When I wrote about the first anniversary of Rachael Denhollander coming forward in the Indianapolis Star about how Larry Nassar sexually abused her under the guise of medical treatment, I struggled with the headline. I generally do, but the story kicked up a bit of a debate over whether the headline should center Denhollander’s name or Nassar’s. Was Denhollander—the first woman to come forward publicly about Nassar more recognizable than her abuser? Was she recognizable enough? Should that even matter?
Ultimately, we decided to use Nassar’s name instead of Denhollander’s for the piece, which was called, “It’s Been A Year Since One Of Larry Nassar’s Victims Took Her ‘Shot In The Dark.’” More people knew his name than hers; when my story was published, almost a year to the day since Denhollander’s account of her abuse appeared in the September 12, 2016 issue of the Star, more than 100 women had come forward and said that Nassar had abused them. Some of those women who came forward since that first Star story have been high-level athletes; some were Olympians and Olympic medalists. Jamie Dantzscher, a member of the bronze medal winning 2000 Olympic team, came forward around the same time as Denhollander but was initially known in civil filings as “Jane Doe.” Former rhythmic national champion Jessica Howard and former national team member Jeannette Antolin also came forward within six months of the first story.
And yet, despite the number of victims and the recognizable names among them, and despite the staggering scale of Nassar’s predations, the scandal hadn’t become front page news in the same way that the Jerry Sandusky and Penn State sex abuse scandal had become several years earlier. It would take an even more famous group of gymnasts—this time Olympic gold medalists McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Gabby Douglas—and Nassar’s sentencing in Ingham County, Mich., at which more than 150 women and girls gave statements about how Nassar abused them, for the story to become major national (and even international) news. It also made Denhollander something of a household name. In the post I wrote about Denhollander’s powerful victim impact statement in January her name—and only her name—appears in the headline. I wrote this particular headline without any hesitation, and in doing so, I thought back on the first title and felt a bit guilty about my previous choice. This story always belonged to Denhollander and the other survivors, the needs of the click-based economy be damned.
Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of women and girls—the current tally is north of 400—might be the cause of this whole nightmare, but it’s not the reason we all know Denhollander’s name. When she decided to take the monumental task of stopping Nassar on her slim shoulders, Denhollander took control of her own story.
“I felt like there was a job to do and I needed to do it,” she told me shortly before Labor Day weekend. This echoes, almost word for word for word, what she told me in May 2017. “My approach,” she said then, “is ‘there’s a job that needs to be done. I will pick up the pieces afterwards.’” She’s still working on it.
Though her sense of purpose hasn’t wavered, it felt different talking to Denhollander again this time around. The air was altogether lighter; her kids made noise in the background, periodically coming over to ask for a tablet to be charged or to be read a story. The soft cries of newborn baby Elora Renee were lower in the mix. Elora’s middle name is a tribute to Andrea Munford, whose middle name is also Renee. Munford was the detective who took Denhollander’s initial report back in August 2016 and doggedly pursued the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State physician. The intermittent presence of her children gave the sense of lives moving forward, even as we once again talked about painful things from the distant and not-so-distant past.
Also, a lot had been resolved in the Nassar case since our last conversation. Most significantly, Nassar had pleaded guilty and been sentenced on the federal child porn and state-level criminal sexual conduct charges. Back in May 2017, the case didn’t appear to be headed toward that kind of resolution.
Denhollander had just testified at length and in great detail about how Nassar had sexually abused her during her medical appointments back in 2000, when she was a 15-year-old club gymnast. I remember watching her testimony, broadcast via livestream, and being horrified both at what Nassar had done to her and the fact that Denhollander would be forced to repeat all of it when the trial began.
Denhollander didn’t just go into the graphic details of her abuse while she was on the stand; she did it in multiple media interviews, too. This was a calculated move on her part. “I knew he needed to be forced to confront certain things publicly, and that absent that confrontation, it would be very difficult to reach other survivors, to have that moment of, ‘Wait a minute, that was me too,’” she explained. “The only way to do that is to be very, very brazen.”
Still, I asked, was she relieved when she heard that Nassar would plead guilty and she wouldn’t have to take the stand to lay out the excruciating detail of her abuse one more time?
“Oh yes,” Denhollander answered. “Absolutely.”
