One part of our day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv included a stop at the former Soviet base operating a Duga Radar Tower. What is a Soviet Radar Tower you ask? I had literally zero idea about this structure until we pulled up in the bus and walked the short way to the tower, also known as the Russian Woodpecker. As most know, I love AllTheOldAbandonedThings so I was of course fascinated by this Soviet adventure.
This stop was an incredible look into Soviet military operations during this time period. With over 1,500 personnel at the height of operation, the base and tower are now abandoned, along with the other Soviet dreams for technological and societal prowess; this base met the same fate as the “city of the future”, Prypiat.
In his article for Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan notes the connection between these two sites in Chornobyl:
“If anything, the military purpose of Chernobyl 2 [the Duga Tower] is a reminder that the purpose of the Chernobyl power station was never entirely civilian, either. While it did provide vast amounts of electricity to Ukraine, its four reactors were of the RBMK variety, meaning they could be easily switched between the fission of uranium for civilian purposes and the enrichment of plutonium for military ones. That left the top of reactor lightly covered, in order to make the switching of fuel assemblies easier. That’s why, when the thing unleashed its fiery belch one April day, a good part of Europe got a dusting of radionuclides.”
Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here.
I can now cross “wandering around an abandoned Soviet base in Northern Ukraine” off my bucket-list.
Where are we?
This tower was part of the Soviet over-the-horizon radar (OTH), an aspect of the government’s missile defense early-warning radar network. There are two Duga towers: one here in Chornobyl and another was built in eastern Siberia.
Known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the distinct tapping sound made by the system that interfered with other broadcasts, communications, and transmissions without warning, the tower is ENORMOUS. You can listen to the tower’s distinct tap-tap-tap sound here.
Like Prypiat, all operations at this hidden military base ceased after the explosion of reactor four. Today, the tower and buildings are deteriorating into the same woods that hid the operations taking place here during the Cold War.
Chornobyl Duga Base:
One of the most unbelievable aspects of this base is the level of priority given to its mission and the amount of money (7 billion Rubles) contributed to make this idea into a reality, only to see all this work and materials completely abandoned today. Nazarayan notes: “It’s almost like everyone agreed to play an incredibly dangerous game that, after half a century, suddenly seemed pointless and even boring. When it was over, the players dropped their toys and went home.”
Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here. Spencer, Luke. 2016. “The Top Secret Military Base Hidden in Chernobyl’s Irradiated Forest.” Atlas Obscura. Available here.
Currently: Watching: Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)
Our day trip included visiting the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi. Zalissya is the first stop after the checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone while Kopachi is farther north; visitors can see the Chornobyl plant from Kopachi’s road near the Red Forest.
Where are we?
Both villages were two of 186 communities (including over 100,000 people) evacuated after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. Kopachi, highly contaminated even to this day, remains abandoned, while other villages have seen a number of their former inhabitants return. These “self-settlers” chose to live within the Exclusion Zone, despite the health risks. One woman, Rozaliya Ivanivna, returned to Zalissya and became the village’s only inhabitant until she passed away a few years ago.
Many chose to return because these are their homes, where they grew up, and where their families are buried. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint.” says one of the self-settlers in the documentary, Babushkas of Chernobyl. The women in the film, and many of the 1,200 people who chose to return to their homes (illegally) inside of the Exclusion Zone, survived Holodomor, the Soviet-induced famine that killed seven million Ukrainians, not to mention WWII, and the invasion of the Nazis. For many, the connection to home is greater than their fears of radiation poisoning.
For me, walking these villages was one of the most impactful aspects of the trip. So often the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed, or even just feels, like it was a long time ago. Seeing the homes of people forced to leave and the possessions they left behind is a reminder that this happened just thirty years ago.
Watching: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
I highly recommend the day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv if you are visiting the Ukrainian capital (one of my favorite travel destinations!). Planning a trip to a former Soviet nuclear site might seem overwhelming, but I’m here to help you by giving an overview of booking your trip, how to be your best-and-most-informed-tourist-self, along with other helpful tips to make the most of your trip.
There is also advice for those that may start, stop, or be in the middle of their menstrual cycle as they tour Chornobyl. Please use the struggles–the blood, sweat, and tears of those that have walked before you–to plan accordingly. And anyone reading this paragraph that just thought ugh or shuddered at the thought of periods, kindly getoveryourself, Over half the population has one.
MiddleWorldAdventures Guide to Planning a Trip to Chornobyl:
Tip #1: Be Your Best-Tourist-Self
One of the best tips I have is simply don’t be that guy. So-called Dark Destinations are increasingly becoming more popular, which is great, as long as visitors show the respect that these locations deserve. Intentionality and remembering the events that occurred at these sites is not only respectful, but gives you a better experience as a visitor.
Here are a couple of MWA rules on being a respectful tourist:
Don’t take sexy selfies at the front of a nuclear site. You just look like an asshole.
Don’t steal anything.
Don’t ignore the rules of the tour guides: when they say stay out of the buildings, keep out.
Be patient. You’re not the only person visiting, we get that some things are an inconvenience but speaking (loudly) about it does not solve the problem.
Part of being your best-tourist-self is also being your-most-well-informed self. There are a ton of great books on the explosion of reactor four (including Higginbotham’s extensively researched book published last year). But if reading isn’t your thing, the HBO miniseries is not only a fairly accurate (and beautifully shot) representation of the actual events in 1986, but was also endorsed by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her work. A couple of really great sources on Chornobyl:
Alexievich, Svetlana. 1997. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Picador: New York.
Bogart, Anne and Holly Morris. 2016. The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Chicken and Egg Pictures.
HBO. 2019. The Chernobyl Podcast. HBO.
Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.
Since the site was opened for tourism in 2010, thousands of tourists signed up to see the power plant and surrounding villages each year. There are a couple of tour companies and multiple options for tours. We booked the one day tour from Kyiv, but there were two to even seven day options with the company we used.
You’ll need to decide what is important to you and how much time you’d like to spend in the area. Booking ahead is important and remember to have all of your travel documents in order prior to making the reservation.
For us, we had a limited time in Ukraine and it was important for us to see the plant, Prypiat, and a few of the abandoned villages. Luckily, our tour included a stop at the former Soviet Duga base, which was an awesome addition to our day and one I didn’t know was even an option to tour. Other options included an underground tour, visiting the control center of the plant, and staying overnight in city of Chornobyl.
I included a map here of the stops included on our tour:
Tip #3: What to Expect
Traveling to the site of a nuclear explosion is obviously not an every day adventure. I did a fair amount of research prior to leaving and was still surprised by a couple of unexpected aspects of the trip. A few friendly reminders::
A lack of cell phone service: I know this seems obvious, but many of the areas on the one day tour (and I’m assuming many sites on the longer tours as well) did not have cell phone service. I thought it added to the overall experience but just expect that you may not be able to play Pokemon Go in Prypiat.
