Rachael Denhollander: The Pursuit of Justice
Rachael Denhollander is an American lawyer, former gymnast, author, and advocate. She was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor, of sexual assault. Denhollander is a TIME 100 honoree and a 2018 Glamour Woman of the Year. She is the author of the memoir, What is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.
Discussion Questions for this conversation are available, here.
If today isn’t the day for you to listen to this episode, here’s the link to my episode with John Green.
If you don’t know very much about what happened at MSU and in gymnastics, I recommend reading this New York Times article.
Netflix just released the documentary, “Athlete A”. A documentary on the gymnasts who survived Larry Nassar’s abuse.
Read Time Magazine’s article on Rachael by clicking here.
Read the article published in IndyStar by clicking here. This was the newspaper that first ran a story about the abuse within USA Gymnastics.
Find more information about the powerful, badass women behind the scenes of the trial like Angela Povilaitis here.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual abuse please know this: it was not your fault, I believe you, and you are loved.
The number of the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is: 1-800-656-HOPE. And here is the link for their website.
Kate Bowler: Just as a heads up, today’s episode involves the sensitive topic of sexual abuse toward children and may be particularly upsetting to some listeners. So take care of yourself. If this is not the episode you need right now, no worries. Try my John Green episode and just see if you can tell when I’m crying. You’ll figure it out.
When people talk about self-worth, I always feel at a loss. What do you mean exactly? Is it the feeling of what we believe about ourselves that we are made good, that we are deserving of love? That there are things inside of us that are a gift that the world needs. Am I a treasure box of good things? I wish we all had that kind of self-worth. But most often self-worth feels like the net result of everything that happens to us. How do I know what I’m worth? Well, we know the answer every day. Are people kind to me? Do they offer me respect? Do the institutions in my life, whether it be work or church or government or hospital, help me when I need it? Today, we are going to be talking to an absolute hero. Rachael Denhollander is the author of What Is a Girl Worth and she has a lot to say about how we experience our value. She’s an attorney, advocate and educator and lives with her family in Kentucky. In 2018, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People. And you’re about to see why. Rachael, I’m so fortunate to get to talk with you.
Rachael Denhollander: Thank you so much for having me. These conversations need to be had.
K.B.: When you were little, you loved gymnastics, but you say you weren’t exactly cut out for it. And so you started later than other athletes and maybe didn’t have the typical body type. But it sounds like you had such a stubborn determination to, like, get in there and make it work.
R.D.: Yeah, I did. It was something I loved. I loved what the sport required of me. I loved the combination of mental and physical that you got in that sport. There was something I was passionate about. And one of those lessons that I had to learn early was to get delight and joy from the sport just because I got to do it, not because I was ever going to be anything good. My value couldn’t be tied up in the medals that I won because I didn’t win any or the fact that I didn’t look like other gymnasts and I wasn’t going to necessarily progress like some other gymnasts but just to find joy in doing something because you loved doing it. And for the value that it brings to you and how it develops you as a person.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, I get that. That’s like such a hope as a parent. Like when you look at your kids, you’re like I want you to find the thing that can make you enjoy who you are. When you were a gymnast, you got injured and that led you to have to get treatment and you got the best help possible. You got to see Doctor Larry Nassar.
R.D.: Yeah, I felt, you know, I thought I was privileged to get to see Larry. He was the best of the best. He was revered in the world of gymnastics. He was a revered osteopath. He had published books and he had a patent. And he was the gold standard. And so you had a lot of star power. We had the gymnastics world with Larry. But then you also had the element of just many people having a deep commitment and emotional attachment to Larry, because what I discovered when I went to see him for the first time was that he was just a very personable, warm, gregarious kind of person. You know, he made you feel like he was going to take care of you. He was so reassuring. And he was just so down to earth. He took personal interest in your life and who you were. And it was so much better in some ways than the medical care that I had gotten before, because he actually listened when I told him what was going on. And he did a much more thorough evaluation and he found things that other sports medicine doctors hadn’t found. And so right away from the beginning, it just felt like I’m finally getting help, I’m finally with someone who has the expertise needed to at least get me out of pain, even if I can’t return to the sport that I thought it was a privilege.
