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Interview: What Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, Known for Nassar Trial, Has to Say on Trauma and Sexual Assault

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Most of us became familiar with the name Rosemarie Aquilina during the trial of infamous osteopathic physician to the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team Larry Nassar, who was convicted of criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography. Judge Aquilina famously allowed more than 150 sister survivors to provide victim impact statements of the abuses they endured at the hands of Larry Nassar over several decades and her powerful sentencing speech will go down as legend for many survivors of sexual violence, including myself.

I first became more intimately acquainted with Judge Aquilina when I messaged her via social media after hearing her sentencing and literally sobbing my way through it. Her passion, commitment to justice, and vocal admonition of sexual violence struck a chord deep within me. She was the advocate I needed at that stage of my healing journey from my own sexual abuse. To my shock, Judge Aquilina actually responded to my note, and as I’ve become aware, has made it a personal mission to respond to as many of these correspondences as she can. Something remarkable in itself.

I continued following Judge Aquilina from that point on. I guess you could call me a bit of an “Aquilina groupie.” I have listened to numerous interviews she has done, read as many articles as I could, and listened to her autobiography entitled “Just Watch Me” which she herself narrates. I have faithfully listened to all of her podcast episodes that she has recorded with trauma therapist Shari Botwin, LCSW called “Warrior Women Speak” which discusses issues surrounding women and mental health. What I have discovered about her is that she’s way more than just a judge and her story is far more inspiring than simply her involvement with the Nassar trial.

Judge Aquilina is an accomplished author, speaker, teacher, attorney, and was the first female Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) officer in the Michigan Army National Guard. She is also the mother of five, loves art, enjoys cooking, and is fiercely dedicated to her family. A naturalized citizen, Judge Aquilina came to the U.S. from Germany, the child of a Maltese father and a German mother. Much of her early childhood was punctuated by trauma which influences her to this day. In our discussion, we dive into the myriad of ways in which her unique life experiences, and in particular her trauma history, have truly been a driving compass for the way in which she inhabits this world. Her sense of justice and commitment to leaving a better world for humanity is inspiring and a testament to the power of stories, telling our truth, and overcoming adversity.

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Monika: In your book you talk about the trauma of spending your early years living with your grandmother and grandfather, Nanna and Nannu in Maltese, whom you believed were your parents until one day you were returned to your actual parents without any explanation. Can you talk about how that affected you and how it continues to impact your life to this day?

Judge Aquilina: I feel the trauma of that to this day. Any trauma that you experience, especially as a young child, needs to be acknowledged. And part of the trauma that I felt being snatched from my grandparents was really I didn’t understand who they were. I thought I was being snatched from my parents. Their youngest child, my Uncle Ben, I thought he was my older brother. I didn’t see my mother or my dad but once a year, so I had this confusion. What’s important about that is, while I now as an adult have an understanding, the feeling of being abandoned and being kidnapped, of never seeing the people I loved the most in the world has never ever left me. I have rationalized it that I was blessed with two sets of parents and my grandparents are no longer with us… but I still talk to my grandparents every single day because in my head they’re still my parents.

So what happens to you as a child? It doesn’t go away just because you are older and smarter and wiser. The pain is still there and you learn to deal with it; and I have triggering moments, too. I’ll be in a shopping center and see the back of someone’s head who looks just like my grandfather and think, “That’s Nannu,” and in that second, I’m 5 years old again.

Trauma comes from the most unexpected places, from the most unexpected things, and I think what we need to do is to listen and explain and try to understand. And that’s why I always ask, “What would you like me to know and how can I help?” The why question shames and blames. Why needs to be retired to science. When you ask those open-ended questions, even with a 2 or 3-year-old child, they can still express themselves. Figure it out, work it out, explain. Had I known that we would be leaving when I was 5 years old and that my grandparents would still always be there for me and there’d come a time when we’d be a family unit again, I was old enough to understand that. It was never explained.

To this day, my parents tell me I was just a “stupid” child. Well, maybe I was a “stupid” child. How bout calling me an uninformed child who was not given an opportunity to have voice and an understanding? Every child, every human, has the right to have a voice, to have that understanding, to know what’s going on with them and to question it and to have good answers so that they can understand the world around them. That’s what we do with children, we help them understand the world around them so that they can find their place in it. I was lost for a very, very long time.

