A Model for How We Can Respond to Abuse
A review of "What is a Girl Worth?"
How much is a girl worth?
This question is both the title of Rachael Denhollander’s book and the lens through which she powerfully recounts the childhood sexual abuse she endured at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar and the road to justice that she and many of her fellow survivors courageously forged.
Her story of abuse is graphic and heartbreaking, illuminating not only the physical realities of abuse, but the emotional scars that follow survivors long after their physical abuse ends. Though I am an attorney and advocate who has walked through trauma with many clients and friends, Denhollander’s detailed account of the suffocating pain and protracted grief that survivors of sexual abuse endure left me gasping for air. I could easily place myself in her shoes.
A trust broken
In hopes of providing an outlet for my unbridled energy and neurotic resolve, my mother had placed me in my first gymnastics class at 3 years old. And it worked. Although a car accident sidelined my ability to compete when I was 8, I was far enough into the competitive gym scene at that point to understand the world Denhollander vividly depicts in her book—a world where little girls are pushed to their physical limits day after day, parents are not allowed in practice areas, and you are punished for questioning authority.
It was against this backdrop that Denhollander and her fellow survivors were serially sexually assaulted by Nassar. Denhollander graciously and constructively allows her readers to feel the weight of each triggered memory, each significant life milestone marred by the painful scars of abuse, and the perpetual silencing of a victim’s voice by abusers and the institutions who protect them.
The injustice survivors face
Denhollander also walks her readers through one of the questions that looms so large in the face of so many survivors, “Why don’t victims report?” What is a Girl Worth? exposes the tidal wave of inequity that faces each survivor when disclosing abuse. Through her story of survival, Denhollander exposes not only her abuser, but also the institutions and authority figures who failed to protect so many from abuse and fail to follow through when a victim reports—from the church leaders who silenced her abuse at the hands of a church member when she was a small child; to the beloved coach she disclosed Nassar’s abuse to but who discouraged her from telling anyone else; to the university that had multiple reports of abuse but continued to let Nassar have access to children; to the defense attorney who drug her reputation through the mud.
But What is a Girl Worth? does more than just detail horrific abuse. It also provides perspective, modeling what those of us who want to help empower survivors and fight for justice can do. It spotlights the courageous survivors and advocates who push back against the seemingly impenetrable darkness; the detectives who listen and investigate fully; the prosecutors who listen and model their strategy based on the needs and desires of the victims and tenaciously argue the case; and the church members and friends who walk alongside survivors. Most importantly, it spotlights the resolute survivors, like Denhollander herself, who persevere despite unthinkable odds, to ensure that their abusers are stopped once and for all and no more little girls are hurt.
Denhollander asks her readers the same question she asked the judge in Nasser’s sentencing hearing, “What is a girl worth?” And her beautiful testimony of sacrificial love and unrelenting pursuit of justice on behalf of others compels her audience to agree with the answer: Everything. These girls are worth everything.