K.B.: I don’t want you to feel any pressure to talk in any detail because you’ve had to do that so much. But would you feel comfortable telling me about what happened?
R.D.: Yeah, I think that’s important to discuss honestly, so that people can see what it looks like, because my situation is not nearly as unique as we would like to think it is. And Larry is not as unique as we would like to think he is. So Larry actually began sexually assaulting me right away during the medical treatment. Parents, by and large, were actually in the room when their own children were abused. And so Larry really took some of the most precious relationships, the parent child relationship, and he weaponized it. And so I did not realize that my mom couldn’t see what he was doing. And of course, I trusted her and I thought surely my mom would speak up. You’re simply wrong. Not knowing, of course, that she had no idea what was going on. You know, I had the added dynamic, unfortunately, because I was a little bit older. And so I knew that there was this technique out there that required some amount of penetration as they were manipulating muscles and bones. And so my presumption was, Larry is clearly doing whatever this advanced technique is. It was very clear to me by Larry’s movements that this was something he did very regularly. And I thought there’s no way he’s treating little girls every day. He’s our medical coordinator for the United States Olympic team. He’s the medical coordinator for the MSU gymnastics team. There’s no way that someone hasn’t described what Larry’s doing before. And surely if a child told an adult what Larry was doing. Of course, there’s people in authority are going to make sure that Larry is doing legitimate medical technique. So surely if a child came and said “hey Larry is putting his fingers inside me to treat my back injury,” of course, somebody would ask, where’s your training? Where’s your certification? And they would ensure that he was doing legitimate pelvic floor therapy. And so I didn’t just trust my abuser. I trusted the community around my abuser. I trusted the authority figures to do the right thing. You know what we know now, looking back on it, as I was half right, I was right that children had been describing what Larry was doing for years, at least three years before I walked in the door, and that women had disclosed what Larry was doing some of misuse on athletes, had disclosed what Larry was doing, and had told authority figures at MSU that they had been sexually assaulted by him. But I was wrong that those authority figures would do the right thing and that they would listen to those children and those women. And so my misplaced trust, not just in Larry, but in the communities that surrounded him, really cost me dearly.
K.B.: Yeah, it’s so helpful to hear your framing, too. I think when people hear stories, they always want some kind of hyper individualistic framing. It’s one person’s intent. But you so acutely describe an entire culture that facilitates and perpetually makes the super highway for a particular kind of evil, and that unless all those roads were paved, it would not have been possible in the way that it was.
R.D.: Absolutely. And that’s something we really have to grapple with. You know, all of us, we like to think of pedophilia and child abuse as a fringe crime.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
R.D.: But the reality is, is that it’s not sexual abuse is not a fringe crime and child abuse is not a fringe crime. One out of four girls are going to be abused as children and one out of six boys and around 90 percent, 90 to 95 percent of those children know their abuser. And the average age of childhood sexual assault is between 5 and 8 years old. And so as much as we would like to categorize someone like Larry as this kind of anomaly.
R.D.: The reality is he’s not an anomaly at all. All of us, whether or not we knew it, are in touch with survivors of childhood abuse. All of us move in circles with children who are at risk or have already been abused. And whether or not we communicate that we’re a safe place to disclose, a safe place really to fall is going to make the difference about whether or not we’re going to be able to step in on behalf of those children and do the right thing when it matters the most.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You tried to speak up, and even when people believed you, nothing seemed to change. I can only imagine what message that gave you as a child.
