Once a victim of Nassar abuse, now the leader of the #MeTooMSU movement: Meet Jessica Smith
How this survivor-turned-activist is taking her power back to hold MSU accountable and help other survivors heal
Before treating her, Larry Nassar told then-17-year-old Jessica Smith that there was a pressure point inside of her vagina that, if he could put pressure on it, would release the wounded area to be worked on.
In Jessica's case, that area was her ankle.
A devoted dancer, Jessica had severely sprained her ankle, leaving her unable to continue dancing. She felt like a part of her was lost. Jessica turned to Nassar, who was then a renowned doctor for the US Olympic gymnastics team and physician at Michigan State University.
Now, six years later, Nassar has been sentenced to 60 years in prison on federal charges related to child pornography, has pleaded guilty to ten counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and is undergoing a lengthy sentencing hearing on seven first-degree criminal sexual abuse charges.
On Thursday, Jessica was one of nearly 100 survivors of Nassar's abuse to deliver her victim impact statement in court. This is her story.
"So many of my role models went to Nassar, other people in the ballet company that I looked up to," Jessica remembers. "He was an Olympic gymnastic doctor at Michigan State University, you know? So many things that led me to trust him."
Like many other Nassar victims, Jessica remembers Nassar not wearing gloves during her treatment, feeling uncomfortable and violated, but telling herself that it would help her in the end.
"I trusted him. I trusted that Michigan State University wouldn't have someone who's doing illegitimate medical treatment," said Jessica. "He had seen people for so long that, if something was wrong, it would've come up."
Jessica went to some of her friends from dance class who she knew had also seen Nassar for treatment. Not knowing if they were being vaginally penetrated during their appointments too, she asked them if they ever felt uncomfortable during their appointments.
They laughed in response and said, "Yeah, we always joke Nassar is the first guy to finger us."
Jessica said she remembers this moment vividly. "It felt like a movie," she recalls.
Jessica says she didn't report Nassar at the time because, like her friends, she didn't know she was being sexually abused.
Years later, Jessica says a main motivation in coming forward with her story is the young women and girls she works with as a dance teacher in Lansing and Grand Rapids.
"I look at them and I want to protect them," she said.
When Jessica first came across the #MeToo hashtag last fall, which was then spreading like wildfire across social media, it immediately piqued her attention.
The #MeToo movement was created to raise awareness about sexual assault and sexual abuse in the workplace, after numerous allegations were brought against once-powerful Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein, like Larry Nassar, had abused his authority for decades to persuade his victims into silence.
Jessica said that when she saw more and more people coming forward in solidarity for #MeToo, she was inspired to create her own hashtag for the many survivors who had also experienced sexual assault at the hands of her former MSU doctor and abuser. She called it #MeTooMSU.
While she is the sole creator of the hashtag, Jessica says the broader concept behind #MeTooMSU was born through a collaborative effort.
With the encouragement of her attorney, Jessica formed a support group with six other women, whom she calls her "sister survivors." The group began bonding over their stories, and realized they were experiencing some of the same physical and mental health problems that are typically associated with sexual assault survivors.
"We realized how amazing it was to have that support and that understanding from people who have gone through the same thing, and that we wanted to somehow bring that to other people as well," Jessica said.
Wanting to expand this mission to a larger audience, the group of women discussed the idea of starting a Facebook page as a platform for survivors to share their stories in a supportive community and for the public to stay updated on important cases.
Out of this, the Me Too MSU Facebook page was born. "One day I just decided to, and we got followers very quickly and it took off from there," Jessica said.
Since its inception, Me Too MSU has grown from a small community geared primarily toward other Nassar survivors into a group open to the entire Michigan State campus, where around 25 percent of undergrad women reported experiencing completed or attempted nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation in 2015.
"I've gotten quite a few private messages quickly after creating the page of people reaching out and telling me their stories," said Jessica.
