Michigan State University, known locally as State, is a sprawling campus in East Lansing marked by a series of roads that wind into each other like irrigation channels. On the drive to the school, green plains dot the landscape and the backs of passing cars and trucks almost universally announce their collegiate loyalty in green and white.
When Selena Brennan and I arrive on a sunny day in mid-May, the bustle of the spring semester has ended, but students wearing backpacks still fill the sidewalks. Selena has just finished up her freshman year at MSU—enough time to know her way around. Not today, however: To get us there, she sheepishly plugs the street address into her cell phone, trusting the omniscience of an app over her own memory. After a quick re-route, and later, some directions from Dad, we pull into a nondescript parking lot near an off-campus apartment complex that will, come fall, be her new home.
I hadn’t asked her to, but Selena, 19, brought us here anyway—here, in front of a tall, silver and blue building. This was it. A year earlier, during a visit to the school with friends, just being within eyesight of this building had reduced her to tears. MSU was her dream school, but the possibility of having to spend time on this side of campus had been a concern. Her counselor intervened, suggesting that she come back here to learn how to separate the building from the trauma she’d endured in it, how to separate the man responsible for the pain from the dream she’d come to MSU to chase. Today, Selena is in control. Her hands relax on the steering wheel of her mother’s SUV as she stares intently at a sign that announces the building’s occupants: Michigan State University Health Team.
“Now I can sit here. It’s still weird, but I know nothing is going to happen,” she told me. “I’ll be in there one day. Running that show.”
The “show,” as Selena calls it, had been headed by disgraced sports physician Larry Nassar for years. MSU had been his professional home since 1997; he had run shop out of his office here, at this building, until the university fired him in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual abuse being publicized.
Nassar’s fall from grace began out of the public eye in 2014, when he was on the faculty at Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. That April, MSU graduate Amanda Thomashow filed a Title IX complaint against him, alleging sexual misconduct. She said she had been sexually assaulted by Nassar during treatment for a hip injury, and a criminal investigation was opened. But Nassar continued to see patients at MSU for 16 months before the university alerted local prosecutors on July 1, 2015. That summer, Nassar dodged the spotlight again, when USA Gymnastics, which had received formal complaints of abuse a year earlier, dismissed him without alerting his other employers or law enforcement.
It would be another year before the world caught wind of Nassar’s crimes. In August of 2016, the Indianapolis Star published a landmark investigation revealing the chronic, systemic failure by USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, to report the allegations of abuse of children by their coaches. Just a few weeks after the story was published, Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast, filed a criminal complaint with police against Nassar, alleging that he had sexually abused her as a teenager, when she was his patient. She was the first to publicly accuse him. The Indianapolis Star again ran the story.
Over the next several months, hundreds of women and girls, including several Olympians, were emboldened to step forward, one by one, both publicly and anonymously, with stories of abuse by Nassar. He’d worked as the team physician for the women’s Olympic team for four seasons and treated hundreds of underage athletes over a decades-long career working at MSU, Twistars—an elite gymnastics training facility in Lansing—and at Holt High School.
Selena had been Nassar’s patient for six years while nursing a back injury. Her last appointment with him was in late August, right before he was arrested and charged.
Like many kids, Selena got her start in gymnastics in a toddler class. She was a sports girl from a sports family in a budding sports powerhouse town called Clarkston. Her father, Tim, had been an athlete; he had both played and coached high school football, so he was invested in his daughter’s progress. By the time Selena was 5, she had moved up to a recreational gymnastics program, taking hour-long classes once weekly. When her coaches opened a new gym, Stars and Stripes Kids Activity Center, and announced the beginning of a competitive program, Selena was selected as an inaugural athlete.
As the number of hours she spent in the gym increased, it became clear that this wasn’t just a phase; gymnastics was Selena’s sport. She took her training seriously, performing the best on floor and vault, and she never had to be convinced to go to practice.