And it affects relationships. I know that it’s affected relationships I’ve had with men. I mean, there’s a reason I’m still single. I want to make sure that if I marry someone that they’ll be there, that my needs are met. And then I have this underlying feeling of “are my needs unreasonable?” And I think all survivors of any trauma go through that and it sticks with you, even as much as I can say I’m healed, I’m whole, I know who I am.

There’s always moments of self-doubt that every human has because we are human and I think that people have to understand that that’s OK. It just means that you need some self-care. I write, I paint, I sew, I cook, I travel… I do a lot of things that keep me busy, but not necessarily to avoid, but to give my brain the space to do something different, to have a little vacation, so then I can come back to whatever it is that’s bothering me fresh with fresh eyes, clean feelings and do the proper analysis. Because if you’re bogged down so much that you can’t see what’s going on, you’re not really truly doing the work and analysis that’s needed for healing.

Monika: Speaking of healing and self-care, can you tell us about the “Mirror Exercise” you do? I found it to be incredibly unique and creative. 

Judge Aquilina: I’ve done this since I was a small child. When I felt alone, nobody understood me, I didn’t really understand what was happening and I knew I didn’t feel right. I would just shut the bathroom door and lock it and would just sit and look in the mirror at the light in my eyes and tell myself I was OK, that I’m strong, that I matter, that no matter what happens I’ll get through it — JUST WATCH ME. This was obviously the title of my book and has been my life’s mantra. It really stemmed out from looking at the light in my eyes and knowing that light was there for a reason. And of course I had my grandparents to tell me I mattered and that I was worthwhile. I always had their voices in my head.

The thing about trauma, doesn’t matter what kind of trauma, let yourself cry. Go and look in the mirror, and tell yourself, sit with yourself, look at the light in your eyes — you’re supposed to be here and make a difference. And first and foremost, you make a difference for yourself by being you, and that’s enough. The thing about healing is… you have to heal from the inside first before you can help someone else and before you can really begin to understand what happened to you to forgive yourself. I was always told I was the worst child, I was a naughty child, I was rude and listened to no one — all these rotten things that I was not. I knew my own inner battle was that I still felt kidnapped and I still felt that I didn’t have a voice. So I gave myself permission to have a voice, to feel, to understand what I was going through was OK even if no one else believed me. I believed me and I was enough. So the light in my eyes means that I’m enough… and just watch me.

Monika: That’s beautiful and it leads me to another topic that’s really important… bullying. I understand that you have been and continue to be the subject of bullying. Can you talk about how that impacts you and how that fits into the greater narrative of harassment and assault?

Judge Aquilina: It doesn’t matter whether you are an actress, a judge, a teacher — whatever your job is, you can be the subject of sexual harassment and bullying. And I think bullying, if you really put it in its proper terminology, is violence. Bullying is sort of a casual term. Kids will be kids, boys will be boys, girls will be girls, teens will be teens. We can’t do that. We can’t box it in like that. It can be something where information is withheld, where you are called out, where you are excluded, where you are given the wrong information, where you are teased, where you’re yelled at. There are so many things that bullying is and they are violent acts against a human being to bring them down and degrade them.

Anybody is subject to be raped, harassed, demeaned, and bullied and, again, it’s violence. Violence is not tolerated in school or at the workplace, so if we cue it as that then maybe we’ll get some action. It’s not bullying — it’s workplace violence, school violence, business violence. And it’s very serious and I’m trying to do something about it. Have I endured it? Yes. Do I continue to endure it? Yes. Am I going to continue speaking out about it?? Hell yes. I’m not a quiet woman as you know.

Monika: Most of us know you from the Nassar case. Did that case change anything about the way that you operate as a judge or as a parent?

Judge Aquilina: Nassar wasn’t my first sexual assault case. I’ve handled thousands of child abuse and neglect cases during my career. Nassar was just the one that got publicized more than others. I’ve always given voice to people because it’s always the backstory that is the most interesting. When you can figure out the backstory, you can figure out what happened. It’s the backstory that helps us understand the human behavior in the story. I’m going to listen as long as it takes. It’s always been my rule and I don’t care who’s mad at me. I just think it’s the right thing to do because I need the information to make the right decision. I think that’s my job. I know other judges want to get out on the golf course, but the people pay my salary to be the voice in the courtroom so I respect that.

