When Rachael Denhollander reached out to the Indianapolis Star last summer to tell them about the sexual abuse she said she endured at the hands of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar, she had modest expectations.
“My hope, I thought, at best, maybe they would be able to find something about Larry when they were sifting [through] those closed coach files,” Denhollander told me. She wrote to the newspaper after it published a blockbuster story about how records showed USA Gymnastics appearing to mishandle complaints of sexual abuse against member coaches. In that original investigation, the Star revealed that the nonprofit kept confidential files with complaints against member coaches and failed to notify authorities about the allegations. The paper also filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit and unseal more of the coaches’ files; Denhollander wanted to alert the Star’s reporters to Nassar’s name in case it appeared in any of the confidential records.
“It was kind of a shot in the dark. It was the first chance I ever saw that somebody would believe,” she said.
Denhollander ended up doing a lot more than simply tipping off the reporters about Nassar; she became the first woman to come forward publicly against the osteopathic physician and say that he had sexually abused her under the guise of medical treatment when she was a 15-year-old club gymnast in her home state of Michigan. At the end of August 2016, Denhollander, now 32, a lawyer, and a mother of three, filed a criminal complaint with the Michigan State University police after learning that the state had eliminated the statute of limitations for penetrative sexual misconduct. And a couple of weeks later, her account of what happened to her when she was a teenager—that Nassar digitally penetrated her without gloves or consent over the course of five treatments—was published in the Star.
It’s been exactly one year since that first story about Nassar was published. And since Denhollander and “Jane Doe”—an Olympic medalist who was later revealed to be Jamie Dantzscher—came forward with their accounts of being sexually abused under the guise of medical treatment, more than 100 other women and girls have said Nassar also abused them. Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, and Nassar are facing multiple lawsuits from them. Steve Penny, the former president of USA Gymnastics, was forced to resign due to pressure from victims, the media, and the USOC. Nassar pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges in exchange for a plea deal. He has not, however, admitted to any wrongdoing when it comes to the alleged assaults. He also has been charged with more than 20 counts of criminal sexual conduct, including Denhollander’s.
Since her first interview with the Star a year ago, Denhollander has told her story several times, including in a Michigan courtroom where she testified about what happened during a preliminary hearing. It was the first time in nearly two decades that Denhollander was in the same room as the man she accused of sexually assaulting her.
“I feel like it’s painful and degrading, honestly, to have to discuss all of these details with an audience and with him in the room but that is part of the justice system,” she told me back in May, just a couple of weeks after she testified. Denhollander, however, was matter-of-fact about seeing this process through to the end. “My approach is, ‘There’s a job that needs to be done. I will pick up the pieces afterwards.’”
Following the “treatments” in which she says Nassar abused her, Denhollander had been struggling to understand what exactly happened to her. She told her mother what had happened in bits and pieces over time. (Her mother had been in the room while she was being treated but Nassar obstructed her view.) She spoke to other medical experts. After years of private inquiry, Denhollander knew that she had been sexually abused by Nassar. But when exactly did she transition from patient to victim?
She got the answer to that question when she saw the Title IX report in her case. In his testimony, Nassar explicitly denied using internal, penetrative methods. And a fellow osteopathic physician questioned for the report stated that he and Nassar had discussed “not going” internal in the past. This shocked Denhollander, who thought that, at the very least, Nassar had been trained and certified in internal pelvic floor work as a cover for what he was doing to young girls.
“When he came back and flat out denied that he ever does internal techniques, I never saw that coming,” she recalled. “I mean, after wrestling with it for 17 years, I didn’t expect surprises.”
Denhollander said that this revelation from the Title IX report really deepened her sense of violation and betrayal. She now knew when she had transitioned from patient to victim—almost from the moment she laid down on his treatment table. “He was not using the cover of medical treatment. He wasn’t doing anything the entire time except for his own gratification. That was a new level of needing to process, to grieve that I had not expected to have to do,” she told me.
And after Denhollander and others went public with their allegations against Nassar, she learned that several institutions had also played a part in the betrayal. As early as 1997, young women were coming forward to Michigan State employees with claims of sexual assault against Nassar, only to be brushed off or bullied into silence. “I get a lot of questions about how do you feel about Michigan State ignoring warning signs or ignoring red flags,” Denhollander said. “You know, there were plenty of red flags that they ignored. But there were also some very blatant accusations that are far beyond a red flag.”
For Denhollander, a woman coming forward and explicitly telling a coach or an athletic trainer that Nassar had assaulted her is not a red flag. It’s not a subtle hint. It’s a call for immediate action. “They silenced women who were coming forward as assault victims,” she said, “and children who were coming forward as assault victims.”
For Denhollander, discovering all of those prior complaints that had been ignored and dismissed, provoked mixed feelings. One the one hand, it had confirmed her suspicions that she wouldn’t have been believed even if she had come forward earlier. “The first thing I thought was, I was right ... I could not do anything for the last 17 years until there was someone like the Indy Star, willing to dig in,” she said. But this validation wasn’t particularly satisfying. “I would’ve far rather had to grapple with ‘I was wrong.’”
“Because the reality is when you start to see how the institutions were ignoring the victims, were even bullying, in some cases, the victims into silence, it’s incredible betrayal,” she said. “It wasn’t just my abuser I couldn’t trust. I couldn’t trust anyone around me. I couldn’t trust anyone who should’ve been speaking up for the children.”
In the end, Nassar’s abuse came to light, not because any of the institutions took action, but because victims like Denhollander started coming forward, which encouraged even more women to come forward. During her testimony at the preliminary hearing back in May, Victim G credited Denhollander for empowering her to come forward.
When I asked Denhollander how it felt to hear that she has helped others speak out about what happened to them, she replied, “I’m just very grateful. I’m grateful that the truth is coming out. I am grateful these women don’t have to live in silence anymore. I’m grateful they have answers. And I’m hopeful that healing will be a little bit easier now that the truth is known. I really believe that justice is coming.”