Michigan State University
Survivor Emma Ann Miller still healing one year later
By Matt Schmucker
Final exams are hard enough when you aren’t facing your abuser in a courtroom that week.
Emma Ann Miller met with her therapist in January 2018 and decided it would be best not to go. She’d write a letter someday for him to read in prison.
She already had a busy week. She had finals. She had dance practice every day. She didn’t need to be in a courtroom. But she finished her exam on Wednesday and told her mom she wanted to go. Her mom grabbed her a change of clothes and they went.
“I remember opening the door and he just looked at me,” Emma Ann said. “It was terrifying.”
Larry Nassar sat across the courtroom, staring.
Emma Ann sat in court listening to victim impact statements with her mother, Leslie Miller. As they listened, Emma Ann kept noticing him staring and told her mom.
“I know,” Leslie said. “Just stare back.”
Leslie would fit right in with the other moms if she were at a soccer game. She’s loud, careful not to swear and will always remind you how great her kid is. The difference is that she’s not at a soccer game — she’s in court, at a protest or in a boardroom.
“When we were listening (in court), the tears started rolling down,” Leslie said. “We started crying uncontrollably —”
“That’s when it really hit me. It brought back all the memories,” Emma Ann added.
She and Leslie often trail off in the middle of thoughts, or help each other finish their sentences. Leslie says that comes from the trauma they’ve endured and it’s hard to disagree with her.
Wednesday after court, Emma Ann went straight back to her dance team practice. Somebody on the team mentioned Nassar’s name. She went to the bathroom and started crying.
When Emma Ann got home that night, she typed up a first draft of her impact statement — one she planned to give anonymously. She says the first one she wrote was sad, emotional and long.
She wrote another draft Thursday, and another. Each draft she wrote got more angry — demanding answers and change — instead of just being sad.
“If I’m going to go and confront him about all of this stuff, I want to know why,” Emma Ann said. “Why did you have to do this, and why didn’t anyone stop it?”
By the time she was ready to give her own impact statement, she had written seven different versions. The statement she gave Jan. 22, 2018, was all seven put together.
That statement began: “Your Honor, it’s always been just my mom and I. I needed a positive male role model in my life. Nassar filled that spot for me.”
Larry Nassar was like a father to Emma Ann. He hung up her pictures in his office. He promised Emma Ann she could babysit his kids when she was older. He held her when she was a baby.
“I haven’t grown up with a dad in my life,” Emma Ann said. “Since I was little, he was the one guy that was always there. He was my dad figure. … He was so much more than a doctor.”
Nassar was Leslie’s doctor before he was Emma Ann’s, as far back as when Leslie was pregnant with Emma Ann.
“It was more than him being my doctor, he was my friend,” Leslie said. “He was like family.”
He was a manipulator. Many of the survivors that gave impact statements in court talked about how he was like a friend to them or how he would see them after hours. Leslie and Emma Ann listened to the other women speak and started checking the same boxes in their heads.
“To me, it feels like somebody had taken a knife and just stabbed us,” Leslie said.
Story after story sounded so familiar to Emma Ann.
“You felt like it was so personal but he did it to everyone else,” she said.
The realization of the lies he told came crashing down on her during Nassar’s sentencing.
“Even last year I didn’t really want to accept that it happened,” Emma Ann said. “It wasn’t really until court that (I accepted that it happened) to me. I knew it happened, but I always wanted to be like, ‘No, it doesn’t affect me.’”
Emma Ann’s sadness — her anger — all built up. She had pushed aside her feelings and it had been long enough.
“I just wanted to face my abuser, the man I had known since before I was even born, and tell him how I feel,” Emma Ann said.
Emma Ann has been a Spartan since she was little. She grew up wanting to be on the MSU Dance Team. Two-or-three-week-old Emma Ann went to her first football game at Spartan Stadium.
When Leslie taught, her whole classroom was green and white.
So when Leslie and Emma Ann returned to Spartan Stadium for the season opener this year, Leslie’s friends noticed something was off.
“I’m proud to be a Spartan,” Leslie said. “(But) I couldn’t get myself to wear green and white.”
While Emma Ann no longer plans to attend MSU, her feelings are still just as conflicted. She took the time in her impact statement to both shout “Go green!” and to tell university officials that she thought it wasn’t a good idea to “piss off 150 women that you’ve sexually assaulted for 20 years.”