It is a very bumpy two hour bus ride from Kyiv to the Exclusion Zone.
There is a lot of walking around. Not only wear closed-toed shoes, but also comfortable ones.
Bathrooms (or lack there-of): There are not a lot of bathroom options on this trip (see below) so make sure you are strategic with each stop.
Don’t touch anything. Seriously. The amount of radiation exposed to you on a one day trip is about the same as a flight, but as the tour guides say, limiting yourself to radiation is also your responsibility.
Window seat: Visitors can’t walk the Red Forest–it is too highly radioactive, even to this day–but you can see the forest from the bus on the way to Prypiat.
Potentially fall in love with your devishly-handsome-hot-dog-eating-in-a-full-suit bus driver. We LOVED Valeri. He had an amazing mustache and was just the coolest dude I’ve ever met.
Tip #4: Pack the Essentials
Overall, you’ll be spending about twelve hours either inside a bus or walking around deserted sites in the Exclusion Zone. Here are a couple of the essentials I’d recommend packing for a day trip:
Food: If you’re a person who starts to get grumpy when they are hungry or lacking caffeine, make sure to brown bag this day. There are a number of great grocery stores in Kyiv where you can stock up on sandwich supplies, water, and snacks. Be mindful to check for still or sparkling water (I’m looking at you, American friends) and also that mustard can be extremely horseradish-forward in Ukraine. You are only fed lunch on the one day tour with the option to buy small snacks at the checkpoint, so I’d recommend packing food with you.
Toilet Paper: Literally every single bathroom (either indoor or out) did not have toilet paper. The indoor toilets did not have seats. This is a use-the-restroom-at-your-own-risk situation so my recommendation is to BYOTP (see the last point for more information on the bathroom situation).
Hand Sanitizer: Read above. The soap situation was not any better.
Battery Pack: This is a long tour with a ton of beautiful photography opportunities. Or, if you’re like me, and running with an iPhone 6 with roughly a 45 minute battery life, bringing a battery pack is essential.
Sunscreen/bug spray: We visited in the spring and did not see too many insects, but sunscreen (at least for my pale skin) was needed. Pro-Tip: use a sunscreen without microplastics like the one carried here.
Clothing: It might be hot on the bus but cool outside. Bring a sweater or early 80s windbreaker, whatever is your jam for that day.
Medicine: The ride to the Exclusion Zone is bumpy. If you’re a person prone to motion sickness, I recommend bringing some kind of medicine to help with the bus ride.
Tip #5: Menstrual Cycle Survival Guide
I am here to help you survive your period inside a Soviet nuclear disaster zone. My best advice is to pack supplies regardless if the tour falls before, during, or right after your menstrual cycle. Basically, there are absolutely zero options so being prepared for the worst case scenario is ideal, and in my opinion, worth the effort. Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way when my always-unpredictable cycle started almost a week early and the eve of our Chornobyl trip.
My advice is to pack your preferred supplies: tampons, pads, cup, etc. if there is any possibility that you may experience your period while on the tour. Tampons and pads can be purchased at pharmacies in Kyiv (NOT grocery stores). If you are sporting a cup, I’d also bring a backup form of product. BYO any cramp or headache medicine with you.
As noted earlier, toilet facilities are scarce on an all-day tour. After leaving Kyiv, you have a roughly two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone checkpoint. There are facilities at the checkpoint, both portable toilets and access to indoor plumbing, but they are not (obviously) in tip-top shape. The portable toilets are made for taller individuals, so be prepared if you’re short like me as this space was difficult to hygienically navigate successfully. There was no toilet paper, soap, or hand sanitizer in either location. The indoor bathrooms did not have toilet seats.
If you booked the one day tour, the next actual bathroom isn’t until lunch at the nuclear facility. Here, the bathrooms are indoor, but again without toilet paper, seats, or sanitizer. I (along with my friends) ended up hoarding extra napkins out of sheer desperation to help with my situation. You’ll have a lot of walking after lunch, so this is your last bathroom facility until you return back to the Exclusion checkpoint.
Once at the checkpoint, the same access to the indoor and outdoor facilities will be available before traveling back to Kyiv.
Overall, my best advice is to have fun, be present in the moment, and pack extra toilet paper and sandwiches. Which I feel is solid advice for any situation you may find yourself in.
Currently: Reading: “Last Journey into Slavery” (National Geographic)
Two quick notes before I discuss dark tourism and AllTheThings Chornobyl:
Spelling: As noted in my Kyiv post, I am using the Ukrainian government’s preferred transliterations of names into English. While both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, the pronunciation of words can be different between the two languages. The commonly used English spelling for the nuclear plant in Northern Ukraine–Чорнобиль–is “Chernobyl”, the Russian translation of the word, rather than the Ukrainian “Chornobyl”. This transliteration was continuously used following the end of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine and even after Ukrainian became the country’s official language in 1991, overthrowing the Soviet-imposed Russian. The same can be said for the town of Прип’ять, as most English speakers use the Russian transliteration “Pripyat” over the Ukrainian “Prypiat”. Here I am going to use the preferred Ukrainian transliterations of the words–Chornobyl and Prypiat–in my following posts as a way to decolonize language. I know this seems insignificant, but I do not want to use the language of the oppressors in these posts (even if it means unlearning literally twenty years of spelling). Changes such as these are small, take time and I’m obviously still learning and will make mistakes, but let’s put forth the effort to #decolonizelanguage. Any published works that use the Russian transliterations will remain unchanged in how I cite them here. History: I am not going to outline the entire history and impact of the explosion of reactor four. I discuss a number of great sources that can go into detail far better than I could in a following post.
I’ve wanted to visit Ukraine since I was a kid, learning a bit of Russian through documentaries and watching the Olympics on TV. When we had the opportunity to travel to Kyiv last spring, I was ecstatic to start planning the few days we had in Ukraine.
Of course the question that popped up was should we visit Chornobyl?
I first read about the nuclear disaster as a freshman in a class at Kent State. One project included presenting to the class as the fictional head of a tourism office for your assigned country, encouraging would-be travelers to visit. Assigned with Belarus, I began researching the country and learned how their population was significantly impacted by the Chornobyl disaster, where 70% of the Ukrainian nuclear meltdown landed, contaminating 23% of the surface area of Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of Belorussians died from Chornobyl-related deaths and the country is still struggling to recover from the disaster. Over a million people remain in the exclusion zone, food is still grown and consumed on contaminated land, and the government has yet to disclose any information on the impact of the disaster:
“Belarus’s official policy on Chornobyl is aimed at persuading ordinary people to think about it as little as possible, and getting international organisations to allocate as much funding as possible to cleanup operations. Minsk spends billions on ‘making life safe’ in the contaminated zone, though independent experts believe that it would be cheaper and safer to simply resettle people.
