May 3, 2019

Doc Stars of the Month: Trinea Gonczar & Amanda Thomashow, 'At the Heart of Gold'

Trinea Gonczar, from Erin Lee Carr's "At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal." Courtesy of HBO

Erin Lee Carr (Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop; Mommy Dead and Dearest) has built an impressive career turning ripped-from-the-headlines stories (she is the daughter of late media icon David Carr, after all) featuring society’s “monsters” into sober reflections on society itself. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before the deft documentarian decided to tackle one of the most outrageous scandals in recent memory: the aiding and abetting of pedophile doctor Larry Nassar over decades by Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the organization’s Olympian-making affiliates (including superstar coaching couple Bela and Martha Karolyi). 

For as horrific as Nassar’s behavior was—hundreds of girls and young women subject to sexual abuse in the guise of medical “treatments” for years on end—there was the equally appalling reaction of the adults surrounding him, who refused to believe those who did have the courage to speak up. Indeed, one of the most chilling aspects of this whole sordid mess was the systemic “gaslighting,” as one former gymnast described it, of the kids who chose to come forward. Adults who didn’t want to face the truth simply told the adolescent victims that the molestation that was happening wasn’t actually happening, which the girls then often accepted—only to find out years later, once Nassar was revealed as a serial predator, that what they were comfortingly assured was reality wasn’t actually reality. In other words, a matrix of crimes—physical, psychological and emotional—by a multitude of culprits ultimately occurred.

To untangle the thorny drama, Documentary turned to two heroic women—Trinea Gonczar, a longtime family friend of Nassar’s and one of his earliest victims, and Amanda Thomashow, who filed the first Title IX complaint against him—to discuss everything from the intense coverage surrounding the shocking case to the symbiotic impact of #MeToo.

How did Carr and her team first approach you—and what made you agree to participate in revisiting such a devastating event in your life?

Amanda Thomashow: When they first approached me, it was months after the sentencing, and I was already working in the field. I wanted to make sure that if I participated, it would be used to empower other survivors, and to educate the public on what it looks like when institutions prioritize reputation and dollars over human life. I questioned Erin pretty hard and wanted to know her intentions before participating. Ultimately, I believed that she would tell our story in a way that would help others.

What was the filmmaking process like? How much time did Carr spend shooting with you, and did you set any limits on what you would talk about on camera?

Trinea Gonczar: The process was exhausting. My interview was only supposed to last an hour and a half, but it ended up taking four hours. There wasn’t a dry eye, including the producers and cameramen. Going to my darkest space takes a toll, but I was extremely honest because I think I bring a completely raw, real perspective on how this happened and who this person was to so many of us. He was a true friend, or so we thought, for a long time. I think it’s important for people to know and understand that.

AT: For me it was actually a fairly easy process because Erin was so thoughtful and mindful with her questions. I had personal limits, but I was excited that someone wanted to talk about Title IX because I thought that it was very important. I wasn’t a gymnast, I wasn’t a kid, and I reported him right away. I found ways to isolate myself from the rest of the survivors, so being included in the documentary reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

How has the media coverage surrounding the scandal affected you personally? Do you find it at all further traumatizing?

TG: My victim impact statement essentially went viral within a few hours, which I wasn’t prepared for. People started reaching out to me and suddenly my name and face were everywhere, which was overwhelming. The photos in the media of Larry were not the Larry I knew. He didn’t look like the same person. Seeing his face is triggering, but I think it’s important to show who he was initially—to see that he wasn’t some creepy-looking guy. He was a friend.

AT: Yes, the media coverage is further traumatizing, but there have been specific people that I’ve worked with who are thoughtful, kind and trauma-informed. And have made a horrifying process a little easier. I think we could all be more thoughtful in the ways we talk about victims and survivors of sexual assault. 

People also recognize me now and sometimes look at me like I’m broken—but I’m not broken. That’s why Erin was so easy to work with. She didn’t look at me like I was broken. She looked at me like I was a superhero.

Nassar was first convicted (for possessing child pornography) before #MeToo ever became a hashtag. So what role did the #MeToo movement play in so many women subsequently coming forward publicly, and in Nassar’s conviction and sentencing? Do you ever wonder how things would have progressed without #MeToo?

TG: It’s unfortunate that we had to have a movement for people to come out with their stories of sexual assault, but I think it started the ball rolling and just encouraged more survivors to come forward. It gave everyone else a little momentum and a little courage. Aside from the #MeToo movement in our case, seeing someone being courageous and speaking out to their abuser gave others courage. I hope that going forward, it doesn’t take a movement for survivors to speak out.

AT: What we did would have happened with or without the #MeToo movement. The sister survivors gave strength to #MeToo just like #MeToo gave strength to sister survivors. They were parallel movements. We helped #MeToo and it helped us.

Do you find it frustrating that Nassar and his crimes have hijacked the gymnastics narrative, and that so many world-class athletes are often reduced to “Larry Nassar’s victims”? Is it possible to champion strong women speaking up without simultaneously being forever associated with a sensational scandal?

AT: That’s not who we are—it’s part of our story. It doesn’t define us. I don’t think any of my sister survivors are defined by their abuse. I think of them as who they are to their core.

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal airs May 3 on HBO, then streams on HBO GO and HBO Now.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.

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