I remember the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar, a Michigan State University physician who was once the Gold Standard in the gymnastics community. For decades, he molested hundreds of girls and women, playing the part of the compassionate nice-guy who helped them heal from their injuries.
At the end of the trial, he finally buckled and pled guilty. As part of his plea deal, every one of his victims was permitted to give an impact statement. Up until that point, I had followed the trial loosely. But I paid special attention to the victims and what they had to say.
One by one, Nassar’s victims brought his world down with thunderous dunks that would make Julius Erving proud. It was glorious.
Enter Rachael Denhollander, who closed it out with both a blistering assessment of the culture that allowed Nassar to operate for years, and a wonderful Gospel presentation to Nassar. (If you haven’t heard Rachael’s speech, Google it and watch it. It’s pure gold.)
I became a Rachael Denhollander fan that day.
What’s a Girl Worth? is her story. And it is both riveting and inspiring.
First, a trigger warning: if you suffer from any form of PTSD, this book is going to hurt. Even if you don’t suffer from PTSD, this book is going to hurt. If you have any form of empathy whatsoever, this book is going to hurt.
She describes her assaults by Nassar in significant detail. I tried hard to keep my analytical hat on, but I still couldn’t sleep that night. On the other hand, I found it very instructive, as she is showing parents how easy it is for a predator to abuse kids. Nassar abused many of his victims in plain sight, with their parents only feet away!
There is a popular misconception that you can spot child molesters pretty easily, and if you are just careful enough, you can prevent their abuses or catch them in the act. Rachael destroys that myth almost immediately. Rachael’s mother—who was a protective, caring Christian mom—was in the same room when Nassar abused her. She never saw it happen, as Nassar was smooth enough to conceal her view.
In great detail, she points out the factors that kept her from reporting her abuse, the blowback she received when she tried to report her abuse, the effects the abuse had on her for many years, and how it challenged her relationships and even her faith.
When people ask victims, “Why didn’t you report [the abuser] sooner?” Rachael gives a vivid, well-reasoned answer to that question. Even when victims do report, very little is ever done. Police departments often shelve the complaints, as thousands of rape kits remain untested even today.
If the accused is a respected figure like Nassar, he probably has friends in law enforcement. Nassar almost got away with his crimes, as the county prosecutor attempted to cut an easy deal like Jeffrey Epstein once received. Thankfully, the Michigan State Police—with the help of a very hardworking, caring detective—had the resolve to tell the county prosecutor to go pound sand, and hand this to a very victim-friendly Attorney General, who went after Larry with every weapon in the arsenal.
And then there’s the personal cost of reporting your abuser. Her entire life was laid bare for the whole world to see. The details of her molestation became public record. Because she testified against Nassar, his team was able to pry into the most intimate details of her life, including her personal journals.
Nassar abused many victims because the system protected him at the expense of victims. That system included a Big 10 university, local law enforcement, and the larger athletics community that included USA Gymnastics. Rachael provides a devastating picture—with the clarity of the best LED television screen—of that abuser-friendly system which protected Nassar for years. Had it not been for the reporters at IndyStar—to whom Rachael appealed with her story about Nassar—he might still be abusing women today.
But Rachael took him on, even ditching her anonymity. What drove her: her concern for the other victims. As she said it, “the more you love, the harder you fight.”
Sadly, our society doesn’t really love, as we have commoditized people while lionizing ideas and institutions. USA Gymnastics turned a blind eye to abusive coaches like John Geddert, just as Penn State turned a blind eye to Jerry Sandusky, just as Michigan State turned a blind eye to Larry Nassar, just as churches turn a blind eye to abusive pastors, priests, and other leaders.
From conception, children are commodities. Even pro-life denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Independent Fundamental Baptists have thrown children under the bus to protect abusive pastors and highly-revered leaders.
Against that backdrop, Rachael Denhollander drops a badly-needed FULL STOP.
For the Christian, What’s A Girl Worth? is very sobering, as the Church does not get off the hook here. For speaking out about the abuse coverups at Covenant Life Church by C.J. Mahaney—which put her at odds with her elders, who were friends of Mahaney—she was ostracized and her family would have to move on to another church. (This at a time when they needed the support of a church body.)
Having been around the block in church circles, I can attest that taking on abusers in the Church is not a popular endeavor. If you are a minister, there is a lot of pressure not to rock the boat. There is a lot of pressure to handle matters quietly—let the abuser resign, move on, get a fresh start somewhere else—and avoid the unpleasant consequences of making the brutal truth of abuse a public matter. As a rookie youth minister, I took on an abusive pastor. I won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. I’d do it again, but still…there is a price to pay.
But the Church needs to pay that price, because people are worth more than institutions. Make no mistake: this is a Gospel issue. Jesus held a child and told the Disciples that “the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
The pastorate is for real shepherds, not hired guns seeking to enrich themselves. The pastorate is not a corporate ladder, and until the Church decides that people—especially victims—are not commodities, she will continue to slouch toward irrelevance.
As Rachael said it, “the more you love, the harder you fight.” The Church needs to repent and start fighting like the third monkey on the ramp to Noah’s ark.
And for the men who are new to this fight, Rachael’s husband—Jacob—provides a great primer in how that is done. From the days before they even got engaged, to the runup to their wedding, and throughout their marriage, Jacob was a great listener, a hard worker, and a wonderful supporter of his wife. As life got turbulent, they still had children—4 of them—and Jacob provided great strength to ensure that their home was a refuge from a very nasty world. They endured great hardship, but came out stronger, and Jacob was a major part of that. Men, this is why you need to read the book.
Ultimately, the Denhollander family provides a portrait of the kind of love that defends, protects, advocates, and goes to the end of the world, for “the least of these”. On a scale of 1 to 10, no less than 20.