R.D.: From the time I was 17, around 17 is when I started to really understand what Larry had done and just embark on that journey of research and putting a case together and just going what do I do with this information? And at that age, I understood that if I were to speak up against Larry, that it wouldn’t be able to be done anonymously and that we had to have media involvement. We had to have something that would get control of the narrative away from Larry, away from the two organizations that were shielding him and I was convinced were keeping him in power. And we know now that I was right. And so I said to my mom at 17 is that I can’t I can’t do this quietly. I have to have media involvement. And we actually talked at that age. You know what you do with that? Do you walk into a news studio and you say, ‘hey, I’ve got a story for you?’ You know, how do you do that? And I just I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to make it happen. And so for the next 16 years, what I was really watching for was just some crack in that armor.
K.B.: You were the first person to speak out, which led to over 250 other survivors coming forward to share their stories. I imagine that must’ve been a very difficult decision for you.
R.D.: It was. And yet it wasn’t. My Mom and I had taken the steps of getting my medical records. And I had you know, I had journaled through my healing journey and I knew where that journal was, I had saved it. And we had talked with medical experts to a degree just in an attempt to start to understand what legitimate medical treatment should look like. And so I had all of those things. I had checked the statute of limitations years ago. And so I knew what it was going to have to look like. And when I saw the Indy Star article, there were a couple things that really stood out. The journalists very clearly understood the dynamics of abuse. They had poured incredible time and effort into unveiling what was going on in USA Gymnastics as relates to sexually abusive coaches. It wasn’t anything about Larry in the article, but they understood the dynamics and for the first time their reporting was trending. People were actually paying attention. And I knew the spotlight doesn’t come around more than once on a particular issue. People are paying attention. I have a journalism team that understands the dynamics. Now’s the time. It’s worth a shot now. And so I immediately wrote to them and told them my story. And I told them in that first e-mail, I will come forward as publicly as necessary if you can just get the story out there. And then I hit send.
K.B.: How old were you?
R.D.: I was 32 at the time.
K.B.: That is such a long time to hold that much. Man, like just ready. That’s like such a long runway. That must’ve been really hard.
R.D.: Yeah, honestly, I had really given up hope that Larry would ever be caught because I just never saw the chance to be believed. I never saw the right dynamics and place to get control of the narrative away from USA Gymnastics and away from Michigan State University and away from Larry’s just persona that overwhelmed everything.
K.B.: I know recently Michigan State University, which was Larry’s employer, was fined 4.5 million by the Education Department for failing to protect students. It’s supposed to be one of the great benefits of long standing institutions is that they’re supposed to be shelter for the rest of us. And then sometimes they just protect the wrong people.
R.D.: But what we know now is that at least 16 officials at Michigan State University had direct reports of what Larry was doing. We know that Larry was reported to more than one psychologist who was a mandatory reporter who didn’t report. We know that he was reported to the Meridian Township Police Department in 2004. He was reported again to the Michigan State University Police Department in 2014. And he was actually cleared in both of those cases. He had been reported to the Title 9 office at MSU and had been cleared and he had been reported to the FBI more than a year before I came forward. And the FBI did nothing. The head of the FBI Department who received the report was named Jay Abbott. And we now know that he was having drinks with USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny during the time he was supposed to be investigating Larry, and that Penny was recommending him for a cushy job at the United States Olympic Committee. So when all is said and done, we had five different law enforcement or Title 9 reports, four different law enforcement agencies that were involved in investigating and clearing, Larry, over and over and over again. And so it was confirmation many times over that it really did have to be done this way. And that was a position I never should have been put in and that other women never should have been put in. We should have been protected from the very beginning.
K.B.: Yes, that’s right. As you’re getting older on the surface, I imagined it looked like you were pretty successful. I mean, you’re a lawyer, you’re a fancy attorney, but it sounds like all was not well. Can you just describe a bit of how the abuse had actually filtered into like the deepest parts of your life?
