She was slender and poised; lean and petite like a gymnast even after four babies and a book deal. She wore a trim navy-blue dress, a delicate silvery necklace, soft makeup, and her long brown hair hung in a practical ponytail over one shoulder. We were at the ERLC Caring Well Conference in October, 2019. Even though we were there to discuss sexual abuse in the church – a stressful topic even when you’re not standing in front of over a thousand people – she seemed calm, collected, and poised. In fact, she tackled agonizing subjects and complex questions with the focus and composure of a gymnast accomplishing some gravity-defying feat with ease. Her name was Rachael Denhollander.
Her husband, Jacob, patiently cared for an active toddler as Rachael interviewed with the press or spoke on stage. The little girl wiggled, giggled, and sometimes cried, but Jacob never seemed flustered or impatient. He’s an interesting man; in fact, just as interesting as Rachael. On the one had he is quiet and humble, but on the other, a fierce protector of his wife and family. I do not think he realizes this – he likely wouldn’t presume to think it – but in this regard, Jacob is the model of an ideal pastor. There is a quiet strength about him. A kindheartedness you can see, but a watchfulness you can feel.
It’s hard to believe not even a year has gone by. That somber yet encouraging weekend feels like it’s ages behind us, and so much has happened in between. So, perhaps it’s not such an embarrassment that I’m only just now finishing Denhollander’s book!
What is a Girl Worth? was released just a few weeks after my own book, in October, 2019. Published by Tyndale, it has amassed notable endorsements from the likes of Beth Moore, Dr. Diane Langberg, and Karen Swallow Prior.
What is a Girl Worth? fits snuggly in the memoir aisle of any bookstore, though its pages reveal the inner thoughts, feelings, and challenges faced by many if not most sexual abuse survivors. The fear of being disbelieved, the incredulity at the unawareness of bystanders, the knowledge that reporting may not lead anywhere, the concern that your testimony could cause others pain, and the strange mix of horror and relief when you discover you’re not the only victim; these are things that are difficult to describe in words.
They’re communicated best through story form.
And so, Rachael Denhollander takes her reader on a vivid journey through her life to experience and understand what she has lived through.
Because of this, What is a Girl Worth? is a valuable resource for counselors, pastors, law enforcement, and other victim advocates who seek to understand more clearly the challenges reporting survivors face.
As a survivor and a author myself, I find Denhollander’s story sad, but mostly encouraging, refreshing, and brilliantly authentic. She doesn’t stop at explaining what she did or how she felt, but analyzes the why, which is often so difficult to convey. Despite the painful topic, it’s a surprisingly easy read. This is due, largely because, Denhollander does not linger over the lurid or shocking details. Rather, she handles her story – and the story of so many others – with a dignity and love that shines through her writing.
While Denhollander doesn’t delve deeply into theology, her faith is evident. Between Jacob’s seminary studies, their active prayer life, and frequent visits with church leaders, there is no room to doubt her love for God and God’s people. While she honestly depicts the grievous sins of negligent pastors, she contrasts these with the words of wise pastors and loving believers, who supported and encouraged her even while so many others failed. In this way, What is a Girl Worth? provides a spiritual snapshot into the state of the modern Christian church; despite plentiful wolves and stubborn fools, there are still good shepherds who fear the Lord.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Denhollander takes on America’s convoluted legal system. Unfortunately, it’s often not enough to report abuse; there are interviews, phone calls, different types of class actions and suits; complicated legislation and legal loopholes which most survivors (including myself) understandably balk at.
But, God in his providence gave Denhollander the mind of a lawyer. She was specially equipped to navigate and tackle the very obstacles which too often result in many survivors giving up and staying silent. She was also able to connect with journalists, attorneys, and law enforcement officers who – not only had the heart and passion to step into the battlefield with her – but were equipped to do so.
And this is the aspect of the book which true crime enthusiasts will enjoy. Denhollander provides detailed information about the reporting process, how they built the case, gathered evidence, collected witness statements, and the subsequent court proceedings. She also reveals Larry Nassar’s big mistake, which emboldened so many of his victims and triggered a deluge of testimony against him.
The most emotional part of the book, for me personally, was in Chapter 19, when it’s revealed that multiple teenagers and women had reported Nassar over the years, but nothing was done to stop him. The police took their reports, and interviewed Nassar, but never pressed charges against a serial rapist until those reports piled up and the media shone a spotlight on them.
On the one hand, this is appalling and horrific. On the other, it gives me hope that someday my abusers will be prosecuted. Just one more report. Just one more witness. Just one more piece of evidence could mean the difference between a life of perpetual evil and life behind bars.
Beautifully written and elegantly produced, reading What is a Girl Worth? feels like you’re sitting with Denhollander over coffee, listening to her reminisce about loss, love, and an inspiring triumph of justice. That triumph was not easily arrived at though. It cost her dearly both emotionally, financially, and spiritually.
Nevertheless, she persevered, because as Rachael puts it, “The more you love, the harder you fight.”
This book is a testament – not only to her courage, integrity, and strength – but to the love and faithfulness of those good people who supported and sustained her.
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Header Image: Russell Moore and Rachael Denhollander discuss abuse in the church at the ERLC Caring Well Conference in 2019. Photo by Karen Race Photography.