Freshman Kara Johnson with her sister, Maddie, and her parents as she tes­tified against con­victed serial abuser Larry Nassar. Kara Johnson | Courtesy

One year ago, 19-year-old Hillsdale freshman Kara Johnson stood before a monster.

She remembers how fast her heart beat and how her hands shook as she held her pre­pared remarks. But climbing onto a podium in a small Lansing, Michigan courtroom, Johnson dis­re­garded her fear, looked her monster in the eyes, and began to speak.

Johnson was one of hun­dreds of young women and girls who stood before Larry Nassar — the former Michigan State Uni­versity and USA Gym­nastics doctor con­victed of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the pos­session of child pornog­raphy — during his seven-day sen­tencing last January.

Their stories were heard across the nation as they con­fronted the man who had vio­lated them without their consent, and, as in Johnson’s case, often without their knowledge.

“Watching it on the news, that was the first time I was angry,” Johnson told me. “I was so mad that they were saying things like that about him. Little did I know that was exactly what was hap­pening to me. I always thought I would know if that hap­pened to me, but I was innocent, naive, and he was my doctor.”

Nassar vio­lated Johnson’s body, mind, and spirit repeatedly throughout her middle school years. She was a young athlete involved in cross-country and tennis, and she trusted the renowned doctor who was sup­posed to fix her. She ignored her dis­comfort and worry during her appoint­ments in part because of the photos of Olympic ath­letes that dec­o­rated the walls of his office, and because “you’re sup­posed to trust your doctor.”

But as the tes­ti­monies and evi­dence con­tinued to emerge, Johnson said she knew she needed to do some­thing.

“It’s weird how the trauma kept hitting,” she says. “It kept coming back, and sud­denly I knew, ‘My God, he did this.’”

Johnson and her family wrestled with whether to pub­licly testify against Nassar. The unwanted attention, stress, and toll it would take on their everyday lives was some­thing they expected, and some­thing they still seek to overcome. But Johnson knew she needed to stand in that courtroom and face her monster. “I needed to take my life back from him,” she says.

And walking toward that podium, clutching a sticky note with Philip­pians 4:13 written on it, Johnson began to take back what Nassar stole.

“I remember going up to the podium, facing the judge, and seeing him — and every­thing hit me. I knew what he did, who he was. And I thought, ‘Never again,’” she says.

Johnson tes­tified along with her younger sister, Maddie, and her father, Brad Johnson. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be, facing him,” Johnson told me.

And it did help, albeit not in a dra­mat­i­cally relieving way, Johnson said. There was no sudden release of pent-up emotion, no imme­diate relief for the burden of unwanted con­fusion she had carried with her. “To be honest, I didn’t walk out of that cour­t­house feeling any dif­ferent,” Johnson says. “I was still con­fused. Maybe I still am.”

After her tes­timony, the real “uphill climb” began, she says. “I started strug­gling with anxiety — and no wonder! My body had been trying to tell me some­thing for years.”

There have been “lots of ups-and-downs through this whole process,” she says, but she knows that now, one year later, she is a changed person — and for the better.

“Speaking up is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Johnson says. “If we wouldn’t have spoken up, Larry could still be hurting young women.”

Facing Nassar and sharing her story has changed the way Johnson thinks of mental health and sexual assault — and she said she hopes to change the way others think about these issues too.

“There’s a stigma about mental health and sexual abuse that needs to change,” she says. “It’s part of the reason why people are afraid to speak up. We need to encourage them not to think of them­selves as victims, but as people who come back stronger, who come back as war­riors. And that doesn’t mean you won’t be weak. There will be hard days, of course.”

Working through those hard days and those low moments is some­thing Johnson said the college can help with. “It’s so important to under­stand that this happens every­where,” she says.

And she’s right: Offering stu­dents access to on-campus support groups would be a great place to start. Any number of Hillsdale stu­dents struggle with anxiety, depression, and trauma, and giving them a weekly place to open up in a private, safe envi­ronment, guided by a trained pro­fes­sional like Director of Health Ser­vices Brock Lutz, would prove invaluable.

One-on-one coun­seling, which the college reg­u­larly pro­vides through Lutz and others, is nec­essary and good. But offering a group alter­native — where stu­dents can share their expe­ri­ences and col­lec­tively carry burdens — is another option that could form important friend­ships, support that “uphill climb,” and most important, show sur­vivors that they’re not alone.

“We need a place where we can all come together and say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to have my crap together right now,’” Johnson says.

Hillsdale’s admin­is­tration should con­tinue to encourage sur­vivors to report assault and abuse, as well. “Protect your­selves and protect others — report,” Johnson said.

“I didn’t realize until I was standing in front of my abuser that it was going to be a hard journey,” she says. “And I’m still trying to figure it out. But we should all be fig­uring this out together. It doesn’t matter who you are, so many people can relate to these stories. And we don’t even realize how many people have gone through similar things.”

Again, she’s right. If you are strug­gling with anxiety, depression, guilt, trauma, no matter how big or how small: Don’t be afraid to speak up. Talk to people you care about. Ask for help. This school is filled with indi­viduals who want to help and encourage. And perhaps keep in mind that little verse Johnson took with her to the podium: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Kaylee McGhee is a senior studying Pol­itics and Jour­nalism

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Great article.