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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Athlete A: A Masterclass in Gaslighting


When it came to light that USA Gymnastics (USAG) had, for decades, covered up sexual abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar – its team doctor – responses were varied. Alongside messages of support for women who came forward were insults and expressions of doubt: ‘if this really happened, why didn’t you report it earlier?’

It’s the same ‘gaslighting’ response that countless survivors of sexual abuse have faced, whereby victims are manipulated into questioning their own sanity.

Netflix documentary, Athlete A, shows how the culture within USAG caused young women to be silenced: by consistently bullying child athletes, and ignoring, deceiving, or threatening anyone who made an accusation.

In the film, former USAG team member, Jennifer Sey, states:

‘You already don’t believe [yourself]. You think you’re hungry. You think your ankle hurts. You think that you’re working really hard. But you’re screamed at that you’re lazy and fat and there’s nothing wrong with your ankle. So, [when sexual abuse happens] what you feel is: “He’s this great doctor, and I’m lucky to be here. I’m not going to say anything.”’

The devastating reason for this manipulation, and the associated cover-up, centres around greed and power. USAG leaders didn’t want to give up their prestige. Their success gained them gold medals and millions in sponsorship, and they’d do anything to maintain that.

One beautiful moment in the film happens during Nassar’s sentencing. After years of being silenced, 204 victims gave impact statements. The last word went to Rachael Denhollander.

Like many before her, Denhollander spoke out, not just against Nassar, but against others who were complicit. She spoke eloquently about the damage that had been done because those in responsibility had chosen to grasp power, rather than look after those in their care. And she spoke powerfully about the justice and mercy of Christ.

USAG is just one example of an institution who chose lying, abuse, and manipulation over truth, care, and protection. They refused to give up their power, refused to empathise with victims of abuse, and perpetrated injustice. Jesus, meanwhile, emptied himself of power, identifies with victims of abuse, and overcomes injustice, all whilst offering mercy and grace to the perpetrators.

And in a world where these 204 women are a drop in an ocean of pain, both victim-survivors and abusers are in desperate need of a God who offers comfort, healing, and true, satisfactory justice.


Ellidh Cook
Ellidh is a Student Worker at All Souls, Langham Place, and tweets @ellidh


  1. The statement from Rachel Denhollander is just extraordinary in every way. What a debt we owe people like her who spoke out at such great cost. And what eloquence and grace. Thanks for sharing this eilidh.

    By Colin Gillies  -  14 Aug 2020
  2. Powerful piece, thanks

    By Bruce Gulland  -  14 Aug 2020
  3. This is truly awful. Sadly, ‘gaslighting’ and ‘news distraction’ techniques appear to be becoming almost daily features of life in the USA and the U.K. Our descent into a post truth society is gathering pace and the implications for individual mental health and wider society are only now being seen. A challenge for Christians surely is to very carefully call attention to this manipulation whilst not giving appearance of bias. A substantial issue for opinion formers and all those engaged in the marketplace of ideas and public debate.

    By John Evans  -  14 Aug 2020
  4. Thank you. I’ll try to get to see the film. But will certainly remember the powerful message.

    By Chris Edmonds  -  14 Aug 2020
  5. Thank you for a profoundly distressing and alaming account – I will try to watch the film. A recent emailing of “faithful firiends” has made me aware of either how ignorant or indifferent many Christians are about the issues around truth and free speech. May I take the opportunity to promote the Free Speech Union, a secular organisation wanting to push back against the growing cancellation culture and imposition of a neo-orthodoxy

    By David Child  -  14 Aug 2020

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