R.D.: Yeah sexual abuse really damages everything. So what I really discovered as I began to process and realize what Larry had done was that my ability to trust, my ability to feel safe and all those things were just so damaged. And the societal response that survivors hear all the time, the blame and the ‘why didn’t you speak up’ and ‘why didn’t you fight back’ and ‘how could you not know’ those were lies that just rang so loudly in my head. And it was years of processing and being able to speak the truth to myself and learning how to hold on to the truth and to find my worth and my identity and my healing apart from my abuser, apart from whether I ever saw justice. Apart from the societal response that I received. And by the time I reported and was able to report Larry, and saw that first crack in his armor, I had reached a very good place of healing. And I’m grateful for that because I don’t think I could have done what I did had that not been the case.
K.B.: Yeah. When the counterfeit and the truth are like so close together. I hear a lot from people who are struggling with shame, like just the terrible middle ground between moving from something bad happened to me, which becomes I am the bad thing. I wonder.
K.B.: And it’s such a- it’s such a powerful thing. And it feels, I think, hard for people to disprove when they just feel like everything that was good just gets touched by this awful reality. What do you say to people who like shame is just the language they speak?
R.D.: I think shame is almost the universal language for sexual assault survivors. And I think part of that is because it’s something that so intensely private and that’s been violated. So there’s just there so much guilt attached and there’s so much shame because it’s something that’s supposed to be so private. So a real critical turning point for me personally was my faith. There was a quote at a book written by C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite authors, a book called Mere Christianity. And in it, Lewis has this quote, and it’s a paraphrase, but he says, you know, ‘my argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But what was I comparing it against when I called it unjust? A man does not know a crooked line unless he first has some idea of straight.’ And that really spoke to me because I realized that there is good and there is evil. There is right and there is wrong. And that means that I can look at what happened to me. I can look at the deception and the manipulation and how Larry used human relationships and how he misused concepts of trust and kindness and the abuse itself. I can look at all of those things and I can say those things are wrong. And that was freeing in a lot of ways. I’m not saying it was easy or that it was an immediate process, but it was very freeing because it allowed me to grieve the evil and to call it what it was and to not feel the pressure to minimize or mitigate or excuse what had happened, but it also was a reminder that I can identify the evil because good does exist and where goodness exists, there is hope.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Those standards, like, really draw a line. That’s so clarifying then to be able to like see the beautiful.
R.D.: It gives you something to hold on to.
K.B.: Yeah. And then you can wrap yourself in it. I remember right when I got sick, I felt like I just wanted to make my home the place of all the beautiful things. And so we played music that was the Psalms, and we watched lovely movies, and I bought flowers, and we ate food that was good, and we said nice things to each other. And that little bubble helped me see what could be good when all I felt was like the terrible.
R.D.: It gives you an anchor when you don’t understand.
K.B.: Yeah yeah yeah when it gets confusing? That makes sense. That does make sense. Like shame is the language of getting confused between those two poles and not knowing where to put yourself.
K.B.: Unfortunately, this wasn’t your first experience with sexual abuse.
R.D.: It wasn’t, actually. I was around 7 years old when I was sexually assaulted the first time, and it was by a college student in my church. And I got to experience the impact of adults who are trained to respond properly to abuse and the devastation of adults who are not, because there was a group within my church who were trained sexual assault counselors and they had a sexual assault counseling ministry in the church. And they saw some of the warning signs. And they came to my parents and they said, ‘I think we have a problem.’ And my parents, to their credit, immediately listened and put up safeguards and boundaries. And I believe that saved me from worse abuse. I firmly believe that. But I also experienced the converse response when my parents took those steps and those warnings were given. The response of many people in the church, including very close friends of ours, was to presume we had read into things, that we were being oversensitive, that we had made an allegation without foundation. And so by the time I was 8 years old, I was reeling from sexual abuse that I didn’t understand and hadn’t been able to verbalize yet. And also the loss of many of our closest friends who grew very icy and distant. And we ended up having to leave that church. The church had a long history of covering up sexual abuse, not just my case, but many others.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah. The church has two possibilities, right? Like it has a language that it can use to weaponize language of faith against abuse victims. And it also has possibility for hope. I wondered if you could just I mean, for people who don’t know what those categories might be. You’ve written a bit about like how faith language can be used to help or to harm in cases like these.
