Directed by Erin Lee Carter, At The Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal details the recent USA gymnastics scandal surrounding respected team doctor Larry Nassar. The documentary focuses on the experiences of his many victims, emphasizing the confusion, emotional turmoil, and internal disturbance that the girls faced at the hands of someone so trusted. The film drives home the point that typical abusers and pedophiles are often those who you’d least expect: those who have constant access to children. A review by Variety magazine exclaimed, “Dr. Larry Nassar was the prototypical wolf in sheep’s clothing, a respected physician, community figure, and friend who exploited the trust of children and adults alike in order to perpetrate sexual assaults against young female gymnasts.” And that is precisely what is so incredibly jarring and disturbing about the situation; these hundreds of girls were abused at the hands of the person they trusted most. It was also confusing because more often than not, the girls’ parents were in the room, so any humiliation or alarm they felt was quelled by the assurance that “he was a doctor.” The documentary stresses how deeply this trust ran, with many of the girls admitting that though they had been frequent victims of Nassar’s “treatment technique”––involving vaginal penetration that he assured them was for medical purposes––they still found themselves in disbelief when Nassar was publicly outed in 2016.
A major point that Carter made in the documentary was the systemic corruption in the Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics community that allowed for this abuse to continue on for so long. There are two factors that explicitly allowed for the perpetuation of Nassar’s abuse; first, gymnasts are trained from a very young age to silently endure discomfort and push through pain if they want to make it to the next level. Several of the girls recall coaches’ attempts to keep them in a pre-pubescent state through harsh and rigid training schedules, and specifically spoke to the point that they were expected not to object or make it known when they experienced pain, or to question authority. This silent suffering, coupled with Nassar’s highly regarded and well-established reputation, caused coaches and administrators to continue hiring the criminal even after several gymnasts had complained about his techniques.
The abuse was finally brought to light at a level outside of the gymnastics community by Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast and abuse victim. After the publishing of her story, hundreds of girls came forward confirming her story and maintaining that they experienced similar abuse. In the months following Denhollander’s statement, a police search of the Nassar household found thousands of images of child pornography, which further cemented the girls’ position. The final part of the documentary surrounds Nassar’s criminal prosecution, particularly the Victim Impact Statements that Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed each girl––including notable gymnasts such as Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Mikaela Maroney––to share.
The emotional anguish of each victim with the reading of her statement is extremely powerful throughout the last third of the documentary. Some three hundred young women who read statements were given the chance to grasp the strength Nassar took from them. Carter does an incredible job of balancing emotion with the optimism of positive change going forward, juxtaposing the distress of the statements with the subsequent triumph of Nassar’s sentence. At The Heart of Gold raises necessary awareness surrounding an issue that is all too prominent in our society, especially in the context of the recent #MeToo movement. It is my hope that more films and books like Carter’s reach the public sphere in order to shed light on this issue and help to change the system for the future.
Content Warning: At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal contains details of sexual abuse some may find disturbing. Sensitive viewers be advised. For further support, Brown’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Sexual Harassment & Assault Resources & Education (SHARE) advocates, and Brown’s Sexual Assault Response Line (401-863-6000) are available.