This was always how it was meant to end. Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and the mother of three, standing across from Larry Nassar, the man who has sexually abused hundreds of women and girls under the guise of medical treatment, delivering her victim impact statement a year and a half after she first went to the Indianapolis Star and told her story. Denhollander was the first woman to come forward publicly and say that Nassar had sexually abused her. The abuse happened in 2000, when she was a 15-year-old club gymnast in Michigan.
Before she stood at the podium to speak, 155 survivors had already given their impact statements over the last seven days. At the start of the sentencing last week, “only” 88 women were and family members were scheduled to speak at Nassar’s sentencing, which was supposed to run from Tuesday to Friday. But after each day of victim impact statements, more and more women reached out and ask to have their voices heard. Since last Tuesday, the first day of statements, the number of women who signed up to speak nearly doubled.
And here was number 156, who was also in some ways number 1. Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis introduced Denhollander before she came to the podium to speak. She spoke about meeting Denhollander and her husband a year ago in her office in Detroit. This first meeting made her certain that they would defeat Nassar. “I knew there was no doubt that she would carry this case, that the world would hear her and believe her and the truth would be exposed,” Povilaitis said.
And then Denhollander began to speak. Throughout this process—from the first time I read her name in the initial Indy Star stories to this moment in court a year and a half later—Denhollander has been the picture of poise under pressure. When she first came forward, she had been alone; the only victim whose name and face was out there. That she isn’t nearly so alone now was, in large part, her doing. So many of the women who had testified over the last seven days said that it was Denhollander’s story that inspired them to come forward. When I spoke to her back in May, she described her email about Nassar to the Indy Star reporters as a “shot in the dark.” It now seems safe to say that the shot has hit its target.
But enough about how Denhollander came to be standing in that courtroom, being streamed to the rest of us live over the internet. Not because I couldn’t spend more words on it but because what she had to say today in court deserves a full hearing.
“How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?” she asked the court. This would become a refrain of sorts, especially the first question. She’d repeat it as many times as it took to hammer it home. Though most of the survivors who addressed the court were adults—though some were still minors when they stood up to speak—many of them were young girls, some as young as six, when Nassar started molesting them. Throughout the sentencing, images of the victims at the time of their abuse were displayed on a screen to remind the judge, Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, and everyone else just how vulnerable the victims were when they encountered Nassar.
Denhollander had been 15 when she first sought treatment for an ailing back from Nassar. “He did this with my own mother in the room,” Denhollander said of the abuse. This has become a familiar story; many victims said the same of their experience with Nassar, and some parents spoke of the crushing guilt they’ve experienced since learning that they had been present as their child was being sexually abused. But the first time Denhollander told her story 16 months ago, that detail was shocking. I wish it still was.
“He penetrated, he groped me, he fondled me,” she recalled. “Then he asked how it felt.”
“He asked us how it felt because he wanted to know how it felt,” Denhollander continued. “Larry found sexual satisfaction in our suffering.”
Denhollander talked about how Nassar groomed her. “You used your own daughter to manipulate me,” she said, talking about the time that Nassar introduced her to his daughter, knowing how much Denhollander cared about children. “I prayed that you would leave your abuse in the exam room.”
At the time of the abuse, Denhollander said she felt certain the officials had been told. It seemed impossible to her that no one knew about it. From the practiced way Nassar did what he did, it seemed like he had done it thousands of times. (Which he later admitted to doing.) “This must be medical treatment,” Denhollander remembered thinking. “The problem must be me.”
Denhollander would later learn that women and girls had come forward before she walked into Nassar’s office in 2000. Four women to be exact. None of them were believed. That’s the reason why Denhollander spent a large chunk of her statement indicting the institutions that enabled Nassar’s abuse to go on, unabated, for nearly thirty years. There was MSU, whose failures were quite clear; time and again, they brushed off complaints of abuse against Nassar. She said that in the university’s motions against the civil suits brought by the victims, they claimed that those individuals who reported Nassar going back twenty years hadn’t gone to the right people.
“The 14-year-old didn’t go to the right person,” Denhollander said sarcastically, tearing into MSU’s legal defense. “No one knew according to your definition of ‘know’ because no one handled the reports of abuse properly.”
She did not spare USA Gymnastics, either. Denhollander called them for failing to supervise Nassar, for allowing him to “treat” athletes in their rooms, in their beds. They didn’t make sure he was licensed to practice medicine in Texas, where the national team training camp was located, despite the fact that Nassar attended several camps a year and administered his “treatments” there. And of course, there’s the Indy Star investigation that prompted Denhollander to reach out to the reporters there. That investigation revealed that the top gymnastics organization in the country kept secret files with sexual abuse allegations against member coaches rather than immediately forwarding those complaints to the police.
When Denhollander decided to file a complaint with the police, she came prepared. She had her medical files, her journals from that period where she documented the anguish and the trauma she felt as a result of Nassar’s abuse, and research and articles about what legitimate pelvic floor work actually looks like. “You got to read my journals,” she said, addressing Nassar. “Every word of them. Because those had to go into evidence to make this happen.”
And yet Denhollander was still doubted at first. By the administration at MSU, who saw her as a nuisance or a gold digger despite the fact that she didn’t join any of the civil suits against Nassar until five months after she first went public.
In the months after Denhollander told the police and the media that Nassar had sexually abused her when she was 15, dozens of women came forward with similar stories. At first, most of them were anonymous, a roster of Jane Does with letters and numbers added to mark the difference between them. “With each Jane Doe, I saw my little girls,” Denhollander said. “While that is not my guilt, that is pain I still carry.”
She’s right—the guilt is not hers. It’s Nassar’s, of course, and it also belongs to all the people and institutions that failed to take complaints about him seriously. When I spoke to Denhollander in May and asked her about the red flags that those in power missed, she set me straight. “There were plenty of red flags that they ignored. But there were also some very blatant accusations that are far beyond a red flag,” Denhollander noted.
“This. Is. What. It. Looks. Like,” she said today about the consequences of ignoring victims who come forward. “It looks like a courtroom of survivors that carry deep wounds.”
Shortly after Denhollander finished speaking, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Nassar to the maximum under the plea agreement. Afterwards, Denhollander was asked about we could learn from this whole experience. “Do it better next time,” she said.