Books

Rachael Denhollander’s Witness

Abused as a teen by Larry Nassar, she’s become an advocate for change in her evangelical community.

Rachael Denhollander speaks at the sentencing of former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan, on Jan. 24, 2018.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

Rachael Denhollander was traveling in 2016 when thieves broke into her husband’s van, stealing several thousand dollars’ worth of tools. It was an exhausting time for the family already. Just weeks earlier, she had come forward in the Indianapolis Star to tell her story of being repeatedly sexually assaulted as a teenager by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, becoming the first woman to accuse him publicly of abuse. She was working closely with out-of-state law enforcement in a criminal case against Nassar and a separate Title IX investigation, and fielding calls from media outlets and from other Nassar survivors.

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A van break-in, by comparison, was a blip. Denhollander’s husband, Jacob, called the police and posted about the ordeal on Facebook. Within two hours, he told his wife wryly on the phone that night, four leaders from the couple’s Baptist church had called him to see if he needed anything. Meanwhile, not a single person in church leadership had reached out to them when Denhollander’s sexual abuse and legal battle had become national news.

That small but revealing episode is one answer to the question Denhollander asks in the title to her rigorous and righteous new book, What Is a Girl Worth? Much more than a personal story of trauma and triumph, Denhollander’s book is an exposé of the institutional suppression of women’s stories and the devaluing of their lives—far beyond the world of gymnastics.

Denhollander was a 15-year-old gymnast in Michigan when she began to visit Larry Nassar for nagging pain in her back and wrists. Nassar, a renowned osteopath specializing in competitive gymnasts’ recovery, put her and her mother at ease immediately by complimenting her shoes, taking her pain seriously, and spending time in their appointments explaining his approach—“Finally someone was paying attention and willing to help.” Her mother was in the room during multiple appointments when Nassar digitally penetrated Denhollander under the guise of treatment, and once groped her breast; he was deft at positioning his actions out of her line of sight, and Denhollander convinced herself it must be normal. “If there was anything wrong,” she thought, “someone would have stopped him.” For years, no one did.

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Abuse victims are often asked, directly or obliquely, how they could have let it happen. They’re told they could have avoided the danger, they could have defended themselves in the moment. Their memories are doubted, their sexual histories exposed, their motives impugned. What Is a Girl Worth? is effectively a book-length narrative dismantling of these toxic premises.

Like many women, Denhollander learned about the dangers of speaking up about abuse early. When she was 7, a college student at her evangelical church had abused her repeatedly. Her family didn’t know it was happening, but they and a few other adults sensed something was off about the man and took steps to set up boundaries that she credits with saving her from worse abuse. (Denhollander’s mother is also a sexual abuse survivor.) When she was 12, she told her mother what happened, and learned that her parents’ protectiveness had gotten them hounded out of the church, accused of paranoia, slander, and improper reliance on secular expertise. The episode taught her a lesson that she carried with her when Nassar abused her: “If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up. Because it will cost you everything.”

At every turn in her account, Denhollander emphasizes the hurdles she faced in getting people to believe her and to advocate for her, and the costs of reporting. She told a gymnastics coach, who encouraged her to keep quiet. She told her mother, but they couldn’t figure out how to get law enforcement or media outlets to take her one story seriously. By the time she came forward 16 years later—the Indianapolis Star’s reporting on USA Gymnastics convinced her that victims were finally being believed—pursuing justice had become difficult in other ways: She had moved to a different state, and she was a mother of three with a husband in graduate school. (She had a fourth child in 2018 and named her after the Michigan State University detective who helped make the case against Nassar.) The book captures the dirty diapers, long drives, work wedged into early mornings and late nights, a CNN interview in a bathroom with a towel draped over the toilet tank. Coming forward as a victim isn’t glamorous, Denhollander reminds the reader over and over.

Victims and others look on as Rachael Denhollander speaks at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing in Lansing, Michigan, on Jan. 24, 2018.
Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Denhollander is a lawyer and former competitive debater. She pursues justice against Nassar with the kind of Type A vigor that led her friends at debate camp to nickname her “Pit Bull.” When a detective in Michigan suggests that she file a police report over the phone, she insists on driving up from Kentucky so she could size up the detective and establish a connection that would make her likelier to pursue the case. But Denhollander never portrays herself as a lone figure with special powers. She praises the prosecutors, investigators, and journalists who helped bring Nassar’s crimes to light, and the family support and education that made her the kind of person with the capital to risk going public. And she emphasizes her own enormous privilege as a way of making clear that not every victim can afford to take the risks she did.

She views Nassar with special contempt, but also reserves blame for the institutions and individuals that protected him. This is not a book about bad guys and good guys. It is a book about systems—and Denhollander has bigger systems in her sights than Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, although her advocacy has fundamentally changed both. She doesn’t use words like patriarchy or misogyny. Instead, she simply depicts them in action: teenage boys ranking girls’ bodies, a peer in her teen Bible study group pretending to grope her breast (no one cared), inescapable “locker room talk.” As an adult, she comes to see that when women with histories of abuse raise alarms, they’re viewed as “projecting” instead of being respected as experts. Church leaders called her “divisive” for publicly airing concerns about sexual abuse. And she describes how Christian teachers pressured her to forgive Nassar prematurely and even be thankful for his crimes against her.

In the wake of Nassar’s sentencing, much of Denhollander’s advocacy work has focused on sexual abuse within the evangelical church. She has advocated for an independent investigation of an evangelical church network called Sovereign Grace, which has been accused of a pattern of covering up sexual abuse in its churches. She has also advised the Southern Baptist Convention on its efforts to grapple with its own systemic mishandling of sexual abuse accusations.

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What Is a Girl Worth? is published by Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of a major evangelical publishing company. Denhollander’s role as an evangelical Christian advocate for sexual abuse survivors had made her an uncomfortable figure for some on the right and the left. This summer, a conservative Baptist group produced a promotional video in which a shadowy image of Denhollander was used to illustrate “the spiritual powers and principalities” working against Christians. (Several board members resigned.) Meanwhile, some secular news outlets praise her without mentioning the core role of her Christian faith in pursuing truth.

But the book makes clear that despite her disappointment in Christian institutions, her faith is steadfast; in the end, Denhollander’s most powerful “witness”—to use a term favored by evangelicals—is her willingness to extend grace. She pities the gymnastics coach who brushed aside her early attempt to report, even as she is unsparing about the implications about that failure. The church leaders quicker to respond to a van break-in than a harrowing assault investigation weren’t malicious, she writes. (The church issued a statement last year apologizing for being “sinfully unloving” to the family and praising Denhollander’s willingness to forgive.) She never questions the victims who aren’t ready to share their stories. Her instincts for compassion are as powerful as her hunger for justice. “The straight line is there,” she reminds herself at one point, referencing C.S. Lewis. “And you can see the evil, because you know the good.”

Tyndale Momentum