I was a therapist for sex offenders in an Illinois prison when I realized I had been the childhood victim of a sex offender myself.
The realization hit me when I was driving home from work one day in the fall of 2016. At the time, I had just finished my doctorate in clinical psychology and was doing a postdoctorate at the prison. I hadn’t specifically chosen to work with sex offenders; I had applied for various postdoctorates, and this was the one I got. Mainly, I did group-counseling sessions; it was a well-supervised environment, and I felt in control. But the men’s stories were gut-wrenching; we talked about their sex offenses, their triggers and thought processes. Sometimes I felt like I needed a degree in acting to keep an expressionless face.
Some of the men could be rehabilitated, I believed, but not others. They were the ones who refused group therapy. The ones with dead eyes — like black holes. Those eyes stay with you.
I usually talked to my mom while driving home from work. This time, she had news: Olympic-gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar had been accused of sexual abuse. The instant she said it, I thought, I’m not surprised. At the same time I wondered, Why am I not surprised?
I pulled over to the side of the road alongside a farm. A cow looked over at me. It’s funny the things you remember in moments of crisis. As I sat there, the walls I had built up in my mind for so long came crashing down. Suddenly I could see the truth very clearly.
I had grown up doing gymnastics in Michigan, and Nassar had “treated” me for injuries, along with many other young athletes. He was the gymnastics-team doctor at Michigan State University, and he volunteered at a local gym and a high school, in addition to serving as the doctor for the U.S. national gymnastics team and Olympic team.
The first time he put his hands up my shorts at the Michigan State sports-medicine clinic, I trusted that he was performing a medical treatment. He was the Olympic doctor, and I was a 13-year-old kid, a freshman on my high-school gymnastics team suffering from a back injury. An osteopath, Nassar said that manipulating one part of my body would help another. I trusted him because he was a doctor — an important doctor. Plus my dad was in the room. This was one of Nassar’s tactics: He would have a parent in the room and strategically block his or her view, so the child would think everything was okay. I remember feeling embarrassed, hoping my dad wouldn’t be able to see up my shorts. Nassar “treated” me all throughout high school.
Decades later, realizing the truth, I felt numb. Then the feelings of guilt began to creep in. Why hadn’t I known that he was an abuser? I had a doctorate in psychology; I knew how sexual predators operated, how they manipulated children and gained their trust, as Nassar had done with me. I quickly spiraled, questioning whether I should be in the field of psychology at all. Of course, I was just a child when Nassar targeted me; I didn’t have a doctorate back then. But still, it was hard to see it that way. I couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt.
I kept going to work at the prison for a time, feeling extremely numb, like a zombie. I looked for a therapist and talked to a lawyer and to the police. I also confided in my mom — my dad had passed away — which was a heartbreaking conversation because I didn’t want her to feel bad. I put off taking my licensing exam to become a licensed clinical psychologist; I felt unfocused and, I suppose, unworthy. Then I developed a heart condition from the stress. This in addition to chronic back and spinal pain from old gymnastics injuries, a result of the lack of real treatment from Nassar. He had only pretended to treat my injuries, and now they were a major problem, requiring surgeries.
At the same time, elements of my life began to come into focus. I connected this childhood abuse to the reason I had entered into an abusive marriage at age 19 — and why I threw myself into my education after getting divorced, getting two master’s degrees and a doctorate, as if I had something to prove.
These were the thoughts swirling in my head when I saw a national news show devoted to Nassar one night on TV. It was one of the first national shows about the scandal, in early 2017, and my colleagues were talking about it the next day. I thought, The whole world knows about this. I felt like there was a giant neon sign pointing at me: VICTIM. I knew what I needed to do. I quit working at the prison and checked myself into a trauma-treatment facility, where I stayed for 25 days. It was an important step toward learning how to deal with the trauma; there was a lot to unpack.
I’ve come a long way since then. This month marks the four-year anniversary of Nassar’s historic sentencing in Michigan in 2018, when more than 150 women stood up and gave victim-impact statements in court. I was one of them. The story of how I began to heal — a story that includes finding a second family I never knew I had — starts there, with my court statement.
I wanted to address Nassar directly, and I knew it would be traumatic, so I practiced beforehand while looking at a photo of him to desensitize myself. I didn’t want him to see me cry, to see the weakness I felt. When my turn came in court, it felt like an out-of-body experience. I told myself: Just read the lines, then you can go outside and lose it.
The shutter clicks of the cameras were deafening. (I can no longer watch the show Scandal, with all its shutter-click sounds between scenes.) But I got through it. I closed by saying, “Mr. Nassar, you are no longer called a doctor. You have been stripped of your medical license, and soon you will be known by your prison number for what I hope to be the maximum sentence. I find this fitting, as I was a thing, inhuman, or just a number to you … I will no longer be known as a number. I will be known as Doctor Danielle Moore.”
Afterward, I felt incredibly drained. I had been focusing on this moment for so long, and now it was over. I needed to try to start healing, but how?
There were many hurdles. I knew cognitively that none of this was my fault, but still, there was that feeling. I also had to cope with the constant reminders of Nassar in the news, which hit like little bombs. He continued to make headlines after the sentencing, as institutional failures were brought to light — and the news just keeps coming. Recently, the Department of Justice released a scathing report on how the FBI failed to act on allegations against Nassar for more than a year, allowing him to keep abusing girls. Meanwhile, officials announced 24 criminal charges against longtime Nassar colleague John Geddert, a gymnastics coach in Michigan who rose to become an Olympic coach alongside Nassar as Olympic doctor. Geddert was a key Nassar enabler; Nassar abused girls in the back room of Geddert’s gym for decades. I had trained with Geddert as a young girl and with his sister-in-law as a teen. He ended up committing suicide rather than turning himself in to the police.
