In Defense of Tonya Harding
Ice-skating looks beautiful on the rink. But the brutal world we saw depicted in “I, Tonya” is one this writer knows is real—she lived through it, too.
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Our fascination with a 20-plus-year-old scandal has been reawakened this year with I, Tonya, a cinematic recounting of Tonya Harding’s rocky trajectory to figure-skating champion and convicted criminal. The movie is underpinned by the 1994 assault on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, when a hired thug clubbed her knee at a practice for the U.S. Nationals in Detroit. Badly bruised, Kerrigan had to withdraw, and Tonya Harding won. Though Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, named her as a co-conspirator in the assault, both young women would later make the 1994 Olympic team bound for Lillehammer.
Harding’s attendance in the Games turned them into a media circus—the women’s skating competition became the third-highest-rated sports event in TV history. But the stunt to knock out Kerrigan had failed: She won the silver medal, while a vilified Harding finished eighth. In the weeks that followed, Harding pled guilty to hindering the prosecution, and was fined and sentenced to probation and community service. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) banned her for life, the death-penalty equivalent for a skater.
As a former national-level skater in Canada who once faced Tonya Harding, I was especially riveted by the tawdry drama. Skaters are competitive on and off the ice, and over the years, I’d heard of women finding their competition costume slashed to ribbons in the dressing room, or their skate blades dulled by rocks. Physical violence was a first. I also felt like there were two victims in the story. One became so in an instant, as television cameras rolled. The other had a longer, quieter history of suffering.
I was barely 9 when I competed against a 7-year-old Tonya in Seattle, but had since realized that the two of us shared more than just our sport in common: We’d both grown up with abusive mothers. After watching I, Tonya, I found myself stifling sobs as the credits rolled, triggered by scenes that hit too close to home.
I was also crying out of relief for Harding. In my own experience, until someone outside of my family acknowledged the trauma I’d lived, I never truly felt “seen.” By putting the harrowing details of her life on the big screen, I, Tonya asks us to reconsider her legacy through a different lens: that of Harding as a survivor.
Tonya’s the real shit. That was my impression after she sailed past me to victory in Seattle. But I also noticed this: Her mother, LaVona, was wound tighter than the revolutions of a double axel. I could tell she screamed at her daughter the way mine eviscerated me when she felt I hadn’t skated well enough. Which is to say, always.
Our mothers were our full-time managers. LaVona dominated the household, despite her fifth husband’s best efforts to inject balance; my father split after my first birthday, leaving my mother as the unchallenged ruler of the roost.
Our bodies were compact and muscular, suited for powerful jumps. But while Tonya was known for her fearlessness, I found competition paralyzing, and would often fall out of jumps. Realizing my odds of winning were greater with a partner to hold me up, Mum switched me to compete in ice dance at age 14.
The Hardings collected empty bottles around the neighborhood and LaVona waitressed at night to pay for skating; my mother worked graveyard shifts as a care aide and dragged my absentee father into divorce court multiple times a year to chase more skating money.
LaVona’s angry, controlling personality was exacerbated by her dependence on brandy; my mother’s was a product of undiagnosed psychosis. Tonya’s achievements never measured up to her mother’s expectations, no matter how hard Tonya squeezed her eyes shut and wished and wished and wished; substitute my name and the sentence remains the same.
Tonya escaped her abusive mother by moving in with her abusive boyfriend at age 18, and getting married a year later. I left home when I was 15 and slept on my sister’s couch until we could convince our father to pay my bills. During this period of self-parenting, Tonya’s skating career initially showed improvement, and she became the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition history; after my first Nationals, my dance partner dumped me and I never found another. (Neither did he, which made me feel a teensy bit better.)
Though I lacked Tonya’s raw talent, I understand her drive to succeed. My mother demanded so much from me, and doled out love so conditionally, that I developed an obsessive, zero-sum mindset: What was the point of anything, if not to win? And if I wasn’t a winner, I was worth nothing.
The abuse of my childhood left me with a near-bottomless yearning for acceptance, and, as a young woman, a desperation that led to choices in alignment with that neediness, such as lying down with almost anyone who showed interest in me. Tonya Harding sought love and acceptance through skating, making her USFSA-imposed exile especially painful. By virtue of her competitive success, she found herself vulnerable to the affection or rejection of millions. Unfortunately, Harding chose a sport that revolved around its own brand of conditionality.