Tim watched his daughter move from level to level, and like any good coach, he threw himself into the numbers. “I started tracking it a little bit to get an idea of what percentile she was [in],” he said. “Those first three years [that she competed], she was always in that top 3-10 percentile. Regardless of where the meet was, who it was against, what state we were in. And I got a better idea of whether it was real. I saw that she had the focus to maybe do really well in the long haul.”
By the time Selena was 11 years old and in the fifth grade, she was competing on a level 7 team at Stars and Stripes. The training was grueling and repetitive. Her craft, artistic gymnastics, required a delicate combination of strength, flexibility, power and speed. So she structured her life almost entirely around gymnastics practice: After school, she ate and changed in the car on the way to the gym, where she trained until 9 p.m. four days per week. On Saturdays, she spent up to six hours practicing.
One day, while executing a front walkover, a basic skill, Selena cracked two vertebrae in her back. “I was in a lot of pain,” Selena said. “And I thought I just pulled a little muscle or something, I didn't think it was a big deal.”
She continued to practice through the pain for four months—it was competition season—before finally seeking medical treatment. Doctors diagnosed her with stress fractures, and prescribed that she wear a rigid, plastic back brace that, using velcro straps, would wrap around Selena’s torso. She was to wear it at all times, and doctors even suggested that Selena consider quitting sports altogether.
Where other kids might have tired of repeat appointments, growing frustrated with the pain and lack of answers, Selena was resolute. During one visit, a nurse walked her through the intricacies of the MRI process, showing Selena images of her own spine as the machine hummed and rotated around her. Seeing her own anatomy fascinated Selena. She had found a second dream.
Selena took some time off before returning to the gym, but the brace, bulky and imposing on her short frame, was clearly not a solution. And neither was quitting. “It was really awkward. If I had to bend down and pick something up, I had to keep a straight body or I had to do the drop-and-squat,” Selena said. “We all kind of realized how ridiculous it was.”
The constant immobilization was weakening her core strength, a hindrance in a sport that relies so heavily on it. So a trusted coach at her gym suggested they make an appointment with a star gymnastics doctor she had heard of, to get a second opinion and a more realistic assessment of rehabilitation time. His name was Larry Nassar.
Selena’s parents quickly made her an appointment.
“He worked with athletes all the way up to Olympians. And he's looking for ways to rehabilitate and strengthen things that may have been a weakness, that may have caused the injury,” Tim said, remembering his daughter’s first appointment. “So it made a lot more sense. It sounded a lot better. You go to his office, all the impressive letters and pictures. And you know, looking back on it, the guy had the perfect setup for being the nutty pervert that he was. It’s crazy.”
(Unbeknownst to the Brennans, court records show that at that point, in 2010, at least four victims had reported abuse against Nassar, including at MSU. Later, it would be revealed that around this time, Nassar also kept computer files containing thousands of images of child pornography. Additional court records say he had begun abusing a six-year-old girl—a daughter of a family friend—in 1998, the year Selena was born.)
Selena was seeing Nassar for treatment regularly, and her interest in medicine began to build.
Finally, here was a doctor with whom she shared a vocabulary, someone who did not need to be taught what a front walkover was. Here was a doctor who understood what was expected of her in the gym and who could treat her injury in a way that catered to that. It was through that lens that she started to see a future in sports medicine for herself.
“Just being able to be with a doctor who understood the sport made it a lot easier. It was like I could take a deep breath, and I didn’t have to explain how [I do] what I do. Sometimes primary care doctors give you some type of way to cope with the pain. But when you're practicing that much in a gym, you're constantly putting pressure on your back,” Selena said. “Those things don't necessarily work, because there's a ton more pressure on your body than the average person. It was nice to have reasonable tools be given and be like, ‘OK, this is something I can actually do, this might actually make a difference.’ After my [first] visit I was like, ‘I'm doing this.’ I ended up telling him, 'I want to do what you do.’”
Among friends, Selena was the doctor of the crew, quick to offer an amateur diagnosis whenever anyone got hurt. By age 12, she decided she would not only study to become a physician, but would do so at MSU, where Nassar worked and where two of her uncles had once been students. She became familiar with the hour-long drive to MSU from Clarkston, and despite the vertebral fractures, she returned to the gym for training and was eventually cleared to compete again.
