Rarely has the cover of a book haunted me like this one. The tiny profiles of girls in ponytails lined up in rows looked like a protective screen hiding the face of a woman and kept me looking at it before I dared to open the book. Denhollander’s exposé of the abuse and cover-up of Michigan State University osteopath Larry Nassar was familiar so I knew what I would be facing.
The public exposure of Larry Nassar began in August 2016 when Denhollander responded by email to a news story in the IndyStar of how USA Gymnastics failed to report sexual abuse cases. That story provided the moment that Denhollander had been waiting for to report Nassar’s abuse.
The first half of the book establishes Rachel Denhollander’s family background and her involvement in gymnastics and the subsequent sexual abuse. Her loving, supportive family and her own determined personality and intellect set the stage for going public after years of struggling with the effects.
Inspired by Olympic competition, at age 12 Denhollander begged her parents to enrol her in competitive gymnastics, promising to help pay with babysitting money and on the condition that she would accept that her parents would pull her out if there was any concern for her health or safety. At age 15, back and wrist pain brought her to Larry Nassar, an Olympic team doctor and medical coordinator for United States Gymnastics who worked out of the sports clinic at Michigan State (MSU).
Denhollander’s first visit with Nassar began with a thorough physical evaluation. He inspired confidence with his friendly manner and kept up conversation as he began his first act of sexual interference by massaging her internally. Denhollander was confused and felt that something must be wrong, but her mother was present in the room and she assumed by Nassar’s confidence and brazen behavior that he did this treatment regularly. If it was wrong, he would have been stopped, she reasoned.
There were more warning signs that something was wrong, but it was after a year and a half of treatment that Larry crossed another line and massaged her breasts. Denhollander was shocked and knew that what happened was wrong. She did not yet understand that his penetration and what she had written off as “pelvic floor therapy” was not legitimate, but she knew that sexual abuse took place. She also was convinced that no one would believe her. And in fact, when she did report the abuse she was silenced.
She froze in the face of the abuse: “I knew what it felt to be so overwhelmed with shock, confusion, and fear that I literally shut down to try to survive the reality.” She blamed herself and knew that she would be blamed for not acting. But Denhollander and the other 250 plus women who eventually came forward as victims all had a trust relationship with Nassar. In one of the most powerful entries in her journal, Denhollander battles with why she did not tell anyone. “I gave them the power to damage me when I gave them my trust. It was never the hand in the dark. It was always the hand I held. And it’s my fault all over again, because it never would have happened if I hadn’t trusted.”
Going to Court
By the time Denhollander reads the news story in the IndyStar, she is a lawyer and married to Jacob Denhollander and the mother of three young children. Jacob’s strength and sacrificial love brings healing and he stands beside and behind Denhollander in the case against Larry Nassar.
The second half of What is a Girl Worth? details how Denhollander exposes Nassar to the press, to police and in a civil suit against MSU. Along the way she is supported by reporters, MSU police and an assistant attorney general assigned to the case. She knows that by going public she will have to give explicit details and open herself to criticism. She is determined to have the abuse uncovered in spite of the uphill battle that survivors face to find justice, to be heard, and to be understood. She asks, “Who will find these hurting people and tell them how much they are worth?”
What becomes apparent is that other women had revealed abuse to coaches and to MSU as early as 1997 and were ignored. A good part of the book details the development of the criminal and civil cases. In the end, Nassar pleads guilty to sexual abuse of the seven victims named in the criminal case. By the time of the sentencing hearing, 92 women have given impact statements, gaining their voice and gathering strength as they speak.
Denhollander gives the final impact statement and is searing in her condemnation of the result of not protecting the “little girls.” Her statement addresses not only the specific abuses perpetrated by Nassar and their lasting effects, but challenges institutions and culture to take responsibility when they fail to protect children. The statement is hard hitting and though Denhollander speaks of a faith that offers forgiveness, she also challenges Nassar to repentance in the face of his self-pity.
In spite of the physical and emotional toll, Denhollander assures the reader that throughout the case she never loses sight of her role as a wife and mother. Overuse of italics is sometimes distracting as if the reader needs reminders of what is important. But Denhollander is clear about what is important: the worth of every girl and her right to being heard and believed.
She explores other themes, too: the mishandling and denial of abuse in the church, institutional and cultural silence and cover-ups, and reasons why victims do not come forward. Denhollander has harsh words for the church which denies or handles abuse allegations poorly. Misguided theology; an excessive view of pastoral authority; a refusal to engage with secular authorities. Concepts of unity, forgiveness and grace that forgive abusers are factors that provide “community protectionism” and silence victims.
This is not a book for the faint of heart as it details the sexual abuse she experienced. It is a testimony to the author that she clearly states and believes that action must be done in love, even when confronted with evil and in being angry at the failure of institutions and culture to act justly in the face of wrong.
When I finished the book I saw something different on the cover. This time I saw survivors with a united voice who were resilient, supportive of each other and not afraid to speak the truth. Denhollander’s story is a powerful reminder that every child is worthy and made in God’s image and that we are called to protect, to love, and to do what is right.
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