It’s occasionally difficult to distill any book, particularly one of this weight, into words. This is a book that should never have needed to be written, and it is one of the most powerfully affecting books that I’ve ever read. This book is deeply challenging, and it is entirely possible to experience a huge range of emotions while reading it; I routinely cycled through anger, frustration, compassion, joy, and sadness as I turned pages in it. There are more than a few times when I had to put the book down and walk away from it simply because it was too emotionally demanding to continue reading, as this subject generally is. Other passages, particularly near the end, moved me to tears.
For those who do not know the story, Rachael Denhollander was sexually abused by Larry Nassar while in her early teens during treatment for injuries received as a result of gymnastics. As someone who had previously been a victim of abuse, it did not take a long time for Rachael to realize that what Nassar had done was wrong and illegal, but she writes eloquently about how tightly she kept that secret because the entire family was fully aware that Nassar was untouchable due to his associations with MSU and especially the US Gymnastics program. She not only painstakingly documented what happened to her, but also built an entire library of information in the hopes that one day someone out there would provide an opening that would allow him to face justice. That opening was provided by the investigative team at the Indianapolis Star1 many years later, after she believed her opportunity to press charges had expired, in a story about the coverup of abuse in the US Olympic program.
I think this book will be a huge encouragement or challenge to three groups of people. The first group is for survivors2 themselves. For those who have been through the trauma of any kind of abuse, learning to vocalize what happened to themselves and even to be courageous enough to talk about it are the first two major steps in their recovery. Abuse victims come in all shapes and sizes, and many of them have learned that the best way to “deal” with their trauma is to try and will it away or to bury it under layered internal defenses, which is yet another educational aspect of the book. For Rachael in particular, it meant repeatedly testifying about what was done in graphic detail to reporters, police, court, and the media. Now she is testifying to it in excruciating and personal detail in this book. Most survivors will not ever do this, as the cost is simply too high. Rachael, on the other hand, is very forward and blunt with the description, but her pointedness is for our own good. If we couch the realities of abuse in polite language, it can diffuse the power and weight of the truth we need to know. For this reason alone I would recommend the book to anyone.
The second group of people are those of us who may be aware of the case and are interested in her story from an insider’s point of view. I know that I first heard about Rachael through the sentencing hearing and closing witness statement, which has now been seen more than a million times via different channels on YouTube.3 These people may be familiar with the case but not the dynamics of abuse or the criminal justice system, and this book should come as a shocking and eye-opening expośe into how abusers can co-opt everyone into silent complicity and erect walls of protection that not only buffer them from accusation but also prevent the victims from ever going forward and continually opens up new avenues for further exploitation.
The third group of people that this book should challenge are those charged with shepherding people4 in their local church. This is traditionally the role of pastors, elders, and deacons, but it should also include those who are responsible for children’s ministries, Sunday School, VBS leaders, and community outreach team members as well. Because the church is generally a volunteer-lead, volunteer-run ministry to the community-at-large, we are particularly susceptible to those who may appear as angels of light but who may have evil intent. Having abuse prevention policies are good, helpful, and are legally necessary but having an understanding of the methodologies of predators will help us understand our own cultural blind spots as well. This book will give you some exposure to understanding the things to look for from predators and more importantly, people who are being groomed for abuse or abused at home. This is an area that we traditionally do not cover well or in detail in our counseling materials, and many of the resources that we might look to for guidance generally do not do a good job of handling the topic of abuse.
In addition, those who lead the church must develop (if they do not already have) the necessary discernment and fortitude to engage with those who are adept at spin and misdirection. Perhaps some of our churches would not carry the reputations they do if the pastors had learned to look beyond the façade of trusting “friends” and supporters and seen the hideous realities underneath, which leads into my next point.
One major thought that went through my head as I read the book was “what would have happened if Rachael were in my church and she didn’t have the background and training that she did?” If Rachael had come into my church as an overweight mother of four that lived in a mobile home, or as an angry seventeen-year-old African American teenager who kept mouthing back to me, or a sullen and withdrawn boy who kept running away from his home…would I have listened to them? Would I have acted to get at the real issue instead of what was being presented? Would I have even known how to get past the external shell and at the heart of the issues that were really going on? To my shame, I have to say that I might not have done that. That’s a terrifying proposition, because we will receive judgment on the basis of all the works that we have done, including our thoughts. James is very clear to warn us of the dangers of being selective shepherds in James 2:1-13, and Matthew 25:40-45 reminds us of our responsibility to care for the naked, hungry, thirsty and imprisoned. How much of a prison is being abused by someone and yet unable to get someone to believe that you were? Do we really want to follow the model of the priest and Levite, who saw the beaten man on the Jericho road and callously cross over to the other side5? Are abuse victims not our neighbors too?
I could easily spend a dozen more pages talking about how important and educational this book is, and still never be a line closer to finishing, and I haven’t even touched on her ability to write or many other aspects of the book. God has specifically used her grit, fortitude, and determination in our day to tear aside the veils of secrecy that shrouds this topic. You must read this book, and I’d encourage that any schools or universities that are in the business of training ministers to make it required reading for their students. I wish I had this book years ago, when I was in undergrad or seminary…but I have it now, and others can read and learn from it too. Go buy it now!
2 Abuse victims do not generally like to be called victims, but survivors.
3 291,000 views (WXYZ TV), 346,000 (CNN), 293,000 (MLive), and 72,000 (USA Today) channels. This is a small gathering completed on 8/27/19.
4 Luke 10:29-37.
5 Luke 10:25-37.
Jay holds a MA and a BA in Pastoral Studies from Bob Jones University and Northland Baptist Bible College (later Northland International University). He and his wife serve at a church in New York in many different capacities.