USA Gymnastics alum Rachel Haines did not know that she was a victim (and now survivor) of Larry Nassar until other survivors went public with their descriptions of his abuse. Because of this, she preaches the importance of sharing and uplifting survivor stories because “it’s the stories that serve as lessons for other women.” In other words, by hearing what is considered unacceptable and what is abuse, we can all identify problematic situations where sexual abuse is occurring but doesn’t necessarily fit popular culture's narratives of what it looks like or what type of person commits abuse.
Rachel turned her own story of survival into a memoir, Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault in a Toxic Gymnastics Culture. More recently, Rachel uplifted the importance of survivor stories during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in her blog, Why we still need to hear survivor stories. We checked back in with Rachel to learn more about the transformative and yet painful process of writing her book and asked what she hopes that readers take away from her story.
What made you decide to write a book?
My story actually began as a coping method for all of the emotions I was feeling at the beginning of the trial. My head was just overflowing with anxiety, sadness, anger, and tension, and the only way I felt I could keep those feelings from overpowering my ability to get on with daily life was to get them out onto paper. Slowly, it turned into this reflective writing about how I was shaped into the perfect victim for Larry Nassar to manipulate. I didn't decide to turn it into a book until my journal surpassed 100 pages.
How has writing this book been transformative for you?
My book became my ultimate route to the healing that I needed in order to begin to forgive Larry. Reflecting on my feelings, my trauma, and my faith made me realize that I am so much stronger than what happened to me, and that other survivors are so much stronger than their abusers.
Did anything about the process surprise you?
I was surprised that the actual process of publishing my book was more difficult than writing it. I felt that I didn't have control over the way my book would appear. I wanted it to be titled "More Than Survivor 195," as before this book, I was an anonymous survivor. I did not want to be known forever as someone who was a victim, someone who screams "Abused" in big, bold, red lettering. I was surprised at how this title actually reattaches me to my trauma instead of helping me heal from it as I intended. I wish I could say that I was proud of this book, but to be completely honest, I can't look at the cover of it. My copies are all missing their binding. I am, however, proud of my ability to be so open about a topic that has openness as a potential solution.
Did writing this book give you any new perspective or change your understanding about your experiences?
I think the first thing many survivors ask themselves is, "Why me?" I immediately questioned how something so horrible could happen to me, what I did to deserve this, how I didn't see it from the beginning, and more important, why I didn't put a stop to it. My writing helped me to understand that blaming myself was the last thing that I needed to be doing. Nothing was my fault. I was so young, so blinded by trust and authority that there was no possible way I could have known what was happening to me. I was misshaped by my sport to push past pain and discomfort just because someone was telling me to.
Were there times that writing the book or revisiting your experience were challenging? What does your support system look like?
I can't even begin to count the number of times I cried writing my book. Oftentimes I would find myself avoiding writing chapters because I knew they would be challenging. The very last chapter I wrote was "The Trial" because it took me so long to gather up the strength to put those thoughts and emotions onto paper. If it wasn't for my fiancé, that chapter wouldn't even exist. He would sit next to me while I wrote, and let me read paragraph by paragraph out loud to make sure it captured my feelings the way I needed it to.
What advice would you give to someone who isn’t ready to share their story yet?
That it is okay. I think the hardest part of telling your story is accepting that you are a victim in the first place. "Victim" always carried such a negative connotation with me. To me, it meant that I was weak, unable to defend myself, and vulnerable...all the things I have spent my entire life pushing through massive amounts of pain not to be. But that is why I don't call myself a victim; I am a survivor. You are not a victim, either. Survivors are resilient, tough, and triumphant.
What one thing do you hope readers take away from your book?
I have said from the beginning that I want my book to inspire. Whether that means inspiring retired athletes to work through their feelings of a lost identity, or to inspire other survivors to use their voice to spread awareness, that is my ultimate goal. Something crucial I need my readers to understand is that this story is mine, and mine alone. My story does not represent any other gymnasts or survivors, even a survivor of Larry Nassar. We all went through something similar, but never the same.
Your book’s subtitle is “Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture.” What did you find toxic about the gymnastics culture at large, and what advice would you give to someone who feels caught up in a toxic environment?
Gymnastics shapes young women's mentality to believe that power and authority trump morals and comfort, that our worth is dependent on what others think of us, and that deviations from perfection call for fixing. We are judged continuously on our abilities, our appearance, and our talent and never rewarded for effort. Our scoring is based on someone else's opinion on how far away we were from perfection. There is no 3-point line in gymnastics. No field goal posts. It is completely ambiguous. We are left with the mindset that we are always being judged, and that those judgments are never good enough; that we are never good enough because there is always room for improvement to perfection.
To any gymnasts or retired gymnasts out there, you are enough. Stop striving for that "perfect 10.0" lifestyle. There is no medal at the end of every day if you live it perfectly, if you do the most tasks at work, if you make the most money, or if you have the most likes on your social media. It is okay to not be the best. It is okay to have flaws. It is okay to not be perfect.
Rachel Haines was a two-time member of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team, two-time National Champion, and Division I college gymnast at the University of Minnesota. She holds a bachelor’s degree in child psychology and a master’s of education degree in family social science. Haines lives in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. You can find her book, Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault in a Toxic Gymnastics Culture on Amazon.