Over 26bn Belarusian roubles (about US$1.3m), 25.5bn (US$1.26m) from public funds, have been allocated to the clean-up between now and 2020 – a considerable sum for Belarus, whose total annual budget is about US$9bn…
The Belarusian government is, however, determined to limit its costs associated with Chornobyl, and each year reduces the area of the zones defined as contaminated or dangerous, using as justification the natural decay of isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.”
Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.
I was pissed off. In ClassicAshlyn fashion, rather than write a Why You Should Visit Belarus paper, I instead presented on governmental corruption, the impact of policies on the lives of citizens suffering from exposure to radiation, and the lack of medical treatment, safe housing, and employment.
I enrolled in more Political Science and History courses the following semester, declared my major in Poli Sci in 2009, focusing on Russian Studies and Geography. Nerdalert but I continued reading and researching the impacts of Chornobyl on the region.
Back to 2019: we decided to book the tour.
Dark Tourism, or visiting sites of historical tragedy, should include respect and intent by the traveler. Places like Hiroshima, Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Pompeii, Chornobyl, and Auschwitz carry a great deal of weight and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t go, but the approach should certainly have a greater level of respect for what took place there. One of the ways travelers can be respectful to the sites–and people impacted by events that occurred there–is to inform yourself and act respectfully to the surroundings. This means read a book (my plea for 2020) and not take selfies in front of buildings where people were killed (the new “I was here” desecration) or steal things from the site.
Unfortunately, many visitors choose to tour these sites and act like absolute assholes, showing blatant disrespect for what occurred there. Last year, the Auschwitz Memorial took to Twitter to ask visitors to be more respectful and not take selfies in front of the camp or on the train tracks (I was horrified to find initials etched into the barracks of Auschwitz when I toured the death camp in 2017). Following the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, the increase in visitors to Prypiat included a number of people disrespecting the tragedy that took place there. The writer-creator of the show, Craig Mazin, also posted to Twitter after “sexy selfies” of visitors started surfacing.
I wanted to be as respectful and responsible to both the people and the place. Yes, I did take pictures, but tried to keep in mind the magnitude of what occurred there.
We visited before the HBO miniseries Chernobyl aired and even then I was shocked at the commercialization of the tour. Having visited both Auschwitz and Chornobyl, the level of kitsch in Ukraine was jarring to me. Stands selling candy and Chornobyl-branded condoms–“they glow in the dark!”–at the checkpoint before entering the exclusion zone felt extremely disrespectful. While the number of deaths attributed to the disaster are debatable, the fact that people died there, people were forced to evacuate their homes, and continued health and environmental concerns loom over not just Ukraine, but the surrounding areas, seemed to be forgotten in exchange for touristy trinkets.
“Human curiosity is inevitable, and denying the existence of this vast, charged space that is a crucial part of Soviet and global history would be impossible and pointless. But Chernobyl has yet to find an appropriate tone for its tourism. Potential danger is almost commodified as a feature of the visit. We wore the suits and waved the Geiger counters not because we needed to, but because those who brought us there sensed that we wanted to feel close to danger.
Unlike some other sites of tragedy that, despite mass attendance, are places of solemnity and reflection, this is a messy and morally queasy experience. That scoop of kitsch radioactive ice-cream may stick in your craw and, for the moment at least, it probably should.”
Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.
I thought about the impacts of the disaster on the people who lived here over twenty years ago and what it meant to buy radiation branded sexual protection on the same road where they were forced to leave everything behind.
I hope to be as respectful as possible in the following posts about our tour. I highly recommend visiting Chornobyl, but with well thought out intentions, not as a shithead tourist stealing toys from an abandoned kindergarten.
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.
I’ve broken down my Chornobyl posts into the following topics/stops:
I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I loved our tour. It was truly such a unique and amazing opportunity to visit.
Chornobyl & Belarus: Hjelmgaard, Kim. 2016. “In Secretive Belarus, Chernobyl’s Impact is Breathtakingly Grim.” USA Today. Available here. Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here. Kenigsber, Jacov E., Viktar F. Minenko, and Elena E. Buglova. 1996. “Radiation Effects on the Population of Belarus after the Chernobyl Accident and the Prediction of Stochastic Effects.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 49:1. 58-61. Available here.
Dark Tourism: Gold, Hannah. 2019. “Please Stop Taking Selfies at Chernobyl, Requests Series Creator.” The Cut. Available here. Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here. Street, Francesca. 2019. “Chernobyl and the Dangerous Ground of ‘Dark Tourism’.” CNN Travel. Available here. Sunkara, Lavanya. 2019. “From Auschwitz to Chernobyl: Tips on Respectfully Visiting Dark Tourism Sites.” Forbes. Available here.
Currently: Listening: The United States of Anxiety (WNYC Studios)
Reading is my all time favorite hobby (nerdalert) and I thankfully had time this year to get through a ton of different books.
I love non-fiction and wanted to share my top ten of 2019:
What is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics Rachael Denhollander
I was really looking forward to Denhollander’s memoir and found it to be one of the most impactful books of 2019. As the first person to come forward publicly against Nassar, she has been one of the loudest voices seeking justice for survivors. In What is a Girl Worth? (the question she posed at Nassar’s hearing), Denhollander details the struggles to come to terms with the sexual abuse she survived first in her church and then at the hands of her doctor; In both instances she was quieted and the perpetrators of her abuse were not held accountable. Denhollander’s book tells the struggle of a woman fighting to create change against institutions that enabled child abuse to happen.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee Casey Cep
I loved Furious Hours. The book tells two narratives: Harper Lee’s life and the trial of Robert Burns. They intersect as Lee covered the court case and Cep uses Lee’s notes from the trial to finish the story in this true-crime/biography. Furious Hours does a great job telling the gripping case of Robert Burns while providing respectful insight into the life of the very private Harper Lee. Cep’s writing is great too– I highly recommend this book if you’re a fan of Lee and/or true-crime.
The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down Abigail Pesta
The Girls is a collection of stories told by survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse. The narratives collected by Pesta are difficult to read, but show the grit and perseverance of these athletes as they overcame injuries and in many instances, mental and emotional abuse at the hands of the people that were supposed to protect them: their coach and doctor. Pesta’s writing is empathetic and places the stories of the survivors at the center of the book. The Girls is a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the sport or who may still be asking “How did this happen? How did no one know?”