Denhollander said that she and Angela Povilaitis, the assistant attorney general who was the lead prosecutor for the case, spoke at length about what sort of conditions would have to be met in order for the attorney general’s office to make a deal with Nassar. She wanted to make it clear that this plea deal was not about her. It was about all of the survivors. “One of which is that the survivors were in favor of the plea deal,” she explained. “They were comfortable with it. They felt like their voices were heard and that it brought justice.”
“When I came forward, I told Andrea [Munford] and Angela [Povilaitis] both, if there are stronger cases, don’t feel like you have to charge my case just because I spoke first,” Denhollander recalled. “I told her, ‘If Larry wants to pull something at the end where he says he’ll plead guilty to all of charges except mine, that’s fine, take it.’ I didn’t need it for me. But it was very important for me that the other survivors felt heard, that their voices were taken seriously, that anyone was able to testify and speak at the sentencing hearing. That was very critical for me.”
“It didn’t and still doesn’t surprise me that she would not insist we charge her case,” Povilaitis wrote in an email. “Besides being an attorney and understanding that the charging decision lies with the prosecutor, she is one of the most selfless people I know.”
After nearly two years of observing Denhollander, her resolve was startling but not surprising. It is entirely in keeping with the character she presented from the first moment she stepped into the public eye, in the video that accompanied that first Star story: calm, direct, lucid, seemingly unflappable.
This was, she told me, not an accident. “All of the dynamics of how assault victims are discredited is something I was very conscious of,” she explained. She was aware that she might be written off if she seemed to be overly emotional. And on the flip side, she said she was attacked for not showing enough emotion in her press appearances. “Survivors really just can’t win,” Denhollander said. “The cultural attitude towards survivors puts them in a position where it doesn’t matter what they do or how they respond, they’re not going to be taken seriously.”
(In the Marshall Project/Pro Publica’s Pulitizer Prize winning story, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a young woman who reported being tied up and raped in her home by a stranger was forced to recant by police and was charged with filing a false report, in part, because she seemed unusually calm in the aftermath of the violent attack. The man who attacked the young woman would later be found guilty in a string of home invasion rapes in Colorado.)
The emotional regulation required to manage not just what you’re saying about the worst experience of your life but how you are saying it was not, Denhollander said, the only exhausting part of the process. There are practical costs, too, and they add up. “We were out of state, multiple trips back and forth,” Denhollander pointed out. The criminal proceedings were in Michigan, where the crimes were committed; Denhollander, a Kalamazoo native, lived in Louisville with her husband, Jacob, and three young children. (Elora, their fourth child, was born about seven weeks ago.)
While most states have a witness travel budget, Denhollander said that in her case it only covered a limited amount of the overall costs, especially because she opted to travel with her husband and young children for emotional support. “For anyone that has a family, that has kids that have to travel with them or they can’t do a 24-hour turnaround, there are just a lot of additional costs that aren’t covered,” she said. “Survivors that I know of that have had to do something like this, almost all of them have come out in debt.”
Given this financial reality, it must be all the more galling to the survivors to be accused of merely seeking money in their civil suits. That they are seeking—or in the case of Michigan State sought, since the survivors settled with the university for $500 million—financial restitution is not a reflection of greed but a function of how the legal system works. There aren’t a lot of avenues available to victims of sexual violence seeking justice and reform. It’s quite difficult to obtain criminal convictions, and Nassar’s effective life sentence stands out as an anomaly. For a good chunk of history, rape was treated as a property crime and women treated as the property in question. Survivors of sexual violence are seeking wholeness through the one measure the American courts have historically offered to make damaged people whole, which is money.
“You should see some of the stuff MSU fans are still saying,” Denhollander saying. “The general cultural response, from what people speak publicly is somewhat favorable. But you definitely have MSU fans that are saying things like, we’re ruining the state, we’re ruining the school, we’re in it for the money…‘Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay the price for what MSU did.’ But you know what? If you want to fund a state university, you better make sure that the university is doing the right thing. Because it’s taxpayer dollars that got us abused. So yeah, taxpayer dollars are going to have to pay the restitution.”
