In 2018, Larry Nassar, the former, beloved doctor for the USA Gymnastics and the Michigan State athletics department, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing over a hundred young women and girls who came under his care from MSU students to Olympic athletes.
But Nassar worked within a large system, filled with adults who either turned a blind eye or outright ignored girls who voiced their abuse. It’s that system and the voices of the numerous gymnasts and athletes who rose above it that get the spotlight in At the Heart of Gold, director Erin Lee Carr’s documentary about the Nassar trial and abuse within Olympics gymnastics, premiering on HBO May 3. In speaking with dozens of women, Carr focuses on Nassar’s abuse but also goes beyond it to shine a light on how elite gymnastics essentially silences the young girls who practice it, in a constant push on their bodies and minds to submit to pain. It’s a brutal but respectful documentary, one that demands a completely different approach to how young women become professional gymnasts and how they’re cared for.
Jezebel spoke with Carr about interviewing gymnasts for her film, how to approach a subject like this with radical empathy, and the problems with Olympic gymnastics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: You started working on this documentary in 2017, before the MeToo movement broke and before news of Larry Nassar’s abuse broke widely across the country. How did MeToo change the shape of this documentary?
ERIN LEE CARR: I think that the film is really a product of MeToo and being a part of a MeToo era in that it exhibits a form of radical empathy, some might call it emotional awareness. You hear someone like me who’s the filmmaker, who’s not on screen, but I’m interviewing every single gymnast and not consoling them but talking them through this. I think there was in years past the sort of Barbara Walters, very formal style of interviewing, but I know what it’s like to go through something difficult, and I wasn’t going to pretend. I’m not a sexual abuse survivor, but I wanted the person who I was interviewing to feel like they were in a safe spot, and I wanted the audience to directly listen to them. That was something that definitely changed in my interviewing style and how I set about making this film, because there was sort of a reckoning happening with how we think about who is a victim and who is a survivor and what that means.
You mentioned radical empathy. How would you define radical empathy as a filmmaker?
It really is about listening, about being open, about understanding trauma and thinking thoughtfully about it, and not asking those terrible questions like, “Did you talk to your parents about it?” Or, “Did you tell the police? There’s sort of a tenor when it comes to that, that is accusatory and so not participating in anything like that felt really important.
What was your guiding ethos in talking to these gymnasts? How do you make sure you don’t re-traumatize them and sensationalize their stories?
It wasn’t ever going to be sensationalized, but I always feared exploiting the story because I make things for television and I add music to things, which is very different than doing a written piece. I truly from the bottom of my heart never wanted any of the women to feel that their story and their processing of the trauma felt like it was being used for cinematic gain. It was really working with thoughtful people like Cindy Lee, my editor, and Sarah Gibson, my executive producer, and we just had to question and check the motive of every piece: What are we doing here? Is it okay? Sarah ended up screening it for all the survivors in Michigan—that was an important step. I think in every moment, [it’s] really thinking thoughtfully about it, which is much harder to make for me as someone who works in the crime space as it’s a lot more challenging, but that’s what the subject matter deserves and requires.
What was it about gymnastics specifically that made you want to explore and report on this world?
I think gymnastics is incredible. You watch it and you can’t help but be spellbound. I remember for the 2016 Olympics in Rio I was in a cabin in the woods that didn’t have great internet, and I was like, we have to get the internet guy here! I have to see the Olympics with Simone Biles and Aly Raisman! It generates this girlish excitement in me. I did not do gymnastics; I just wanted to watch powerful, strong women. Now, as someone who’s looked at the sport closely and studied its lineage and history and seen what the sport has warped into, it’s been an interesting journey. I think gymnastics has really been built up on the backs of these gymnasts, with no real thought to their aftercare, to their physical safety, to what happens after they retire. I think it’s an incredibly, financially predatory system. I love the sport, but I’m really upset at how the heroes of the sport have been treated.
Something that your documentary also does really well is it illustrates this “no pain, no gain” mentality and how it’s drilled into these girls. It kept a lot of them from vocalizing their pain because their tolerance and standards for physical pain were different as opposed to someone who’s not an athlete. Why was it important to you to really illustrate to viewers what a young gymnast’s relationship is to pain?
I think that you can’t understand how Larry Nassar became emboldened and involved so intricately with these gymnasts unless you know how the system is built. It was really after the interview with [host of GymCastic podcast] Jessica O’Beirne, who is a gymnastics podcaster but really renowned in the space, has a lot of love for it, that you understand this is young women training to be soldiers in a certain way. Your coach’s word is gospel. One, they’re there to keep you safe. Two, they’re trying to get you to “your dream,” the Olympics. It’s a system designed where abuse can flourish, much like that of football, much like the Catholic Church. There is no sort of back-and-forth communication between coach and athlete. There wasn’t an ability to have a conversation about the abuse that was happening, and that was a mistake and really did not allow gymnasts to talk in real time about what was happening. It just has to change if the sport is going to continue.
A lot of stories that have recently broke about powerful, abusive men, just end with them, and we don’t get to hear about all the other people complicit. But your film does that, showing how the chain of command failed many of these girls when Nassar was reported. What was your reaction to how these girls complaints were so mishandled or thrown out?
It’s very case-specific. You look at [gymnast] Larissa Boyce talking to [ex-MSU gymnastics coach] Kathy Klages—she basically was at a MSU youth camp. The stakes were not super high. She was saying a member of the staff was touching her inappropriately, and the people who had promised to protect these athletes did not do it. So the question is, why? What my brain can answer with is that she did not want the program to lose the golden goose that is Larry Nassar because he was connected to the Olympics. He was a recruitment tool. I think it all boils down to money, and we want to keep access to the things that are generating us money. Has Kathy Klages said that? No, so this is of course speculation. But I think that given how it went down, that could be a motive as to why this happens.
The scene at the end where women get to speak to Nassar directly during his sentencing is incredibly powerful. Can you talk about filming those speeches and their inclusion in the documentary?
It was really about making women feel like they had a platform to describe what happened to them but also that I want you to see Chelsea [Zerfas] having her moment stepping forward and moving on. Your entire identity does not have to be tied to abuse. Every single one of these women is in the movie talking about it, but they have whole, big, robust lives outside of something that happened to them, by this doctor. It’s really about thinking about them as humans and not as victims.
After MeToo sort of broke, you had a lot of reporters who were grappling with that these stories and certainly people have significantly mishandled this kind of reporting in the past. Do you feel like you’ve seen a change in how these stories are being told? Do you feel like people are having more sensitive conversations about how to tell women’s stories about abuse?
I absolutely think the conversation is changing. I think all of my films are, in a small way, love letters to journalists. This was made in conjunction with three celebrated journalists: Juliet Macur at the New York Times, Rebecca Davis O’Brien at the Wall Street Journal, and Scott Reid at the Orange County Register. Journalists are my narrators and I’m the proud daughter of a journalist, David Carr. I think this story would have been reported very differently 10 years ago and I think journalists are changing the dialogue about how to talk about these things.
Since making this documentary, have you kept following the USA Gymnastics? And have you seen significant changes being made to make sure this never happens again?
I think that it is about the USAG board resigning; it’s about the people who propped up Larry Nassar and his enablers being gone. I think it’s about more empathic survivor-focused police training. It’s about mandatory reporting and legislatorship at the state level and internationally. But these are all works in progress, and it’s really hard to see the change in real time. I know that Trinea Gonczar and Amanda Thomashow are starting their own nonprofit called Survivor Strong to think about what happened and how it can change. There’s just so much stuff that needs to happen because our system was so fucked before. If all of these things can start happening, we’ll be in a better spot, but we have to wait and see.