'What is a Girl Worth?'

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Former gymnast recounts courageous stand against Larry Nassar in memoir

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Rachael Denhollander – the attorney and former gymnast who blew the lid off the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal – had no desire to write a book.

None whatsoever.

“I’d been asked to write a book, starting from relatively early on in the process, and the answer every time was ‘no.’ Absolutely not,” explained Denhollander, 35, a Kalamazoo native who lives in Louisville, Ky. with Jacob, her husband of 10 years, and their four children.

 “But it really got to the point where just watching the level of corruption... and watching a lot of misconceptions of getting where we got in the Nassar case and hearing from survivors all across the country who talked about what that case meant to them and hearing from people whose eyes were opened to the dynamics of abuse. It really got to the point to where the overall good that could be done from writing a book – a book that would be done well – would outweigh the difficulty of writing it,” said Denhollander, who earned her juris doctor from Oak Park College of Law and Government Policy in Fresno, Calif.

In the end, Denhollander penned three books.

The first is her memoir, “What is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics” (Tyndale Momentum $26.99). The second is a children’s book, “How Much is a Little Girl Worth?” (Tyndale Kid $14.99). The third, to be released in 2021, is a self-help book, “Discover Your True Worth: A Four-Week Guide to for Conversation and Reflection.”

“I didn’t do this for myself. I’m not dependent on any of the outcomes for my healing,” said Denhollander.

For more than two decades, Nassar, a prominent doctor for Michigan State University and USAG, was sexually molesting young women and girls under the pretense of providing medical treatment.

In Denhollander’s case, she first encountered Nassar when she went to see him circa 2000. At a subsequent appointment, Nassar digitally penetrated Denhollander’s vagina and massaged her breast.
This troubled her for 16 years. Denhollander began researching pelvic floor treatments and started disclosing to people about Nassar’s behavior.

Although Denhollander wasn’t the first victim to speak up about Nassar, she was the first to actually be heard.

“I was always willing to do that, but it was always a matter of being believed,” she explained. “The reason why that’s very important here because I hear all the time: What do we need to tell victims to make them speak up? More often than not, it’s not that the victim isn’t willing to speak up; it’s that they don’t have anywhere to speak up because there’s nobody in their community – no one that’s communicating to them that they’ll be believed and they’ll be heard. That is a very significant dynamic. It wasn’t like I had this moment of ‘Oh my goodness, now I’m willing.’ It was, ‘Now there’s a chance.
I’ve always been willing, but now there’s a chance.’ I was waiting for the right moment – any sign that this would be successful.”

The Indianapolis Star broke the story in September 2016 when Denhollander went public about Nassar, accusing him of sexually assaulting her. Afterward, more than 250 women came forward with similar allegations against Nassar. MSU reassigned Nassar from his clinical and teaching duties, then subsequently fired him later that same month.

“The Star was the first journalistic team that took abuse in gymnastics seriously and had the ability to get it outside the control of (USAG). What I mean by that is there had been reporters (who) did significant reporting about abuse in USAG... What happened was people weren’t paying attention and weren’t willing to see what was going on. Reports frequently ended up getting buried or it was flash in a pan (in terms of being made public),” said Denhollander.

When she saw a Star article called “Out of Balance” – an in-depth report on how USAG had systematically buried reports about sexually abusive coaches – she learned Star journalists spent nearly a year on that story. She felt The Star was the right media outlet to tell her story.

“For a newspaper that size to dedicate that kind of manpower to that kind of story, they clearly saw the importance of it,” she said. “Since they’d been immersed in USAG culture for a year and how they had reported and what they had done to get to that article, they understood the abusive dynamics in that sport... understood the culture. Not just the culture of gymnastics, they also understood the culture of sexual abuse – they understood predatory behavior and victims’ responses. They explained these dynamics in a way readers understood.”

Within hours of the article’s publication, it was trending, which meant people were paying attention.

“It wasn’t just flash in a pan,” said Denhollander. “They saw the importance of this kind of reporting and had invested considerable resources into shedding the light on what very few people cared about traditionally, and they did it in a way to make the public pay attention. All of these were key dynamics in being able to get control out of the hands of USAG and MSU, and being able to wrest the narrative from those organizations and from Larry.”

In October 2016, Nassar was indicted on federal child pornography charges, pleading guilty on July 11, 2017. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison. On November 15, 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to more than 20 charges of sexual assault in Ingham County.

On January 24, 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison in Ingham County Circuit Court. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina famously told him, “I’ve just signed your death warrant, sir.” Aquilina allowed 156 women to speak during Nassar’s week-long sentencing hearing. Denhollander spoke last and read a detailed victim impact statement.