Just before the start of what would have been her level-nine season—gymnasts compete until level 10 before earning the designation “elite,” which qualifies them to compete internationally—Selena quit gymnastics. Despite having returned to training and being cleared to compete, she finally tired of the constant pain and other interests she couldn’t pursue. Freed from the demands of the gym, she got more involved in her school community and joined a dance team. But she continued seeing Nassar to treat her back. (She had developed spondylolisthesis, a spinal disorder exacerbated by sports like gymnastics, and also suffered from upper back problems.)
Throughout this time, over the course of six years, Nassar groomed and repeatedly abused Selena. For the first two years, he groped her during treatment. She was 13 when the molestation began.
Selena was too young to understand what was happening when it started, and as is common among victims of sexual abuse, it was near impossible to clearly articulate that something was wrong. She made attempts, though. After one appointment, Selena described to her friends what she knows now was abuse, telling them that he made her feel uncomfortable.
“When something would happen, I had a couple close friends that I said something to, like 'Isn't this weird?' But they were just as young as I was and we didn't know, so it wasn't like they were pointing it out like ‘You need to tell somebody.’ Everybody just was like, ‘It's your doctor,'” Selena said.
“I just assumed, like, this is my doctor, that must have been an accident. I kind of justified it in my head because my parents were in the room, and to me, it was weird, but it didn't send off an extreme red flag, I didn't know any better. For so long, I was so tricked by [Nassar]. Even though I felt uncomfortable, I didn't think anything was seriously wrong. I was never by myself with him, so I was just like, What could be [wrong]? If something was really wrong, somebody would know besides me.”
Tim and Angie, Selena’s parents, remember their daughter mentioning that she felt uncomfortable on one occasion. But at the time, and given the nature of her injuries, they never suspected that Selena’s discomfort was a warning sign. Doctors enjoy a certain amount of public trust, which is a necessary precondition for patients to make themselves vulnerable when they receive care. Doctors are good people, conventional wisdom goes, so we show up and we trust them with our bodies, with the bodies of our children, and we wait for them to heal us. Nassar and predators like him exploit this social contract, taking advantage of our desire to be healthy, and of our reliance on them to help make it so.
The summer before her senior year, in 2016, Selena was, by all accounts, a normal teenager: She hung out on her family’s boat, swam in the many lakes that surround Clarkston and spent time with a crew of her best friends. She visited her grandparents and daydreamed about the basketball team’s chances in the upcoming season. (Her high school was a perennial contender.) She also managed her chronic back pain.
Nassar became a household name very suddenly that fall. When the news of his crimes broke, Selena was at powder puff football practice. Meaghan Mulvihill, one of Selena’s closest friends, vividly remembers the moment she heard the reports. A friend of the crew, Isabel, who was also a gymnast, rushed into practice late, visibly shaken.
“She went right to Selena and was like, ‘I need to talk to you.’ We were like, ‘What is going on?’ Once practice ended, we kind of figured it out. The articles were coming out and we knew he was her doctor. I remember she stayed in the parking lot for a long time. She was too hysterical to even drive herself home,” said Mulvihill. “I was reading every article, talking to my parents about it. Not knowing what to say to her.”
“Once the story broke, I instantly knew and I was so in shock, but there was not a single hint of doubt in my mind because I was like, How can I be reading something that happened to me, that nobody else knows?” said Selena. “And I came home really, really, really upset.”
Selena tried to tell her parents on the day the news broke, but she was overwhelmed and couldn’t get it out. “I thought I had said enough, but I didn't. In my head. I was thinking I was, but I really wasn't saying much at all,” she said.
Her parents remember things similarly. “I remember her coming into our bedroom and I was talking about it,” Tim said. “And of course [we were] like, ‘How can that be?’ Keep in mind, every time we were there for six years, one of us was there. Selena was never with that guy without one of us there. So it still doesn't register in your mind as a parent that that happened to your daughter. One, you don't want to believe it did. And two, you were there. And it doesn't compute.
