“If you see something, say something” is a familiar motto that encourages vocal community engagement in combatting evils ranging from terrorism to human trafficking. But there’s a dangerous and false corollary to this belief: that if nothing was said, nothing probably happened.
In her new book, What Is a Girl Worth? (Tyndale, 2019), Rachael Denhollander traces the story of her sexual assault at the hands of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, and the grueling process required to bring him to trial. Denhollander makes it clear that the apparently simple act of saying something is in fact incredibly difficult in the case of sexual abuse. “Incredibly” is the right word to use, for it speaks to the difficulty of finding things believable or credible.
In recounting her story, Denhollander explains the two-fold challenge: First, it’s incredibly difficult for sexual abuse survivors to speak up and be believed. Second, it’s incredibly difficult for listeners to really hear and believe.
The Scriptures have much to say about bearing witness to evil and injustice, and What Is a Girl Worth? offers a sobering reminder of the importance of qualitative listening. As believers, we are called to be not just hearers but listeners (Mark 4:12) and doers (James 1:22). We are to listen and respond to God’s word, and we are to listen out for and respond to injustice, just as God our Father does. But both the act of speaking and the act of listening are fraught with complications.
Nassar first assaulted Denhollander in 2000 when she was 15 years old, but it was only in August 2016—sixteen years later—that she filed a complaint with the Michigan State University police department and shared her story with the Indianapolis Star. Why wait sixteen years?
Denhollander, now an attorney, advocate, and abuse educator, believes that understanding why it’s so hard for sexual assault victims to speak up is “one of the most important things we have to reckon with as a culture.” Her will and voice had already been silenced when the abuse occurred, explains Denhollander, and speaking up about what had happened and what was going on in her mind “felt like yielding the last bit of privacy and security I had left.” She was an injured girl seeking medical help from a trusted doctor, but her “own trust had been weaponized. [Her] request for help had been exploited.” If it was so hard for her to acknowledge the assault, how would anyone else possibly believe it?
Denhollander, like countless sexual abuse victims, remained silent. Not completely silent, though. In 2004, when she heard that one of the girls she was coaching had been referred to Nassar for treatment, her desire to protect the girl from potential abuse compelled her to tell her own story to a trusted confidant. She chose Jackie, a beloved coach whose partner was a police officer, hoping that in this couple she would find two adults both able and willing to help. But when her painful disclosure was met with resistance and the coach decided to refer the girl to Nassar anyway, Denhollander felt crushed. “Saying something is one thing. Being heard—and believed—is another,” she writes.
Many of us, like Jackie, find it hard to believe shocking stories of abuse. They stir up fear, anger, grief, and even denial. Fear, because these testimonies hit close to home and shatter our illusions of safety. This could have been me or my children. Anger, as we realize the depth and breadth of evil perpetrated right under our noses. Grief, as we recognize the details we didn’t noticed. And denial, as we distance ourselves from a drama that looks unreal.
Our responses are not unlike those of Tamar’s family after Amnon raped her (2 Samuel 13). When met by his sobbing sister in ripped clothes, her brother Absalom counseled her to “be quiet” and get over it—“Don’t take this thing to heart,” he says in verse 20—and their father David “heard” and “was angry” (verse 21), but he didn’t say or do anything about it. Their failure to listen led to a failure of justice.
What Is a Girl Worth tells of the precious few who did listen and believe: Denhollander’s mom, who unearthed old medical records and kept them; the nurse who transcribed their appointments; the brave journalists at the Indy Star; her husband, Jacob, who stood by her side; Angela Povilaitis, the assistant Attorney General who became an expert on rebutting all the technical and medical smokescreens that would come their way; and detective Andrea Munford in the MSU police department, who believed victims (even when their own parents didn’t) and went looking for evidence. These few who listened well emboldened Denhollander to speak again, and in doing so, the voices of more than 200 other witnesses were heard, as well.
Perhaps the most chilling part of Denhollander’s memoir is her account of the conversation she had with coach Jackie in the days before Nassar’s trial. “I always believed you, Rach,” Jackie offered, “I just figured that if this was a big deal, you’d … do something about it.”
“But I did,” Denhollander countered. “I did do something. I told you … That was me doing something about it.”
People often wonder of sexual abuse victims, Why didn’t they tell someone? But what if you are the someone they’re telling? The one person they’re testing the waters of disclosure with, and you fail to believe them or act? “You usually only get one chance to be a safe place for a victim,” Denhollander warns.
Like Tamar’s rape, Denhollander’s story gives a powerful reminder of the listener’s role in combating injustice. It also reminds us that God hears the cries of the oppressed (Psalm 10:18), and even the blood of those unjustly slain calls out to him from the ground (Gen. 4:9). He hears and responds; his ear is ever tuned to the voice of the helpless and needy. But the question remains: Is ours?
Bronwyn Lea is a lawyer, mom, Bible teacher, and author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World (forthcoming April, 2020).
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