How to write a letter to your abuser

By the time she stepped up to the microphone at Larry Nassar's ...

Posted: Jan. 28, 2018 5:59 AM
Updated: Jan. 28, 2018 5:59 AM

By the time she stepped up to the microphone at Larry Nassar's sentencing, Kyle Stephens had spent more than a year preparing to face the disgraced doctor who sexually assaulted her as a child.

She collected memories, thoughts, and pithy one-liners in a file on her computer labeled "impact statement." Then, the night before she was set to deliver her statement, one of her most piercing lines came to her.

It was around 12:30 in the morning and she had reached the end of a paragraph. But it felt unfinished, she said. She thought about the impression she wanted to leave, not only on Nassar and the judge, but on everyone else listening.

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world."

A victim impact statement is essentially a vehicle for victims and survivors to tell a judge how a crime has affected them. But, some of the women at Nassar's hearing said, it can be much more than that. It can be therapeutic, even cathartic.

We asked Stephens and fellow survivor Rachael Denhollander what it was like for them to write their statements. They shared their process and offered advice for anyone who finds themselves in a similar position.

Organize your thoughts

Denhollander was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, and the last person to speak at his sentencing. Because she testified in his preliminary hearing, she knew what it was like to relinquish her privacy to a crowd of strangers. Her diary was entered into evidence, making it available for the man who violated her to see.

The sentencing offered her a chance to reclaim her voice while making an example of Nassar, she said.

Above all, she wanted to convince the judge to hand down the maximum sentence in the service of two goals: justice for survivors and prevention of further crimes, she said. To make her case, she started with a question: How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?

She had plenty to say. To organize her thoughts, she said she made an outline with bullet points of what she wanted to communicate.

Go into detail

She pondered how to make the judge understand the depravity of Nassar's actions. She also wanted to expose his enablers. She decided to convey in explicit detail how Nassar invaded her body under the guise of treatment when she was a teenage gymnast. Then he manipulated her into silence, she said.

She detailed the steps she and others took to report him, accusing Michigan State University's president and board of trustees of ignoring and mishandling the reports at every turn.

In the process, she felt like she was unburdening herself.

"You need to describe the act in graphic details so the judge can understand and describe the ramifications and consequences of those acts," she said. "They're not easy words to speak or put on paper, but there is a power in being able to speak them."

Stephens said she had another reason for describing her abuse in graphic detail: to humiliate Nassar.

What's more, she said that revisiting the incidents on her own terms helped her see the abuse for what it really was, free of the doubts and confusion she experienced as a child.

Get everything down

Detectives told Stephens early on that she could have her day in court if she wanted it.

Nassar had convinced her family that she lied about the abuse she endured for the first time as a six-year-old. The abuse -- and their denial -- left her feeling brainwashed, caused a rift with her family and led to crippling anxiety, she said.

Participating in Nassar's prosecution has helped her heal.

"It was never a question for me," she said. "Once I started to see that this process was therapeutic -- just because of how much you have to talk about it -- I wanted to take every chance I could to liberate myself."

About 1.5 years ago, she started collecting one-liners, vignettes and scenes in a OneNote tab on her laptop. She used them in a written statement for Nassar's sentencing in federal court on child pornography charges. The state case offered a chance to for her to paint a vivid picture of her harrowing journey for the judge, the defendant, and the general public.

She started shaping her thoughts into a statement about five days before the start of sentencing, going through 10 to 12 drafts, she estimates. It was among the hardest things she's ever done, she said, sitting with her laptop in a coffee shop, trying not to cry. Writing at home wasn't much easier. When her feelings started to overwhelm her, she put her face in hands, took deep breaths and breathed through her emotions, she said.

Know your audience

For the sake of judge -- who would eventually hear from 156 people -- she tried to be brief and forceful by drawing out the most "vile" things Nassar had done.

For those who have never experienced child abuse, she wanted them to understand her frame of mind as a six-year-old who was victimized by a family friend. At that age, her favorite cartoon was "Clifford the Big Red Dog." She could not do a multiplication problem. She had yet not lost her baby teeth.

To drive home the point, she described her abuse in graphic detail. For those who've never experienced abuse, "it's so hard to grasp what child abuse truly is. People understand what it is, but if you don't force them to have an emotional reaction to your words, it's not really going to sink in."

Decide what you want to get out of it

She saved her rage for Nassar. "I wanted him to see how powerful I was and that I was angry," she said. "I very specifically wanted to talk about the fact that he made me a liar to my parents and he knew what that would do to my life."

When she first stepped up to the podium, a mood of fear and apprehension hung over the room, she said. Then, she addressed him directly and he lowered his face. Her confidence rose in sync with her anger, she said.

"Once I got going, he couldn't look at me at first, and that was very empowering. ... He couldn't even look at me and he had done all those things," she said.

It may be a legal proceeding, but it's ultimately about you and what will help you heal, Stephens said. "What, at the end of the day, did you want out of it?"

For her, she wanted people to see her for who she really was. She wanted the world to know that the worst experiences of her life did not define her, that she was strong, intelligent, and she was going to be OK.

"I just went up there and did me, just Kyle," she said. "I just wanted to be myself."

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