Whether you were paying attention or not, you saw her stoic expression on television screens nationwide last year. Rachael Denhollander’s powerful, sobering testimony against former USA Gymnastics doctor and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar disrupted the nation in a way no nationally televised court case has before.
It wasn’t just the revolting realization that Nassar had been sexually abusing young girls for decades. It wasn’t even the mind-boggling number of them—at least 250—that ultimately gripped the national psyche. What finally sliced through the media noise was Rachael, a then 31-year-old mother of three, who launched a precise, determined strategy to take Nassar down for good.
In the end, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina called her “the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom,” just before issuing Nassar the harshest sentence available for multiple charges of child pornography and sexual assault of minors.
Rachael tells her story in her new book, What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. The title is a line taken from her iconic testimony against Nassar, in which she recounted the numerous people in power who were aware of Nassar’s abuse and covered it up. The book details Rachel’s personal history, intimate details about her abuse, and the calculated strategy she deployed to ensure Nassar was imprisoned and justice was served.
Just 15 years old when she was referred to Nassar for a gymnastic injury, Denhollander thought her treatment seemed odd, but Nassar was an internationally known and respected doctor. He was even on video rushing to assist gymnast Kerri Strug after her infamous vault in the 1996 Olympics.
Like hundreds of girls before and after her, Rachael was fearful, unsure, and said nothing after her experiences with Nassar. She eventually told someone, but was quickly shut down—a common occurrence among victims of sexual abuse. It took years for Rachael to speak out again, but when she did, she made it count.
By 2015, Rachael was a trained lawyer and by this time, was certain Nassar had been getting away with sexual abuse for years. It would take a mountain of evidence and a targeted master plan to overcome what Rachael dubs “community protectionism” surrounding him. Nassar was able to get away with his perverted actions for long because various communities he was a part of kept him safe.
Both USA Gymnastics and the Michigan State, where he was employed, had received complaints in the past, documented as early as 1997. One woman recently said Nassar abused her in 1988. It wasn’t until 2015—27 years later—that he stopped being paid.
Disbelieved, Discounted, and Dismissed
Even months before the trial, Rachael notes that, “I wasn’t surprised to frequently see Larry portrayed on social media and in news reports by his friends, as the real victim, while my parents and I received no mercy in the court of public opinion.”
Nassar is representative of a culture of disbelief, a society in which assault victims live in silence because they fear this exact reaction. Presumption of innocence is certainly important, but in Nassar’s case, the evidence had been mounting for decades. He may never have been put away if not for Rachael’s icy resolution to seek justice for every woman (many barely out of their teens in 2015) Nassar preyed on.
What Is a Girl Worth? shuts down the narrative that sexual assault victims automatically speak up if they’re abused. Rachael details the lies behind what’s traditionally known as a “fight or flight” response when someone is in a scary situation. She details how people rarely talk about the other “f”—“freeze”—a frequent reaction among victims who, as Rachael writes, “[can] be unaware of what was happening to them, unable to trust their own instincts.”
Because of this, they are often disbelieved, discounted, and dismissed, as Rachael and so many other women who testified were, even by their own parents at times. In one shocking tidbit, Rachael recounts how former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages asked the school team to sign a card for Nassar, amid her resignation and his arrest. In another shocking revelation, MSU Dean William Strampel sent Nassar an email saying, “I’m on your side.”
Perhaps because of the obscene actions of so many in power, Rachael was even more determined to create a public courtroom testimony that none could escape. Thus, the public testimonies of more than 150 women, including Olympian Aly Raisman, became riveting and heartbreaking television in the summer of 2018. As she documents in the book, the courageous victim impact statements from the first women to speak created a ripple effect that empowered dozens more to come forward, flying in from across the country, to speak their stories of abuse before flashing lights, national TV cameras, and their abuser himself.
Worth Every Shred of Justice
In the end, Rachael got the last word. In the book, she describes how her 40-minute testimony essentially had two targets: her abuser and society at large. Standing before Nassar, she delivered a cut-throat takedown of his actions and those of abusers past, present, and future.
“Let the horror expressed in this courtroom… be motivation for anyone and everyone, no matter the context, to take responsibility if they have erred in protecting a child. To understand the incredible failures that led to this week, and to do it better the next time,” she said.
Nearing the end of her testimony, Rachael asked the judge for the maximum sentence and took a moment to answer her original question—which eventually became her book title. “These victims are worth everything,” she said.
Many media outlets chose to exclusively feature Rachael’s choice to publicly offer forgiveness to her accuser. In a podcast interview with me, she noted how ironic it was that justice so quickly lost the primary focus. This, she said, was part of the problem, considering some places neglected to mention her forgiveness was followed by a request for maximum sentencing.
What Is a Girl Worth? doesn’t allow readers the comfort of grace as a cover for justice. It takes you inside the corruption of both professional institutions like USA Gymnastics and religious ones, like the church where Rachael was abused as a young child.
A Christian who is vocal about her faith in the book and on camera in the courtroom, Rachael reflects the truth of our human value from her deepest source of understanding: God, who created us in His image and considers us immeasurably worth every shred of justice available here on earth. Upon closing this book, that message is heard loud and clear.