Rachael Denhollander, who led a movement for survivors of Larry Nassar, writes memoir | Michigan Radio
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Rachael Denhollander, who led a movement for survivors of Larry Nassar, writes memoir

Oct 28, 2019

Rachael Denhollander has become known in recent years as the leader of the "sister survivors" — a large group of women and girls sexually abused by disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar.

Denhollander was the first person to speak on the record about the sexual abuse she suffered under the guise of treatment. Now, she's out with a memoir about her life and her advocacy titled What Is A Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.

For a long time, Denhollander said she was reluctant to write a book about her story. She knew it would be a difficult process, and that the book would add another level of public scrutiny to her life. She ultimately decided, though, that the potential benefit of drawing attention to the grueling process that survivors go through when coming forward outweighed other concerns. 

Many people first became aware of Larry Nassar during his sentencing hearings in two Michigan courtrooms in January of 2018. He was then “a gaunt figure in an orange jumpsuit sitting in a courtroom” and listening to the testimonies of hundreds of girls that he sexually abused. But Denhollander said that image of Nassar doesn’t represent “what an incredible uphill battle” she and other survivors faced getting to that moment.

Denhollander hopes to shed light on what it took to get to that courtroom in her book. She also wants to encourage readers to consider stories from other survivors of sexual abuse, particularly those who don’t have hundreds of other voices coming forward alongside them. 

“[People] can look at my story and they can say, if it was that difficult for a white middle class woman who’s an educated attorney, imagine how much more so it is for a survivor from a minority or an impoverished community, or who doesn't have family support, or who doesn't have a detective and a prosecutor who are passionate about the truth,” Denhollander said. “Because we need people to speak for those survivors.”

Denhollander frequently uses the term “little girls” in her book to refer to the women and girls abused by Larry Nassar. She said she does so partly to emphasize that most of her fellow survivors were indeed young girls at the time of their abuse.

But Denhollander also wants to draw attention to the fact that many top athletes in the gymnastics world are very young, and that in the midst of their stardom, it’s “easy to lose sight of the fact” that they are children.

“With the Nassar sentencing hearing, most people saw women standing up because most of us — not all of us, but most of us  — were grown, you know, and had become women…” Denhollander said. “And that's what I see in front of me all the time. You know, I see the incredibly powerful women that they have become, but I see the little girls that they were when they were left defenseless and they were left at the mercy of a predator because the adults didn't want to do the right thing.”

Denhollander has been outspoken in her criticism of the institutions where Nassar worked, including USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. MSU has been under intense scrutiny as information emerged about the inaction of MSU employees who were aware of allegations against Nassar.

Although the school is now under new leadership with the appointment of President Stanley Samuel, Denhollander said she continues to be deeply disappointed with the university’s lack of transparency. She said it “has yet to publicly identify a single failure” that was made at the university or offer a comprehensive review of the circumstances that allowed Nassar to carry out his abuse.

Stateside reached out to Michigan State University with an opportunity to respond to Ms. Denhollander's comments. We did not hear back.

What happened at MSU, Denhollander argued, is emblematic of broader, systemic issues in institutions nationwide. She noted that those issues are driven by two primary things: fear of liability and financial repercussions, and an apathy toward abusive culture.

“You have those same dynamics playing out across the country in other universities, in athletic departments, in national governing bodies for Olympic associations,  in religious institutions, and just in communities where abusers are allowed to flourish,” Denhollander said.

“Every time we make a decision, we pull out a scale, and on one side we put people and on the other side we put our competing interests: the money or the liability that we're afraid of, and we decide which one matters more.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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