A story about telling my story

When I decided in spring 2022 to make sure that the man who had sexually abused me in 1983 had actually been officially reported to law enforcement, I did so for my own peace of mind if nothing else. I had no real sense of the places it would lead. Now Mike Spiller, a gymnastics coach who sexually abused me and who is accused by many others, has been arrested, and Danielle Lerner of the Houston Chronicle has written this loving and precisely researched story. With more to come.

Here’s a quote from the top of the full story, as it’s most personal to me:

Anne Elrod Whitney had only recently joined a girls gymnastics team at Rowland’s Northwest when she was invited to attend a team sleepover at the gym’s building in northwest Houston. It was 1983. She was 10.

What should have been a safe, fun-filled event in a familiar space instead became corrupted. 

The sleepover had the atmosphere of a school lock-in with loosely organized games, sleeping bags splayed across the floor and pizza ordered in for dinner. Kids played on the gym equipment normally reserved for rigorous instruction. Some people propped blue vinyl gym mats up against the wall to construct lean-to forts. 

At some point Whitney found herself alone in one of the forts with Mike Spiller, who she knew as a charismatic man and one of the gym’s primary coaches, out of sight between the mats and the wall. 

There, she says, Spiller snuggled with her on top of sleeping bags and began massaging her thighs and hip while commenting on her muscles. Then Spiller put his hand inside Whitney’s underwear and massaged the outside of her vagina. 

“I actually, at that time, didn’t know anything bad had happened,” says Whitney, who is now 49 and resides in Pennsylvania. “I think I liked to be somebody’s favorite, you know? And I know now, that’s the thing that happens to a lot of kids where, you know, there’s (seeking) approval in a relationship, and even affection, from somebody that you care about.” 

Nearly 40 years later, on Nov. 18 of this year, Spiller turned himself in after police in Boerne, Texas, put out a warrant for his arrest. He was booked into the Kendall County jail, where he remains on a bond of $150,000, on a charge of indecency with a child.

Read it in one of these forms:

Full investigation (for Chronicle subscribers, 99 cent paywall): https://www.houstonchronicle.com/texas-sports-nation/general/article/texas-gymnastics-coach-arrest-sexual-abuse-17618101.php

Free version of need-to-know info: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/texas-sports-nation/general/article/Mike-Spiller-gymnastics-coach-sexual-abuse-Texas-17618279.php

Timeline of the allegations: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/texas-sports-nation/general/article/Gymnastics-coach-timeline-17618424.php

I’m not the first to say we’re made of stories. In fact, I have sometimes heard that kind of statement and thought, “blah, I’m sure that’s true, but how trite!” And on a slightly more articulate (but equally grumpy) day, I might have thought, “Stories are meaningful and good, BUT stories don’t get someone more money or medicine or a job or a loving advocate when hard times come. Or at least, they don’t work anywhere NEARLY as well as actual materials, resources, and actions do.

And yet. AND YET! Time after time, in my own life and in so many lives and spaces and communities, I keep seeing how it is true. Stories make shape out of the messy and incomprehensible flow of experiences and ideas. Stories make lives, they make communities, and they make selves.

It’s a beautiful idea and one that I’ve built a life’s work around. Even when I haven’t been aware of it, this idea about the meaning and power available in acts of in storying, storytelling, revising, etc. has threaded through all of my work in writing, research, teaching, teacher education, parenting, and faith.

We don’t make all the components of these stories. We don’t get to pick where and when we are born. Whether our ancestors or our current selves were or are oppressed and/or oppressing. What our bodies look like and the histories of how are bodies are seen in the places we find ourselves. The movements of populations, celestial bodies, revolutions. Diseases. So little is under our control.

And yet. We are always making and remaking the stories from which and into which these components flow. We string together events and feelings and wonderings and all the other bits and pieces into narratives. And as we grow, as we acquire additional story elements, or as our vision changes, we get to change the stories.

What a gift of power.

Abuser in jail. Boom.

They got him. This is Mike Spiller, the gymnastics coach who sexually abused me when I was 10. It took 39 years, but tonight there’s ONE LESS ABUSER out there getting away with it.

Thanks so much to the people who shared, retweeted, looked up old photos, etc. It took your help to turn up enough of my fellow victims/warriors to get here.

If you had interaction with Mike Spiller that in any way connects to his 40-year career as a gymnastics coach, camp leader, and pedophile, please get in touch with me and/or call the Crimestoppers number in the photo.

It’s never too late to tell the truth. We may not change the facts, we we sure can change the story!!

What memories and Webb telescope images have in common (TBW #2, #9, #10)

If you’re not excited about the Webb telescope images, you should be.

(Yeah, I said it! Should! I am telling you what to do, and I don’t even care if it’s polite. I’m right here. Go look. Seriously.)

They’re pictures of as far away as anyone has ever been able to see, and for that reason, they’re also pictures of as far back as anyone has ever been able to see. (Because light emitted far away has taken a long time to reach Webb to be photographed. Ask your science teacher!)

so much unexpected detail

They’re beautiful. So, to me, is their unfathomability. I want the universe to be deep and unknowable just as strongly as I want to know it deeply. But what what I most love about the Webb images is how they not only depict things we knew about in more detail, they also show many, many things we didn’t even know to look for. (Literally, many of the major scientific findings so far from Webb have been simply background stuff, small things off to the side of or behind something more dramatically centered in the image.)

These discoveries, in addition to being previously obscured by the brighter objects nearby, are challenging all kinds of things we “knew” about the cosmos: when heavier elements began to form, for example, or how many galaxies of what shape appeared when. I love the openness to this fundamental challenge that I see in so many of the scientists interviewed– like astronomer Allison Kirkpatrick of the University of Kansas, who responded to one field-busting finding by saying, “We’re going to have to figure that out.”

That’s the attitude I am trying to take as I experience a similar look at my own past. It’s one thing to deal with my own feelings about having been sexually abused by gymnastics coach/clown/camp games teacher Mike Spiller, which I have had close to 40 years to work on, along with professional help. I’m good! But it’s something new to look at those same memories and feelings, this time with my adult lens and with a completely different set of resources and allies, and see things i hadn’t even known were there. Through these new eyes at this new time, with the help of others looking into Mike Spiller’s past (where it intersects with my own but also beyond that), I see so much more. I see how much bigger the context was. How it fit in to a culture in gymnastics, in Houston, in 1983. How many others were around who had to have known and looked away. The other girls, maybe now grown-ass, pissed-off women like me, who thought we were alone, were believed and/or doubted and/or helped or not. It’s all bigger and broader than it felt when it was a private story. Like looking at your kindergarten class picture, and remembering this kid on the playground and that kid in math class, but also knowing for the first time what each kid was thinking, what was going on at home, how the teacher felt and what all of it showed about that time and place.

That’s what it feels like to be involved, however marginally, in current investigations of the man who sexually abused me when I was a kid. Lots of discoveries, big and small, some answering questions I hadn’t even known to ask. These are accidental discoveries, and some of them are not easy ones. Yet it’s as Dr. Kirkpatrick says: “We’re going to have to figure that out.”

You can have that open-minded feeling of acceptance and curiosity, like she seems to have about the outer space she’s scrutinized for her whole career and like I mostly do about the inner space I have scrutinized just as ardently. I can’t help wanting to hug Dr. Kirkpatrick, or maybe send her a stiff drink. The Nature piece ends:

“With Webb just at the beginning of a planned 20-plus years of work, astronomers know they have a lot of changes ahead. “Right now I find myself lying awake at three in the morning,” Kirkpatrick says, “wondering if everything I’ve ever done is wrong.”