How to be an Anti-Racist Ibram X. Kendi
Part memoir, part political guide, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist was one of my favorite books of 2019. After developing cancer following the publication of Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi notes that he is unable to separate racism and cancer: “Our world is suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequalities by victim blaming; heightening exploitation and misplaced hate; spurring mass shootings, arms races, and demagogues who polarize nations…” I love Kendi’s writing and as a scholar in race relations, How to be an Anti-Racist reads like one of his lectures, one desperately needed today.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to Present David Treuer
Described as the “counter-narrative” to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Treuer describes how, rather than ending in 1890, Native American life and culture has survived. Despite the American government’s tactics to destroy them, Native Americans have persevered and survived even the most brutal of policies and massacres: “I have tried to catch us not in the act of dying but, rather, in the radical act of living,” Treuer states. This book is a must-read for those not only interested in Native American history, but those needing to combat the long-accepted narratives of Native life in America.
On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal Naomi Klein
This collection of essays by Naomi Klein makes the case for a drastic systems overhaul to fight global climate change. Rampant and unchecked capitalism, she says, has created and continues to worsen not just environmental degradation, but also the disenfranchisement of people. Free-market ideology, Klein argues, has devastated communities; the push for growth is unsustainable, and is killing people and the planet. She quotes various social movements that were seen as unthinkable at the time–Roosevelt’s New Deal probably being the most cited–as the proof that systematic change is possible. At the heart of this shift should be equal places at the table and a drastic overhaul of how we define (and value) growth.
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States Daniel Immerwahr
Immerwahr’s incredible book, How to Hide an Empire, details how the power and colonialism of the United States stretches far beyond the “logo map” we see in classrooms: “You might see the intrusions of colonialism into recent politics as a sort of hangover– a price paid for yesterday’s excuses. In this view, empire is an affair of the past, even if its effects linger on,” Immerwahr notes, “But empire is not past yet.” Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines were seen as strategic locations for military bases, even if the native populations did not have the same rights as mainland Americans. This book taught me so much about the imperialist policies of the US and Immerwahr’s work is incredibly relevant for our modern times.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men Caroline Criado-Perez
I purchased Invisible Women after I traveled to a country with a couple of friends last summer. My friend, a man who stands at 6 ft. 3 inches, casually noted that the portable bathrooms meant for all of us were actually built for people like him. Why? I thought as I struggled to regroup following a rather horrifying period experience in a port-a-potty.
Using data as her lens, Criado-Perez’s book details how the one-size-fits-all approach to not just bathrooms, but healthcare, community planning, and economic systems put women at a disadvantage. One case showed that orchestras hired 50% more women after blind interview practices were implemented–more women were hired because the interviewers couldn’t hear the sound of their heels walking into the room. Gender bias is in how we design things (intentionally or not, she argues, the bias is there): fitness monitors don’t track women’s steps as accurately, speech-recognition software commonly misunderstands women’s voices (Google alone is 70% more likely). She notes that “designing the female half of the world out of of our public spaces is not a matter of resources. It’s a matter of priorities, and currently, whether unthinkingly or not, we just aren’t prioritizing women. This is manifestly unjust, and economically illiterate. Women have an equal right to public resources: we must stop excluding them by design.”
Know My Name: A Memoir Chanel Miller
In 2016, I remember pulling up the victim-impact statement of then-Emily-Doe during the sentencing of Brock Turner and being completely blown away by her powerful words: “To girls everywhere, I am with you.” I, along with 18 million others, read: “On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you.” Three years later, Emily Doe came publicly forward as Chanel Miller and released her memoir, Know My Name. Throughout the book Miller struggles to find her own identity as someone other than Brock Turner’s victim. She details the incredible frustration of working within a system supposedly meant to protect her, but instead favored the perpetrator of the crimes against her. Those who read her 2016 statement know Miller’s poignant writing and this book is a testament to her talent. It can be hard to read at times, but as society continues to doubt survivors, absolutely vital if we want to change the current system.
What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance Carolyn Forché
My favorite book of 2019 is Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard is True. I received the book as part of my Strand subscription and am so thankful the New York-based bookstore introduced me to this book. Forché was invited by Leonel Gómez Vides to travel to El Salavador and document the country’s horrifying civil war through her poetry. She meets a number of people touched by the war: insurgents, peasants, and military personnel. Her years in El Salvador eventually led to Forché’s activism as a “poet of witness”. The book is beautifully written and a testament to bear witness, no matter how terrible the events: “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.”
I love podcasts. I’m always listening to something.
I can’t list any new music for you (except LIZZO because of course) but I can (and often annoyingly) go on a tangent about a new episode of some podcast covering an obscure murder, new media commentary, or policy about to pass.
One of my new favorite genres is a podcast that accompanies a TV show or hosts a book club. For whatever reason, most of the ones I listened to (Chernobyl, Game of Thrones) also included Peter Sagal, not that I’m complaining. Nerdette gets a special shout-out for their ever-changing podcast that included special series of TV recaps and book discussions.
Here are my favorite podcasts of 2019:
My Favorite Murder Exactly Right
My Favorite Murder is an oldie but a goodie for me. I’ve listened to Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark for the past few years and continue to love their weekly podcasts. They’ve extended beyond strictly murder to include cult stories, wrongful convictions, and natural disasters, which has been met with some push-back from fans, but I’ve enjoyed the episodes this year.
Code Switch National Public Radio
A weekly race and culture podcast from NPR, Code Switch was one of my must-listen series last year. Hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, each episode tackles issues of race and intersectionality in politics. “A Tale of Two Districts” and “Political Prisoners?” were a couple of my favorite episodes.
Keep It Crooked Media
I am horrible with keeping up on pop culture (see above) but Keep It is my weekly update on what is happening in the world of music, tv, and culture. Hosted by Ira Madison III, Louis Virtel, and now Aida Osman, the podcast hit one hundred episodes this year. Each week they discuss different aspects of culture and politics, along with the occasional brunch recommendation.
On the Media WNYC Studios
I’ve been listening to On the Media since 2007 (!!) when OTM was only a show on NPR and before anyone knew what podcasting meant (I’m so old). Each week hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield cover the impact of media on American politics and the world. “Why Many Afghans Don’t Understand 9/11” and “We Need To Talk About Poland” are absolute must-listen episodes.
Reveal The Center for Investigative Reporting, PRX
A weekly investigative journalism podcast, Reveal focuses on telling the stories of important issues as host Al Letson says, with the intent of “finding out what really happened”. “To the Ends of Earth” and “Year of Return” were two of my favorite episodes this year.
1619 The New York Times
Last year The New York Times released the 1619 Project, an ongoing study into the impacts of slavery that first began in the United States 400 years ago. An accompanied audio series to the Times‘ magazine was released in August and I loved the series. “The Fight for a True Democracy” and “The Economy that Slavery Built” are absolute must-listens; In the second episode, Jesmyn Ward (author of Sing, Unburied, Sing) reads her piece on the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves and it is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking works I’ve heard all year; I think I listened to her reading the piece at least ten times.
