This week you have seen glimpses into the most vulnerable aspects of our lives, and you're hearing the abbreviated versions of our otherwise lengthy stories, but as everyone sitting here behind me knows, today is simply one more page of our story. We live the unabridged version every day.
date of testimony: January 23th 2018
location of testimony: Lansing, Michigan
age at first abuse: 20
Your Honor and people of the court, my name is Sterling Riethman, age 25, victim and survivor of Larry Nassar.
As so many have said before, I want to thank you for allowing each of us to speak to our experiences this week as we continue in our process of healing and in our pursuit of truth and justice.
As I’m sure the majority of us can attest to, this is not something I ever imagined myself doing nor ever needing to do. But, here we are. All of our wants and dreams and goals for the future were overridden by one man’s actions with complete disregard for the damage they caused along the way.
While each of us have our own experience and history with Larry, our own set of circumstances that have brought us here today, it is clear that we all have one thing in common, much like we were when we went to see him as patients, we are all hurting in some way or another. We may all be in different phases of our healing process, some farther along than others, but we remain united in the fact that the emotional trauma we have experienced runs far deeper than any of our physical scars that may have once brought us through Larry’s doors.
In an effort to navigate the uncharted territories of this process, I quickly discovered that I find the most healing and comfort through writing. I’ve documented each and every step of this process through countless pages of writing as I continue on this difficult journey. The good days, the bad days, the ever-changing narrative of this incredibly involved case all documented in pages upon pages of thoughts and feelings as I sort through the maze of processing this mess.
So today, Your Honor, instead of choosing to start with a blank slate and write more for the court, I’ve chosen to pick out excerpts from those pages I’ve already written.
Originally written for my eyes only, I’ve now compiled parts and pieces of my experience as a victim to give the court a glimpse into my reality as a survivor of Larry Nassar.
For the longest time, and similar to what a lot of other survivors said, I struggled to accept the fact that I am a survivor of sexual assault. As cliched as it may be, I had grown up watching countless episodes of Law and Order SVU. I was an SVU pro. I was binge watching Law and Order before it was a thing. I was confident I would never be one of those girls like you see on t.v. I would know how to protect myself. I would know what to look out for, and I could avoid sexual assault from being a part of my story.
What I failed to realize, though, is that not all sexual assault is violent. Not all experiences derive from someone being attacked or dragged through a dark alley or overpowered through sheer muscle and force against their will. I never once considered that I could be deceived, manipulated, and outsmarted so horrendously that I would willingly drive myself to the office of my abuser time and time again. I never once considered that being sexually abused while I still had acupuncture needles in my spine would ever be an option. I never once considered how much danger I was in when I had originally felt so secure.
Recognizing that I needed to come to terms with this, with the fact that I was so blind-sided by his power, his reputation, and the promise to fix my injuries that I couldn’t recognize his actions as abusive and criminal, was an unimaginable task to face.
To top it all off, while I had met Larry when I was around ten years old, I was not a minor when he abused me. I was 20 years old.
Our society tells you at the age of 18 you’re supposed to have the world figured out now that you’re a legal adult, and here I was dumb enough to allow someone to use my body for his own sexual pleasure without me even knowing. My confidence was shattered and my self worth was crushed. I could no longer trust my own judgment, my decision making skills, or my ability to differentiate between right and wrong.
I didn’t know which way was up. I didn’t know how to approach the world, and I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me in the mirror. So, no, I was wrong. All the Law and Order episodes in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the levels of manipulation involved in this case.
While I still struggle to trust myself and I still struggle to accept this reality that is mine, and, unfortunately, so many others, I have also come to understand that these decisions were his, not mine. I cannot blame myself for trusting my physician to do his job, and I cannot hold myself responsible for his criminal actions. So today I am trusting and encouraging that this court hold him accountable for the many scars he has left us with.
When I first came forward to the police and my lawyers as a victim in this case, I could never have predicted that I would choose to reveal my identity to the world just a few short months later.
I didn’t understand how or why, but for some unexplained reason I knew I had to come forward and speak my truth. I tend to be an all or nothing type person. Recognizing that, I realized I could attempt to find purpose out of this horrible thing that happened to me or I could let it consume me for everything I am. I couldn’t let this be just something horrible that happened without purpose or explanation. I had to find meaning.