Sexual assault is a delicate conversation to have. Jessica says that even though she handles these conversations well now, she had no prior experience dealing with sexual assault survivors before she created Me Too MSU – although she says her background has proven helpful on this front.
A junior at Ferris State University for elementary education, Jessica says her schooling and experience working with children in inner city schools has shown her the importance of being able to openly talk about your struggles and feelings.
"I think that one of the most important things is that people can have a conversation about topics that are hard," Jessica said. "I kept it inside for so long, and once I felt comfortable to talk about it I started to heal.
"That was one of the biggest moments in my life, feeling like I can move forward," she said.
"The more people who enabled this…are out of this picture, the more I think the truth will come forward"
Jessica doesn't fault Michigan State University for hiring Nassar – as she puts it, they had no way of knowing that they hired a "sick and terrible man."
She does, however, take issue with what she sees as some university officials attempting to cover up Nassar's abuse, and she said there are plenty of MSU officials who have yet to be held accountable for their role in enabling Nassar's predatory behavior beyond that.
"One of my fellow sister survivors, Larissa Boyce, told MSU staff in the 90s that she was uncomfortable [with Nassar]," Jessica said. "They didn't do anything."
The staff member Larissa had told was Kathie Klages, MSU gymnastics coach and coach of Spartan Youth Gymnastics. After it was revealed that Klages had known about her gymnasts' concerns since the late 90s and failed to act on them in the twenty years since, Klages was suspended, then chose to retire from her position last February.
Gymnasts and parents allege that she had not only ignored their complaints, but had always been a staunch defender of Nassar's behavior.
Jessica also mentioned an incident involving Brooke Lemmen, a former doctor at MSU's Sports Medicine Clinic, who reportedly stole university records in an apparent attempt to help Nassar cover up his tracks.
According to documents in her personnel file obtained by the Lansing State Journal through the Freedom of Information Act last year, Lemmen removed "several boxes of confidential treatment records" from the MSU Sports Medicine Clinic at Nassar's request.
Lemmen had also failed to inform the university that in July 2015, Nassar told her that he was being investigated by USA Gymnastics, according to the documents. One month after this information came out, Lemmen resigned from her position at the university after hearing they were considering firing her.
Lemmen was the second MSU official to resign in the wake of the Nassar scandal, the first being Nassar's former boss, William Strampel. Strampel reportedly stepped down as Dean of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine last month for "health reasons."
But leaving their positions at the university does not equate to being held responsible for their roles in enabling Nassar's predatory behavior, Jessica contends.
Another person who is viewed by many to have enabled Nassar's decades of predatory behavior is the president of Michigan State University, Lou Anna K. Simon.
With multiple government officials, lawmakers, local media outlets and now MSU's student government calling for her resignation, many think it's time for President Simon to step down from her position because of the unsatisfactory way they feel she dealt with complaints about Nassar while he was employed by the university, as well as how they feel she has failed to go far enough to challenge the rape culture at MSU.
Jessica said she has mixed feelings about how much of the blame Simon should receive, but ultimately agrees that Simon should step down to ensure a precedent of accountability going forward.
"I don't think the problems of an institution should all fall on a president," Jessica said, "[but] after having the experience of speaking directly to and looking right at President Simon while speaking about something, it's evident to me that's she is in a leadership position with no passion [about] creating a safe campus."
She continues: "For that reason, I think MSU should be setting the precedent that it has to start from the top – and if you're not going to do that, you should not be in that position. I do not think that President Simon should be the president.
"And in MSU doing so – in asking for her resignation, or rather firing her – I think that's setting the precedent from the very top, that this will not be tolerated, and if you do tolerate it, then Michigan State is not for you."
Jessica said it felt like a "a slap in the face" when the Board of Trustees offered Simon a raise at their December 15th meeting amid the Nassar scandal, even with their knowledge that #MeTooMSU protestors would be there.
Instead of accepting the $150,000 raise, however, Simon directed the money to the Roy J. and Lou Anna K. Simon Scholarship fund in support of first-generation college students.