The failures in the Nassar case go beyond those belonging to MSU, USAG, and the USOC. No law enforcement agency got it right on the first try, and some never did. The Meridian Township police department first learned about Nassar in 2004 when Brianne Randall (now Randall-Gay) filed a police report with her mother when she was just 16. That investigation went as far as bringing Nassar in for questioning and then accepting his explanation that the assault was a medical treatment because he showed them some PowerPoint slides. Detectives never consulted a non-Nassar-affiliated medical expert in that case. Then in 2014, Amanda Thomashow filed a complaint with MSU police that also went nowhere when the prosecutor’s office declined to file charges.
Though Denhollander wasn’t aware of the string of law enforcement failures before she filed her own criminal complaint in August 2016, she was aware that police generally have a terrible track record when it comes to dealing with sexual assault.
“To be honest, my biggest fear coming forward was what kind of investigator I would get and what kind of prosecutor I would get because the investigator and the prosecutor will make or break the case,” she told me. “I could do absolutely everything in my power to put public pressure on, but if I got an investigator that didn’t understand the case or didn’t put the time into it or a prosecutor that didn’t take want to take the time and effort to bring the charges, it just wasn’t going to matter.”
The MSU police did manage to get it right on the third try for local enforcement. Denhollander met Munford, and Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette decided to intervene and have his office handle it, which brought in Povilaitis.
And then there is the FBI. Denhollander was unsparing in her criticism of how egregiously the bureau fucked up its handling of the Nassar investigation. As was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, USA Gymnastics reported Nassar to the FBI in July 2015, but the bureau waited nine months to open a formal investigation. “The fact that the FBI could know about him for a year and had done absolutely nothing, it’s abhorrent,” Denhollander said. “He was left abusing young girls every single day for a year, after they had multiple reports that he was a pedophile. That’s inexcusable. It’s inexcusable for everyone but it’s absolutely inexcusable for law enforcement.”
The FBI’s inaction, more than just another example of the bureau’s gross incompetence, exacted a personal toll on Denhollander and the other survivors. “Had the FBI done what they were supposed to do, I also wouldn’t have had to do what I did. Jamie Dantzscher wouldn’t have had to do what she did,” she said. Neither woman would’ve had to come forward and be out there in public, basically alone, for months, as the police slowly started building their case.
(Though Dantzscher was publicly identified as “Jane Doe” at first, there was enough biographical information in her civil suit for the gymnastically knowledgeable to identify her fairly quickly. She might not have had her name and face out there like Denhollander did, but she wasn’t truly anonymous either.)
I noted all of the institutional failure in the Nassar case—the police, MSU, FBI, USAG, and USOC—and asked Denhollander how she avoided despair.
“Honestly, a huge part of that is my faith,” Denhollander answered. “I do believe there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong, and so I can look at what’s happening and say this is wrong and justice will come.”
In this case, justice has come in dribs and drabs. In many ways, it’s still forthcoming and will probably be incomplete at best. While the civil suits against USA Gymnastics and the USOC trudge forward and the other criminal cases—Texas authorities have filed charges against Nassar and former USA Gymnastics athletic trainer Debbie Van Horn—some of the survivors have turned their attention to attempting to change the culture of the various institutions that failed them. Lately, the focus has been on the imploding USA Gymnastics organization.
I spoke to Denhollander in the midst of the implosion, which seemed to start when USA Gymnastics hired Mary Lee Tracy, coach to 1996 Olympic gold medalists Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps and many other elites, to be the developmental coordinator for the elite program. Tracy, as the gymternet quickly reminded everyone, had said positive things about Nassar even after 50 victims had come forward. She had also been accused of emotional abuse by some of her former gymnasts including 2000 Olympic team alternate Alyssa Beckerman.
None of this damning info was a secret, and was easy to find in news articles or comment threads from Facebook that had been screenshotted and shared all over the internet. Her hiring underscored to many that USA Gymnastics was not willing to change, and was still all about protecting and promoting powerful insiders.
Over the course of three days, Tracy went from trying to defend her earlier comments about Nassar—she said she was stating her experience and that she had been under the sway of a “master manipulator”—to saying that she was going to resign at the behest of USAG, and then saying she was going to pursue legal action. Ultimately, the mess became the catalyst for USAG’s board demanding Kerry Perry’s resignation after just nine months in the job. I was interested in Denhollander’s position on Tracy’s claims that she, like many others, had been manipulated by Nassar. That claim seemed like a defense of sorts, meant to suggest that Tracy couldn’t be an enabler and be held accountable for her words or actions if she was manipulated by the perpetrator.