On the surface, women’s figure skating is polite society, steeped in good manners, sparkly costumes, classical music, and curtsies. To be successful, you have to be teeny and cute, or skinny and pretty.
The absurd emphasis on appearance is mental warfare for a skater, and it becomes even more pronounced when you throw in a hypercritical mother. In Lynda D. Prouse’s book The Tonya Tapes, Harding says LaVona told her daily that she was fat and ugly; mine tried to rectify my appearance by lightening my eyebrows (they turned orange), taping my nose to my ear to straighten it, and insisting I whiten my teeth with Comet. You don’t forget those kinds of things.
Young Tonya started out well within the adorableness guidelines of the USFSA. By her late teens, with brassy hair, heavy eye makeup, and a fondness for hunting and cigarettes, she no longer fit the mold. They weren’t holding the door open when she rolled up to a competition, which only intensified her determination to prove she belonged there.
According to Harding, it was advice from the association that spurred her reconciliation with Gillooly prior to the ’94 Nationals. There was no regard for the violence she suffered outside the arena, as long as she showed up looking well-adjusted. It’s the same power dynamic we see in the movie and modeling industries, where child stars and young models are commoditized, blind eyes turned to their eating disorders and addictions—to their pain.
This culture trickles down into skating clubs. In my last year with my mother, I was an emotional mess at the rink, but not a single adult asked me why. Other parents whispered amongst themselves, and coaches adhered to professional boundaries. It taught me that my fragile state was unbecoming behavior. Better I should suffer in silence.
I don’t want to make it sound like figure skating is a terrible sport, but it’s brutal terrain for a young woman on shaky footing. If you have unstoppable talent, and the benefit of a strong support system, the odds of becoming a champion are one in 74 zillion. If you have a mother like mine or Tonya’s, your odds aren’t nearly as good. But that’s where Tonya was hovering—on the edge of the ultimate championship title. She fought her way to the top with almost no assistance and a good amount of resistance, and some of what she did was purely heroic.
Harding skated in—and won—her first competition before her 4th birthday. Training regimens for girls like us demanded we leave our warm beds in the pre-dawn darkness, skate for several hours before school, and another couple after. Forget going to birthday parties or Halloween trick-or-treating or laying out in the summer sun. Outings with friends were subjugated to any off-ice training we could squeeze in. We lived with bruises and sprains, as muscles, ligaments, and tendons were wrenched, pulled, and torn. Tonya Harding averaged roughly 20 hours a week on the ice, or a thousand hours each year. As a sophomore, her mother pulled her out of school so she could put in more time at the rink. Skating was all that Harding had.
Neither Kerrigan nor Harding came from wealth. The media could have played up the underdog storyline for them both, but instead, they opted to pit the two girls against each other. Well before the assault, Kerrigan was posited as a resilient princess—her mother was legally blind—while Harding, who lived in trailers parked in relatives’ driveways, was riffraff.
And the two were equal competitors, Kerrigan coming in third and Harding fourth at the 1992 Albertville Games. But while Harding was counting heavily on post-Games endorsements, and the path out of poverty they represented to her, she could only hope for corporate favor, given that she didn’t fit the vanilla-spokesperson mold. Kerrigan, meanwhile, signed several major deals before she stepped on the ice in Lillehammer.
Harding couldn’t catch a break. If she showed distress, the media called her “attention seeking.” If she was stoic, it was “defiance.” We were always quick to skip past the unpleasant details of her youth and ridicule her life—what she drove, what she wore, her haircut. Why did national media choose to elevate commentary on her hair? Why did they do the same with Marcia Clark? And Monica Lewinsky? We can blame the arrival of the 24-hour news cycle for lowering the content bar, as some have. We can also question the techniques employed by a male power structure in media that trivialize women at best, or, more diabolically, normalize a culture of catty divisiveness.
