Diana Nyad Opens Up About Being Sexually Abused

Nov 11, 2017
Originally published on November 11, 2017 6:41 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Twitter today, women all over the country are posting pictures of themselves at 14 with the hashtag #meat14. The photos underscore just what a serious violation it is when girls so young are targeted for sexual attention, especially by someone older and more powerful. The campaign is one response to accusations against Judge Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama. The Washington Post reported he initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old when he was a 32-year-old prosecutor. Moore says the accusation is, quote, "completely false," unquote.

But all of this comes at a time when women around the world and across professions are speaking up about sexual abuse. And in response to that, some are asking, why now? Why bring this up years after the events are alleged to have taken place? Our next guest offers some perspective on that. Diana Nyad is known for her record-breaking long-distance swimming, but this past week, she wrote an essay for The New York Times about the swim coach who started molesting her when she was just 14 years old and the effect it had on her life for years.

Diana Nyad joined me earlier today from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. And let me say here this conversation may be upsetting to some for obvious reasons. We'll begin here at the point where I asked her what it means to her to see so many women coming forward with stories like hers.

DIANA NYAD: I am heartened, I'll tell you, Michel, that after all the years of trying to prosecute my perpetrator, even though I had corroborators - there were other people who went through the same thing with the same coach - we couldn't break through the system. But look at this. I am so heartened by these past few weeks of the education of the public. You just brought up the Roy Moore case.

People say, now, come on. If this were true, if this 14-year-old story were true, she - and it was that disturbing to her, she would come out with it sooner. She's waited all these years. Well, now, in just this short time, we've had a little bit of a cultural shift in the last few weeks in discussing all this to say that we get it. You are so traumatized. You think it's your fault, especially young people.

MARTIN: Why did you want to write this essay now? Was it in part to answer the why now question?

NYAD: It sort of started with just joining the me too, you know, movement. What we've started here is the archiving of the voices. And so many of those voices, I'll tell you right now, I am more angry about being silenced than I even am about being touched. You know, it's hard to say that, but let's just say it's equal to be pinned down and to be told, don't you ever tell anybody. You'll never have a life. You'll be thrown out of school. Your entire life will collapse if you tell anybody about our beautiful special secret. So I want to be one of the leaders of the voices who collect the archiving. And next, I want to be one of the leaders as to what the heck we're going to do about this to change this in our culture.

MARTIN: One of the things that really struck me is how very graphic you are about the effect that it had on you. I mean, I'll just start by reading the top of the essay. You start by saying, (reading) here I was, a strong-willed young athlete. There he was, a charismatic pillar of the community. But I am the one who after all these many years later at the age of 68, no matter how happy and together I may be, continues to deal with the rage and the shame that comes with being silenced. Talk about that a bit if you would. Talk a little bit about that rage. I mean, you said it just used to just come on you?

NYAD: Yeah, it can still. I don't like to admit it, but now I'm at the point that I've just got to be an open book because all - you know, the thousands of people I've heard from over these past 48 hours since that Times op-ed piece hit are saying, you know, these precise same symptoms. And one of them is that you're in a rage. You're in a rage that it happened. You're in a rage toward your perpetrator. And unfortunately, you're in a rage toward yourself for not stopping it.

So I have to admit that I have an imprint. I wake up, you know, with joy. I have a strong will. I have an iron will. And still there's that region side of no, you do not silence me. You don't pin me down. You don't make me touch your disgusting body. I just - you know, that man's deceased now, but I've been going through this all my life. And I think one of the little cultural shifts that's happening out there when people are getting educated is they're saying, you know what? It isn't a momentary thing. You don't just suffer that trauma and then you're over it. It's a life-long deal.

MARTIN: Do you feel free now?

NYAD: Oh, no. I've been speaking about this for 50 years, so I don't feel freer for speaking about it again this week. What I feel is gratification that this country is addressing this issue. I don't feel freer. I feel gritty. I'm going to get down to the work of trying to make a big change in the United States.

MARTIN: That's Diana Nyad. She's a record-breaking swimmer, author and motivational speaker. You can read her latest essay, "My Life After Sexual Assault" in the New York Times Opinion section. Diana Nyad, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NYAD: Thank you, Michel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.