“This is one of the most used quibbles,” Denhollander said. “‘Well nobody covered it up. Kathy [Klages, the former MSU gymnastics coach who is now facing criminal charges] didn’t cover it up because Kathy didn’t know it was abuse.’” Larissa Boyce, who was a gymnast with Spartan youth gymnastics, said that she told Klages in 1997 that Nassar had sexually abused her during a treatment session. Boyce said that Klages warned of negative consequences for both Boyce and Nassar if she filed the report. Klages never followed through on Boyce’s report. Nassar continued to abuse women and girls for another twenty years.
“Did Kathy think in her mind, ‘I think Larry is really sexually abusing little girls and I’m not going to say anything because I think sexually abusing little girls is fine?’” Denhollander continued. “I don’t think so. I think Kathy just honestly believed what she said. She did not handle the report properly, she did not exercise proper oversight. She did not do what she was supposed to do and the result was devastating.”
“It is one thing to fail to catch someone; but at the point that Mary Lee defended him, there were over 50 police reports filed. More than 50,” Denhollander added. “That is way more than someone who is just manipulated. That’s someone who is willfully blind.”
Within days of the “Tracy fiasco,” one of her former athletes, Amanda Jetter, came forward and said that Nassar had abused her. This makes two (so far) for Tracy’s gym, Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy. (The other is 2000 Olympic team member Morgan White.)
As a point of comparison, Denhollander brought up a coach who didn’t avert his eyes, who forced himself to believe when he first learned about Denhollander’s allegations. Coach Thomas Brennan briefly entered the media spotlight when, during the victim impact statements in Ingham County, he stood alongside his former gymnast as she delivered her statement. After she was done, Brennan said to Nassar, “For the record, go to hell!” Then Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed him to speak at greater length.
According to Denhollander, Brennan did more than just stand alongside his athlete in court. He actually helped his gymnasts file police reports, despite the fact that he had been a good friend of Nassar’s for many years. Nassar had, in fact, been a professional mentor of Brennan’s.
“But when Coach Tom heard my allegations, he immediately believed,” Denhollander said. “Coach Tom’s immediate response was, ‘This could be true.’ It wasn’t, ‘This is my friend, it’s not true.’ He recognized an abuser can be anyone.’
“He went back to his other gymnasts and he asked, ‘Did this ever happen to you?’ and when some of the girls denied it, he asked more specific questions to help them think through what had really happened and he identified survivors from his own group and he came and walked them through filing the police report, came and supported them during their victim impact statement.”
Confronted with the idea that his good friend—someone he trusted and to which he’d entrusted his athletes for years—could be a predator, according to Denhollander, Brennan opened himself up to the possibility that this could all be true. This is the critical leap that most people, when they first started hearing about Nassar, whether it was 20 years ago or 10 years ago or five years ago or two, failed to make.
“The reality is that most of the time when people say ‘that’s not possible,’ the reasons they think it’s not possible are the very reasons that the abuser has been able to abuse,” Denhollander said. “It’s the position they occupy in the community, it’s how good they appear, it’s how kind and compassionate they are, it’s how much access they have to children. All of those are dynamics that the abuser relies on to keep the victim confused and silent and manipulate the people around them. Until we recognize that and stop saying, ‘It’s not possible because’ it’s going to be very difficult to take any reports of abuse seriously.”
Denhollander doesn’t believe that USAG, as it is currently constituted, is up to making the cultural change that the moment demands. “In a perfect world, USAG is decertified [by the USOC] and anyone that was part of the old regime that accepted abusive coaching strategies and did not speak up against all forms of abuse taking place at USAG is gone,” she said. “Which means basically everyone.”
Denhollander would like to see the organization begun anew, with a new generation of athletes and leaders who are committed to safety and understand how abuse manifests in a competitive athletic environment. She truly believes that positive coaching can lead to great competitive outcomes for the gymnasts. She also believes that’s not the most important thing.
“Your emphasis,” she said, “has to be on what is right.”