Buried Truths (Season 2) WABE
Hank Kilbanoff returned for the second season of Buried Truths to tell the story of A.C. Hall, a black teenager murdered by police in Macon, Georgia in 1962. The podcast beautifully covers Hall’s story and how the impacts of race and police privilege are still as much of an issue today as they were in the 1960s. Buried Truths is an amazing podcast and one of my favorites of 2019.
This Land Crooked Media
An eight episode podcast developed by Crooked Media, This Land investigates how a 2000 murder in Oklahoma opened a case of land rights by five tribes in the state. Rebecca Nagle, a journalist and Cherokee Nation citizen, tells the dual narratives of the murder of George Jacobs and how the American government continued to marginalize Native Americans through policies that ignored treaties. Nagle’s ability to tie together true-crime, history, and politics makes This Land one of the most important podcasts of 2019.
In the Dark (Season Two) American Public Media
Season two of In the Dark told the story of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who had been tried six times for the murder of four people. APM‘s year long investigation revealed a number of problems with the Fifth Circuit Court District, District Attorney Doug Evans, and investigator John Johnson. While a majority of the second season was released in 2018, new episodes in 2019 updated listeners on Flowers’ case, including a report from the Supreme Court. In the Dark’s shocking investigation was one of my favorite podcasts of last year.
White Lies National Public Radio
White Lies is an absolute podcast masterpiece. Hosted by Alabama journalists Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, the series focuses on the unsolved murder of James Reeb, a white minister killed during the Selma protests of 1965. A four year long investigation, Brantley and Grace tell the story of not only Reeb’s death, but also how the culture in Alabama continues to protect the perpetrators of the crime to this day. In one episode Grace narrates: “Anyway, it was so long ago. Why go back? Why dig this up? Why reopen these old wounds, bother this old man? That was then. What’s past is past – water under the bridge. But you know what? That’s bullshit. We know it’s not true. The past is not past.”
What a year for television shows! I’ve always struggled with committing to an entire season, but this year I was able to watch a ton of great shows, both new and returning.
It was also a great year for television actresses: Regina King, Catherine O’Hara, Zendaya, Toni Collette, Elisabeth Moss, and the cast of Big Little Lies.
This was a difficult list to narrow down, so I wanted to include a couple of of other shows I loved this year:
Mindhunter continues to be amazing; I’m glad the show introduced more people to the Atlanta child murders and the fact that the cases remain unsolved.
I finally got on board with Stranger Things and fully love the series, so much so that Chris and I dressed up as Steve and Robin for Halloween.
How can you not love the second season of Big Little Lies? So dramatic, so over the top, so much love for Meryl Streep’s fake teeth, and this iconic scene:
Another year of The Handmaid’s Tale and another year of frustration. The show can be soooooo good and this season was full of amazing scenes and social commentary–the Natalie birth episode still keeping me up at night, why aren’t we talking more about this!?–but the show overall can be incredibly slow. I’m all for a plot that takes a while to get there, but most of the episodes I thought were way too much filler and not enough substance. Maybe this is anxiety from the last season of Game of Thrones?
Admittedly, Euphoria is A LOT. There’s a ton of things happening in this show, to the point where it can make the viewer feel overwhelmed with allthethings. I’d argue though, that’s kind of the point. At the center of the show is Rue (played to perfection by Zendaya), a high school student returning home from an overdose and stint in rehab. She still uses, struggling to overcome her father’s death, and striving to feel loved, which she believes she’s found in her new best friend, Jules (a trans woman wonderfully played by actual trans woman Hunter Shafer). A great cast, awesome makeup, killer soundtrack, and one of my favorite shows of the year.
Here are my favorite shows of 2019:
The Good Place (Season 4):
Oh, The Good Place. TV’s most positive show just ended THIS WEEK and I’m still recovering from the finale. I binged all three seasons in time to watch the fourth in real-time. Shur’s take on morality and the qualifications to what make a “good” human (and therefore entry into “the good place”) got a little old throughout the seasons, but I did love how everything came together in the last episodes. Similar to Handmaid’s Tale, there’s only so many plot-twists that can happen when your main protagonists are limited on where they can go (and the storyline is rooted in the idea of “place”) but the last season beautifully wrapped everything up. Call it comforting or sentimental, but it’s nice to have a series about basic human morality show us the complicated story of what it means to be human.
Can we also just talk about how great Maya Rudolph is as the Judge? And how truly awesome Marc Evan Jackson is as Shawn?
Succession (Season 2):
SUCCESSION. Do yourself a favor and binge this show if you haven’t seen it yet. The writing is so smart, the characters incredibly witty, and the plot just cruises (pun intended) through the season’s ten episodes of who may succeed patriarch Logan Roy. The finale, This is Not for Tears, is one of the most brilliant episodes of television I watched this year. A show about terrible people being awful, this final episode was less about who would inherit the big job and more on who would become the family’s sacrificial lamb.
All the performances are clutch and wonderfully acted but for me, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Roman (Kieran Cuilkin), and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) are my absolute favorites. I almost fell over when Tom stole chicken from Roy’s plate to prove he couldn’t be pushed around any longer.
The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)
HBO’s other family-centric comedy this year, The Righteous Gemstones, written by and starring Danny McBride, was also one of my favorite shows of this year. Less clever than Succession, Gemstones has a slow couple of first episodes, but the last few of the season were great. I’ve missed Danny McBride’s writing and acting so I’m maybe being a little sentimental here, but there’s just something about watching an outrageously ridiculous comedy each week.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but for me, the scenes with Judy (Edi Patterson) and Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) absolutely MADE this show.
The End of the F***ing World (Season 2):
The End of the F***ing World‘s season one finale was pretty perfect. As great as that ending was, I really loved season two. Yes, there’s a lot of redundancy in terms of rehashing what happened to Alyssa and James, but I felt that the creators did a good job of bringing the characters beyond the Romeo and Juliet-esque ending of season one. Instead, Alyssa and James are figuring out how to move forward from trauma and abuse, admittedly less dramatic but I’d argue, more human: “It was a fitting end,” James says in a voiceover, “A doomed love story. A perfect tragedy. And then I didn’t die.”
An arguable (very) dark comedy, the story of James, Alyssa, and now Bonnie, a new character linked to the couple, was one of my favorite shows of the year. The awkward and endearing couple show that you can work through trauma in whatever way you have to in order to move past it.
Schitt’s Creek (Season 5):
Schitt’s Creek is IT. There isn’t enough space or time to talk about how great this show is: the writing, the acting, the comedic timing etc. etc. The sheer joy of Schitt’s Creek draws you in and unlike other shows tied to place (I’m looking at you Handmaid’s Tale), does a good job of building around that common theme by giving space for the characters to either grow–David and Alexis–or not (MOIRA)–in a genuine way.
