Book: 'What Is A Girl Worth?'

Sep 15, 2019
Originally published on September 15, 2019 6:10 pm
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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

By now, you've probably heard about Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. He was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing dozens of girls and young women, all under the guise of providing medical treatment. The first person to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse was former gymnast Rachael Denhollander. She writes about her experience in a new memoir called "What Is A Girl Worth" and a children's book called "How Much Is A Little Girl Worth?"

I should mention here, though, that this conversation may not be appropriate for younger listeners. I spoke with Rachael Denhollander earlier this week and began by asking why she chose to share her story now.

RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: Most people really only started seeing what was taking place with the Nassar investigation at the sentencing hearing. And so they saw the literally world-changing effect that that sentencing hearing had. It was, you know, the first of its kind in history. It upended two major institutions. It's led to legislative reform. It was literally heard around the world.

But what nobody really knows is what happened beforehand. How did we get there? What did it take, you know, to stand up against two major institutions, to stand up against law enforcement agencies, multiple law enforcement agencies that had botched prior investigations and silenced victims? And that was what I really wanted to tell.

MCCAMMON: And it was hard to see at times because it was perpetrated by a physician. In the book, you write about how you first realized that abuse was taking place. It took you a while to understand what was happening to you because it was under the guise of medical care.

You write, quote, while I knew something had happened to me that was wrong, "I didn't know yet that the penetration and everything I'd written off as pelvic floor therapy were anything but legitimate. I was, however, certain that no one would care about a teenage girl getting groped. Anyone could look around and know that. The sexual harassment and objectification of women were constantly downplayed."

Rachael, it sounds like there were a couple of difficult things happening here - first, acknowledging the abuse to yourself and then thinking that you wouldn't be believed even if you told someone.

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, there were all of those dynamics. There was the dynamic of just being able to admit to myself what had happened and be willing to face those realities. But when I began to do so, what I was faced with at that point was realizing what an uphill battle it was going to be to fight for justice because I knew if I spoke out against Larry, what I was really taking on was a fight against one of the biggest universities in the country. I was taking on a fight against a national governing Olympic body for the sport that made the most money in the Summer Olympics.

So part of what this memoir catalogs is the journey over the 16 years, not just to my own healing but of putting that case together and of finding the right dynamics to really be able to do that, to take charge of the situation, to take control away from the organizations, including law enforcement organizations, that were shielding and protecting Larry.

MCCAMMON: You've also spoken publicly, and you've written in this book about some of the dynamics you experienced in the church as well. You write about experiencing abuse within the church setting as a child. It involved a college student who sexually abused you. And when you brought it up, you write - and you write, (reading) as is so often the case, misguided theology and a refusal to interact with experts on the issue had led the church to miss and then cover up sexual abuse within its own walls. Each time an abuser was found or a scandal uncovered, the response was the same - quietly dismiss the abuser, hush it up, tell no one.

How did you not become jaded by the way you were treated by the church at that time?

DENHOLLANDER: That was a significant part of my journey was being able to differentiate what I believe. You know, my faith actually teaches what I believe, true theology teaches versus the way it was used on me. And so being able to eventually come down to the point where I can say there is right and wrong and the way that my abuse was handled was wrong. And to be able to cling to the existence of good and evil outside of the societal response, outside of my community's response, outside of whether or not I ever saw justice on either of my abusers was really a critical part of my healing journey.

MCCAMMON: In Larry Nassar's statement to the court last year just before he was sentenced, he said he'd been impacted to his inner-most core by the testimony of his victims, including yourself. But he did not apologize. He was, though, sentenced to life in prison. Did you feel resolution walking away from that day?

DENHOLLANDER: You know, I did in the sense that Larry will never be able to hurt another child. And I take great comfort in that. That being said, Larry was a symptom of the problem. And that's something, again, that I really wanted to dig into in the book. Larry didn't just magically appear as one of the most prolific predators in campus history, in sports history and in history in general. He didn't magically appear that way. He was enabled and sheltered by powerful organizations, by law enforcement agencies that mishandled or refused to investigate reports of sexual misconduct. And so while we were able to stop Larry, what really remains to be done and the work that has just begun is dealing with the institutions and the dynamics that left him in power.

MCCAMMON: Rachael Denhollander is an activist and former gymnast. Her book "What Is A Girl Worth?" and her children's book "How Much Is A Little Girl Worth?" are out now. Rachael, thank you so much.

DENHOLLANDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.