Interestingly, other women Olympians have been charged with felonies besides Harding, but the media has not treated their stories with the same salacious delight. Recall the 1995 U.S. Nationals champion Nicole Bobek, who pled guilty to first-degree home invasion before she won her title and to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in 2010, or Lillehammer gold-medalist Oksana Baiul’s post-Games descent into addiction and her high-speed drunk-driving crash. The media zeroed in on Harding’s impoverished upbringing, and her refusal to be demure and apologetic, and they used it against her, turning Harding into a punch line.
I, Tonya does little to mitigate the redneck caricature of Harding, and even plays it up. Where it transcends this aspect of reductive storytelling is by revealing a dimension that has thus far been omitted: Harding’s dark and detached side, which gained shape from her rejection by a mother, and later a husband, who berated and beat her, both at home and in front of her peers. She fought it and became a champion; she succumbed to it and lost everything. The sky-high stakes turned out to be her tipping point.
I’ve always felt compassion for Harding, a woman for whom we couldn’t seem to scratch together any grace. The people writing about her, who inhabited the center of modern journalism, had nothing in common with her. Forget her athletic achievement, Harding was a representation of what they railed against: a monster-truck-driving, gun-owning, high-school dropout. A classist society sparred with her and then anointed her as classless if she fought back. And though I find it difficult to believe she wasn’t aware of the plan to attack Kerrigan in all its inglorious detail, for surviving the childhood abuse that she did and ending up not on the street, but at the Olympic Games, Harding has my admiration.
During a 2009 speech, President Obama quipped how he’d once been urged to do “a Tonya Harding” on Hillary Clinton. Harding responded in a segment on HBO’s Real Sports. Her sneering attempt to convince us (or herself, maybe) that she’s the one in the driver’s seat comes off as crass, and prompts the interviewer to call her a piece of work. “Do you think I care what other people think?” Harding fires back.
I find it a difficult clip to watch. Her pain is familiar. But when I was hurting, I had privacy, and the love of my nuclear community to help me heal. She was still a wounded girl in a woman’s body on a public stage, and the injury in her eyes betrayed the torment beneath her anger. She cared about what people think. We all do, despite thin declarations of “no fucks given” on internet memes and overpriced socks. And beyond that, if our president couldn’t let an opportunity for a cheap laugh go by, what is it going to take for the rest of us to have mercy on Tonya Harding?
Perhaps we’ve felt we’re owed a confession, one that goes beyond what Harding acknowledged in a recent ABC interview—that before Detroit, she overheard Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt talk about “taking somebody out.” Is it her refusal to cop to involvement in the whole kit and caboodle that has kept us harboring a collective grudge? (Which she duly meets with a chip on her shoulder.) If we’re committed to wearing her down until she concedes guilt, she’s equally committed to showing us the nearest lake into which we can jump.
Gillooly and the three other men involved—who all served prison time—always maintained she knew about their plot. Let’s say for a moment that she is guilty of greater participation. Even if she wanted to come forward, we haven’t made it easy for her. Society failed to help the young girl, and it hasn’t shown an interest in forgiving the woman. Why do we so often judge the outcomes of society’s ills while forgetting the sources?
Of course, maybe Harding isn’t culpable of anything more than that for which she’s already been punished: hindering the prosecution. Therein lies the rub. If we expect a person to take responsibility for their darkest deeds, we can’t toss them onto a rubbish heap afterward. Whether she was complicit or not, we’ve not allowed her an inch of space for her failures as a human being. And a young human at that: In Lillehammer, she was 23 years old.
It’s not too late to offer redemption, to separate the human being from the behavior. It’s not about whether Harding is deserving—we are all deserving. And it’s not that Harding is waiting for us; she makes that clear in the interview she gave for a recent New York Times profile. As its author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, wrote, rather than exoneration, the conversation today is about “the finer points of being Tonya Harding: respect, mitigating circumstances, how we treat people and what we expect from them in the first place.” More than being about Harding, it’s about us.
In early 2017, The Daily Mail published pictures of then 46-year-old Harding in a camp chair outside her home, coffee mug in one hand, cigarette in the other. Wearing a parka, slippers and Mickey Mouse pajama bottoms, she was unable to summon her figure-skating smile for the lurking photographer.
Kerrigan was a 2017 contestant on Dancing With the Stars. Her costumes were very sparkly.
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