2018 Reflections - Winter

January was the most important month of this year, and arguably my life. I jumped into 2018 full of immense fear and anticipation of what was to come only a couple weeks into the new year: the sentencing date of Larry Nassar. Thankfully, 2018 was not shadowed entirely by this evil man, but me facing him, speaking to him, and looking straight in his eyes on a cold, miserable January afternoon reared both a foreign strength and a foreign darkness within me. I will never forget the terrible anticipation of sitting in the court room, waiting for a side door to open, and for him to file in. Every time the wooden door swung open, my heart jumped. After waiting for well over an hour, when the door swung open and finally revealed a shell of a man who shuffled through it, I felt a sense of calm and control. It wasn’t just the handcuffs that sucked the power from him.

It was everything.

The room of traumatized, but resilient women about to speak the most intense and raw truth to the world. A badass judge. The lawyers that have walked with me and so many women through a process that tried to tear us a part. Detective Andrea Munford and Angela Povalitis who teared up when they saw me enter the court room. Countless news reporters who became the avenue for this horrendous, but imperative event to become nationally and internationally known.

The room was filled with fighters, and one evil man. You could feel the resounding power ricocheting off the court room walls.

I had the flu and a 103 degree fever that day. As I sat waiting for my turn to speak, I shivered and went through an entire box of Kleenex. After about 5 hours of listening to the statements of my Sister Survivors, it was my turn. My husband, Luke, joined me as we ventured our way up to the front of the room for me to speak to Judge Aquilina, and most importantly, to him. Angela Povalitis introduced me, stating that I was initially a part of the charged victims, and though I dropped the charges, I have come to speak publically and remove the anonymity to my report. Angela said, “She was first identified as Victim F, but today she identifies as Melody van der Veen.”

My 8 minutes on the stand flew by quickly, as I focused on the mission at hand. I will never forget watching tears stream down his face as I spoke to him about his proclaimed faith in God. Speaking at his trial sparked something in me that has forever changed my life to become one driven by justice and advocacy. Below is my statement.

When I finished speaking, I turned around and saw my sweet friend, and prior dance student, Emma Ann, sitting in one of the first rows in the court room. My heart sank as I realized that she too was at the court room for the same reason I was. It was a bittersweet reunion with not just her, but many old dance and gymnastics friends.

Since I was one of the last survivors to speak that day, we headed out soon after I spoke to the local urgent care. After the doctor confirmed that I had the flu, we headed back home for me to rest, so that I would be ready to return for the final sentencing day early the next week. When that day arrived, Luke and I joined the line of press forming outside the building to secure our spot. We filed through security, and headed up the elevator, down the wide hallway, which dead ended at Judge Aquilina’s court room. This time around, everyone was much lighter hearted. The looming silence that was there just a few days later was replaced with loud sounds of people chatting and laughing with old friends and new friends that found themselves bonded together through this experience.

Rachael Denhollender was the final survivor to speak. She was the first woman to speak publicly about what Larry Nassar had done to her. I view her as the leader of the “Army of Survivors,” which Judge Aquilina began calling us. Rachael spoke so eloquently, with the most beautiful balance of grace and truth that I have ever seen. When she finished her statement, the court room erupted in applause. People were shouting, crying, hugging, and walking around to speak to others. This was not your typical court room.

I first spoke with Rachael in September 2016, the day after the Indy Star article that covered her experience was published. One of the most meaningful moments was my life was hearing her speak, embracing her afterwards, and thanking her for her character and strength.

After the courtroom was back in order, and after all 160 women’s statements were accounted for, it was time to hear the Judge’s sentence. Luke held me closely and I sat in his lap, holding his hand, and holding my breath. When the sentencing finally arrived (40-175 years), the room erupted in another round of tears and hugs. Everything felt dreamlike in the sense that I could not believe that any of what was happening was actually real. For me, it took 9 years to get to this point: 6 years of abuse, and 3 waiting for justice to be served.

Moments after the day at court culminated, a number of reporters reached out, asking if I would be willing to participate in an interview. With not even a minute to process what just happened, I found myself in a 7 minute interview that went live on Canadian national news. I did my best to answer all of their questions and to formulate meaningful descriptions of what it was like to hear the Judge’s declaration of Nassar’s life in prison.

I often imprint images in my mind to insure that the memories don’t slip away. Regarding the experience that I have detailed here, I wish I could forget the imprints in my memory. Unfortunately, with trauma, unwelcomed images and memories force their way in and become embedded in your mind and body without invitation. I have learned about trauma in great detail these past two and a half years. I have lived it and studied it, seeking to understand why and how it behaves the way that it does. The best way I can describe trauma is by looking at how a parasite behaves. Untreated, both find their way into hidden places and can lead to deadly results.

Rather than chasing symptoms, I want to target the actual cause. This past January, I had the opportunity to do just that. And while some of the symptoms still linger at times, I know that I contributed to putting the cause of these symptoms to rest, and for that I am thankful. We can only move forward if we first look back to tie up the loose ends, to mend what has been broken.

Throughout 2018, I found myself in this dance of moving forward and looking back. I will never say that delving into my greatest pain and nightmares hasn’t had a ripple affect on my life, but I always tell people that I wouldn’t change my decision to speak or to go public for a second. As cliche as it sounds, the events of January helped me find a clearer voice and a vision for what my life’s work will be, and how I can best contribute to the world.

Melody van der Veen