Abuse memoirs abound. But not many abuse memoirs describe the abuser being brought to justice. This is because not many abusers are brought to justice. As Rachael Denhollander reports in her new memoir, What is a Girl Worth?, for every 230 rapes reported, there are only five convictions. How compelling, then, to read about a case in which the perpetrator ends up right where he belongs: in prison, serving 40 to 175 years.
Denhollander tells the full story of her ordeal, from being molested as a teenager by the USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar (with her mother in the room!), to reporting her abuse to investigative journalists sixteen years later, and throughout the entire legal process. Denhollander is especially well-suited to see a case like hers through: a lawyer and victim advocate herself, she has the know-how, the smarts, and the courage to keep pressing forward.
She drives from Kentucky to Michigan to file a police report in person, keeps files of evidence and research, and knows when to wear knit tops (relatable) and when to wear power suits (intimidating). Following Denhollander’s case against Nassar through all its twists and turns, the reader marvels that anyone else could ever possibly navigate this system. And then we remember that “five out of 230” figure, and we realize that most people don’t.
The church, in Denhollander’s telling, responds to her case in two distinct ways. As she is beginning to press forward with the legal battle, she and her family join a new church. The new church continually surprises the Denhollander family with their care and concern: asking for updates, praying, bringing meals, offering childcare. The head pastor calls, expresses support, and offers prayer.
These outpourings of love, so reflexive for most churches when one of their members faces difficulty, surprise the Denhollanders precisely because their previous church did not respond in this way at all. At exactly the same time as Rachael was beginning to report Nassar, she was being censured by a beloved but soon to be “former” church for her abuse advocacy work. The church was in the midst of dealing with allegations against its own staff members, and because Denhollander had made public statements on behalf of abuse survivors in the past—even though she had never spoken out against her particular church—the church decided to formally discipline her. They demanded a letter of apology. They forced her to scrub her Facebook wall of any mention of abuse. They broke up her family’s small group. They stripped her husband of his leadership role.
And so, while What is a Girl Worth? is the story of one woman’s fight against one bad man, it is also a tale of two churches. The church that saw one of their own undergoing a terrible ordeal, and rallied around her. And the church that saw one of their own speaking words that could threaten their hold on power, and spit her out.
We would do well, as the Church universal, whenever we have to consider which of these two stances we will take in response to any allegations of abuse—the side of the weak or the side of the strong—to remember what the Bible says about power. Every valley shall be raised up, says the prophet Isaiah, every mountain and hill made low. The Lord has brought down rulers from their thrones, says Mary, but has lifted up the humble. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, the hungry, the mourning, the meek. God sees the outcast slave Hagar, trembling beneath a bush in the desert. God calls the small boy Samuel, and God chooses David, the youngest of his brothers. God brings Rahab the prostitute and Ruth the foreigner into the Messiah’s family line. Jesus stops for an old hemorrhaging woman, a hated tax collector, a demon-possessed boy, a group of lepers, a bunch of children. He chooses fishermen for friends. Over and over and over and over again, the God of the Universe sides with the underdog.
Most abuse survivors will never see earthly justice. They will never know the feeling, as Rachael Denhollander got to know, of staring down their abuser in a court of law and waiting until he is the first to look away. But “‘vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’” As unimaginable as that final day may be to us in the here and now, every abuse survivor will one day see the justice of heaven. And while she is waiting for that day, every abuse survivor deserves to know the love and compassion of the church—the hands and feet of God on earth.