Imagine you’re a 12-year-old competitive gymnast. Six days a week, you wake up at 6:00 a.m. and head to the gym for practice. Your coach trains you hard for five hours–pushing you to your limits and shouting at you whenever you make a mistake. If you get injured, it’s as though you’re in trouble. You face extreme pressure to get better as quickly as possible.
Your training is regimented; what you eat is strictly controlled; your sleeping hours follow a firm routine. Everything about your life revolves around the sport you’ve committed yourself to. For every decision you make, the first question is, “how would this impact my performance?” That’s a lot of pressure for the average junior high schooler.
When you grow up in an environment like this, it’s a breeding ground for a phenomenon known as “willful blindness.” If something goes wrong, the adults in your life are inclined to look for excuses to explain it away. A gymnast is claiming that our acclaimed doctor sexually abused her? She must not have understood his treatment.
Willful blindness creates an extremely dangerous situation for a vulnerable child–particularly a child who has been groomed to believe they are not good enough. The tendency to unquestioningly trust the adult over the child makes a child afraid to speak up when something seems wrong. It makes them interpret abuse as normal.
In a previous post, we discussed the case of Larry Nassar–the former sports medicine doctor for Olympic gymnasts who was convicted of sexually assaulting 40 young girls. This tragedy is a chilling example of the willful blindness phenomenon. Nassar destroyed the lives of dozens of young children–an egregious offense. But the societal inclination to disregard cries for help from victims simply because of their age is equally distressful.
Brian McKeen–the attorney for two of Nassar’s victims–holds that the adults and institutions these children trusted failed them. Victimized children should not be blamed for not understanding the full scope of their assault–or for being surrounded by adults who make them too scared to speak up.