Feeling hopeful and terrified I decided to give up my anonymity in early 2017. I mustered the courage to tell my story unapologetically and have continued to do so from that point on. Since doing so, however, I have found I get the question, how do you do it, more often than I ever imagined. I don’t tell you this out of pride or because it’s something to be impressed by. Far from it. I tell you this out of embarrassment and with the wish that people only knew the real circumstances.
People ask how I stay positive and focused as our story continues to evolve, but what those people don’t realize is the sheer muscle it takes in order to face the world with a smile on, to stay focused on the tasks at hand on any given day, and to try and hold on to even a shred of the former me that my friends and family know and love. Those people see the fleeting good moments from an otherwise ugly reality that has been this past year of my life.
They don’t see the frustration, the exhaustion, the sadness, the emotional and physical trauma that haunts my every day and my every move.
They don’t see the days that my husband finds me crying on the floor of our bedroom. They don’t see me hiding in the bathroom at work begging myself to pull it together just to make it through the rest of the day. They don’t see the trembling and shaking that my body has developed as a defense mechanism when I tell my story that can sometimes go on for hours at a time.
They aren’t the ones responding to text messages and Facebook messages from the other girls in this room talking about life at three in the morning like it’s three in the afternoon. They don’t see my Google search history morning, noon, and night reading every word printed that day that may be even remotely relevant as I hope for good news with every day that passes. They don’t see the voice that lingers in the back of my head every time I go to the gym and my back yells at me in the ever-present pain that Larry neglected to heal.
They don’t see my fear of going to bed not just of the insomnia or nightmares that each night brings but because I have no idea what waking up the next day will bring. They don’t see the dramatic way this has changed my day-to-day life, the way it has forever changed the way I see the world, and now how I see my place in it.
Those people see none of it. They see none of it because it is not their burden to bear, it is, unfortunately, ours.
I look back at the beginning of this and who I was before. I had just gotten married, was doing well in my career, and was the happiest I had ever been. I look back at how carefree and light I felt. How easy life felt and how excited I was about the future. I look at myself now in the during and can’t help but feel sorry. I feel sorry for those around me that my spark is gone on any given day and my personality is not the same as it used to be. I feel sorry that I’m exhausted all the time and want nothing to do with making plans or trying new things. I feel sorry for my co-workers that I’m constantly distracted and easily frustrated. I feel sorry for my friends that think they have to walk on egg shells around me just so they don’t say the wrong thing. I feel sorry for my family who is inundated with news articles, constant case updates, and who has to tell me, no more news tonight, as I immerse myself on the couch searching for an update and hoping for progress, and yet through all of this it is the after that keeps me fighting. It is the promise that there is an after. The promise that there is a better tomorrow. It’s the promise to little girls everywhere that I will never stop fighting for you.
It’s not in my nature to complain about how hard this has been. It’s not natural for me to admit that this has been stronger than me at times and that I’m still regaining my strength with every morning that the sun rises. I don’t want to stand here and say that this past year will forever have an asterisk next to it whenever I look back at the chapters of my story. I don’t want to admit to anyone, myself in particular, that this man has affected me in a way that has forever changed me. Instead, I want to stand here and say that I’m going to be fine. That I’m going to be more than fine. That I’m going to be great. That I’m going to do amazing things and create a better future. That I’m going to be happy and carefree and living the life I want to lead. And then I pause for a moment and I realize that these things are a work in progress, and I have to say these things in the future tense as opposed to the present.
I have to now set goals for the future and to live my own life, to take back what’s mine, to reclaim me. I understand I have to say these things today as I look towards the future to protect myself and to protect others, and I do so willingly and with a sense of purpose like I never knew before, but that doesn’t make it easier to swallow.
Had MSU and USAG taken the reports of Larry’s abuse seriously from any number of the women who came forward all those years ago, I would never have walked through his doors. I certainly wouldn’t be standing here today, and hundreds of lives could have been spared from damage.
It never had to get to this devastating point. I could be whole. I could be pain-free. I could be any number of things, but, unfortunately, that’s a chapter from a different book, a story never to be told. Instead, because of Larry, the very basics of a normal life are now an uphill battle staring us in the eye.