“I'm sure her subconscious blamed us. Like, maybe she didn’t sit there and go, ‘It’s my parents fault,’ but subconsciously—how do you digest all that as a young kid? I think she had a huge amount of resentment and fought with us and hid up in her room and we’re going, ‘What the hell?’ I didn't even connect the dots. Looking back, you wonder why I didn't know that's what was going on.”
In a matter of weeks, the news became the biggest sports story in the country as more and more women stepped forward to tell their stories. On Sept. 20, 2016, Nassar was fired from MSU. On Nov. 21, he was charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct with a person under 13, and by Dec. 15, he had been charged with possession of child pornography. He was stripped of his medical license in January of 2017. Denhollander and 17 additional, anonymous victims sued MSU, USA Gymnastics and Twistars the same month.
Through all of this, Selena was left to navigate the terms of her own trauma amid a cloud of confusion and speculation. The people closest to her knew her desire to be a sports physician. They also knew that she had built a desire for the profession and learned the ins and outs of it because of her injuries and her visits with Nassar. So Selena found herself doing the painful work of coming to terms with the reality of her abuse—with an audience.
As is the case with many survivors of abuse, it would be months before she could clearly articulate what had happened. During this time, her parents—with whom she normally had a close-knit relationship—and friends noticed a change in her demeanor. Angie remembers Selena seeming persistently angry. Mulvihill recalls an occasional emotional outburst.
“Selena is always the strong one. She’s always the one that...when something is wrong, you go to Selena and she knows what to say,” Mulvihill said. “She would talk about it sometimes to me. Last summer, we were at one of our friends’ graduation parties, we were all hanging out and she was really upset. She was hysterically crying about it and she was like, ‘I don’t want to have to deal with this all year.’”
The public conversation about Nassar was intensely painful for Selena at times. Her friends did the best they could, offering her compassion and sensitivity at arguably the most difficult point of her life. But the larger school community sometimes unwittingly caused her pain. One time, in an AP U.S. government class, a teacher incorporated a news article about Nassar into a class discussion, which caused speculation among her peers about whether she had been assaulted.
“They would be reading it and looking at me, and reading it and looking at me. And it was really hard. Because without saying anything, everybody was looking at me, people who had heard me say his name before. I just had to sit there, because if I get up and leave the room, I'm just confirming it for everyone in this room,” Selena said. “I knew that it was going to get brought up at one point, but it was hard to make a decision. Do I get up so I can go do what I need to do to relax, or do I just sit here and try to hold it all in?”
The pressure of the questions weighed on her.
“The smallest things would be triggers for me. And I would just shut down and freak out, just crying, hyperventilating and having really bad panic attacks,” Selena remembered. “Anytime I'd go anywhere or do anything [with] my friends, anytime I felt like I was like having a good time, it was weird. I felt like I shouldn't be [having a good time], like why are you happy right now? And then I'd start thinking about everything and just get out of control.”
Mulvihill recalled that once, she had to bring an inconsolable Selena into a dark closet in the middle of a party, huddling together with her until she could breathe. Another time, on a St. Patrick’s Day trip to visit Mulvihill’s sister at MSU, they drove past Nassar’s old office and the color drained from Selena’s face.
After one particularly bad panic attack, Selena’s brother, Maxx, went to his parents, scared and concerned for his big sister. A conversation finally ensued. Selena tried her best to articulate what she had been feeling.
“It wasn't just hard for me to get it out, but it was hard for me to see my parents finding out. For months, I hadn't looked at them and been like, ‘This and this and this happened.’ They knew that I was upset about it because we had been with him for so long, but it was like they were finding out [that Nassar was a sexual predator] for the first time again,” said Selena.
The conversation was difficult not just in the obvious ways. Tim and Angie were present during Selena’s visits with Nassar, but they weren’t aware of the abuse taking place under their noses—a fact they struggled with.
