A Doctor in Disguise: How The Larry Nassar Case Helps Us Understand The Power of Default to Truth
This blog post is part of our Sexual Violence in Sport series where we examine high-profile stories and share what can be learned from them to better understand the nature of sexual violence and how to support survivors.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers, he explores the fascinating concept of the “Truth Default Theory” formulated by Timothy Levine. Levine explains that when we communicate with people, we not only tend to trust them, but thoughts that we shouldn’t believe, rarely come to mind. This serves as a necessary function for human communication; however, it does make us vulnerable to deception.
The infamous Larry Nassar case brings the disturbing reality of our default to truth into the international spotlight. In 2014, Amanda Thomashow filed a report accusing Larry Nassar, the then-high-profile Sports Medicine doctor for Michigan State University & the USA Gymnastics team, of violating the school’s sexual harassment policy. Nassar reacted to Thomashow’s allegation by setting a new precedent that would allow him to continue his abuse for years to come.
Nassar did what many abusers in positions of power don’t do – he admitted to touching Thomashow, but then disguised the nature of his intention by explaining via Powerpoint presentation that he was “performing a specialized treatment” for Thomashow’s pelvic floor. Thus, Nassar used his position, reputation, and intellectual manipulation to derail the investigation while maintaining his status as a highly regarded athletic physician.
Nassar made it easy for people to default to truth, not just because he was regarded as one of the most prominent sports doctors in the United States, but also because he went above and beyond his duties as a doctor to be actively involved in his community. He became “the kind of person you could call on at 2am and he would come running” and people loved, respected, and trusted him because of his seemingly generous nature.
Through his position and carefully-crafted persona, Nassar was able to disguise himself as the least likely person to be an abuser. He used both his position and persona to groom his patients and the entire gymnastics community that was connected to him.
In the years following Thomashow’s 2014 report, a tidal wave of disclosures emerged from various athletes who had been abused by Nassar. By the fall of 2018, there were 499 known victims of Nassar who reported their abuse to gymnastics institutions over the course of 20 years.Not only were gymnastic coaches aware of Nassars abuse, but also several coaches from Team USA/University cross country running, karate and softball. Survivors told their parents, friends and fellow athletes about the abuse they endured. Survivors told the police. Survivors told physicians and psychologists. Survivors told university administrators. Despite the decades of reports and open knowledge of ongoing abuse, nothing was done to prevent more people from suffering at the hands of Larry Nassar.
There was insurmountable proof that Nassar was a predator yet, many people within the elite sporting community still grappled with the reality that someone they knew, loved, and trusted was capable of being a sexual predator. It wasn’t until authorities discovered Nassar’s hard drive containing thousands of images of child pornography that made the allegations against him undeniable.
Seeing this case unfold from the outside, it’s hard to comprehend how long it took, and the amount of evidence that had to be presented for Nassar not only to be found guilty, but for the entire community who once supported him to finally believe that he was guilty. In Trina Gonzcar’s victim impact statement, she said, “I believed in you always until I couldn’t anymore.”
Trina’s statement reflects the sentiments of hundreds of others, and how everyone who knew Nassar had countless reasons to believe he was innocent. When the “truth” of someone we have known, trusted, and loved for years is questioned, “we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine,” as Gladwell explains in Talking to Strangers.
Coming to terms with experiences of sexual abuse is gradual. As we’ve seen in the Nassar case, so is the process of believing survivors; so is the process of believing that a person close to us is capable of such horrendous acts of sexualized violence.There are many ways in which the Nassar case shines a light on the complexities of sexual violence, but when we explore it through the lens of the “Truth Default Theory”, it can help to bring awareness to why victims are not believed. They are not believed because to do so would be to confront ourselves and destabilize our entire world view– that we can trust others, and those who are untrustworthy are easily recognizable. Instead, we need to centre survivors of sexual abuse, their safety and wellbeing.
We need to default to truth whenever we recieve a disclosure of sexual violence. Survivors do not lie about abuse, and any thoughts of disbelief should be set aside to default to truth. We need to believe first, and convert the “Truth Default Theory” to benefit survivors. It takes incredible strength to disclose, and we must honour these stories by believing, by defaulting to truth.
The information shared in this blog post was compiled from the following sources:
Casarez, J., Grinberg, E., Moghe, S., & Tran, L. (2018, February 1). She filed a complaint against Larry Nassar in 2014. nothing happened. CNN. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/01/us/msu-amanda-thomashow-complaint-larry-nassar/index.html.
Howley, K. (2018, November 19). How did Larry Nassar deceive so many for so long? The Cut. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/how-did-larry-nassar-deceive-so-many-for-so-long.html.
Kirby, J. (2018, January 19). The sex abuse scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics Team doctor Larry Nassar, explained. Vox. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/1/19/16897722/sexual-abuse-usa-gymnastics-larry-nassar-explained.
Gladwell, M. (2019). Talking to Strangers. Little, Brown and Company.