R.D.: I come from a background of Christianity, and so one of the things that I think we do see from a faith background is that the church ought to be the safest place because it uses language of repentance, being able to recognize good and evil and call it what it is. It uses language of justice, uses language that should make it the safest place to go for help. And yet, more often than not, oftentimes churches misuse beautiful theological concepts like concepts of grace or mercy or forgiveness, and they weaponize them against survivors in a way that makes it appear that a survivor who speaks up or a survivor who pursues justice or a survivor who is attempting to stop an abuser that that person is bitter and angry.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah. How can we support that kind of culture shift, do you think, in the church? I imagine, I think too people get really confused about repentance, like they’re allowed to be the ones that press the reset button. So all has to be forgiven because the senior pastor said so or whatever.
R.D.: Yeah, I think ultimately it is a conversation my husband and I have had.
K.B.: Your husband’s a pastor, right?
R.D.: He is; he’s pursuing his Ph.D. in theology.
K.B.: Well done. You’re living in theological education world with me. Thank you.
R.D.: It’s wonderful. Of course, he’s mired in these concepts. I think a lot of that really goes down to properly defining these concepts. Does forgiveness mean that the consequences are erased? Is forgiveness an automatic erasure of everything that’s happened? What does justice mean, is justice a good thing? Because I believe it is. I believe theologically we can see that justice is a good thing because justice is upholding what is right and justice can be pursued from a heart that is speaking. What is true, because we love and we love fiercely. And so I think standing against these mistaken theologies and this misuse of some of these theological terms and ideas and getting back to what they really mean, the source, the proper source of theology, the proper definition and understanding of these theological terms is the best way to rescue them from misuse.
K.B.: I like to, I mean, your framing of all this, I’ve heard you say that love has to be your motivation.
R.D.: 100 Percent.
K.B.: I think that’s- I think it might be easier just to be fueled by hurt. Frankly, it’s just easier to stay in what, like that thing that propels us forward so often is just how bad it’s been. But you think that’s maybe not the right engine?
R.D.: I think there is a right and a good place for anger. Righteous anger against evil. And I think we see that in theological traditions and in scripture. But ultimately, we have that anger because we love the people around us. And because we don’t want them to be harmed, because we love what is beautiful and we hate to see that beauty marred.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
R.D.: And I’ve got four young kids. They’re 7, 5, 4 and almost 14 months. So we have lots of opportunities to have discussions about why we choose what we choose and the motivation for choosing what we choose. You can be motivated by not wanting the bad consequences on you, not wanting the discipline or the time out that comes. Or you can be motivated by love, by wanting to do the right thing because you love the people around you. And you don’t want them to be hurt by your wrong decision. And when you’re motivated by love, that’s what makes doing the right thing have joy, even when doing the right thing isn’t easy.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah. Man, I imagine you’ve had to like dip into these deep wells because it’s been such a long road to justice. Actually, I realize like for people who might not know what happened, can you tell me the end of the story for the trial?
R.D.: So I made the choice to speak out very publicly, and I allowed the IndyStar to publish both a video and a written report about my abuse. And that was very difficult because, you know, as soon as that came out, of course, it was an international news story with my name and face tied to all these details that nobody was ever supposed to know. And I went up to Michigan and filed a police report and filed a Title 9 report and just got the ball rolling every way that I could.
