At the moment, being a woman can feel profoundly bleak. Every day, we hear a new story about a powerful man, and the women who he abused, exploited and made vulnerable. It’s as if we’re all constantly playing the world’s most depressing game of Whac-A-Mole, and for every person whose abuse is exposed, another group looms up and makes us wonder whether this is an endless exercise in futility.
So, it gives me great pleasure and joy to discover that this moment has a hero. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who is overseeing the hearing against Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics doctor who has pleaded guilty to multiple sex crimes, isn’t simply ensuring that justice is served and a serial abuser is prevented from doing further harm. She’s inviting every single one of Nassar’s abused patients to speak about their experience. She’s giving victims their voices back.
Judge Aquilina made a promise that every single victim who wished to speak at the hearing would be given the chance to do so. When the hearing started last week, 88 young women were expected to speak. Now, that number has almost doubled. Aquilina’s vow has allowed 163 women to share their victim statements. Last night she sentenced their abuser to a minimum of 40 and a maximum of 175 years, remarking: "As much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the sister survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you."
For me, what stands out is that Aquilina has defied the stereotype of the chilly, dispassionate judge. She has actively applauded Nassar’s victims for their courage, eloquence and fortitude. The New York Times reports that Aquilina responded to the gymnast, Bailey Lorencen, by saying “The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you… Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.’ Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.” When we share the stories of our most frightening, powerless and vulnerable times, we have conditioned ourselves to expect an “Oh, really?” or “Are you sure?” Never a “thank you”. Aquilina chooses her words carefully, gracefully. Hopefully, the positive impact will be felt immediately, by Nassar’s victims, but I believe it will also grow and strengthen all of us by contributing to a culture in which we’re not just believed – our stories are valued.
Nassar has been required to attend the hearing. Last week, before the hearing started, he wrote a six-page letter to Aquilina claiming that he should not have to listen to the witness statements, because it might affect his mental health and cause him emotional distress. Magnificently, Aquilina replied, “Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense, and ruining their lives.”
We dismiss abused women, over and over again. Encouraging them to speak, and promising to listen, is a radical act
It’s easy to dismiss Nassar as a monster, a bad man whose crimes were uniquely awful, who can be locked away. However, he was able to abuse so many women and girls so prolifically because we live in a society in which women are constantly dismissed, dehumanised and objectified. Instead of focusing on punishment, Aquilina is making amends by giving his victims back their personhood. Her work is sending a clear message to Nassar, and those like him: however wicked and hurtful their behaviour is, they must never forget that the pain they have caused their victims is human and real, and they are responsible for it.
We often speak about the importance of rehabilitating criminals, and ensuring our justice system does not punish without seeking to improve the people who have transgressed. However, we rarely talk about the rehabilitation of victims, who will struggle to recover what they have lost after experiencing great injustice. Aquilina is significantly contributing to the rehabilitation of hundreds of women. Legally, there is no need for 163 people to make statements against Nassar. He has already pleaded guilty, and has received a 60 year federal sentence for a child-pornography conviction. The victim-impact statements are being given as part of a sentencing hearing, rather than a trial. From a legal point of view, Aquilina’s actions aren’t necessary. Yet, they’re essential, in that they allow these women to process the crimes that have been committed against them. We dismiss abused women, over and over again. Encouraging them to speak, and promising to listen, is a radical act. As well as being a thoughtful, sensitive listener, Aquilina is telling the world it must pay attention.
After one woman had spoken at the hearing, Aquilina told her to “leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.” How many of us have been carrying our pain with us for months and years, a knapsack of hurt that we’re too frightened to unpack, because the consequences might be even worse than their cause? Aquilina hasn’t just heard, supported and believed Nassar’s victims. She’s given women tacit permission to live out loud, and to put our happiness and humanity ahead of our feelings of fear and shame. She’s fighting for a future I want to live in.