We now have to use our voices and experiences to protect the little girls of tomorrow from watching their heroes turn into predators, and we have to put ourselves back together in the process.
I look around this room and I am in complete awe. These women, these warriors give me life. They lit a fire inside me that I didn’t even know existed, and while I’m incredibly sorry for the circumstances that brought us together, I am nothing but grateful for how much they inspire me and fuel me to continue on in this fight against predators and their enablers.
Putting names with faces and faces with stories we are yet again reminded that Larry did not violate Jane Doe. He did not sexually assault Jane Doe with acupuncture needles in her spine time and time again. He violated real little girls and real women. Well, those little girls and women are here today, and we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, time’s up. The truth will come out.
The New York Times, in fact, recently released an ad speaking to these issues; a simple white background with black text, he said, she said. He said, she said. He said, she said, she said, she said a million times strong. And it goes on to say, the truth has power. The truth will not be threatened. The truth has a voice.
And you know what I love about that ad, besides the obvious, of course, it’s black and white. It’s incredibly simple yet incredibly powerful. And as complex as this case has become, the reality is it’s really not that complicated at all. It’s quite simple. It’s quite black and white. You’re either on the right side of the truth or you’re not. There is no in between here.
We’ve chosen our side. We’ve drawn our line in the sand and we’ve made it clear that we choose the right side of the truth forever and ever amen. We’ve made it clear that one sexual assault is one sexual assault too many.
Michigan State, where do you stand? USAG and the USOC, where do you stand? We know where Larry stood and look where we are today.
People talk about how you wanted to leave a legacy, Larry, change the world of sports medicine and leave your mark on USA Gymnastics. Well, take a look around. I think it’s safe to say you’ve succeeded in that endeavor.
Before this experience we were strangers passing on the street, but now this past week I’ve witnessed strangers hugging strangers. I’ve seen people comforting each other not because of familiarity of face but because of familiarity of pain. I’ve seen people going out of their way to help each other simply because it’s the right thing to do. You’ve changed the way we interact and the way we face each obstacle in front of us. You have successfully created an army of warrior women dedicated to changing the world.
Unfortunately for you, though, the very thing you created spiraled out of your control. This army you have created, this army doesn’t have a white flag to waive. We are here to show you, MSU, USAG, the USOC, the entire world there is no white flag to waive when it comes to protecting little girls and their futures. We’re 150 women strong and counting, and let me tell you, this army isn’t going anywhere.
People have often asked if I’m angry or what I need to find peace and closure. I can tell you this, I am not angry. I am not bitter. I do not wish you ill will. I don’t need anything from you.
I don’t need an apology, and I don’t need an explanation. What I need is accountability. What I need is the promise that no one else will ever have to endure the vast systemic failures that we endured. What I need is systemic change at the highest levels to end the culture of abuse that is sweeping our nation.
I believe everything happens for a reason. We may not know and understand that reason right away, but I truly believe that one day it will reveal itself.
As I’ve sat in the courtroom this week listening to survivor after survivor come forward and tell her story, reclaim her strength, I now understand that my 25 years of existence has prepared me for this very moment. I look back at my childhood and I now recognize that so many moments are a piece to this puzzle. As a young middle schooler I volunteered with a non-profit dedicated to helping women and children of domestic and sexual abuse. I went to boarding school as a freshman in high school where I learned to confront my fears and navigate life as an independent adult. In high school I learned to process tragedy through writing as I dealt with the loss of a friend to suicide. It was in high school that I worked to improve as a diver only to get recruited to diving college which is what eventually brought me back to Larry. In college I was a member of the sorority Delta Gamma who’s symbol is the anchor that signifies hope and whose motto is do good.
I graduated from a small but mighty liberal arts college in Ohio. Oddly enough, I graduated with a degree in communication and psychology. Now, if you want to talk about using your degree, let’s just talk about these past 14 months. As you can imagine, pursuing my degree in communication and psychology meant taking several typical courses, but it also meant studying crucial life skills in a more uncommon manner that, unbeknownst to me, would all culminate into one year of my life. I took courses entitled ethics, society and the moral self, communicating kindness, psychology and law, listening, thinking, being, and perhaps the most interesting, abnormal psychology.
Through these courses I learned the difference between hearing and listening. We learned things like the five moral precepts of Buddhism, three of which include no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying.
