The Basement At Larry Nassar's House : Believed Sometimes the people who don't believe you are the people who love you the most. This episode will take you into Larry Nassar's basement, through the memories of a young girl - a family friend who he abused for years.
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The Basement

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The Basement

The Basement

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LINDSEY SMITH, HOST:

Hey, it's Lindsey. Thanks for listening. A quick heads up - this episode talks about the sexual assault of a young girl. Also, if this is the first time you're listening to BELIEVED, everything will make a lot more sense if you start with Episode 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KATE WELLS, HOST:

It's 2004. Kyle Stephens is on a long bus ride. Her sixth-grade class is on its way back from a school field trip. Kyle's sitting next to one of her friends. And on the bus, Kyle's friend leans in and whispers.

KYLE STEPHENS: She said, what's your deepest, darkest secret? I thought about it, and I said, I don't think I have one. And she was like, well, this is what happened to me.

WELLS: This friend reveals that she was sexually abused by a cousin. And as she is telling Kyle more details, the gears start turning in Kyle's mind.

STEPHENS: And I was like, well, maybe that's my deepest, darkest secret because that's happened to me, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: You are going to hear Kyle's secret in this episode. And we want to warn you it is a really hard story to hear because it is about the people who love you the most and how they can fail you. But it's super important because it shows you who Larry Nassar really is and what is at stake every time he gets away. I'm Kate Wells.

SMITH: And I'm Lindsey Smith. You're listening to BELIEVED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Kyle is 26 now. She lives in Chicago, works downtown, so she agreed to meet us at our hotel. The air conditioning is a little loud in the background. Kyle's tan, long and lean, like the former college soccer player she is. She asked us not to tell you where she works, but it's a high-powered job with lots of responsibility. She's got a boyfriend. I don't think she'd mind us saying he's very good-looking. All this to let you know that in spite of what you're going to hear in a minute, Kyle has grown up to have a full life.

STEPHENS: I love the little things. I like to cook. I love to decorate. I like doing art, you know, and then just spending time with the people that I like and love.

SMITH: OK, back to Kyle as a kid. She grew up in East Lansing, home of Michigan State University - Spartan country.

STEPHENS: Everyone cuts their own lawn. Probably the nicest car on the block is a Subaru. It's empty in the summer because all the students are gone. And then once they're back, it's, like, Ugg boots and leggings everywhere.

WELLS: Throughout Kyle's childhood, her mom and dad are close friends with Larry Nassar and his wife, Stephanie. Larry works at MSU. All four of them work in medicine, actually. That's how they met. And just about every Sunday, Larry's wife, Stephanie, and Kyle's mom make dinner together for the two families. They try out new recipes from Bon Appetit.

SMITH: And that means every Sunday, Kyle and her older brother hang out in the Nassars' basement.

STEPHENS: We didn't have cable at my house. So like, cable - having cable at the Nassar's was, like, what? So my brother would always be downstairs watching TV, and I would go downstairs just to be with him.

SMITH: They'd watch endless cartoons, Disney movies. It was a pretty standard suburban basement - blue carpet, couple of couches, electric fireplace.

WELLS: And while the adults were upstairs cooking and chatting, Larry would offer to go downstairs, play hide-and-seek with Kyle and her brother.

STEPHENS: Almost phrasing it in a way where it's, like, a nice thing for him to be doing for you to relieve you from your children for a bit.

SMITH: As a mom, I relate to this so much. Yes, please, someone go make sure my kids aren't killing each other or quietly coloring on the basement walls.

WELLS: But Kyle says it wasn't like that. Larry was not just checking in on the kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: This is 1998 or '99. And this next bit is hard to listen to. Frankly, it's hard to tell you, too. Kyle is 6 or 7, before she'd lost all her baby teeth. She loved "Clifford The Big Red Dog" and watching cable TV in the basement with her brother. He's a few years older than Kyle.

