“What is a girl worth?” That's the question Rachael Denhollander asked at the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar. Nassar, the gold standard of sports doctors for gymnasts, was accused and pled guilty to child pornography and sexual assault charges affecting hundreds of women and families. He will never again know life out of prison. That, however, was only the result of many brave women who worked against the system and publicly stood to testify and accuse Nassar. Rachael, who was the first to publicly do so, has chronicled her courageous struggle in her book What is a Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.
I'm not going to review this book. To be honest, I'm not sure what I would say. This book overwhelmed me. Every page of it. I read Rachael's words as a man who is largely unacquainted with the realities of sexual abuse. I read it as a husband of one, and a father of four little women (and one boy) who mean the world to me. I read it as a pastor whose heart is often broken by the weight of suffering in the lives of those I serve. I read it as a member of my rural community concerned that statistics prove there's unspoken abuse all around me. To put it simply, I read as a student who needs to learn and sympathize with the struggles of survivors. So, I'm not going to give a review of the book, but I will commend it – and commend it in the highest terms possible!
Rachael writes of her experience as a teenage gymnast. After suffering an injury, she was advised to visit Larry Nassar. Larry was an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University and a USA Gymnastics national team doctor. His outside demeanor – caring, attentive, and helpful – cloaked a deep and evil perversion. Larry knew how to sexually assault women under the guise of treatment, and he was so calculated and deceptive he could do it with parents in the room. That's what happened to Rachael.
With gripping detail Rachael puts words to the inner turmoil of guilt and shame as she struggled for years with faith, justice, and trust. Sixteen years after her assault – as a wife, mother, educated attorney, and devoted Christian – she went public. At great cost and with little hope of success Rachael became determined to put a face on the anonymous young women (and men) who suffer sexual abuse, and to confront her abuser and the system that helped to enable him. Through her account we are forced to see what it looks like when someone puts selfish desire above safety, when adults and authorities don't respond properly to sexual assault, when institutions create environments for abusers to flourish, and when people refuse to listen and put friendship in front of the truth. In so doing, Rachael drags the ugly truth into the light of God’s straight-line of justice where there is no hope outside of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I wish this book didn't need to be written but I'm glad it has been. As Rachael wrote: “People have no idea what it costs survivors to stop an abuser.” We live in a society steeped in failure when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse. That failure is nearly ubiquitous. Institutions have failed. Organizations have failed. Churches have failed. Workplaces, schools, industries, courtrooms, and legislatures have failed. Devastatingly, abusers know how to exploit and manipulate that environment so that victims are unheard, unsafe, and shoulder unnecessary burdens. It's an indictment against our society and churches when survivors like Rachael – thrust against their wills into dark and fearful circumstances – have to become the brave voices to tell us this. That’s what this book is: it's a brave voice. A voice that began with whispered uneasiness and became a thunderous boom demanding we hear. We need the humility to listen.
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