With the help of a therapist, I began to figure out how to navigate these kinds of things. I learned to allow myself time to recuperate from the triggering news stories, not to beat myself up if I needed to take a day to regain my balance.
But my biggest step toward healing came about in an unexpected way.
While out shopping one day with a friend, I came across a display of DNA testing kits from 23andMe. I had always thought about researching my ancestry one day. I knew my mom had given birth to me with the help of a sperm donor, as my dad was unable to have kids at the time. But I had always been a little nervous about opening that door; you never know what you might find. Now, I felt ready — I knew I was strong enough to face the entire truth of my life because I was strong enough to face Nassar. I did the DNA test and got the results online. Then I saw a button that said I could share my DNA and connect with other relatives. I clicked it, and boom: Three popped up instantly. My biological father, a brother, and a sister.
I immediately Googled them. I found my brother, Shaun, on Instagram. I zapped him a note: “Hey, I think I’m your sister.” To my surprise, he wrote back quickly; he had learned only recently that he had been born via a sperm donor. We discovered that we were just two months apart in age, had gone to neighboring high schools in Michigan, and had worked at the same mall — I must have walked right by him all the time there as a kid. After emailing for a few months, we met up at a coffee shop and continued the conversation in person.
Meanwhile, I found my sister, Stephanie, on LinkedIn. Her profile said she was studying clinical psychology at Argosy University in Phoenix. I couldn’t believe it: I had graduated from Argosy University in clinical psychology in Chicago. I sent her a note, and soon we were comparing classes, baby pictures, things we did as kids. I learned that our biological father, Frank, had raised four kids from two marriages; she was one of the kids from his second marriage. He had donated sperm as a medical student at Michigan State — at the same clinic where Nassar later abused me, as it happens. Frank had gone on to become an ob-gyn.
It felt exhilarating to form relationships with my newfound siblings. (Growing up, I had two older siblings from my dad’s first marriage, but they were 13 years and 16 years older than me, so I always felt like an only child.) One of the things I loved about getting to know Shaun and Stephanie was that they were a world apart from Nassar.
Of course, I knew that they had seen my history online — a YouTube video of my court statement pops up first thing in a Google search. But they waited for me to tell them about it. When I eventually did, they were supportive and kind. I realized that they saw me as a survivor, not a victim, which helped me see myself in the same light. They saw my fiery statement in court. They saw me traveling to New York and Los Angeles to receive awards along with my fellow survivors. They saw me attend congressional hearings about holding Nassar’s enablers accountable. They saw the empowered me — the person who now worked with the nonprofit group the Army of Survivors, raising awareness about sexual violence against athletes. They hadn’t known me in those dark days when I was spiraling, feeling like a victim. They never saw the worst of me. They saw only that strong person on the internet, standing up for what’s right.
They helped me realize I am that strong person.
When I reached out to my biological father, Frank, via email, he replied warmly, saying, “Ask me anything you want.” He had already heard from my brother Shaun, who told him he had been conceived through Frank’s sperm donation. In early 2020, just before the pandemic took hold, I traveled to Phoenix from Chicago to meet Frank and my sister Stephanie in person. I stayed with them in their home, and they were wonderfully welcoming, as was Frank’s wife. It was interesting to see how my biological father resembled me in certain ways — the fair skin, the blue eyes, the cleft chin, the way he gestured and waved his hands when he spoke. I also made contact with Frank’s other three children from his marriages — my other siblings — and with yet another sibling conceived via Frank’s sperm donation, a sister who suddenly popped up on 23andMe.
That spring, I made a big move: I took a job with the prosecuting-attorney’s office in Honolulu as an advocate working with victims going through the court process. It gave me a chance to use both my degree and my experience. Plus Hawaii is so sunny and warm — it’s good for the soul. Stephanie came to visit me there as a graduation present to herself, and I attended her commencement in Phoenix.
Today, I’m teaching online in Hawaii for the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The job works well for me because after six major surgeries to my back and two heart surgeries, it’s painful to sit at a desk in an office all day. This job allows me to get up and move around between classes. I stay in touch regularly with Stephanie, Shaun, Frank, and his wife, and I’ve met Shaun’s wife and baby — a little boy who shares my blue eyes.
Next month, I’ll be taking my long-delayed licensing exam. It’s time.
As I look back over the past four years since the sentencing, I realize that I’m a lot stronger than I thought. I’m also more laid back now, not as anxious about the little things. And I’m extremely grateful for my family, both new and old; I don’t know where I’d be without my mom through all of this.
I can see now that as my new family was getting to know me — the whole me, as a child, a teen, and an adult — they were also reminding me of who I am. As they asked me questions about myself, I remembered all the things that made me me, like my belief and my drive for social justice. I remembered that I was an athlete, not an athlete-victim; that I could be sarcastic and laugh; and that I could keep painting, which I love to do but had gotten away from amid the trauma. And I think that’s the most important lesson of all. It’s hard not to lose yourself when you’re coping with the trauma of abuse. It’s important not to lose you. The “victim” title is overpowering and overwhelming. There’s a lot more to people than “victim” or “survivor.”
Today, I am definitely back to who I am, possibly stronger — with more family to love.