Before she became a lawyer or the mother of four children, Rachael Denhollander was a club-level gymnast in her hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. Following an injury in 2000, 15-year-old Denhollander was treated by Larry Nassar, the famed team doctor for USA Gymnastics. During many of those sessions, Nassar sexually abused Denhollander. Shocked and embarrassed after one appointment, the teenager told her mother what had happened. The two assumed no one would believe them and did not report the abuse.
But that didn’t stop Denhollander from saving her medical records and diary entries. Sixteen years would pass before she’d come forward to tell her truth; she was the first to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, and one of hundreds who testified against him and sent him to prison for the rest of his life.
But the story, at least for Denhollander, doesn’t end there. Since Nassar’s sentencing in 2018, Denhollander has turned her attention to writing. Her memoir, What Is a Girl Worth?—about the assault she suffered, its aftermath, and issues relating to sexual abuse—will be published by Tyndale Momentum in September. An illustrated children’s book, How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?, from Tyndale Kids, will be released simultaneously.
Denhollander’s decision to speak out publicly against her abuser was not an easy one. It meant reliving significant trauma. In writing What Is a Girl Worth?, she was forced to experience the shame and hurt again, but she felt compelled to help readers understand the nature and impact of sexual abuse.
“I don’t typically find that reliving the memories this way is helpful for healing,” she says. “But sexual assault is an evil that has been able to lurk in the shadows precisely because it is so painful for victims to speak about it. At some point, we have to start telling the truth about it. We have to show what it looks like, the damage that it does, how it hides, and why survivors are silenced.”
What Is a Girl Worth? is a stark memoir that reveals how a powerful and respected man was able to systematically abuse hundreds of girls for decades without consequence. It examines how society blames and shames victims of sexual abuse, and explores why myths about abuse leave women and children vulnerable and survivors isolated.
“I believe one of the most powerful things we can do to push back against a culture of abuse—and to support survivors—is to show what it looks like,” Denhollander says. “What it looks like to be abused. What it looks like to live with those wounds. What it looks like to report and endure the court process. What it looks like to find healing.”
In addition to offering a behind-the-scenes, real-life look at how sexual abuse occurs, the memoir examines normal victim responses and the difficulty of reporting abuse and seeking justice. “It’s meant to make people confront and understand the reality of abuse,” Denhollander says, “and also to help survivors know they aren’t alone.”
Denhollander wrote How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?—a picture book for young girls aimed at teaching personal value and self-esteem—after learning about the child pornography found on a computer owned by Nassar. “It was my love letter to my daughters and to every survivor,” she says. “The writing flowed very naturally, because it conveyed the truths that had been in my heart for so many years.”
In the era of #MeToo, What Is a Girl Worth? and How Much Is a Little Girl Worth? are part of a broader cultural shift, and Denhollander hopes the books add to the conversation about sexual abuse, increase advocacy for victims, and provide readers with the knowledge and tools needed to understand, prevent, and respond to abuse.
“Abuse rarely looks the way we think it will look, and it’s important to understand the confusion that swirls when you are in the midst of an abusive situation,” Denhollander says. “Even more importantly, it’s vital for the rest of our society to begin to understand the dynamics of abuse and how our intrinsic desire to protect our community frequently leads us to ignore, minimize, or even hide warning signs of abuse. Showing people what it looks like is key to helping them respond to it better the next time.”