This cast is amazing. Dan Levy (David) and Annie Murphy (Alexis) are perfect. But the relationship between Eugene Levy (Johnny) and Catherine O’Hara (Moira) is my favorite part of the show. As always, Eugene Levy is endearing in a way only he can be while O’Hara proves she has always been the queen in how she portrays the eccentric Moira (and her wigs).
Can we just talk about Stevie’s performance (played by Emily Hampshire) and how this scene is absolute perfection? Maybe of any show of all time?!
Years and Years
Years and Years is criminally underrated. Emma Thompson, as always, is incredible as politician Vivienne Rock and Jessica Hynes, a favorite from her days on Spaced (1999!), has one of the best performances of the year in her role as a political activist.
The BBC show tells the story of one Manchester family over the fifteen years following an event in 2019. Immigration, technology, and love are just a few of the overarching themes of a show that follows the story of each character as Britain experiences both political and economic instability. Muriel, the matriarch of the family says: “It’s all your fault… Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault. Every single one of us.” Hynes’s performance in the final episode is heartbreaking and overall I loved this six episode show.
Based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, the HBO adaption Watchmen was one of the most bizarre, intense, and interesting shows of 2019. Starring Regina King–who is absolutely perfect as a daytime baker and vigilante by night–the story centers around Tulsa, Oklahoma and how the 1921 terrorism of “Black Wall Street” resonates in modern relationships and policing. As in the early 1900s, modern intersections of race and power drive the narrative of the show’s packed nine episodes. The storytelling of the show is amazing–episodes are jumping between time periods, places, and perspectives, but somehow manages to tie everything together in a satisfying, albeit for me, heartbreaking way.
Regina King (Angela) as the ass kicking superhero and police officer, struggling throughout the series to understand the truth of her family’s past. King notes that “so much of this country was built by black people, but yet in a lot of regards, we’re orphans because we don’t know where we’ve come from. There’s a metaphor in there for the history of the real America.”
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Unbelievable is that the true-crime series is actually true. The story of Marie, a young woman who recants her account of rape after pressure from police, is at the center of the show and gives light on the struggles women face when reporting abuse. After a series of rapes occur in their town, detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, who are great in these roles) begin connecting the pieces showing that a serial rapist has been committing these crimes, including Marie’s assault.
At the heart of Unbelievable is the question of who actually gets to be believed. Marie, a low-income young orphan, does everything right when she reports her rape: she consents to medical exams, explains the event multiple times to a number of people, and submits to questioning, and yet is made to believe that she invented the account and is even hit with a false reporting charge. Marie isn’t taken seriously but that part isn’t unbelievable, right? Here the show demonstrates the inherent problems within an unjust system–who gets to be believed and who is worthy of our time and empathy isn’t equal.
Chernobyl is easily one of the best five episodes of television this year. From the beginning the series draws you in as the horrifying tale of the Soviet nuclear disaster slowly unfolds. Jared Harris (Valery Legasov) is haunting, wonderful, and is the perfect protagonist to show the costs of attempting to save the world from nuclear ruin–the lives lost, the environment destroyed, and combating a regime intent on keeping such a disaster a secret.
We toured Chernobyl a week before the show premiered on HBO and all I can say is, holy shit.
The show is beautifully shot with such an attention to detail that viewers can forget that this isn’t REALLY 1986 Ukraine. I highly recommend listening to the Chernobyl Podcast with show creator Craig Mazin (can we also talk about how Craig Mazin, who is known for The Hangover Part II and III, created Chernobyl?) and NPR’s Peter Sagal as they discuss decisions made for the show. Emily Watson, as scientist Ulana Khomyuk, is one of the characters created for the show; she’s a combination of a number of scientists that worked to clean up the damage. Her interviews with the first victims of the explosion are absolutely heartbreaking. Much of the show, including the story-line of Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko, was based on the incredible book, Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, who has endorsed the show.
When They See Us:
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is one the best shows of all time. While the miniseries was snubbed by the Golden Globes–many of arguments blame how difficult the show is to watch– the fact is that her portrayal of the Central Park Five IS hard to watch, mostly because the story of these teenagers sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit not only happened, but is demonstrating how institutional racism is still happening in America today.
A legal system that allows for the arrest, interrogation, and eventual sentencing of children for a crime they did not commit is unjust. And yet, the power and outrage of When They See Us is not only showing the viewer that these things happened, but continue to happen. Disenfranchisement is seen throughout the show: a lack of money means inadequate legal representation, inability for families to see their children, and the sheer racism of a prosecutor to refuse to believe anyone other than these children of color could commit this crime. The lack of empathy throughout is heartbreaking and shows what happens when those in power see others as less than; Linda Fairstein refers to the kids as “thugs” and “animals” rather than the eighth graders they are.
All four episodes are powerfully written and acted, but the 90 minute finale centering on Korey, who is sentenced to adult prison as a minor, is absolutely brutal. Viewers might not be able to finish watching a show so outrageously unjust and unbelievable, but the point of When They See Is, is that it is.
Currently: Listening: The Racist Sandwich (Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed)
THE 2019-in-review post you’ve been waiting to read is HERE.
Last year I had some of the best food of my life and couldn’t just limit this list to strictly brunch as I did in 2018. If we’re being honest, I couldn’t choose between a couple of my favorites, so I made an obnoxiously long list so I could include allthethings. Classic Spilis.
I’ll review my favorite coffee shops, brunch stops, the clutch snacks of 2019, favorite dinners, and best desserts. Because it’s me, I also included two lists of my favorite cuisines too: Indian restaurants and nachos. Because let’s be honest, is it REALLY an Ashlynbestoffoodlist without them?
Here we go!
Favorite Coffee Spots:
I’m an extremely boring coffee drinker (cowboy coffee–Americano, black). While I’m no-frills on my coffee, I love spending time in unique shops when traveling to a new place. Here are a couple of my favorite spots from 2019.
Best Brunch of 2019:
Somewhere Outside Chernobyl, Ukraine:
Bran Castle, Romania:
Favorite Indian Food Spots:
Indian is one of our favorite cuisines. I’m still trying to work on my skills at home, but there is nothing like authentic meals when we travel. Thankfully, I found a couple of great locations last year:
Suisun City, California:
Nachos are my all-time favorite food. While finding a decent order in Europe is tricky (so much disappointment) I managed to find a couple of awesome options this year.
2019 was a busy travel year for me! I was lucky enough to visit amazing new places and return to a couple of my favorite cities. As potentially my last full year abroad, I wanted to make the most of my time in Europe and I definitely accomplished that goal this year.
I tried to be as present in the moment as I could; mindfulness has always been a struggle for me–I’m always on to the next thing–but I am getting better at taking time to enjoy just being here.
