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At 17, around 2002, Gwen van de Pas started having night terrors. She dreamed of being followed by a man into a shower — and blood spattering onto the tiles.
With the help of her therapist, the schoolgirl discovered the disturbing dreams were actually repressed memories: She alleges she was sexually abused by a pedophile swim coach between the ages of 12 and 14.
“I had blocked out the reality of what happened,” van de Pas told The Post. “The man who assaulted me brainwashed me.”
Now, 24 years after the crimes, the Netherlands-born filmmaker has directed the revelatory documentary “Groomed,” premiering Thursday on Discovery+. The film examines what she describes as horrifying experiences with grooming, which is when a predator befriends and establishes an emotional connection with a child in order to lower their guard, with the objective of sexual abuse.
The doc also reveals the extraordinary methods the filmmaker employed to try to trap the alleged predator.
Van de Pas unearthed potentially crucial DNA evidence and prompted another woman to come forward. And now the alleged perpetrator might finally be brought to justice.
“I don’t know if closure exists, but I am at peace,” said the director and new mom, who lived in San Francisco for 12 years before moving to Amsterdam 18 months ago. “The project was psychologically exhausting, but I feel I can hold my head up high.”
She had a happy childhood in the southern Netherlands, where she joined a local swim team. But the sport brought her into contact with her alleged abuser, who was about 13 years her senior.
According to van de Pas, the assistant swim coach paid her compliments and began sending her letters and gifts. “It started with him building a friendship and was really subtle,” she recalled. “It felt good that he was giving me more attention than others on the team.”
After about a year of such grooming, he moved on to physical abuse, van de Pas claimed. He allegedly touched her inappropriately in a hot tub and went on to sexually assault her in a shower room.
Under his spell, she told no one, as he managed to convince her that it was love, not abuse. She claims he sent her lustful cards and letters — dated missives that van de Pas kept but didn’t look at again until years later.
The self-described “perfectionist” developed anorexia and had to give up swimming as she was too weak to compete. When she started having vivid nightmares about her ordeal, her eating-disorder therapist drew out details of the alleged offenses.
“At the time, I also didn’t want to hurt [him],” said van de Pas, who assumed she was his only victim. “He had such a hold over me, but, of course, I didn’t realize that.”
Van de Pas went on to earn an MBA at Stanford business school. She went into consulting before quitting corporate America to become a full-time filmmaker in 2015.
Turning the camera on her own experience wasn’t her initial goal. However, after talking to her now husband, Laurens, 38, a financier, she decided to expunge her demons in an effort to heal and raise awareness about grooming.
“These are methods that many people are unaware of,” said van de Pas. “It seemed right for me to highlight the dangers.”
In 2017, she returned to Holland to find the sickening letters he had allegedly sent her and reported him to the police. The man was charged with sexual assault of a minor.
“Even then I had mixed feelings about it,” van de Pas told The Post. “I imagined him feeling scared as he sat in the interrogation room.”
The case was dropped a few months later. The accused had refused to provide a handwriting sample, and a police lab test showed no DNA on the letters he reportedly sent to van de Pas.
A year later, however, there was a breakthrough. A former teammate from the swim club read a Medium.com essay van de Pas had written in 2016 about her torment. The woman claimed the coach had abused her, too.
“I’d been defending him in my mind, thinking, ‘Maybe he isn’t such a bad guy.’ But when the other victim came forward, I realized this was bigger than me. I felt a strong need to go after him once again and protect others.”
She had the letters re-tested at an independent lab in the Netherlands. This time, DNA was found on them. A private detective posing as a mail man also obtained a handwritten note from the swim coach. The writing matched the correspondence in the obscene letters he’d allegedly sent van de Pas.
Armed with this potential new evidence, she has appealed to re-open her case in Holland. She is optimistic the police will comply.
Regardless of the outcome, her fight won’t have been for naught. As the mother of a 6-month-old baby girl, she knows she is setting a good example by standing up for herself and other survivors of abuse.
Said van de Pas, “The arrival of my daughter has been a good little push to make sure I’m really trying to be the person she can look up to and be proud of.”
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