[Warning: This review contains descriptions of sexual assault]
One of the most shocking revelations in Erin Lee Carr’s documentary At the Heart of Gold, a chilling expose of the 2016-2017 USA gymnastics sex scandal where team doctor Larry Nassar was found guilty of sexually assaulting minors under his care, was how shocked and outraged many of his victims were when he was first arrested. Interview after interview, survivors tearfully describe him as a friend, a guardian, a trustworthy shoulder when the training or the pressure becomes overwhelming. He was a beloved community member, active church member, and diligent volunteer at local high schools. So it didn’t matter if he’d routinely abuse them during checkups, frequently while nurses or their parents were in the same room, violating them without warning for “vaginal adjustments.” It didn’t matter if he’d take barely pubescent young girls into his home basement for “check-ups.” None of it mattered. He was the “nice guy,” a good-natured, unassuming dweeb everyone could trust. And his victims loved him, exactly as they were groomed to. It was, as Carr reveals, the perfect cover for one of the most prolific, sociopathic child molesters in recent American history. Yet At the Heart of Gold isn’t a documentary on Nassar himself. Instead, it’s an examination of the system that enabled, empowered, and protected his predations for over twenty years, willfully turning a blind eye to his actions—and all for the sake of a few trophies and medals.
Carr presents her film as an autopsy, meticulously detailing how Nassar fell into the right places at the right times to avoid detection and accountability for years as he molested hundreds of children, beginning with the central mentality of competitive gymnastics: ignore physical pain and don’t complain under any circumstances. This brutal method of physical and mental indoctrination was perfected and promoted by Bela and Martha Karolyi, legendary Olympic gymnastics coaches who helped Romania dominate the sport in the 70s before moving to America and molding several of their most successful teams. As head coaches, they’d corral their tween athletes to an isolated training camp in rural Texas where they weren’t allowed access to the outside world or their parents. Day in and day out, they’d browbeat and drill the girls until they’d collapse. But you know who was always there with a sympathetic ear, a soft touch, and even the occasional slipped cell phone to talk to their families? Nassar. You know who had unrestricted access to the girls 24/7? Nassar. And you know who the Karolyi’s implicitly trusted to give injured girls the bare minimum treatment so they’d be back on their feet—literally—before they’d finish healing? Nassar. As Carr argues, the Karolyi’s had every incentive to look the other way whenever reports of sexual misconduct sprung up—he was just too damn good a doctor to lose.
But it doesn’t end there. Carr rolls out a cavalcade of high-profile enablers and accomplices with documented evidence proving either their complicity or indifference towards Nassar’s abuse since at least the 90s. In one sickening case, we’re shown an internal report investigating claims of sexual misconduct from Michigan State University where he worked as an assistant professor. The investigators demanded he never be left alone with any patients ever again. The report was promptly ignored, shelved, and forgotten, and Nassar was allowed to continue molesting students for years. In a way, Carr reserves the bulk of her bile not for Nassar himself—his actions condemn himself worse than any film could—but for these patriarchal quislings, both men and women, who tacitly enabled him as long as he helped them pump out world class gymnasts.
The last half hour of At the Heart of Gold is a mental, emotional gauntlet, recounting Nassar’s infamous trial where judge Rosemarie Aquilina infamously forced him to listen to his victims’ impact statements. These sequences (rightly) lionize them in our eyes as heroes, but they also secure our hatred for Nassar, who seems unmoved and nearly unperturbed as dozens of young women explain how powerfully he ruined their lives. The only time he cries in court is when an old friend confronts him with her disbelief in his actions—indeed, it’s the only time he seems to respond like a human being, and it’s towards a fellow adult, not one of the girls he abused. It’s a powerful indictment of how patriarchy dehumanizes the plight of young girls, ignoring their pain and suffering as something contemptible and worthless, only recognizing them as valid when they grow up and start families. (And even then, said recognition is tenuous.) This is why so many adults were able to brush off the claims of so many children, even in the face of such monstrous evil. At the Heart of Gold is a warning, one we mustn’t ignore.