Reviewed by: S. Scott Willet
What Is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander. Tyndale, 2019. Hardcover, 352 pages, $19.49 (Amazon). Reviewed by OP pastor S. Scott Willet.
The story of Rachael Denhollander is one that every pastor and elder ought to know, but not because it is such a happy and enjoyable account of a godly young woman growing up to be a resilient and articulate advocate for justice and righteousness. To be sure, it is filled with numerous anecdotes from a warm and faithful Christian family, and the story includes an emotionally satisfying account of a young couple getting to know and love one another. Many readers will also chuckle as I did at Denhollander’s own accounts of early childhood stubbornness, a character trait which would later be transformed by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit into a godly persistence and diligence. But the rising action of Denhollander’s memoir is defined in the book’s subtitle: My story of breaking the silence and exposing the truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.
Denhollander is unique because of her passionate doggedness, her legal training, her self-controlled yet clinically precise use of language, and her zeal not for personal vengeance but for biblical justice. But she is not unique in her experiences of abuse. That is the real tragedy of her story. No pastor or elder should ever think, “Sexual abuse could never happen to anyone in this congregation.” More than likely, it already has.
For Denhollander, sexual abuse first came when she was seven, in a small Bible-believing church in Michigan, at the hands of a college student at the church. Denhollander’s parents were ostracized from the church for accusing the young man of abuse, despite similar accusations of several others. Years later and now married, Denhollander again encountered that same tendency to cover up allegations of sexual abuse. The Denhollanders’ Reformed Baptist church had formed a working relationship with the flagship of a network of churches known as Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC). In the context of claims of mishandling numerous allegations of sexual assault within the SGC, they sought privately to raise their concerns about the SGC to their own church leaders. They were rebuffed, accused of being divisive, forbidden to discuss certain matters, and Denhollander’s husband, Jacob, was removed from leadership. (Later the church pastors published a public confession that included the words, “In hindsight, we see we were sinfully unloving.” Forgiveness was requested and granted.)
Denhollander writes of her experience in those churches that “there simply was a complete inability to understand the evidence or the impact of abuse.” Her book, in contrast, provides us with an opportunity to listen and begin to understand the impact of abuse. Her story will give a voice to many survivors of sexual abuse and give hope of being heard and believed.
At age fifteen, Denhollander was sexually abused by a world-renowned doctor who was also the team physician for the United States Women’s Gymnastics team—Larry Nassar. Her deeply personal accounts of that abuse are painful to read, though noticeably absent of salacious or prurient language. She provides any sensitive reader with the ability to understand the effect of grooming by sexual abusers and the nature of sexual predators, as well as why she (and many, if not most, victims) didn’t speak up sooner. Because of Denhollander’s honesty and self-awareness, readers will come to understand the feelings of shame in the confused hearts of many child victims as well as the fear of not being believed by the adults in their world. Yet she revealed her private thoughts and experiences because it was her desire to put an end to the ongoing abuse of this one particularly heinous offender. It was worth everything to her to protect the many little girls and young women she knew were being harmed. Hence the title of her book.
Denhollander was the first to speak up publicly against Larry Nassar. Despite the risks to her own name and reputation as well as the inevitable loss of her privacy, she put a name and a face to her accusations. She would not be bullied. She would not be intimidated. And she would be vindicated. In 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual conduct with minors and to child pornography. At Nassar’s sentencing hearing in early 2018, a wise and honorable judge allowed victim impact statements from any woman who chose to come forward. When it was all said and done, Denhollander’s statement was the last of 156 such statements. Nassar was then given a lengthy sentence, ensuring that he will spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated. A fitting ending to a book that is hard to put down.
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