R.D.: And over the next several months, I continue to give press interviews and continue to work with investigators and reporters and interface with medical experts and just try to do everything I could to move the case forward. And as I did so very slowly but surely, as the detectives continued pursuing. And we got a prosecutor who was passionate about the truth and said, ‘I’m going to fight for all of them.’ We started to see women coming forward anonymously at first. And I’m very grateful they had that ability to make that choice. But one by one, police report started trickling in and one by one, we started to just begin to make some headway into bringing Larry to justice, to continue taking control of the narrative. Larry finally, finally pled guilty when he saw this groundswell of support over a period of a year and a half. And the prosecutor in charge of our case, Angela Povilaitis, called me and she said, ‘I’m not going to accept a guilty plea unless every survivor has a voice.’ She kept her promise. She fought for all of us. And so she made that part of the plea arrangement. And we had about 80 survivors who were planning on speaking. Most of them were planning on speaking anonymously. And the next morning, one young woman got up named Kyle Stephens, and she was to date the only survivor we know who was abused outside of the medical context. She was the daughter of a family friend. And Kyle got up and she just gave an incredibly powerful victim impact statement. And she did it publicly. And she said, ‘I’m standing before you here publicly to tell the world who you really are.’ And, you know, you just saw this groundswell these years of preparation really coming together. And one by one, survivors stood up and they told Angie, they told the prosecutor, ‘I want to go on record.’ And so almost every time Angie would stand up, she would say, ‘and for the first time, speaking publicly,’ or, ‘this survivor has just decided to speak publicly.’ And over the course of what we thought was going to be a two to three-day sentencing hearing with around 80 survivors it swelled into a seven-day sentencing hearing with one hundred and fifty-six survivors, almost all of whom made the choice to speak publicly and on record. And then we had a follow up sentencing hearing in Eaton County, Larry was also charged with sexual assault in Eaton County. And so I had the opportunity to deliver the final victim impact statement and to finish what I started in Ingham County and then to deliver the final impact statement on behalf of the charge victims in Eaton County. And it was just this incredible swell of women reclaiming their voices. It forced the world to come face to face in ways that it never had before, because now Jane Doe had a name. But it was also a time for the women to begin reclaiming their own voices. And so it’s been really an incredible journey to see the impact that decisions from years ago had on all of us, both for good and for evil.
K.B.: Yeah. You have such a tender heart for protecting the innocent. And I was so touched by the dedication on your book. It says, “For every survivor, from every background and identity, those who came before those yet to come and those who are no longer with us. It’s not your fault. It’s not your shame. You are believed. May you know how much you’re worth.” Oh, that’s so beautiful.
R.D.: And our daughters need to know that they’re intrinsically valuable, that their worth doesn’t come from something they accomplish. It comes from who they are. And that means they can’t lose it and it can’t be taken away.
R.D.: And their value can’t be damaged by something that someone does to them. And to know that that is true. And to be able to hold to that truth no matter what life throws at them.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh that can’t be taken away. Sometimes it feels like it can.
R.D.: It feels like a- it’s a hard lesson for all of us.
K.B.: Well you have modeled, I’m so serious, you’ve modeled so much grace and strength in a single human being. And I know you really didn’t want to have to be a hero, but I’m, I’m really grateful that you are. Thanks so much for talking with me.
R.D.: Thank you so much for having the conversation.
K.B.: I’m grateful for you.
R.D.: Thank you. Thank you. I so appreciate you having the conversation. It’s what needs to happen.
K.B.: Rachael says love must be your motivation. But the love she describes doesn’t stand idly by. Love is a verb. It’s a love that stands up for justice for those on the margins, for the innocent and the innocence, stolen for the silenced and shut down. A love that takes on giants, whether that’s unmovable institutions or the untouchable abusers who weaponize intimacy for harm. It’s this love that propelled Rachael to advocate for survivors and risk for the sake of others. And it’s this love that will help make the world a little bit safer for all of us. May we all be motivated by this love that seeks justice over maintaining the status quo. To speak, even if your voice shakes, to tell the truth. And for anyone listening today who is a victim of abuse, for whom this conversation was particularly painful, I just wanted to add the abuse you’ve experienced is wrong. And it’s not your fault. And it was never your fault. And you are not alone. If you or anyone you know, has been sexually assaulted, called the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline, 1-800-656 HOPE or visit online .rainn with two n’s .org. And may you be surrounded by people who truly know your worth.