Fierce (Raisman)

Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything - Aly Raisman

I truly believe that if this autobiographical piece by now 23-year-old gymnast Aly Raisman had been lived, written and published a generation earlier, it would have had the same cookie-cutter content as every other seize-the-Olympic-moment biographical publication: I had a supportive family, I had goals from early on, here is who coached me, I competed at this and placed second, I competed at this and placed first, I competed at this, placed sixth and was devastated, I got injured, I worked towards my comeback, here are my (blandly edited) feelings about my principal competition, etc. etc.

Frankly, this is still the majority of the book's contents, and what else could you expect in the biography of someone still so young, and who still has so much future income that could be drastically affected by misplaced public statements revealing too-deep or too-bitter feelings about some matter or another.  Actual personality, warts and all, is the privilege of the private and the elderly.

But this is the age of #metoo and of holding to account, and Raisman, at the tender age of 15, was by her own account initiated into the far too numerous club of the victims of sexual predator Larry Nassar.  Like too many others, probably, I admit that I read this not because I am a fan of her career (I am only a lukewarm follower of gymnastics, unlike figure skating), but because I genuinely wanted to see what she would choose to write about that. And, let's be clear, I would have been much happier if she hadn't had anything to write about in the first place.

I think she has exercised good judgment (and/or been well advised) in what she has written and left out.  She describes, but only briefly, and not repetitively, Nassar's grooming tactics and how he took advantage of the highly demanding (some might say abusive) competitive atmosphere of Marta Karolyi's isolated training camps - or similarly isolated-in-plain-sight situations when far abroad at competitions - to gain the girls' trust with gifts and sympathy. She draws her line in the sand at the details of what he did behind closed doors, to her and others. Those would, in any case, come out in the press at the time of his public trials, where she would speak out at more length, and I honour her courage and that of all her peers in doing so at that time when it would make the most difference. But clearly she is well aware that in this ghastly world, there are too many who would read such details with avid and prurient attention.  Instead, the most extended treatment of the Nasser subject comes in two specific chapters, one in which she describes how an investigator hired by the Gymnastics Association came to speak with her, and she was unable to provide details or confirmation because she still had so much self-doubt and so much faith in the authorities that she could not yet fully conceive that she had been abused and not been protected. (Her account of her subsequent call to the US Gymnastics Federation, where she was more or less told to shut up, is even more dismaying, and is no doubt part of the grounds of the lawsuit I'm given to understand she has filed against them).  The subject of the emotional effects of abuse, where she tries her best to give support and courage to readers who are being victimized (and passes on some practical information about support organizations), forms her final chapter.

If you are a fan of gymnastics, there are some solid details and some amusing stories about the competitions here (as well as some nice colour pictures). Her descriptions of her various high-level routines (which, like many Olympians, she remembers right down to each wobble) are clear and fun to read alongside the video we are now so privileged to have at our fingertips.  If you are an outsider to that obsessed athletic culture, as I am, you cannot help raising eyebrows at the still-admiring tone in which Raisman describes the culture of discipline in which extreme fatigue and injury are largely dismissed and the battles over weight and proper nutrition are constant.  If you are a decent human being, you will be left with a feeling of terrible dismay that somehow nearly all of these happy, chummy, resilient, talented young women were also dealing with periodic sexual assault from an adult whom all of the authority figures in their lives had told them they could and should trust.

It makes one look back at all those bland, "I competed here and placed second; I held true to my goals and won the Olympics"-style sports biographies from earlier generations with a wary and jaundiced eye.  Is there a flood of revelatory volume 2s forthcoming? For the athletes' sake, I hope there is no need.