As each of the 156 women stepped up to the podium to deliver their testimonies against former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, presiding Judge Rosemarie Aquilina did something you don't normally see in a courtroom: She responded to each and every survivor's story with heartfelt empathy, encouragement, and hope.
"The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you," she told gymnast Bailey Lorencen after she finished her statement. "Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, 'I want to be her.' Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength." She told another survivor to "leave your pain here," and "go out and do your magnificent things."
These are just a few examples of how Judge Aquilina managed to turn an admittedly heavy hearing into a "cathartic forum" for the survivors, in the words of the The New York Times. Her decision to open the courtroom to any survivor who wished to speak, and the supportive atmosphere she cultivated as a result, "emboldened dozens of women who had remained silent to come forward with accounts of abuse by Dr. Nassar."
This behavior stands in stark contrast to how accusations of sexual assault have historically been received in our society. Rather than encouraging victims to come forward and share their stories, a combination of intimidation, disbelief, and blame has shamed far too many victims into silence in the past. Judge Aquilina's actions reflect a greater cultural shift around how we respond to sexual assault allegations, a movement propelled by #MeToo and Time's Up.
Just as actresses have refused to accept sexual harassment as a "normal" part of being a woman in Hollywood, these 157 women, including Judge Aquilina, are flipping the script on sexual assault. By providing a safe space for these women to share their stories, Aquilina is helping to strip away the apprehension, shame, and fear of judgment that usually keeps victims silent. If survivors can one day come to expect this kind of compassion, understanding, and validation when sharing their stories, then there's hope for real, systemic change.
"Judge Aquilina has punctuated each and every victim statement with some words of her own—a mix of praise, gratitude and support for the women who have come forward to address the court," concludes the Times. She too "seems determined to lend her voice." Head over to the The New York Times for the full story.