“Initially I'm thinking, Oh, my God, for all this time she thinks that we knew and we didn’t do anything,” Tim said. “Then also it dawns on me, Wait a minute! This guy did this and I’m there. So now I’m going, My one and only thing is to protect my kids, and I'm sitting there while this guy’s doing this? It’s beyond tough to deal with. … Like, how could this happen? Especially with us there. And you feel like you know a person, you know?”
After Nassar was arrested, Angie started looking for a new doctor for her daughter—this time, a woman, because Selena didn’t want to see male doctors anymore. For at least a year, Nassar had been unable to find the source of the pain. But the next sports physician Selena saw administered a single MRI and immediately offered a new diagnosis: a degenerative disc.
“And that’s all it took,” Selena said.
Soon thereafter, Tim and Angie enrolled Selena in therapy. (When I asked if they had sought therapy as a couple, Angie told me that they hadn’t, but that they probably should. Their focus right now is entirely on Selena.) In her sessions, Selena thought hard about the decision to attend MSU, given that the university had several opportunities to address concerns about Nassar before it finally acted.
“I questioned going to State because of [worrying about] being able to mentally handle being in the same area where everything happened,” Selena said. “I had put State on a pedestal for so long because I wanted to go there so badly.”
Her parents reassured her that she wasn’t beholden to her childhood dream, that it would not be a failure to pick a different school. But Selena worked hard to build her courage. When it came time to make a decision, she declined to let Nassar rob her of her dream. She enrolled at MSU.
In some ways, Selena’s freshman year was like any other. She arrived last fall, like other teens. She roomed with Mulvihill—a number of her girlfriends from her hometown had chosen MSU for college—in student housing. (They stayed on the sixth floor of Holden Hall in a room they nicknamed “the cubicle,” and made friends with their suitemates.) Selena threw herself into her studies—her major is kinesiology—and she joined a sorority, Sigma Kappa. She also got a moped to get around on campus.
But in other ways, the experience couldn’t have been further from the norm. The campus was at the center of a national scandal, and midway through the fall semester, the #MeToo movement caught on. Students around campus were rallying around Nassar’s survivors—and loudly so. They shamed the university’s administration for its inaction, which they saw as complicity.
Amid the campus activism—marches and protests, teal ribbons tied around trees, therapeutic fitness classes exclusive to survivors—Selena worked hard to untangle her love of sports medicine from Nassar. He was at once an example of what she wanted to be and exactly the type of person whom she did not want to become. She questioned her ambitions and worried she had been misled.
What if he was leading me down the wrong path, career-wise? She thought. What if he wasn’t giving me real advice, or what if he was setting me up to fail in my education because I was listening to what he was saying? I've based years off of this, so what am I going to do now?
The calls for change kept crescendoing and plateaued for seven extraordinary days in mid-January, when 156 survivors of Nassar’s crimes showed up in court ready to confront their assailant. They brought with them their devastating stories—stories that demonstrated the impossible scope of Nassar’s crimes, the sickening deception and repeated violation of trust they suffered. Thousands tuned in to bear witness.
Selena followed the news coverage of the trial diligently, and when she heard survivors were being allowed to speak, she made the careful decision to go. The first day, Jan. 16, as 29 women spoke, Selena was in the courtroom watching with her mom. She made it through two hours of testimony before feeling so drained from the experience that she had to leave. (Mulvihill remembers running into her later that day and described her face as blank.)
“It was just really, really weird seeing him again. Especially like that, it was really odd and hard. But then when I saw girls get up there and speak, and speak to not only the court and Judge Aquilina, but to him … I was sitting there and I could feel their anger, and it made me feel better,” Selena said. “Watching them get angry at him made me angry too. It felt good to put it on him. Right after the first day, when I got back to my dorm, I typed up everything that I would want to say to him.”
Selena wanted in, so she filed a police report with a detective, who contacted the attorney general and got her a time slot to make a victim impact statement. She returned to the courtroom two more times to build up her courage. She was scheduled to speak on the sixth day of the hearing, and Selena made one request of her father, who had driven to East Lansing with Angie.
“She said, ‘I want to try not to get emotional today. I want to be strong today. We all need to be strong,’” Tim said. “She made that comment in the car and I thought, Yeah, we need that.”