“I think most Spartan fans do support survivors,” Emma Ann said.
But MSU’s role in the healing process has often felt like the university is far from deserving of a cheer.
Once Lou Anna K. Simon resigned Jan. 24, 2018, her replacement was John Engler. Most did not have much faith in Engler’s interim term, but Emma Ann initially held out hope. She quickly found her optimism misplaced.
“It’s really the worst scenario,” she said. “You go from Lou Anna and you think it’s going to be all better and then, ‘Sike!’ Going to have Engler come in here and mess it up even more.”
Engler started his term saying that he would treat the survivors like his daughters. He later accused Rachael Denhollander of taking kickbacks from her attorney, offered Kaylee Lorincz a $250,000 check without her attorney present and most recently claimed many survivors were “enjoying” their time in the “spotlight.”
“I didn’t think he would want to put more salt in the wound, you know?” Emma Ann said.
Now, he’s no longer at MSU. On Jan. 16, new chairperson of the Board of Trustees Dianne Byrum asked Engler for his resignation, which came in later that day.
The board that finally pushed Engler out had new faces in January as newly elected Trustees Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay took office next to appointed Trustee Nancy Schlichting, replacing Mitch Lyons, Brian Breslin and George Perles.
Between the new MSU officials and the action they’ve begun, Emma Ann and Leslie have started to feel some hope for the institution they loved. Leslie even pointed to one bright spot in particular: Tebay’s comments at the Jan. 17 meeting where Engler’s resignation was accepted.
“Kelly (Tebay) gets it, because Kelly has walked in our shoes. She’s been there before,” Leslie said. “She really cares.”
Emma Ann watched the livestream and cried, telling her mom: “She cares.”
With MSU actively harmful during the last year of healing, Leslie and Emma Ann have had to find their own way in their healing.
They have had countless sleepless nights together as they’ve dealt with their trauma. Nightmares that interfere with her sleep have become a fact of life for Emma Ann.
Being up late at night and early in the morning to help Emma Ann has become common for Leslie. Emma Ann’s nightmares have been better as of late, but better still isn’t good.
“This is going to be a lifetime of therapy,” Leslie said. “It’s better to do the hard work now.”
Lots of hard work has been put in already, but much remains for Emma Ann and Leslie as they look to the future.
“We can’t go back in time,” Emma Ann said. “But we can change how it will affect future survivors.”
You forget that Emma Ann is in high school after listening to her speak for a while. When Amanda Smith heard Emma Ann’s impact statement, she decided to go public with her name and story.
Leslie says Emma Ann has always been eloquent because it was always just the two of them, so Leslie always just spoke to her like an adult. But Leslie remembers that Emma Ann is a high schooler, and she was worried about immature boys at school that Emma Ann would have to deal with.
Emma Ann just said: “People are always gonna hate.” She is 16 after all.
Emma Ann’s healing hasn’t been easy. As a junior in high school, she can’t just put her life on hold.
She’s missed classes to speak at MSU, and even when she’s at school, things can be tough.
“Memories pop out at me,” Emma Ann said, before adjusting. “Flashbacks, not memories.”
Whether it’s the way a teacher’s glasses catch the light, how the lights in the school are the same lights he had in his office or when a word she used in her impact statement popped up in a vocab quiz, this isn’t something Emma Ann is able to just avoid.
To say her time in school has been difficult, though, is not to say that she isn’t doing well. She was inducted into the National Honor Society this fall.
Emma Ann was skipping class Dec. 14, 2018, to speak in front of the MSU Board of Trustees at 8 a.m. Not that she didn’t have her mom’s permission. In fact, Leslie spoke before she did.
“Engler, I would really appreciate it if you would be so adult-like and listen to my daughter here,” she said. “(She’s) 16 and missing high school for this.”
Leslie likes to make sure you remember Emma Ann is just 16.
Emma Ann stood before the board — not unlike how she stood before the court almost a year before — and spoke not as a 16-year-old, but as a survivor who was ready to see real change.
“You hold the power to change not only my life and the lives of my sister survivors, but to change the lives of sexual assault survivors around the country,” she said. “You have the power to affect change and you have the power to affect healing. But you can’t do that just by settling legal claims. You have to do that by showing the world you have changed. You have to do that by righting your wrongs. And you can only do that through your actions.
“Your actions make you look like this really isn’t that big of a deal for you. But it’s a big deal for me. And it’s a big deal for my sister survivors.”
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