STEPHENS: And Larry would come downstairs and either ask us if we wanted to play hide-and-go-seek to basically get us separated. My brother probably spent a lot of time hiding.

SMITH: Or Larry would just sit down with Kyle on the couch. He'd get a blanket, put it over the two of them.

STEPHENS: And then just act like he's watching TV with us, and then abuse me under the blanket with my brother sitting next to us.

SMITH: Under the blanket, Larry would take Kyle's tiny 6-year-old feet onto his lap. He'd unzip his pants and rub her feet against his penis. Larry would slip his fingers inside her shorts, inside her prepubescent vagina. He'd strategically placed lotion throughout the basement, Kyle says. During games of hide-and-seek, Kyle hid next to the furnace in a boiler room under a utility sink by the washer. Larry would grab that lotion, unzip his pants and masturbate in front of her. She still gets sick whenever she smells that brand of lotion. Larry would point to his penis and say, you can see it anytime you want.

Kyle was too little to understand that this was wrong or even something she should tell her parents. Here's her little-kid thinking. Adults were always showing her new things. She says it's kind of like when the Nassar kids get a whiteboard for Christmas. Larry showed them all how to do math problems with markers on the whiteboard.

STEPHENS: So it was just, like, another thing. And so I just - I remember just sitting there, and whatever was happening was happening.

SMITH: So you didn't think to go, hey, Mom?

STEPHENS: Guess what happened today - no.

SMITH: The abuse continued week after week for six years, even after Larry and Stephanie started having kids of their own. The very first time Kyle realizes this might not be OK, she was 12.

WELLS: It was on the bus home from that field trip when her friend tells her about being abused. And for a week after that, Kyle has a hard time falling asleep. She'd lay awake in her black metal bunk bed with the rainbow sheets. One night, she calls her mom into the room.

STEPHENS: Like, I literally - I can still see it, like, with the bright door and the, like, black room. And my mom's standing there, and she's, like, half in shadow. And I'm like, when Larry rubs my feet, he uses his penis. And my mom was just, like, blank-faced, like, mouth open. And she said, you need to tell your father.

SMITH: Kyle is terrified. They go out into the living room, find Kyle's dad.

STEPHENS: My dad immediately just started questioning me. And, well, what do you mean? Like, it just - I don't remember the questions, but I remember feeling, like, interrogated. And I felt like - like, I felt like I was in trouble, you know? And so I didn't say anything else. And so then they were like, OK, OK, OK, go to bed, and sent me back to bed.

WELLS: After that, Kyle won't talk. No matter how much her parents push, all she says is, when Larry rubs my feet, he uses his penis.

SMITH: When she's 12, Kyle doesn't tell her parents Larry also masturbates in front of her during games of hide-and-seek. She doesn't mention Larry touching her under the blanket on the couch in his basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: We should tell you we reached out to Kyle's family a few times. Through Kyle, they said they didn't want to participate. Phone calls and a letter to Kyle's mom went unanswered. Kyle's memories are backed up by a 2016 police report in which her family is interviewed.

WELLS: But back then, Kyle says her parents don't know if she's telling the truth. And they do trust their friend Larry. So at the time, in 2004, they don't go to police. They take Kyle to see someone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: So now Kyle has told her parents about Larry. They don't go to police. Instead they take her to see a child psychologist.

STEPHENS: His name is Gary Stollak. And he creeped me out, too, big-time.

WELLS: Dr. Gary Stollak is retired now. But back in 2004, he's got a private practice, and he's a professor at Michigan State. It's not clear if Dr. Stollak knew Larry. And 12-year-old Kyle is super embarrassed. She does not want to talk to some old dude about her feet on Larry's penis.

STEPHENS: And his office was in his house on, like, a brown couch with brown carpet, with brown walls. And he's drinking Constant Comment. And it's this old dude. And I'm like, well, I don't want to be here, let alone talk about penises with this man, you know? And they're trying to get me to disclose more, and I wouldn't talk.