There’s a lot of special interest groups out there. You know what my special interest is? The human race — because when I’m dead I’m leaving my children in the humane race. I can’t take any of my accomplishments, I can’t take any money or houses or cars with me, but I can at least close my eyes and say the human race is better because I contributed and it’s safer for my kids which means for all our kids because I think all our kids are connected.

Monika: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Month. What changes would you like to see in our judicial system where handling sexual assault and abuse cases are concerned?

Judge Aquilina: There are many. Rape kits need to be tested within days. If we can get a COVID test in 15 minutes, I’m not clear why we can’t get a rape test within a couple of days. There shouldn’t ever be a backlog.

When someone complains about a sexual assault or harassment, we need to take it seriously. Whether your are the custodian or the CEO, everybody needs to be trained on what are the protocols if someone tells you that something happened to them so that we can start preserving the evidence. I see a lot of cases where there’s either no evidence or the evidence is messed up so we can’t go to trial.

Additionally, if I rob six banks, each one of those banks are going to want charges against me, want restitution and want their day in court… so there will be six charges. When a man or woman is raped, they may be raped 10 times, but there may only be a couple of charges. In that moment, we re-victimize the victim by saying you only matter so much. Hell no. Every single time someone is wrongfully touched they should be charged.

If someone becomes pregnant, there’s the DNA. Test it. The DNA should speak for itself. I know the Constitution says that a defendant has the right to face their accuser, but not in some cases like incest or rape where a child is born. Why are we re-victimizing the victim again?

Every state needs to make it mandatory that if you see rape, you report it or you can be charged. It’s sad that we have to legislate morality. If you’re a bystander, if you’re an enabler and you don’t come forward, you ought to be penalized. I don’t care if you are an institution, if you maintain records, you can’t destroy those and you must turn them over to law enforcement. There’s no privacy at that point.

As soon as a child can talk, they need to learn body parts, good touch and bad touch, informed consent. Children need to learn that “NO” is an OK word and it’s to be honored and used. We need a lot of education. The school should have this as part of the mandatory curriculum because a lot of parents can’t handle the issue. Why is this excluded? And we need to teach children it’s OK to keep surprises, but not secrets, and if someone tells you a secret, you need to tell a trusted adult about the secret.

Monika: This is all such important information. I know our time is running out so I just have a couple more questions that came from our community. First, is it true that the judicial system has different definitions of rape? I thought rape was rape?

Judge Aquilina: Yes, it depends on the penetration. Every state is different, but generally it is first degree if there is any kind of penetration and that is a life offense. And if there is any incapacitation because of drugs, alcohol, illness — that’s also first degree. You can look up statute of limitations differences and more at RAINN.

Monika: In this country, if a child athlete was being given a performance-enhancing drug, would that be considered child abuse? 

It depends if the child can get harmed by what’s being given. The same would be true if a lifesaving drug is being withheld from a child. When you are talking about abuse, it can be neglect, physical or emotional abuse. If the coach or institution involved is an enabler, they may also be held accountable for the abuse. In any of these kinds of crimes, there are always enablers and we must charge them. There needs to be a national roster of those people who enable child abuse so that they cannot work in that arena again. It’s the same thing with abusive priests… they shouldn’t be serving parishioners. So when Church and State meet, that just means that you can freely engage in your religion, that does not mean that you can hide behind your religion to commit a crime.

Monika: Thank you so much for your generosity of time and knowledge. Are there any last things you’d like to share with survivors of abuse or assault where the judicial system is concerned?

Judge Aquilina: They need to be involved in trauma-informed therapy first of all because they need to have that person who will hold their hand both in session and outside session. If they choose to pursue legal action, they really need to see lawyers who are informed in these kinds of cases and are familiar with the statute of limitations. Also, remember that criminal cases are beyond a reasonable doubt, but civil cases are a preponderance of the evidence, which is more likely than not. So in a civil case they won’t get jail time, but for a lot of people what hurts them is the money. And it’s not going to make the victim whole, but at least they’ve had their voice heard, they’ve been believed and they become victorious.

And finally… don’t stop telling your story until someone listens.

As I said at the Nassar trial, “Leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things.”

Photo via Rosemarie Aquilina’s Official Facebook Page

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