Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What Can We Learn from the Case of Larry Nassar?

By Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD

Larry Nassar should spend the rest of his life in a place where he is unable to have contact with children and teenagers. Whether one approaches this case from a criminological or clinical perspective, experts agree that Nassar’s behavior was brazenly predatory, incredibly harmful, but both unique and typical at the same time. In this week’s blog, we discuss the Nassar case, what we can learn from it, and how we can do better.

Nassar is unique in several ways. First, his position was one of privilege and he utilized this position as a means to sexually abuse patients in his care, often while other people were present in the room.  He is also atypical because of the sheer number of people he harmed, the high-stakes role he played in their lives, and the size and scope of the venues in which he operated. There is no doubt about it, listening to the testimony of those he victimized, illuminates the level of trauma and pain caused by Nassar’s actions.

At sentencing, the judge in this case told Nassar that she had signed his “death warrant”, although some have expressed concern about this and other actions that took place in court.  Clearly, it is essential that we listen to the stories of each person that Nassar harmed. We need to validate their experiences and their pain. Many have applauded Judge Rosemarie Aquilina for her treatment of each person who wanted to give an impact statement. However, questions about whether Aquilina was impartial in the sentencing of Nassar remain. We agree that judges are entitled to their own opinions, as we all are, but we argue that the judiciary and the overall legal system must remain impartial. In this case, the vocabulary and intention behind Judge Aquilina’s statements were not neutral; they were loaded, and therefore problematic. While we can all agree that Larry Nassar should receive a prison sentence for his offenses and that the sentence should reflect the severity of his crimes, the judgement should be unbiased, appropriate and considered. By suggesting that she was signing his “death warrant” Judge Aquilina was not being neutral.

In addition, we must consider other variables before we make the statement that Nassar should never get out of prison. We should further question whom the best person is to make such decisions. Is it the court? The judge? Sentencing guidelines? Sex crimes experts? A range of other professionals?  Judgements in court and the comments given by Judges when sentencing are important as they can have long lasting consequences for the victims, their families and the convicted person (as demonstrated by the release of John Warboys in the UK); therefore care, consideration and neutrality are very important. A major question is what we can learn from this case to prevent future abuse; so far, the media has not addressed this with the same fervor that they have in their coverage of the trial.

From a clinical perspective, there are fundamental questions about what we can learn from Nassar. In some ways, his patterns of behavior are well-known. By all appearances, his actions were carefully planned and purposeful. He possessed expertise at gaining the trust of these young women and those around them. Unlike many (perhaps most) people who break the law, he does not appear to have been impulsive or reckless in his modus operandi. Ironically, his apparent self-management skills actually argue that he could be kept safe under strict community supervision more easily than others who are clever but do not think before they act. Likewise, his age, verbal abilities, and interpersonal skills make it likely that he could participate effectively in treatment.

While these last points may seem contrary to the sentiments of most who feel that Nassar should simply be punished, they address key concerns in the way forward for Nassar. Many who have experienced sexual violence want the person who harmed them to understand and come to terms with what they have done; effective treatment can do this and be of assistance to those who have been victimized. An unfortunate reality of life in prison is that it can be too easy simply to enter what is known as the “psychological deep freeze” where one lives moment to moment without regard to the past. Others who have been victimized want those who abuse to get help and stop the behavior. Treatment programs can be more effective in this regard than prison. Whatever one’s immediate beliefs about the proper response to sexual violence, the needs of survivors can be more nuanced than the desire to “throw away the key.”

From a criminological perspective, it is crucial that we recognize that life in prison goes against the key components of incarceration – people who are incarcerated go to prison as punishment and prepare for release during incarceration through education, treatment, and reentry supports that they need to successfully integrate back into society.  With Nassar it has been determined from the outset that he is beyond redemption and therefore should not engage with anything while in prison, including treatment or rehabilitation.

In addition, we understand that both general and specific deterrence offer little in terms of prevention. First, punishment on its own does not and cannot address the underlying etiology of Nassar’s behavior. Perhaps more importantly, believing that punishing Nassar to a lengthy a prison term somehow shows others that they should not sexually offend is na├»ve.  Decades of research attest to these facts.

Most importantly, while this particular case revolves around one man and the trauma perpetrated by his hands, we must remember that sexual abuse, especially of this nature, does not happen in a vacuum. What happened in this case was an institutional failure of epic proportions, not unlike what we have seen in other institutions where abuse was rampant. Abuse of this magnitude can only happen when others turn a blind eye. Ongoing investigations are under way to find out what others knew and what actions they did and didn’t take. What this and other cases show is that those who turn a blind eye to abuse come from all backgrounds and are not limited to one gender or age group.

Larry Nassar should spend the rest of his life behind bars. His behavior caused undeniable harm to over 150 girls in his care. The majority of these girls spoke at sentencing. We heard their voices and the court validated their experiences in a watershed moment that most people who experience sexual abuse never get. This validation offers an enormous step toward healing, but healing doesn’t end with Nassar behind bars. If we believe that justice comes only from a long prison sentence, we are sadly mistaken.

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