In the courtroom, Tim and Angie gripped Selena’s hands as they waited for her turn to speak. When it came, Selena stood at the podium and did not waver as she described to the court how Nassar had earned her trust and then violated it, potentially misdiagnosing her.
“The last few years, I was seeing him for another back problem that he, for some unknown reason, couldn't figure out. Now, I sit here and wonder if that was on purpose. I got one MRI after he was fired, and from that one MRI, I figured out what was wrong with me. And it turns out I was exactly right. So tell me, how does someone as educated as Larry not figure that out? Did he want to keep me around for his own use? This is something I may never know,” she said.
In watching their daughter speak, Tim and Angie saw that she had made a turning point in her recovery.
“She did what the intention of an impact statement is supposed to—which is to give the girls a chance to take control back to a degree, and start healing from it,” Tim said.
“[She was] taking control. That’s what I felt. Like she was telling him she’s in charge,” Angie added.
Then, Selena turns and quickly looks at him, taking a subtle breath before glancing back down at her notes. Her long, black wavy hair is draped across her shoulders, like armor. She demands that he look her in the eye as she speaks:
“It’s really unfortunate to me that even now, standing here today, seeing you upset, for some sick reason, makes me upset,” she says. “This week has been my time to face you. But today is your time to face me.”
Her gaze grows more stern, and her tone drips with anger as she continues, speaking slowly and deliberately:
“I want you to continue to look at me while I speak, because that is the attention I deserve. I trusted you for six years and so did my family. I have listened to a lot of other brave survivors tell their stories to get you the worst possible punishment, but no punishment will ever be enough for the pain and suffering you have caused everyone. I want you to know that you have not defeated me. I am joining the strongest force of women making change so this type of sexual abuse is never tolerated or ignored. I was inspired by the field of sports medicine because of you unfortunately, but that is one thing I will not let you take from me. Today, I am more determined than ever to actually become a respected, knowledgeable, helpful, caring and successful sports medicine physician and person, the kind of doctor and person people only thought you were. I plan on taking your job, Larry, and making sure no patient of mine ever feels the way I do.”
When Selena finished her remarks, she thanked the judge, grabbed her piece of paper and returned to the rear of the hearing room, where her parents awaited her. She didn’t know how few or how many people were tuned in. Who had seen what she said. Mulvihill was watching from the screen of a laptop a few miles away on campus. Selena had practiced her speech out loud three times the night before in a spate of nerves and anticipation. She cheered as Selena spoke.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s my best friend! That’s the strongest girl I’ve ever met.’ It made me proud. She tore him apart,” said Mulvihill.
Not long after Selena got back to MSU, President Lou Anna Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis resigned. William Strampel, Nassar’s boss and a dean at MSU, was charged with propositioning and groping medical students some months later. By the time of our campus visit, someone had written the names of 150 of Nassar’s survivors on The Rock, a campus landmark, in black Sharpie. Brennan’s name was among them. Next to the names, a "Thank You," was written with a heart and a hashtag, #TimesUpMSU.
It was clear where she would go from here: She would return to MSU ready to work. She would keep pressing forward. She’s already thought ahead to medical school, where she wants to be, who she wants to become. She has considered staying at MSU, an act of ownership that feels in defiance of a man who desecrated the school’s importance in her life and that of so many others.
She would also dedicate herself to remedying the conditions that made the Nassar situation possible in the first place—increase the ranks of women doctors in gymnastics. I asked her if she ever felt like sports medicine was a field that harbored too many painful memories for her to linger in.
“I did question it for a while,” she said. “Before I knew what kind of person [Nassar] was, I wanted to be him. But now I can be better than him, I can do what he should have done. Not only can I help athletes with injuries, I would be the woman doctor to be there. I realized that I didn't need him to help me figure out what I was going to do. I trusted my gut on it and said I can still do what I've wanted to do. He doesn't have to take that away from me, too.”
Alexandria Neason is a senior staff writer at Columbia Journalism Review.