News & Op-Ed

Us, Tonya

January 16, 2018

Here’s an odd little tidbit: Nancy Kerrigan is one of my heroes.

This is an unusual statement for a variety of reasons. First of all, I care precious little for sports in general. I don’t watch the Olympics. If I were to rank all the sports that I don’t care about, figure skating would probably be among those that interest me the very least. And yet, the story of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding has always been too compelling for me to ignore.

A recap for those of you who may have missed it by not being alive or old enough to remember it: Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were both members of the U.S. Figure Skating team. Following a practice session on January 6, 1994, Kerrigan was walking through a corridor at the Cobo Arena in Detroit when she was clubbed on the knee with a police baton by an assailant later identified as Shane Stant. It subsequently came out that the attack had been planned by Tonya’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and a co-conspirator named Shawn Eckardt, ostensibly to eliminate Kerrigan as a rival to Harding. While the injury forced Kerrigan to withdraw from the U.S. Championships, her teammates awarded her a coveted spot on the Olympic team.

A mere seven weeks after the attack, Kerrigan took the silver in ladies’ single skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. It’s an inspiring tale of dedication and perseverance. But there’s also an aspect of karma in that Harding came in eighth, and even that was not without controversy. Harding had been forced to abort her routine because of problems with her laces. She was permitted a “do over” after tearfully pleading with the judges. The spectacle of this comeuppance gratified a public for whom Tonya Harding had become a national enemy.

For what it’s worth, Harding has always denied involvement in planning the attack on Kerrigan, though she did plead guilty to hindering the investigation. She received three years probation, a $160,000 fine and 500 hours of community service. While the attack did not end Kerrigan’s skating career, it did end Harding’s; she was banned from competing in amateur and Olympic competitions for life. Her post-Kerrigan career trajectory has ranged from unremarkable (house painter, welder, sales clerk, landscaper, et al.) to capitalizing on her notoriety (Fox’s Celebrity Boxing, TruTV’s World’s Dumbest…, etc.).

Which brings us to I, Tonya, a big-budget biopic telling Harding’s side of the story. The movie stars Margot Robbie, who may actually be able to make Tonya sympathetic. (Robbie was lauded as Harley Quinn in the otherwise-reviled Suicide Squad.) Honestly, I was a little offended when I first saw that they were making a Tonya Harding movie. She’s the bad guy in this story! I wouldn’t want to see a movie sympathetic to, say, Pol Pot, so why would I want to see Tonya Harding lionized?

As I did my research to write this piece, prepared to lambaste Harding and convict her all over again, my perspective changed. I learned more about Harding’s background, from being brought up in a physically- and emotionally-abusive household before moving on to a physically- and emotionally-abusive marriage. This doesn’t excuse Harding’s actions, but it actually does make her a more sympathetic person than she is normally portrayed.

I also learned how Harding’s involvement in the attack has never been proven. Even if she was guilty of obstruction after the fact, that’s certainly a lesser crime than the one that is popularly attributed to her. And as far as that crime goes, she has paid her debt to society and then some. The lifetime ban from skating was no doubt more of a punishment than the community service and the fine. And the humiliation she has endured as a despised and derided national joke? Maybe Tonya Harding has suffered enough.

You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned teshuvah (repentance), which is such an important principle in Judaism. This is because I have no idea whether Harding has done teshuvah. Nancy Kerrigan finally revealed on Nightline – after much prodding from the host – that Harding never apologized to her. Kerrigan was then quick to add that it doesn’t matter. The first step towards teshuvah, when one has wronged another person, is to apologize. If Harding hasn’t, that’s between her and Kerrigan. If Nancy doesn’t care whether Tonya apologizes, it’s not my place to feel otherwise.

I’m not prepared to celebrate Tonya Harding; she’s still the bad guy in the Tonya-vs.-Nancy story. (If she cures leukemia or brokers Middle East peace, I’m willing to revisit the idea of Tonya as a hero.) I have, however, re-thought my previous position and I’m willing to concede that, even if she’s portrayed by Harley Quinn, Tonya isn’t a supervillain. Yes, she made some bad decisions 24 years ago. She did the crime but she also did the time (metaphorically), plus she suffered lifelong consequences that may have exceeded what’s commensurate with the act for which she was convicted. I, for one, am willing to let it go.

It’s one thing to “let it go” when it comes to an abstract national enemy, it’s quite another when it’s someone who has wronged us personally, albeit probably in ways less spectacular than the way in which Tonya wronged Nancy. In such a case, do we have the strength to let it go? And if we feel we’re owed an apology, do we have the ability, like Nancy Kerrigan to decide that it really doesn’t matter? (Having been a proponent of “Team Kerrigan” for more than two decades, I’m prepared to follow Nancy’s lead on this one.)

I have no plans to see I, Tonya but just knowing it’s out there has provided some interesting food for thought. Every one of us has wronged someone or been wronged by someone. Maybe this reevaluation of Tonya Harding can provide the impetus for some of us to finally let it go.