original point. He did this from day one, when he interviewed me for the position. I wanted the job: adjunct paralegal instructor. He talked through most of my interview, and in one short ramble, mentioned how young and pretty I was, and I thought:  Easy. Just smile and nod.

At work, I tried to keep smiling and nodding, but his hands. And worse than his hands: his mouth. He kept saying that I wasn’t in trouble. I wasn’t in trouble with him, anyway, and he was the only one that mattered. 

I’m your daddy, he said.

Victims were told Dr. Nassar's "digital penetration" was part of their treatment. I tried not to think about what that sentence meant, but I couldn't keep the images out. Strong, muscular girlbodies and this doctor's hands. Of course he told them his fingers were part of their treatment, that it was just another thing they had to try to get better.

Did he just call himself my daddy? I looked at the cloth cubicle wall behind him. Gray. I looked over his left shoulder, and I thought about what to do. If I ran, screaming, I’d look hysterical. He was just a kindly, older man with bad boundaries. He was a lawyer. He knew better. He could have been my father. He’d taken an interest in helping me. He was probably trying to help me. If I sat and let it happen, maybe we could then pretend it hadn’t happened. Maybe he’d be embarrassed and forget that he said it. Maybe I could forget that he said it. Maybe it would go away.

A victim in the case said, via affidavit, that as a competitive gymnast, she was under intense pressure to get better as quickly as possible.

Emily Falkowski

Emily Falkowski

You know: ice baths, kinesio tape, chalk, and your doctor's fingers.  

For about five years, I was a child gymnast with a Mary Lou Retton poster on my wall, and a drawer full of leotards. I loved it, even if I wasn’t gifted. I worked hard. My body could defy gravity. Often, I fell. Sometimes, I cried. Once, I couldn't stop crying after a fall, and my coach said,  no blood no pain, and sent me back to the mat. My mother pulled me out of gymnastics because of that. She told me that was sick.

At nearly thirty, I was a lowly adjunct, but I was happy to be doing what I'd set out to do: teaching college. I worked in a for-profit, professional college, but I loved my students, and my classes. I was a good teacher. My students told me so, and my courses were popular. I wouldn’t have said everything was perfect, but I could have been happy, I thought, if it weren’t for the hands and the comments. I could have been happy if my boss didn’t take quite such an interest in personally correcting my most insignificant mistakes. Teaching college was the most goal-like thing I’d had in a decade, since my last dream went catastrophic. After that, I was uncomfortable with outlandish dreams; I was a cynical realist. Skittish when asked to think big. But this wasn't a big institution, and my role wasn't anything fancy. Still. It mattered to me. It felt important.

A source quoted in the New York Times article estimated that every single women's gymnastics team since 1996 had at least one member that he did this to. In related, but separate criminal complaints, Dr. Nassar is being charged with sexually abusing a family friend, possessing thousands of child pornographic images, as well as videos of himself molesting girls.

I finished the article, and the word on my mind was: endurance. Sometimes it means permanence; like the legacy of Mary Lou Retton. Sometimes it means the ability to withstand and sustain a prolonged or stressful activity. Mary Lou Retton’s coach -- the famous Béla Károlyi -- made his practices into a mock-Olympics, to teach his gymnasts to survive the experience before they ever had to. Sometimes endurance means suffering. No blood, no pain.

All the gymnasts went to Dr. Nassar, and he was like a god to them, the victim said. He was like a god. 

You’re not in trouble about the blinds, he went on. I’m the only one that can discipline you and this is not that. This is not me taking you to the woodshed, he said. This is not me taking you to the woodshed, and I’m the only one that can do that, you see? I’m your daddy. Nobody else.


Marissa's featured column Backbone is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. More of her work can be found in The Rumpus, The Manifest Station, Nailed Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, and The Establishment, among others. Her essay, "No, Lolita," was named one of Entropy Magazine's Best Online Articles & Essays of 2016. Her poetry has been anthologized in Only Light Can Do That (PEN/ The Rattling Wall 2016) and Things I Have to Tell You (Candlewick, 1998). Marissa is currently writing a collection of lyric essays and revising an experimental memoir. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler.