American lawyer and one-time amateur gymnast, Rachael Denhollander, was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics doctor, of sexual assault. What’s a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics is her story of survival, unmasking Nassar as a sexual predator, and the institutional cover-ups that allowed him to perpetrate his behaviour for more than twenty years. It is a gripping, if at times uncomfortable, read, detailing her childhood, her gymnastics career, Nassar’s assault at the Michigan State University clinic, the long road that led to her speaking out, and the victory that the survivors achieved after the lengthy investigation and trial process.
Statistics suggest that a very small minority of abuses reported result in conviction. Stories of unconvicted abusers abound. This is not one of them. This is a compelling story of a predator receiving justice.
Weaved throughout the narrative is the account of Denhollander’s personal and faith struggles. The narrative highlights the critical role that her faith played in helping her interpret and come to grips with Nassar’s actions. Her faith gave her the endurance to persistently pursue justice, not only for herself, but for other survivors who suffered assault at his hand.
Though in one a sense a sub-plot, her struggles with faith and church life will stand out in a particular way to the Christian reader.
She first experienced sexual abuse in the context of a local church youth ministry at age 7, which might have turned her from the faith completely. When she first began speaking out against Nassar and other high profile sex abuse scandals, she touched on a scandal relating to a particular denomination of churches, with which her own church shared a loose affiliation. The church sought to silence her, requesting a letter of apology, asking her to scrub her Facebook account of any mention of the scandal, and disbanding the small group that met in her house. Once again, these events might have stripped her of any confidence in the Christian faith.
She carefully explains, however, how her wrestle with faith matters allowed her to see that mistreatments by other Christians do not invalidate the truth of the gospel. She and her husband soon found themselves in a new church in which they received the overwhelming love and support we might associate with a Christian community.
Her tone in detailing the response of her former church is respectful. While she is careful to accurately recount that part of the story, at no point in the book does she badmouth the church and its leadership, or deliberately paint it in a negative light. Even as the reader finds deep disappointment in the church’s mistreatment of the situation, there is a sense of profound appreciation at her response.
Dennhollander’s story will doubtless be of great help to survivors of abuse, many of whom will have learned to bury their trauma after having been disbelieved by the authorities to whom they have reported it, or who have chosen not to report it at all. Her recollection of carefully calculating the costs to ensure that she spoke to the right people at the right time will serve others well who are considering similar action.
The memoir will be of help to readers who have never suffered abuse at the hand of sexual predators and yet who wonder why survivors do not speak up sooner (or at all). Her blistering critique of how authority figures ignore reports of sexual abuse, or even cover up evidence and protect predators, affords readers troubling insight into the difficulties that survivors of sexual abuse often face.
The book will also prove to be of help to parents, guardians, and other authority figures in understanding how such abuse can be perpetrated while abusers are protected and in formulating a correct response and appropriate action to reports of sexual abuse.
It is unfortunate that memoirs like this one are necessary at all. It is doubly unfortunate that so many similar memoirs do not have the “happy ending” that this one does. It is a relief, however, that stories like this can be told in the hope that they might make a real difference in exposing and stopping those whose predatory behaviour wreaks havoc in the lives of innocent victims.