We learned the importance of listening to learn instead of listening to respond. We got a crash course in the legal system and how the psychological state of a defendant comes into play.
We learned fascinating psychology behind personality disorders, substance abuse disorders, sexual disorders, you name it. We looked at case study after case study identifying disorders, defining abnormalities, and learning the four Ds of abnormal psychology; defiance, dysfunction, distress, and danger.
Little did I know it but I was learning all about Larry and his sexual deviant ways. I was learning about how MSU and USAG have chosen to handle this and enable a culture of abuse within their institutions. I wrote papers, I crammed for exams, I dedicated four years of my life preparing to face this very situation.
I was becoming equipped to handle real life. I was gathering the knowledge and the skill set needed to take my education from beyond a textbook to living my life. My school taught me how to be an autonomous thinker, a discerning moral agent, and an active citizen of our democratic society. And that is how you prepare a student for the world. That is how you lead by example as an educational institution. That is how you care for the youth of America as an organization. You don’t brush your problems under the rug and say that everything is fine. Everything is not fine.
I don’t know about you but everything I’m looking at tells me it’s time for the leadership at Michigan State to go back to school. I finished my time in school as the commencement speaker at my university’s graduation where I wrote a speech entirely about throwing your plan out the window and surrendering to the idea that there may just be a bigger plan at play. When you let go of the rigid plan and structure you think you’re supposed to be following for your life, you might just end up exactly where you were meant to be.
I truly believe for some reason or another that I was meant to be here today. You were meant to get caught. You were meant to be locked up for the rest of your life. MSU and USAG’s culture of enabling predators is meant to end.
As for us, we are meant to thrive. We are meant to be happy. We are meant to put an end to sexual abuse. And so here we are today doing exactly that. We will not rest. Here we are retelling the past, explaining our present, and working towards a better future. We stand here today amongst all of you providing brief looks into our long process of healing and a system that failed us so that little girls tomorrow won’t have to do the same.
Our words today are simply the start. They are merely excerpts we pulled from an otherwise multi-page story that is being added to every day. We will continue to write the pages of our story and the pages of history as we stand in solidarity against sexual abuse.
Maybe one day we will understand the reason behind all of this, maybe we won’t, but I ask you, Your Honor, to listen to these brief excerpts and consider the full draft of this story when contemplating your sentence for Mr. Larry Nassar. I ask he receives the maximum sentence for his actions for reasons you are all too familiar with.
This week you have seen glimpses into the most vulnerable aspects of our lives, and you’re hearing the abbreviated versions of our otherwise lengthy stories, but as everyone sitting here behind me knows, today is simply one more page of our story. We live the unabridged version every day.
Thank you for your time.
THE COURT: Thank you for those words. I know and I can see it in you that some things are hard, to get out of bed, to speak, to work, but you made it through every day and you’ve overridden his story life, let me tell you, and you are better than any of those t.v. girls. You are real. And the thing about you is you talk about fate and having to be here and go through this for a reason.
Interesting to me that your name is Sterling. You have a sterling voice of truth. You are a sterling tower of strength that will not be pulled down.
Judges can’t lie so I’m not going to lie to you.
There is already accountability and there’s going to be more. I know that not because of me but because of all of you and your voice. You’re electrifying. You are great. I know how writing helps. It’s one of the things I do. I also paint.
You might want to try that, but I think that you and your sister survivors should get together and write your story so the whole world never forgets
Media will go away, but I bet there’s little girls who want to hear you, your story, not the t.v. version, and you are such a good author, and look how strong you are.
MS. RIETHMAN: Thank you.
THE COURT: There are not many people that can stand up in a court like this with all this around and do what you just did. You are healing. You are strong. You’re a lightening rod along with your sister survivors. Keep shining. I see the shine back. You said, like others, that you – you don’t shine like you used to. You are shining now.
MS. RIETHMAN: Thank you.
THE COURT: He is not, and I assure you he’ll be in darkness the rest of his life.
Thank you so much for being here. I hope you heal. And leave all that junk here. I’ve said it before, we have good cleaning people, see how much they’ve already cleaned away? You are wonderful.
Keep smiling and do great things in the world. You are bound and destined to do sterling things in the world. Thank you.
MS. RIETHMAN: Thank you very much.