I was not going to read Rachael Denhollander’s book What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. As a wife, mom, and counselor, I did not feel like I had emotional bandwidth to engage with such a weighty, close to home topic. Like you, I’ve heard the statistics regarding sexual abuse. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “one in three women experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.” Like you, I realize there are no good options for a survivor coming forward. Like you, I realize even with all that Rachael has accomplished through coming forward, she still lives with the trauma and scars of the original abuses. Why would I read a book that reminds me of all of this?
Against these odds, at the urging of a colleague, I picked up Rachael’s book and did not put it down until I had read every single word. I urge you to do the same.
What is a Girl Worth? is the memoir of Rachael Denhollander. She describes herself as “wife, mother, follower of Christ, advocate, author, speaker. Part of the army that brought Larry Nassar to justice.” CNN referred to Denhollander as a whistleblower, but as you read her memoir you will see that she did more than blow a whistle. She sounded a fog horn and has not let up.
Throughout this memoir, Rachael lets us into her world beginning as a young girl and through to the present day. She spares few details and the reader will come face to face with horrific evils (on multiple fronts). She does not do this to be indulgent or even to justify herself. Her memoir is ultimately an invitation. In the epilogue, she concludes with these words:
So much work remains. So much evil to fight. So much healing to reach for. So many wounded to love. Consider this your invitation to join in that work. To do what is right, no matter the cost. To hold to the straight line in the midst of the battle. To define your success by faithfulness in the choices you make. The darkness is there, and we cannot ignore it. But we can let it point us to the light.
Rachael’s story not only wakes us up to the reality of abuse, but it also gives us a clear roadmap to effectively respond to abuse in our homes, workplaces, and congregations. She implores us to not put survivors through the pain she had to endure in coming forward. She equips us to urgently seek justice even when the odds of accomplishing something feel overwhelmingly slim.
Here is how we can respond to Rachael’s invitation:
1. Believe survivors.
Rachael told at least three people about her sexual abuse before she was believed. The national average is far higher than this number. In our churches, Bible studies, and small groups, we need to be prepared to believe survivors that come forward.
Rachael debunks the myth that suggests women disclosing abuse are in it for the money, attention, or notoriety. She shows us there is absolutely no incentive for a survivor to come forward:
I’d enjoyed a calm, simple, full, and beautiful life before coming forward. I’d reached a good place of healing. But facts rarely got in the way of the traditional narrative: “She’s bitter and angry—just wants money and attention.” As if I were somehow benefitting from upending our lives and turning the sexual assault on my body into casual conversation.”
2. Acknowledge the evil reality of abuse.
In order to believe survivors, we need to talk about the fact that abuse exists, even in our Bibles.
In chapter 8, Rachael gave the powerful example of how a victim feels in a community that is unwilling to acknowledge the evil reality of abuse. In Sunday school, one of her peers suggested Bathsheba was complicit in her rape because “she could have chosen death.” Rachael gives us access to her internal thoughts during this lesson:
Anger welled up inside me, and I held my breath to keep it from bursting forth… This wasn’t just about me. I knew there was at least one rape victim sitting in that class too, and statistically, many more survivors… I knew they would feel guilt for their abuse—and the sting of those words, untrue though they were, could be devastating—especially if they lacked the family support that I was fortunate enough to have.
Consider how your small group/Bible study would discuss this account (there are many stories about abuse and power in Scripture so don’t just focus on this one). Would you acknowledge David’s gross misuse of power? Could you condemn this behavior as reprehensible and an affront to God? Would you pause to consider Bathsheba as more than a sex object, but a vulnerable woman beloved by God? I realize this story won’t come up every week, or even every year, but use this as an example to consider how you talk about abuse/harassment/power whether through the vehicle of Scripture, novels, or current events.
Rachael invites us to consider that survivors are listening to how you handle this reality. They are listening, trying to decide if you are a safe person with whom to share their story. Be a person they can share with, and if you are not that person today, become that person. Reading Rachael’s book as well as these additional books will be an excellent start:
“Suffering and the Heart of God” by Diane Langberg
“What the Bible Says to Abuse Survivors and those who Hurt Them” by Victor Vieth
“Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault” by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
3. Identify the toxic environment where abuse festers.
Rachel writes “Larry did not wake up one morning and suddenly find himself to be a serial predator and pedophile. Whatever happened, happened in increments. One small choice after another…”
Likewise, our workplaces, churches, and families do not set out to be vehicles for abusers. But there are indicators that the environment of these places is fertile for abuse to fester.
These indicators are often difficult to identify outside of examining how these spaces make you feel. Do you feel small? Minimized in a way that even when you are on your best behavior you know you are taking up too much space? You edit yourself down, criticizing, questioning, rationalizing until you are sure that you are the problem, but even then, your discomfort in the space still remains. That, friends, is the fertile ground of abuse.
Rachael humbly describes the environment where her abuse festered. I urge you to read her account. As her own abuse occurred, she knew something was off, she wasn’t comfortable. But the sequence of events was so confusing and so disarming that she blamed herself, absorbed fault, and the consequences were dire.
4. Be an agent of safety, dignity, and hope in Christ.
A consistent welcomed response each time Rachael shared her story with someone was: “I am so sorry. What can I do?” This response offered Rachael lament and dignity, acknowledging Rachael could choose her next step while inviting wise partners into her care.
Rachael also details receiving the incredibly minimizing response: “I’m so sorry, this is what we are going to do.” That is a response rooted in pity and minimization. Don’t say that!
When you offer the first response you are showing that you are willing to engage with the survivor on a human level. One of the most significant tasks for survivors is to regain their voice. Abuse steals your voice, steals your personhood, and says you don’t matter; you are an object.
Asking a survivor “What can I do?” puts you next to the survivor, rather than in a position of power over the survivor. There may be times when the survivor initially does not want to do anything. If the survivor is an adult, you have to respect that. But you can continue to walk with the survivor, build trust and prayerfully hope that God helps this survivor take the next best step in reporting her abuse. Rachael continually reminds readers the reason she came forward was to stop an abuser. (Side note: if children, disabled individuals, or seniors are the victim, you are mandated to disclose the abuse to the proper authorities).
Our churches need to be the safest places for a survivor to come forward. Rachael has a strength of conviction that this can be true, even though we are not there yet. I encourage you to consider her invitation. Take the next step today of reading her memoir with your elders and deacons. Assess if your church is a place that is prepared to receive a survivor. Train your Sunday school teachers, small group and Bible study leaders to receive survivors with dignity, wisdom, and care. Require training as mandated reporters for anyone at your church who works with children in any capacity. This is not ancillary to our calling as church leaders but essential. This is good, hopeful work! Let us be guided in this by Rachael’s story and God’s work through her in bringing Larry Nassar to justice.
Note: If you are part of a congregation and concerned about how your elders and pastors are handling reports of abuse consider contacting a third-party investigator. The team at G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) is led by Boz Tchividjian (grandson of Billy Graham) and can provide extensive legal and counseling support with Christ-centered conviction and care.
About the Author:
Rebecca (B.A. Wheaton College, M.A. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a biblical counselor with The Field School and Cross Care Counseling. She lives with her husband, Ben, and son, Caleb in the South Side of Chicago. They attend Covenant Presbyterian Church.