In January 2018, Rachael Denhollander stood before a packed Michigan courtroom to complete a heart-wrenching journey that had begun many years earlier. In calm yet powerful words, she gave voice to the trauma that she and some 250 women endured at the hands of longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
Denhollander, a former gymnast, was 15 years old and suffering from chronic back pain when Dr. Larry Nassar first sexually abused her under the guise of performing a treatment known as pelvic floor therapy.
It would be 16 years before Denhollander would go public with her accusations against Nassar. She would testify for two-and-a-half hours at his trial. At his sentencing hearing, Denhollander was the last of more than 150 victims to speak.
“I wanted to make it very clear why we got to that point, all the failures that led to that,” says Denhollander, “and then to be able to tell the world, ‘you can choose look away but you can’t ever pretend again that you didn’t know.’”
Denhollander recounts her remarkable journey in the new book, “What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.” The Louisville attorney and victims’ advocate appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her experiences.
Lifting the Veil on a Dark Secret
During the trial that made headlines nationwide, Denhollander says Nassar tried to justify his actions and pretend that what he did wasn’t that bad. When he apologized to his victims, Denhollander says Nassar “turned on the tears.”
But then Michigan Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina read a letter that Nassar had sent her earlier in the proceedings in which the doctor blamed his accusers.
“It lifted the veil and it showed what an abusive manipulator looks like,” Denhollander says.
Nassar was sentenced to at least 100 years in prison on state and federal charges. But the doctor isn’t the only entity Denhollander seeks to hold accountable with her book. She contends USA Gymnastics as well as Michigan State University, where Nassar taught, are also responsible for allowing him to victimize young girls for years.
Systemic Failures Contribute to Abuse
Denhollander says physical, verbal, and emotional abuse of girls and young women is “an open secret” within the governing body that oversees competitive gymnastics in the United States. She says improper behavior among coaches has been documented since the 1990s.
“The very clear message they are sending is as long as you win, we don’t care what you do to these kids,” she says.
Even with the Nassar conviction and allegations of misconduct by other coaches and team staff, Denhollader says a culture of abuse continues. She says USA Gymnastics has promoted coaches who are known to be abusive. The federation also manipulates parents into accepting how their daughters are treated, according to Denhollader.
“There is an element where even the parents are conditioned to believe this is normal because it is so prevalent in the sport of gymnastics,” she says.
To limit parental knowledge, Denhollader says coaches separate children as young as eight years old from their parents at practice sessions, training camps, and competitions.
Then there’s Michigan State University, where Nassar worked was a clinician and faculty member. Denhollander says the school continues to refuse to independently review the doctor’s abuses, and has stymied a criminal investigation by the state attorney general by withholding thousands of documents on the matter.
Now she and other survivors have joined forces to push school officials to do a thorough review how Nassar was allowed to perpetrate these crimes for years.
“The attorney general can only look at went wrong criminally, and we know that a lot of the failures at MSU… they’re not often criminal,” Denhollander says. “So what MSU really needs is an examination that can go beyond criminality, that can look at break downs in communication, that can look at all of the things that went wrong culturally, practically, on every level in every department.”
But Denhollander says she has little hope that the school or the gymnastics federation will do right by Nassar’s victims.
“If you want to stop something, you have to tell the truth about it,” she says, “but both organizations are just consistently refusing to do that.”
Helping Girls Discover Their Self Worth
Denhollander has traveled the country to speak on sexual assault and advocate for survivors. For her efforts she’s been named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and one of Glamour Magazine’s “Women of the Year” in 2018.
Yet she initially resisted writing a book about her experiences. Like many abuse victims, Denhollander says she struggled with going public about her story.
“When you understand how unlikely it is to get charges pressed and to get any kind of conviction or sentence that is commensurate with the crime, and then what it costs the victim to speak up, to have to relive that in front of her abuser, it helps you understand more why survivors don’t speak up,” she explains.
But she says she gradually came to understand the importance of being a voice for others who aren’t able or simply not ready to speak. She also says she been surprised to meet many men who have read her book and say they now realize how their silence on the subject has contributed to a culture that is abusive towards women.
“To hear other men say, ‘I understand now as best as I can why this is so traumatic, I understand why I have to speak up, I understand the dynamics to look for, and how I have to use my voice,’ that’s just deeply encouraging to me,” she says.
Denhollander also wrote a companion book for children called “How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?” She says she wants girls to know they are worth fighting for and that their intrinsic value is something that no one can take away.
“This was my book to the little ones that I couldn’t save,” she says. “We have to start teaching our daughters these lessons from the very beginning.”
Now a mother of four children herself, Denhollander says she would love for her daughter to participate in competitive gymnastics, but she says she can’t in good conscience allow that to happen.
“The problem is not the sport, the problem is how it’s done,” she says. “If she were to progress, she would be under the control of an organization that does not have her best interests at heart.”
Even with everything she experienced, from the abuse, to going public with her story, to testifying in court, Denhollander, who is an evangelical Christian, says she came to forgive Nassar.
“Ultimately what it boiled down to was coming to the realization that both justice and my healing, my identity [and] my self-worth, those weren’t bound up in what my abuser said or did,” she says. “And being able to get to that point, while it was a process, was incredibly freeing.”