“The cost, emotional and physical, to see this through has been greater than many will ever know,” her statement read. “I made this choice, knowing full well what it was going to cost to get here and with very little hope of ever succeeding. I did it because it was right. No matter the cost, it was right... Because everything is what these survivors are worth.”   

Nassar also pleaded guilty to engaging in sexual misconduct with three children under 16 in Eaton County. On February 5, 2018, Eaton County Circuit Court Judge Janet Cunningham sentenced him to an additional 40-125 years in prison. This sentence will run consecutively with Nassar’s federal sentence but concurrent to his previous state sentence from the Ingham County court.

Due to the size and scope of this scandal, it made national and international headlines.

“Most of the nation, by and large, tuned in at the sentencing hearings,” said Denhollander. “By that time, they saw Larry as a thin man in an orange jumpsuit who could barely look up from the ground. His demise seemed almost inevitable and it seemed so obvious what he was. I think one misconception we had from this case was a lot of people really do believe his demise was inevitable if victims would just speak up and only do what I did.”

However, Denhollander pointed out it’s not that simple.

“There are many, many victims who speak up but never get the results we did because they didn’t have the investigator and the prosecutor and the judges we had,” she said. “People need to understand that. They need to understand what went on in the years before Larry was that man in an orange jumpsuit and recognize who he was.”

Hours after Nassar’s January 24, 2018 sentencing, the fallout at MSU began in earnest. Then MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned. On November 18, 2018, Simon was charged with two felonies and two misdemeanor counts for lying to police about her knowledge of Nassar’s crimes. She’s accused of falsely telling investigators she didn’t know the nature of a Title IX complaint against Nassar in 2014.

MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis retired on January 26, 2018. Simon’s successor, MSU Interim President and former Michigan Governor John Engler, resigned on January 16, 2019 after a series of controversial comments regarding Nassar’s victims.

MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was suspended on February 13, 2017 and retired the next day, amidst the investigation into Nassar’s criminal activities. Klages had been accused of dismissing sexual abuse complaints about Nassar by ex-gymnasts and coercing them into remaining silent. On February 14, Klages was found guilty of two felony counts, including lying to police about Nassar. She will be sentenced April 14.

On December 12, 2017, Dr. William Strampel, dean of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, resigned as dean but remained on the faculty. Strampel was Nassar’s immediate supervisor and allowed him to return to work after a 2014 sexual assault allegation before the allegation had been fully investigated.

In March 2018, Strampel was arrested after several women accused him of sexual harassment. He retired from MSU on June 30, 2018. On August 7, 2019, he was found guilty of two counts of willful neglect of duty linked to his supervision of Nassar and one count of misconduct in office related to inappropriate comments made to female students. He was sentenced to 11 months for the misconduct
charge and one year on the willful neglect charges. The two sentences are being served concurrently.

Denhollander was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Influential People in 2018. Also that year, she was bestowed the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the Sports Illustrated Inspiration of the Year Award. She called all these accolades humbling.

“We really idolize sports in this country. It’s one of the untouchables. Whether it’s sexual abuse or domestic violence, we are very quick to give players a pass and absolutely denigrate any woman who speaks up,” said Denhollander. “I was very encouraged to see SI taking notice of those dynamics. I hope it’s a call to much more introspection and much more action behind the words, much more accountability for our sports teams.”

Judge Aquilina called Denhollander the bravest person she ever had in her courtroom. For that, Denhollander said she is deeply grateful. However, Denhollander stated that it was a team effort to bring down Nassar and expose the cover-ups at MSU and USAG.

“Had it just been my voice, we would not have gotten the results that we got,” said Denhollander. “It took a team of journalists who saw the importance of this and told the truth. It took a detective who aggressively pursued the case. We got a guilty plea from Larry in a time-frame where many victims don’t even see an indictment. That was because of – to a large degree – an investigator who pursued the truth like it mattered. We had a prosecutor who pursued the truth like it mattered. Had we not had that, we would never gotten the results we got. We had two judges who had a fully-formed perspective of justice and understood that part of the function of the courtroom is restorative, including restoring a victim’s voice.”

She continued: “That’s why we got the results we did. I’m deeply grateful for the role I was able to play. I’m grateful that it didn’t have to be anyone else to carry that initial weight because there was a great cost to it. But it was not just me at any stretch and I could’ve done the exact same thing and wound up with a completely different result, had we not had an investigator and a prosecutor who cared and two judges who opened up their courtrooms. It really took everybody every step of the way.”


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