Twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend, Jim, donned a pair of white surgical gloves to contend with something related to our dog. I don’t remember what. I only remember how he slipped the latex over his hand and then flicked the ends of each finger.
To which I replied: “Are you gonna stick your finger up my butt like Dr. S. used to?”
Jim, puzzled, laughed awkwardly, figuring I’d made a weird off-color joke he didn’t understand. I, too, chuckled, equally confused. But then I thought about it for a few minutes and started to realize where that blurt came from.
“No, really,” I said. “Dr. S. used to do that every time I went to see him when I was a little kid.”
At the time, Jim was applying to medical school. My statement made absolutely no sense at all to him, but it was a very specific, clear memory for me—Dr. S.’s fleshy face, the exam room in his house in a leafy Long Island neighborhood, the white surgical gloves, the way he flicked his fingertips and then the cool, harsh sensation of something entering my rectum. “This will only take a moment,” he’d say. I cannot remember how long it took, but I do remember that it happened regularly when I saw him. I associated visiting the doctor with this uncomfortable, but apparently necessary, experience. I also hated getting shots or having blood drawn, but my parents said I sometimes had to endure that. Medical care, I accepted, was occasionally painful.
Jim called his mother, a family-practice nurse, and asked her if my story was logical. The antiseptic, technical terms he used when he got off the line seared in my memory: “Mom says there is no reason a pediatrician would routinely perform a digital rectal examination on a young boy unless there is a sphincter tone issue.” There wasn’t.
Not knowing what to do with that information, I put it back in a deep recess of my brain where it remained until this January, when I found myself covering the weeks-long victim impact testimonials of more than 160 young women and girls at the two sentencing hearings of disgraced Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for the Reuters wire service.
“You are a doctor, you took an oath to do no harm and you have harmed over 256 women, and that is beyond comprehension.”
On Monday, Judge Janice Cunningham of Eaton County, Michigan, handed Nassar his second 40-to-125-year sentence. The 54-year-old had received the same punishment on similar charges in neighboring Ingham County on January 24 after agreeing to plead guilty in both counties where abuse occurred. He will serve his state sentences concurrently, if he somehow survives the 60-year sentence in federal prison he began last year for possessing thousands of digital images of child pornography.
The abuse stories told in court were largely similar: Nassar was a respected physician who performed digital vaginal intrusions and called it cutting-edge medicine. Many times, parents were present in the exam room but didn’t learn what had happened until years later when, like me, the victims were able to look back with adult hindsight and realize how bizarre and agonizing those moments were.
In the media overflow rooms at the Nassar sentencings, fellow journalists approached the testimony with reverence, respect and dismay. But they also asked a lot of understandable questions amongst themselves about how Nassar’s abuse could have gone on so long, how it could have involved so many victims—more than 250 at most recent count, Michigan prosecutors say—and how parents and coaches could have been so ignorant.
Yet nobody has discussed openly just how deviant the Nassar abuse is from more familiar examples of sexual abuse and assault. “Normal” sexual abuse involves some obvious, evident effort by the perpetrator to pleasure himself. It usually features sexual activity of a more “conventional” sort—oral, vaginal or anal sex or masturbation.
No victim of Nassar has said he showed her his penis, although some said they felt his erection. Likewise, I never saw or felt Dr. S.’s penis. He, like Nassar, had a very consistent and specific pedophiliac fetish that was wrong, violating, criminal—and very easily covered up under the cloak of medical care.
When this memory occurred to me 20 years ago, I was baffled—and distrustful of my own recollection. Even with Jim’s mother’s input, I believed that maybe I had misunderstood something or that my mind was playing tricks on me. What’s more, these incidents were already at least 15 years old. At some point, we moved on to another doctor and, frankly, my memory of Dr. S. was that he was quite old even when he saw me.
He was probably dead, I assumed then, and I had grown up to be an emotionally healthy, proud and out gay man. I felt like I was supposed to feel damaged or angry, but I just didn’t. I never developed a distrust of men or of doctors, and I had no previously unexplained physical problems to trace to this.
As it happened, I learned last week via Google, Dr. S. actually died about five years after I first fully remembered this as an adult. Dr. S. also owned a sleepaway summer camp that I attended for a summer. I don’t recall ever seeing Dr. S. for medical purposes there, but I have wondered if other victims might have come into contact with him there.
I debated whether to name Dr. S. now, to see if there were other victims who might affirm my experience or need to have theirs affirmed. Yet I can’t. I found his and his wife’s obituaries, and reading the lists of their children and grandchildren made him seem more real to me than he had in decades. He’s no longer around to deny it, admit it, apologize for it or pay for it. I assume his descendants loved him; he seemed well-regarded by his synagogue and other respectable civic institutions. It takes extreme courage to take all of that on, and for now it’s enough for me to have disclosed publicly something I’ve never told my own family about.
I felt like I was supposed to feel damaged or angry, but I just didn’t.
My experience didn’t leave me with any trauma that I can detect, but it did provide insight into those nagging questions about Larry Nassar and why he got away with his abuse for as long as he did. We trust our doctors implicitly, probably even more than our clergy, because we rely on physicians to apply complex science to our bodies in a way that most of us are not equipped to understand. If it’s uncomfortable or painful or involves parts of our bodies we’ve been taught to defend or cover up, they are the one exception we allow.
“Among all of the professionals, we are above all taught to trust doctors, especially people known as world-class doctors,” said Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis, the lead prosecutor, in her summation to Judge Cunningham minutes before Cunningham handed down her sentence on Monday.
Cunningham echoed this key element of betrayal, too, reminding Nassar: “You are a doctor, you took an oath to do no harm and you have harmed over 256 women, and that is beyond comprehension.”
This, to me, is a key overlooked legacy of the Nassar story. Yes, it’s important to assess and punish the many enablers who provided this particular monster endless opportunities to harm his female patients. But beyond him, beyond Michigan State University or U.S.A. Gymnastics or the U.S. Olympic Committee, are much harder questions to answer: How much sexual abuse is misunderstood and permitted because it takes place in a medical setting? How do we demystify and destigmatize that without making our kids fearful of people that they need to be able to trust with their lives?
When you search online for information about what to do if you think you’ve been sexually assaulted, you’re told, among other things, to see a doctor. But what if a doctor is the one you think is violating you? Then what?
As of right now, nobody seems to have a clear answer to that.