WELLS: She doesn't tell that old guy about Larry masturbating in front of her, doesn't tell him about Larry touching her under the blanket during Disney movies. And after a few appointments with Dr. Stollak, Kyle's parents confront Larry.

STEPHENS: Larry met my parents at our house. Larry got into my parents' car. My parents drove him to the brown house, Gary Stollak's house.

SMITH: Kyle stays home. Afterwards, her parents tell her Larry is shocked. He's rubbed Kyle's feet, sure. He thought Kyle liked it. He denies ever using his penis.

STEPHENS: But then at the end, everybody believed Larry. And Gary Stollak said, I don't believe I have enough to report, even though he's a mandatory reporter.

WELLS: Mandatory reporters are people who are legally required to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. We tried to reach Stollak for comment several times. He didn't respond. But we do know what he has said publicly. Dr. Stollak told a judge in 2016 that he had a stroke a few years ago and that he has no memory of Kyle. He says he destroyed his patients' medical records after he retired. Michigan law allows that. We should say here because he didn't report Larry Nassar, Stollak recently agreed to surrender his medical license.

SMITH: But after that last appointment in 2004, Larry gets back into Kyle's parents' car. They drive together back to her house. Larry and Kyle's parents come into her living room. They sit Kyle down, Larry, too. They all need to have a serious chat.

STEPHENS: I'm sitting on my couch. I've got a blanket up to my chin, up to my face. Larry's sitting across from me. And he's saying, no one should ever do that. And if they do, you should tell somebody.

WELLS: Ultimately, Kyle says her parents believed Larry.

STEPHENS: I didn't even recognize the fact that, like, I'm being called a liar. I was just like, what's next? Like, how do I survive this? Because now that I'm a liar, I knew immediately that I was going to be a target for my parents. Now I was a very hideous liar about something that no one should ever lie about.

WELLS: Kyle knows this can be hard to understand. How could her parents do this?

SMITH: But she wants you to know her family was in crisis back then. It wasn't all MSU games and Sunday dinners.

STEPHENS: I think for me personally, in my story, it's important to understand that my father was already very sick.

SMITH: By then, Kyle's dad couldn't work anymore. She figures he had something like eight herniated discs in his spine.

STEPHENS: Pain can alter who you are and your judgment. But then the drugs they put you on for the pain can do that as well, and then the muscle relaxants and the laxatives and the - so I think my dad was dealing with that. And then my family was dealing with, oh, my God, this can't be happening. We can't handle anything else.

SMITH: Kyle's mom is just trying to keep the family afloat.

STEPHENS: My mom's already the sole breadwinner, trying to keep my dad moving, trying to get this little girl off to soccer and this other kid off to lacrosse, make sure their grades are good, get food on the table, and the cars are breaking down. And, you know, it was just - I don't think they mentally could handle it happening. And so they wanted it not to be happening subconsciously.

SMITH: For more than a year, Kyle's family stops hanging out with the Nassars. Kyle keeps insisting to her parents, I'm telling the truth.

WELLS: But eventually she says her parents' doubts wear her down. They fight about it all the time.

STEPHENS: One day, I was sitting on the floor in my living room in front of the TV, and my dad looked down at me and said, if you don't tell the truth, I'm going to make your life a living hell. And I believed him. I saw his face, and I knew he meant it. And if I was not already in a living hell, I was underprepared to endure one. And he saw me break. Just in my face, he must've seen it 'cause he said, are you ready to tell the truth? And I said, yep. And he said, so you were lying? And I said, yep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Kyle says that admission, though definitely not the truth, is a big relief for her parents.

STEPHENS: We don't have to worry about it. We don't have to wonder anymore. She admitted it. It's all over.

SMITH: But for Kyle, this traumatizes her even more. She starts to distance herself from her family, depend on herself as much as possible. And slowly, her parents' friendship with Larry and Stephanie revives.

