Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" author Joan Ryan on Gymcastic

Waking up early on a Saturday can be difficult at times but this weekend, I sprang out of bed (or mattress, really, since I'm crashing at a friend's place while I bum around LA). I was pretty excited to interview Joan Ryan, author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, a journalistic account of abusive training methods

For you young ones who weren't around when Little Girls was originally published, this book was a big deal back in the mid-90s. It spawned countless articles, an episode of Oprah and even a made-for-TV movie. It also incited the wrath of gymnastics fans, coaches, gymnastics, officials, etc. who all felt that the accounts were one sided, untrue, unfair. But the thread running throughout the critiques was this--the book made gymnastics look bad.

Hell yeah it did and deservedly so if you ask me, especially since the accounts in the book were true.

While it is true that the book was one sided--it didn't talk about the benefits of the sport or the thousands of happy experiences young girls have with it--all of the stories were true. Ryan was not hired to do PR for the sport or make it look good. Her angle was the abusive excesses of the system (and as our Gymcastic interview indicates, she didn't begin the project with that sort of agenda--the evidence sort of mounted as she went along.) While it may not have been representative of everyone's elite experience, she focused on the top group and on the most famous coaches and athletes. She didn't exactly have to look too hard for subjects or stories.

So why did the gymnastics community react so vehemently and negatively against this book and Ms. Ryan if she was being truthful and doing what a thousand journalists before her have done?

I think it has to do with how small, insular communities handle criticism that comes from without. I come from the Orthodox community and I witnessed firsthand how criticism of Orthodox Jews was handled when it was made from the outside--it was immediately delegitimized. And the primary concern was never addressing the critique but worrying about how it made us look to others. We're presently seeing it as the ultra-Orthodox are grappling with their child molestation scandals. You don't hear much concern about the victims or acknowledgement of the problem. And even if the problem is acknowledged, it's with the caveat that it's not as bad as they're making it seem.  I've even read complaints from Hasidim who wonder why the media can't write articles about the nice things they do. They're also upset about a "one sided" portrayal of their community.

I'm not equating the child molestation in Orthodox communities with extreme coaching techniques and eating disorders in gymnastics. My comments pertain to how small, relatively insular groups handle their scandals. Both groups are especially sensitive to how they're portrayed because they are so rarely given major press attention. They react to very real, very necessary, very legitimate criticism by turning away from the substance of the critique and making it about image. But PR isn't the problem in either case. Even if they are making you look bad, that's not your biggest problem. The fact that there is abuse, eating disorders, and injuries is the real problem.

Anyway, we didn't discuss any of that with Ms. Ryan. I didn't want to drag yet another person into my discussion of how Judaism and gymnastics share common ground. Even I'm starting to get bored of this.

Regardless of how you felt about the book at the time, you should listen to our interview with her. (And by the way--I hated it as a kid cause it constituted a direct assault on the thing I loved most. But then I grew up.) Ryan was really great to talk to. One of my favorite moments was when Ryan said that Bela Karolyi denied ever being interviewed. Of course, Ryan had notes and recordings from that session so it was a ludicrous assertion for him to make. As a journalist, I've had that experience too. A subject calls or emails me to either tell me that he/she didn't say it or that it had been off the record. I record the vast majority of my interviews and I do my very best to be fair and accurate. In these situations, I merely invite the complaining subject to listen to the recording if he/she chooses to see if I went wrong or had included something I said would be off the record. It generally never gets to that point.

Also an interesting point to come out in the after-interview discussion was the impact of the 2000 Olympic team on USA Gymnastics. 1999-2000 and the Sydney Games marked the end of Bela Karolyi's relevance on the gymnastics scene. (Now he's trotted out by NBC and Bob Costas once every four years to be exuberant and incomprehensible.) And that group was one of the first to complain about unfairness while still being in the system rather than waiting till they were years past it, especially someone like Jamie Dantzscher who called out Karolyi on his treatment of the team in the media. I'm impressed than an 18-year-old was able to stand up to him when so many coaches and other adults in the past were unable to do so.

Check out the whole episode here.

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