There are only a few people in all sporting arena who engender the strong visceral emotions in the public as Tonya Harding. I received a review copy of The Tonya Tapes a couple of weeks ago. Before I opened the book, I took a survey with some skating and nonskating friends about Tonya Harding and what their initial impressions were about her. Here are some sample responses:
"Magnet for drama. Drama drama drama. You know those people and you stay away from those people."
"Oh, complete degenerate and skanky, on a good day."
"Didn't she do the sex tape and something about whacking her opponent in the knee?"
"She definitely knew about it and did nothing to stop it."
"She was such an easily despicable character and I mean, character. Feel bad for her though. Can't be a good childhood if her mother had four, five husbands and they moved, like 13 times."
One of the more interesting comments I thought was this:
"She should have been under the Soviet or Chinese system because they would have plucked her out of her surroundings, locked her up in a training facility, and made her into an Olympic champion. None of this BS about her horrible mother or ex-husband."
For those unfamiliar with the tale, at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, an unknown assailant clubbed skater Nancy Kerrigan in the knee after her practice session. The world watched as she sat on the floor crying and asking, "Why? Why?" Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the championships and Harding took first place. Leading up to the Olympics in Lillehammer, however, rumors began circulating that Harding was somehow involved with the attack on Kerrigan. U.S. Figure Skating contemplated pulling Harding from the Olympic team but she threatened to file a multi-million dollar lawsuit if they prevented her from going to the Olympics. She went. Both Kerrigan and Harding competed several weeks later. Kerrigan won the silver (Oksana Baiul won the gold) and Harding placed eighth. The ratings for figure skating were almost on par with the Superbowl.
After the Olympics, an investigation revealed that Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly planned the attack with two other individuals. Gillooly implicated Harding in the attacks and stated that she was fully aware of what he and the other two men were doing and even helped to plan the attack. Harding consistently maintained that she knew nothing until after the fact and was subsequently charged by prosecutors of hindering the investigation by not coming forward to the authorities when she discovered the truth. Gillooly and the others went to prison for a while and Harding was placed on three years of probation, fined $160,000.00 and compelled to perform 500 hours of community service. U.S. Figure Skating also stripped her of her 1994 National title and banned her for life from sanctioned competitions. She was also unofficially banned from the skating world in general as shows and tours did not want their names associated with hers.
Harding's life became unraveled after 1994. In order to make ends meet, Harding did celebrity boxing, pro boxing, wrestling, then disappeared for a while, came back into the news when she threw a hubcap at her boyfriend, got arrested for alleged drunk driving, and was involved in a slew of other incidents that you wouldn't want to write home about. Kind of overshadowed her skating accomplishments, including being the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition at the 1991 U.S. championships (which she won). Kerrigan, in the meantime, enjoyed enormous success as a professional, married her agent, had two boys and recently welcomed her third child, a baby girl, into her family, and is one of the most celebrated athletes in the skating world.
So what's left out there for us to know? Harding hopes that people will be interested in hearing her voice, her side of the "truth," what really happened during the 1994 Olympics and beyond. From my informal survey from above, reactions to Harding are complicated to say the least. Is there anything more to be gleaned from reading about her abusive and alcoholic mother, abusive ex-husband Gillooly, and the turmoil in her life from being surrounded by users and abusers?
I vote yes primarily because of the way the book is presented. Much of what I remember about Harding is when she would read prepared statements in court, to the media, to the public, and they were always short, stilted and awkward. The Tonya Tapes are transcribed conversations that author Lynda D. Prouse (see right) had with Harding from 1999 - 2001, and 2007. The book is comprised of a series of the question, answer, question, answer format divided into chapters such as "Boyfriends, Husbands, & Horror," "1994 Nationals -- The Whack Heard Round the World," and "Making Television History --Skating at the Olympics." There is something appealing about reading Harding's words unfiltered and hearing her story strictly in her own voice. Whatever your opinion is of Harding, she is undeniably one of the most recognized names of our time and if I have the opportunity to understand her a little better by reading her words, I'll take it.
In the book tours and interviews, the focus has been primarily on how Gillooly and two men put a gun to her head, raped her and threatened to kill her if she told the FBI what she knew about the attack on Kerrigan. This was the second time in Harding's life that she had been raped (the first being a relative) and in the book, she talks about the shame she felt all her life, and why she remained with Gillooly for as long as she did. Her overall message in the book seems to be that she has been grossly misunderstood, a victim for most of her life, and it is time to start anew and regain her life. She is also of the belief that if she can help one person who's also a victim of abuse to come forward and seek help, which is something she never did, then she is satisfied with her life.
I spoke with Prouse about the process of putting the book together. Prouse said that of the nine books that she has written, The Tonya Tapes has received the most world-wide attention and she believes this is because people are still immensely fascinated by Harding. Prouse met Harding in 1999 and describes her now as a "much softer person." She says,
Tonya doesn't trust people, it's ingrained in her because people have taken advantage of her all her life. But I've noticed a distinct change in her demeanor, much softer and vulnerable person. And very grateful for anything that comes her way. In many respects, she still wants to be a people-pleaser. And she's quite likeable.
Prouse, who has also written biographies of Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Liz Manley, Alexei Yagudin, and other skaters, and is also the senior correspondent for Spotlight on Skating magazine, had to put aside her own feelings towards Harding to begin the process of telling her story.
I originally thought I'm a messenger here, what I believe doesn't matter. Since the stories have been told, we have had so many documents sent to us, police reports, people contacting me to tell me that yes, they witnessed this abuse and that behavior, the details that we hadn't known about. Tonya calls me and says, "Now at least you'll believe me. I know there's a part of you that didn't believe me or questioned me. Now you'll really believe me."
It's interesting to read this kind of book -- a series of a compilation of interviews -- and it can only be done with certain subjects. Harding is definitely one of them. At the end of reading The Tonya Tapes, I came away with this conclusion: I still don't know what Tonya Harding really knew and I suppose that's irrelevant 14 years later. What I do know with absolute certainty is that a tremendous waste of a talent, a gift from above perhaps, was embodied in this person, and she will have to live with the "what could have been" question. From the various shows Harding has been on, she doesn't seem to dwell on the question much anymore because as she puts it, she is "at peace." I suppose living with the question for 14 years wears you down after a point.
Prouse reiterated Harding's new outlook and said that, "There are many sides to Tonya. The side that I saw and see most, is the one at peace with things." Towards the end of the book is the following exchange that occurred in 2007:
What are your plans for the future, Tonya?
I just want to be happy. I love it that I have really good friends in my life, and, you know, someday I would like to be able to teach again, and gosh, I don't know. It would be really nice to be able to find someone to share the rest of my life with. But I don't count on that. My friends and my kitty (she laughs) -- my kitty is my baby. (She laughs.)
Do you ever think about what happened in '94 or have you let it all go?
I let it go. I mean, every once in a while, you know, when you see something on TV or something, then it brings back memories, and you just look at it and go, (she sighs) Hello.
Do you still believe Jeff and his acquaintances were the main players behind that attack on Nancy, or has anything new come to light since we last talked about it?
No. I know he did it. Him and his buddies did it because they wanted money.
Prouse is currently working on a historical novel and collaborating with other sports figures to tell their stories. She further advised that she speaks to Harding weekly -- Harding will call her to ask her if she did "ok" on this interview or that interview and I found it interesting that she is looking for approval from her small circle of friends to this day. Harding is also finding some work as a commentator on cable television while promoting her book. The financial outcome of telling her story will depend on book sales. (purchase The Tonya Tapes here from Amazon.com)