book reviews

A review of What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, by Rachael Denhollander

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to download several books about the scandal involving former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, and the hundreds of women and children he abused under the guise of proving “medical treatment”. I reviewed one of the books I bought on that spree, The Girls, written by award winning journalist, Abigail Pesta. Today, I’m going to review a book written by one of Nassar’s victims, Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and one of the first women to come forward publicly about Larry Nassar’s abuses.

In the late 1990s, Rachael Denhollander, nee Moxson, was a fifteen year old Michigan teen who loved gymnastics. She’d gotten her start in gymnastics too late to be an Olympian, having caught the bug after watching the Magnificent Seven win gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Rachael’s mom and dad, “hands on parents” by Rachael’s description, were so strict that they wouldn’t let their then eleven year old daughter stay up late to watch the women’s gymnastics team win gold on live television. Instead, they taped the coverage and hid the newspaper the next day, so Rachael could watch the coverage and experience the thrill as if she were seeing it live. Rachael was captivated by gymnastics, and wanted so badly to become a gymnast herself, even though she was “too old” and “gangly”.

I kind of know how Rachael felt. I was in Armenia when the 1996 Summer Olympics were going on, and I didn’t get to see the dramatic, history making win until later. That was the year Kerri Strug stuck an incredible vault, then collapsed to the mats in excruciating pain. It made for great press, and like a lot of people, I remember the photos and videos of Strug in Coach Bela Karolyi’s arms surrounded by people. Among those reaching out to Strug with a helping hand was Dr. Larry Nassar, the team doctor, who just happened to practice in Lansing, Michigan at Michigan State University.

A few years later, when Rachael was a gymnast, she had problems with her lower back and glutes, as well as her wrists. After several unsatisfying visits with ordinary doctors near her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan failed to help, a mom at the gym where she trained recommended that Rachael go see Larry Nassar. He was supposedly a miracle worker. Rachael was shocked that a big shot like Larry would want to see a nobody like her, but the mom at her gym assured her that Larry’s door was open to everyone.

So Rachael’s mom, who had repeatedly told her daughter that if her health, safety, or schoolwork were ever adversely affected by gymnastics, she’d have to quit, called Larry’s office and quickly scored some time to see him. Rachael was told to bring a pair of loose gym shorts and a comfortable top to the appointment. She was very happy that she’d managed to get an appointment to see such a well-regarded doctor. He’d even written a book about conditioning that was considered required reading among coaches. Both Rachael and her ever vigilant mother, who’d even arranged to clean the gym to help defray the costs of Rachael’s training, were excited that they would be seen by Larry Nassar.

On the day of the first appointment, Rachael was immediately impressed by how friendly and engaging Larry was. He did a very thorough exam– much more thorough than any of the other doctors had done. And then, as he casually spoke to Rachael’s mom, who was sitting right there in the office with them, Larry forced his fingers into Rachael’s vagina. At the time, Rachael was shocked. The “treatment” hurt. But she and her mom had heard of some therapists using an internal technique called pelvic floor massage in an attempt to relieve pain. Nassar had seemed so incredibly professional that they figured he must be employing that same internal technique on Rachael.

Even though the invasive “pelvic floor” treatment didn’t seem to relieve Rachael’s pain, and Nassar did nothing to treat her wrists, they went back to him for more treatment. Then, one day, Larry unhooked Rachael’s bra and massaged her breasts. She noticed that he was flushed, then spotted his visible erection. That was when she began to doubt that Larry Nassar was helping her so much as he was helping himself.

Complicating matters was the fact that Rachael was sexually abused when she was seven years old. Her parents were committed Christians and they took their kids to church. That was where Rachael came into contact with a male college aged student who molested her.

Rachael stayed involved with gymnastics for a few more years. She coached young girls. When one of them had an injury and Rachael heard that Larry Nassar was being recommended, Rachael did her best to discourage the head coach from recommending Larry. The little girl went anyway.

Meanwhile, Rachael got older and went to law school. She met her husband, Jacob, online. They fell in love and married, bought a house in Louisville, Kentucky, and started a family. Then, Rachael heard about an article that appeared in the Indy Star about her old doctor, Larry Nassar. He’d been accused of sexual abuse. Rachael was compelled to send an email to the reporter who had covered the story… and soon, she was on a wild legal ride that ended with Larry Nassar being uncovered for the depraved deviant he is.

Rachael Denhollander is definitely incredible… She is amazingly articulate, intelligent, and brave.

What Is A Girl Worth? is Rachael Denhollander’s story. She starts at the beginning, writing in a clear, confident, engaging style, explaining how she became one of Larry Nassar’s many victims and what led her to help bring him to justice. It was about sixteen years after her last visit with Larry that Rachael came forward. Because her abuse had occurred so many years prior, she wasn’t sure how much help she would be. It turned out that Rachael’s willingness to speak out so candidly was everything.

Despite the pain and stress of going public and enduring everything that comes from publicly standing up for one’s rights, Rachael bravely soldiered on, and soon hundreds of Larry’s former patients and even a family friend who was victimized, came forward to tell their stories. And Larry, who had been brazenly getting away with abusing patients for decades, finally got the end he deserves, and now sits in a prison cell for the rest of his life. He took down several corrupt Michigan State University officials with him, including the former president of the university, Lou Anna Simon, and former gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, who had blatantly ignored repeated complaints about the former doctor.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina praises Rachael Denhollander for being brave enough to come forward and advocating for change.

One thing I noticed about Rachael Denhollander’s story is that despite everything, she remains a very committed Christian. She admits to wondering why God would allow such horrible things to happen to innocent young girls, especially since she was also molested in church. She writes of elders at a church she and her husband attended, who accused her of going against church leadership by speaking out against sexual abuse. One would think she might lose the faith, particularly in organized religion, if not in God. But she’s still very religious and still attends church faithfully. I’m impressed by that, because she’s also very clearly an intelligent and assertive woman. I would expect a lot of people would lose their faith in religion over the traumas she’s experienced.

I appreciated that Rachael Denhollander also praised the legal and law enforcement professionals who helped bring down Larry Nassar. It’s gratifying to read her story, especially since Larry had been given a pass before by corrupt USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University officials. Other women had reported Larry, but their complaints were brushed off or covered up. Maybe Rachael’s involvement in this case really is God at work. She wasn’t meant to be an elite gymnast, but she was meant to blow the whistle on a notorious abuser and bring him to justice. She’s tenacious, and has a strong moral compass, perhaps partly thanks to her religious beliefs (because I don’t think you have to be religious to be moral); yet she’s also extremely intelligent, well-spoken, and definitely not looking for a payoff. She was just what this case needed, and it’s because of her that a monster can no longer hurt anyone. I highly recommend her book.

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