In Classic Ashlyn style, I wanted my travel post to include all my favorites: new and old places, landscapes wandered, and the best libraries I visited in 2019. I also had AMAZING experiences including traveling in Warsaw during the 75th anniversary of the Uprising, petting reindeer above the Arctic Circle, and attending a World Cup match in Paris.
Here’s a (mostly photo) overview of AllTheThings2019: travel, libraries, sports, experiences, and of course, dogs.
Bran Castle, Romania:
Peleș Castle, Romania:
I’m so thankful for everything I had the opportunity to see and do last year.
Egészségedre to making 2020 all you hope it to be!
Currently: Listening Moon: The Original Soundtrack (Clint Mansell)
“‘The reality is the policy you have in place is only as good as the culture surrounding it,’ she said. ‘And it’s only going to be as effective as the hearts of the people who have to implement it. And so how you message on abuse, how much you demonstrate that it matters is by how you handle it. That is what really changes the culture.'”
Shamus, Kristen Jordan. 2020. “Rachael Denhollander: MSU is ‘Actively Reinforcing the Culture’ that let Nassar Thrive.” Detroit Free Press. Available here.
Another year, another update on the fallout from Nassar’s abuse. #surprisednotsurprised that the institutions that allowed the most prolific sexual abuse predator in the history of American sport continue to struggle to change culture and policy.
USA Gymnastics has found a new National Training Center, which shockingly includes medical tables out in the open, as opposed to the dusty table in the backroom of the Karolyi Ranch. I guess even the simple steps are something to give them credit for, although at this point it seems like we should be wayyyy beyond this.
A new book, Start By Believing, has brought a number of scathing documents to surface and I hope this will help put former CEO Steve Penny behind bars for good. Again, not surprising to find out how much he knew and covered up or that the person who smuggled medical records from the Karolyi Ranch was working at the organization up until December of last year.
Michigan State University, in their apparent steadfast mission to keep on being terrible, has continued to refuse to release the over 6,000 documents requested by the Michigan Attorney General’s office. Klages and Simon are still denying they knew anything about the abuse on campus, statements directly in contradiction to evidence collected by police.
The most positive development in this “hey let’s hold enablers and abusers accountable” long game is the recent raid of John Geddert’s home and gym (the photo at the beginning of this post). Former USAG Coach of the Year, Geddert has been under investigation for years for not only physically and emotionally abusing athletes, but also protecting his long-time friend Larry Nassar, who molested potentially hundreds of girls in Geddert’s gym.
Let’s get into it:
Michigan State University:
While John Engler resigned as interim president of MSU over a year ago, he has yet to agree to be interviewed by Attorney General Dana Nessel for her investigation into how the university allowed Nassar’s abuse; Engler has stated that he thinks the AG office is “biased against him”. Due to the university’s indemnification policy, they are still paying Engler’s legal fees, including $207,000. Engler made a number of controversial comments during his tenure including asking survivor Kaylee Lorincz, “if I wrote you a check for $250,000, would you take it?”
In December, Attorney General Dana Nessel stated that the investigation into how MSU handled Nassar’s abuse throughout his years at the university is at an “impasse” as the Board of Trustees has continued to withhold several thousands of documents from police. The university has cited attorney-client privilege as to why they are not required to hand over documents. Five of the eight university trustees have stated that they will review the 6,000 documents requested and “consider” releasing them to the AG’s office. Nessel responded:
“It’s unclear how the trustees can say with certainty that the information contained in those documents is not relevant to our investigation. In fact, the depth and breadth the university has gone to in withholding those documents only increases our fervor to obtain them.”
LeBlanc, Beth. 2019. “Nessel Clarifies: Nassar Investigation at ‘Impasse’ with MSU.” The Detroit News. Available here.
Four board members voted against the independent review which would have included the documents requested by the AG’s office.
Former MSU president Lou Anna Simon’s attorneys are planning to ask a judge to dismiss the four charges against her in relation to Nassar’s abuse at Michigan State. Simon is charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors of lying to police. She that while she knew of the 2014 Title IX investigation into Nassar brought forward by Amanda Thomashaw, but did not know any specifics behind the complaint. This directly contradicts evidence found by detectives that show Simon discussed Nassar and the investigation into whether he sexually abused Thomashaw in 2014. He was later cleared of the charges.
Former Michigan State University head coach Kathie Klages has a trial date for February 10th; she faces two charges of lying to police. Klages denied knowing of sexual abuse allegations made against Nassar, including two accounts brought forward by gymnasts in 1997. During her time as head coach, Klages forced her athletes to sign a card supporting Nassar and told the mother of a survivor that the 30,000+ images of child pornography found on his home computer were planted.
This week Rachael Denhollander criticized the lack of change in culture and policy at MSU as the university has yet to complete an independent investigation into not only how Nassar was able to abuse hundreds of girls on campus, but also how multiple complaints were dismissed by the administration:
“MSU is consistently messaging that they care about money and liability more. And in that case, they’re going to be completely ineffective at actually changing the culture. They’re going to be ineffective at communicating to survivors that there is a safe place to speak up. They are going to be ineffective at communicating to their own employees, that abuse reports have to be handled properly. Because essentially their messaging is that if you do mess up, we’re going to cover for you because it would be too expensive if we don’t. They’re actively reinforcing the culture…
I have even less hope for USAG than I have for MSU, if that’s even possible. It is the same set of problems. USAG has not taken the most basic steps. They have yet to identify even one mistake that was made. They have yet to identify one abusive coach, one abusive dynamic that should not have been allowed to flourish. They still have people working for them who actively covered up for Larry.”
Shamus, Kristen Jordan. 2020. “Rachael Denhollander: MSU is ‘Actively Reinforcing the Culture’ that let Nassar Thrive.” Detroit Free Press. Available here.
A woman has filed a lawsuit against the former MSU medical resident Michael Phinn further citing the lack of oversight by Michigan State leadership. Phinn was sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison for sexual assault (among other charges) after two women testified that he used his lab coat to expose himself to them and forced the women to watch videos of himself masturbating. The lawsuit also names Michigan State and former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, William Strampel. Strampel was Phinn’s (and Nassar’s) supervisor and was criminally charged for neglect of duty and sentenced to one year in prison last August.
USA Gymnastics & The United States Olympic Committee:
Amy White, a USA Gymnastics staffer who, under direction of CEO Steve Penny, removed medical records from the then-National Training Center, Karolyi Ranch, is no longer working for the organization. The notice in December 2019 did not state whether White had been fired or left the organization voluntarily. In a statement to the Senate in 2018, Kerry Perry–who replaced Penny as CEO–testified that the documents were given to Penny after White removed them them from Texas and brought them to USAG headquarters in Indianapolis. The national team met at the Karolyi Ranch every month and many gymnasts state they were abused by Nassar there.