Brian Breslin, chair on the MSU Board of Trustees, also announced the creation of a $10 million fund to be used for counseling and mental health services for Nassar's victims.
"MSU has priorities that are money and sports and status, and not it's students."
Jessica thinks these changes are a step in the right direction, but not for the right reasons.
She believes that the university's main motivation is to "make MSU look good," and is doing damage control without putting preventative measures in place.
"Helping the damage that is done is not preventing it from happening again," Jessica said. "That should be their focus right now."
Jessica said she hears from her friends that live on campus about all the emails from the university and posters put up about sexual assault around campus. In her eyes, this is not enough – posters and emails don't mean that those responsible are suffering any repercussions.
"The lack of enforcement [is] truly what I think is one of the biggest problem at MSU," Jessica said. "Every single day that goes by that they don't do anything, they're ruining their reputation – or rather, their true reputation is showing."
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst
If the university continues to go down this "path of resistance to creating change," Jessica said, the Me Too MSU page will act primarily as a platform for advocating and organizing for that change while holding MSU accountable.
"I very much hope that MSU does start to make those changes," said Jessica.
If the university does follow through with its promised changes, like Jessica hopes it will, the Me Too MSU page will then become a "page of support for people who were affected in the past, or [for people to] voice concerns that we can then take to Michigan State University to be handled correctly. That's my hope."
As founder of the Me Too MSU movement, Jessica says that as a part of the civil lawsuit against Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and Twistars Gymnastics Club, she will hold accountable those accused of enabling Larry Nassar not just on a personal level, but a legal one as well.
"I would like my daughter to be able to go to Michigan State University, if i have a daughter, or my son, and know that they're going to be safe – and I will be persistent until I feel that that's the case," Jessica said.
"Bravery and grace in the face of absolute evil"
Although she admits it can be hard to talk about and constantly be immersed in, Jessica said she is proud of what the Me Too MSU Facebook page has become.
"It makes me feel like I'm able to help people, which was really the goal of the Facebook page," she said. "To be able to see that and feel like a part of people's healing process has been really healing for me as well."
Morgan McCaul, an 18-year-old dancer at the University of Michigan, is a follower of Jessica's page. Having been sexually abused by Nassar for three years beginning when she was 12 years old, Morgan said the #MeTooMSU movement has been a helpful part of her healing.
Morgan describes the #MeTooMSU movement as an important callout the sexual abuse culture here at Michigan State, essentially by the hands of MSU employees and officials for over 20 years.
"Every time they deny they had any knowledge of this abuse, they contribute to this culture," Morgan said. "Every time they deny they had the responsibility to protect little girls on their campus, they contribute to this culture."
In her victim impact statement she shared with The Tab, Morgan tells her fellow survivors that they are "shining examples of bravery and grace in the face of absolute evil. You are the reason I was empowered enough to share my story and you are the reason that justice will be served."
Life after Nassar
Nassar's sentencing continues this week, and has been extended to Monday or Tuesday because of the number of survivors who continue to come forward. At this point, nearly 100 girls and women have read victim impact statements to the court over the past four days.
When sentencing is handed down next week by Judge Aquilina, Nassar, who is already in his mid-50s, will likely be in prison for the rest of his life.
Jessica shared her own victim impact statement yesterday, on day three of the sentencing hearing. She told The Tab she wrote her victim impact statement to address the judge, because she feels as though Nassar doesn't deserve her addressing him.
"In the beginning, I talk about how I struggled to trust myself and feel like myself because someone took that away from me," Jessica said. She said she concluded her statement with "we stand here as strong and empowered women" while "'you, Nassar, should sit there as a sick man finally understanding your fate. You'll never control me again.'"
After Nassar is sentenced, Jessica hopes to feel like herself again and "in control" of herself and her life.
"I'm hoping to feel that, times ten… I think that I'll feel very empowered to know that I was able to speak, able to have that voice and take control," Jessica said.