WELLS: After a year or so, her family starts going back to the Nassars' house. Sunday dinners were a thing again. Kyle goes along just so she wouldn't be left behind, alone. The abuse had stopped, but it all felt so surreal.

STEPHENS: I remember, like, being forced to hug him goodbye when we'd leave their house still - creepy.

SMITH: By the time Kyle was in high school - this is around 2007 - Stephanie Nassar asks Kyle to babysit their three kids. At first, Kyle says, no way. I mean, are you kidding me? But Kyle's mom and Stephanie Nassar don't let it go. And Kyle knows she needs the money. She's paying for therapy with her own money.

STEPHENS: I felt so pressured to babysit for them that I finally was like, fine, I'll babysit your kids.

SMITH: And in some ways, Kyle feels protective of Larry's three young kids.

WELLS: Kyle's got this vivid memory of Larry driving her home one night after babysitting. His three kids are piled in the back seat of the minivan. Kyle's in the passenger seat. Larry glances over at her.

STEPHENS: And he put his hand on my leg. And that establishes the power dynamic again. That's him letting me know, I'm still in charge in this relationship because I didn't put his hand away. That's what it does, is it breaks you a little bit more, and it keeps you quieter. It buries that abuse deeper. And that's what he was doing.

WELLS: To stay sane, Kyle replays the abuse in her head, over and over again - couch, blanket, TV, lotion, couch, blanket, TV, lotion - just to reassure herself that she was not a liar. She knew the truth.

SMITH: And over the years, Kyle tells other people, too - close friends, her boyfriend, counselors. Kyle even calls child welfare officials on Larry Nassar. She's 21 when she makes an anonymous report to CPS in Michigan, tells them Larry Nassar had sexually abused her and that she's worried he might be abusing other kids, too.

WELLS: State law prevents child welfare officials from confirming or denying this report, so we don't know if Kyle's tip was ever investigated.

SMITH: But Kyle sees nothing change. Larry's still got his job at MSU, still volunteering at club gyms and a high school and working at the Olympics. And all the while, Kyle knows who Larry really is.

WELLS: So she waits for someone to finally catch Larry.

STEPHENS: I knew it was always going to happen, and I knew it was going to be huge.

SMITH: Really? You always knew, like, his day would come?

STEPHENS: I didn't know that the scale of women was this way. But you have to remember that I was babysitting his kids while he's off at the Olympics with young women. And he's their doctor. And he's traveling with them.

SMITH: Kyle worries about the Olympians she sees on TV. She knows Larry's got unfettered access to them. Kyle figures if an Olympian ever came forward about Larry, that would be big.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Next time on BELIEVED, police get a new complaint about Larry. They call him in for questioning. This time, we've got him on tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY NASSAR: Yes, I'm there and, yes, it's medical. It's not - it was - I totally - I don't know how else to say it, but I'm totally taken by surprise but at the same time feel like crap that someone would feel that I was doing something inappropriate to them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Which is good to hear. It's - you know, it's good to hear that you feel bad that she feels that way.

NASSAR: Well, yeah, because I feel like this little deviant, you know? I mean, and that's not right.

SMITH: Larry defends himself in his own words next time on BELIEVED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: This week's show was reported by me, Lindsey Smith, and Kate Wells, produced by Juliet Hinely with help from Paulette Parker, edited by Sarah Hulett with help from Alison MacAdam, engineered and mixed by Bob Skon.

WELLS: Jennifer Guerra is the show's executive producer. Zoe Clark is our program director. Our theme music is by Paul Brill. Special thanks to Emma Winowiecki, Jodi Westrick, Rebecca Williams, Vince Duffy, Amy Tardif, Len Niehoff, Nisa Khan, Hannah Rubenstein, Lara Moehlman and Kyle Norris, and the folks at NPR - Mark Memmott, Ashley Messenger, Camille Smiley and N'Jeri Eaton. You can find us on Twitter at @BelievedPod and subscribe in Apple Podcasts for new episodes of BELIEVED every Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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