The book Start by Believing (John Barr and Dan Murphy) was published this month and included a number of previously unreported documents relating to the Nassar case. Most damning are the documents that show then-CEO Steve Penny was aware of Nassar’s abuse earlier (and in more detail) than previously thought. He stated that gymnast Mckayla Maroney “felt no therapeutic effect but felt [Nassar] was getting sexual gratification” by abusing her under the guise of medical treatment, specifically penetrating her in Japan (2011), London (2012), and Belgium (2013). The document further states that USAG attorneys Dan Connolly and Scott Himsel offered Penny a choice:
“‘We can tell the full story of what we’ve learned thus far,’ the attorneys wrote in an email obtained by the authors. ‘We think it is highly likely that would become a media story and prompt Larry to sue for defamation… Neither Dr. Nassar nor USAG wants the attendant negative publicity at this time.'”
ESPN. 2020. “Book Reveals New Details of How USAG concealed Nassar Complaints.” ESPN Online. Available here.
Remember that Penny did not first alert police–a requirement of Indiana law–but instead hired Fran Sepler, a workplace harassment investigator, to interview gymnasts about the complaints against Nassar. She interviewed 2012 Olympians Maroney and Aly Raisman, along with Maggie Nichols, a 2015 World Champion and current gymnast for Oklahoma, about their abuse. Maggie is one of the first elite gymnasts to come forward when her coach overheard her discussing how uncomfortable Nassar made her feel at a national training camp.
USA Gymnastics has again postponed hearings related to complaints made against coach Maggie Haney. Haney, the owner of MG Elite Gymnastics, coached 2016 Olympic Champion Laurie Hernandez, along with a number of other elite gymnasts including Jazmyn Foberg (who now competes for the University of Florida) and current national team member Riley McCusker. The three year case began when eleven allegations of emotional and verbal abuse were made against Haney. Hernandez no longer trains at MG Elite, but McCusker, a 2018 World Champion and one of the front-runners for the 2020 team, still trains with Haney. Both Haney and McCusker were at the National Training Center this month.
Child sexual assault charges against former USA Gymnastics Athletic Trainer Debbie Van Horn were dismissed this January. Van Horn worked closely with Nassar for years at the-then National Training Center: Karolyi Ranch. Nassar called Van Horn his “neck” that kept his head on and further said she was “the single most influential person in the history of sports medicine for the sport of gymnastics”. Mattie Larson, a 2010 World Championship silver medalist, stated in her victim impact statement that Van Horn was in the room when Nassar abused her at the Karolyi Ranch. In addition to Van Horn, four others have been criminally charged in relation to the Nassar abuse including former CEO Steve Penny, who is facing charges of evidence-tampering, also in Texas.
USAG has named The Gymnastics Company as the new training center for the women’s program. The 42,000 square foot space in Indianapolis replaces the Karolyi Ranch as the official training site for US elite athletes, who meet at the location each month. One change from the secluded Karolyi Ranch is that the therapy tables are set up in plain view of the gym, rather than in a back room, which Nassar used to conceal his abuse of athletes.
While USAG’s decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy may have stopped the investigations and payouts to survivors, a recent article by The Washington Post found that USA Gymnastics has paid attorneys $1000+ per hour which:
“rank as extremely high for a bankruptcy of this size involving sexual abuse victims. Three lawyers have billed more than $600,000 individually in the first year of the case, according to a review of legal bills filed in court, part of more than $7 million in legal fees approved, by a judge, on a preliminary basis.
To some attorneys and victims, the rising legal fees are prompting concerns about how much will be left for victims when the case is over.”
Hobson, Will. 2019. “While Larry Nassar Victims Wait, Lawyers Cash in on USA Gymnastics Bankruptcy.” The Washington Post. Available here.
On Tuesday, attorneys representing survivors motioned to dismiss USAG’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Representatives stated that the survivors and USA Gymnastics are not any closer to settling mediation disputes and legal claims. USAG filed for bankruptcy in December of 2018, an act that halted all legal investigations (including the organization’s depositions) and the USOC’s decision to revoke their status as the national governing body for the sport. If approved, this request for dismissal would force USA Gymnastics to “confront the lawsuits filed in courts across the country and could also be exposed to new ones.” According to the filing, there has been no progress in months between USAG and the athletes suing the organization.
On January 21st, law enforcement raidedthe training center and home of John and Kathryn Geddert. John, the 2012 Olympic Head Coach and owner of Twistars gym, was accused of mental and physical abuse of athletes before being suspended by USA Gymnastics in 2018 and has been under investigation for two years. His gym was one of the locations Nassar used to abuse gymnasts, often playing the “good guy” counterpart to Geddert. Makayla Thrush, a former athlete at Twistars, spoke about Geddert’s abuse and enabling in her victim impact statement in 2018:
“Do you remember the time you got so mad at me? I don’t even know why that’s just who you are. You threw me on top of the low bar, ruptured the lymph nodes in my neck, gave me a black eye, and tore the muscles in my stomach. You told me to kill myself not just once but many other times, and unfortunately, I let you get the best of me because after you ended my career I tried. John you never even called me by my first name.”
Murphy, Amy. 2020. “Update: Police Raid on Twistars and Home of Former US Gymnastics Coach.” Fox 47 News. Available here.
In addition to Thrush, a number of other athletes have stated that Geddert knew of the abuse. 2012 Olympic Champion Mckayla Maroney also stated that she told Geddert while sharing a car in 2011 that Nassar was molesting her. In The Girls, multiple gymnasts told similar stories of Geddert walking in on Nassar abusing them while cracking jokes about their breasts and other body parts.
Rita Wieber, the mother of 2012 Olympic Champion and former Twistars gymnast Jordyn Wieber, released a statement 24 hours after police raided Twistars, stating: “I was encouraged to think that there is still a chance justice is going to be served.”
The attorney representing a number of survivors published this statement on the raid:
“On behalf of the hundreds of Larry Nassar victims represented by our team, I applaud the actions of the Michigan Attorney General and the Grand Ledge Police Department. The search of John Geddert’s home and Twistars offices is long overdue. Geddert was the handpicked by USA Gymnastics, the USOPC and the Karolyis to coach our 2012 Olympic Team. Every member of the Fierce Five was sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar under his watch. It is now time for search warrants to be served on USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee so that Nassar’s victims and the public will finally discover who within these organizations actively concealed Nassar’s crimes.”
Dolinar, Elise. 2020. “Larry Nassar Victims’ Attorney Issues Statement on Raid of John Geddert’s Assets.” NBC 25 News. Available here.
On a positive note, last year I read both The Girls (Abigail Pesta) and What is a Girl Worth? (Rachael Denhollander) and I highly recommend both if you’re interested in learning more about the topic.
Reading: The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) Watching: The Good Place Season 4 (Netflix) Listening: Scene on Radio (Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University)