by Gillian Puma & Jilleen Barrett, Staff Writers
On Thursday, Oct. 10, students and faculty gathered in Kelly 5A to hear attorney and advocate Rachael Denhollander share her journey on exposing former Michigan University and USA Gymnastics national team doctor, Larry Nassar. The event was held through Student Engagement and co-sponsored by the Lasallian Women & Gender Resource Center, Office of Diversity, Equity & Title IX, and the Government and Politics Club.
“I originally emailed Rachael in February 2018,” said John Bennett, Executive Director of Student Engagement. “Back when I originally reached out, I thought it was both an important topic and could be an inspiring story. Now nearly two years later from the original outreach, I still feel that way. She was also chosen because Title IX and sexual assault are such big topics on college campuses, any way to get that information and these stories out there to the general students, the more the better.”
Denholander was a former gymnast who experienced Nassar’s sexual abuse when she was 15 years old. Denhollander filed a Title IX complaint with Michigan State University in August 2016, 16 years after Nassar had assaulted her. Her story became internationally known and she became the first woman to speak about Nassar’s abuse.
“For those of you who may not be familiar with my story, I initially became an expert of abuse through the worst possible way, through personal experience” Denhollander said as she opened her lecture. “I was abused first at age seven by a pedophile in my church and I experienced both the positive and negative ramifications of people who were trained or not trained to handle abuse well.”
“Adults in my church believed my parents were in accusation without a foundation. My mom was a survivor, and she was frequently told when you post your own experience you become a hyper sensitive wounded survivor,” Denhollander described the response her parents were given when they came forward. The result lead to her family being isolated from the church. “The lesson I took from that was if you cannot prove your abuse, do not speak up. Because if you do it will cost you everything.”
Denhollander continued to follow that lesson, even up until she was 15 years old when she had her first encounter with Dr. Larry Nassar. Nassar was an internationally renowned sports medicine doctor working for Michigan State University, and was the team doctor for the USA Olympic gymnastics teams. He was extremely well respected by others in his field and this helped him abuse young girls for over a decade.
Denhollander was abused by Nassar from the first appointment she had with him. As she lay on the table, she worried about how the way he was touching her, but ultimately decided that if there was something wrong with the way he treated his patients, someone would have done something about it. “It wasn’t just my abuser I trusted. I trusted the entire community that surrounded him to do the right thing.”
This community, as it is now known, included sixteen officials (some being mandatory reporters) at Michigan State University and four law enforcement agencies (including the head of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Child Sexual Assault Division) who had been told specifically what Nassar was doing for more than fifteen years at this point and did nothing about it. Denhollander alone went through abuse at his hands for almost two years. Eventually, he did something that was clearly wrong, and she said that was “…when reality came crashing down on me, because I realized I’d been right.”
Not only had she been right, but she also had to come to terms with the fact that Nassar did this to other young women just like her who spoke up about his actions and nobody listened to them. Not fully knowing what to do next, Denhollander meticulously planned for the day when she could expose Nassar for his malicious actions. She later found out that there were girls as young as six years old being abused in the same way she was.
Denhollander earned her paralegal certificate her junior year of high school. She learned how defamation lawsuits worked, and the bar journalists had to achieve in order to publish articles like that. She explained how press coverage in 2002 was very different than it is now, and unfortunately she hadn’t had the opportunity to come forward with her story without facing serious backlash. This resulted in her waiting 16 years for her to tell her story.
Finally, after 16 years of gathering medical records, learning about the proper procedures of pelvic floor exams, and keeping track of Nassar’s career she saw an article on Indiestar about USA Gymnastics and their coverup of the sexual assault performed by member coaches. “This is that crack I’ve been waiting for,” Denhollander remembers thinking. “People are finally paying attention.”
Denhollander spoke with IndieStar and said she’d come forward publicly. Within two weeks, she’d recorded an interview with them, temporarily moved to Michigan with her four kids and husband, filed a police report and started the Title IX process. On September 12th, 2016, her story became national news. She helped journalists and reporters put together the pieces of this twisted puzzle and get all of the details on the faults of Nassar and USA Gymnastics.
Nassar pleaded guilty to possessing 37,000 images of child pornography and several counts of first degree felony sexual assault. One hundred and fifty-six of the 500 women he assaulted identified themselves and came forward in court. The bravery that these women had to have in order to be able to speak up against not only Nassar, but also USA Gymnastics and everybody who endorsed them is remarkable. That is what Denhollander believes was the most crucial turning point in this situation.
She directed the attention towards the harm caused by sexual assault, because she wanted us to recognize that the damage doesn’t fade away. It can lead to depression, post traumatic stress disorder, drug use, alcohol abuse, and suicide. It also leads to guilt, self blame, a need to be in control, unhealthy relationships, sexual aggression, and participatory flashbacks.
Denhollander discussed how many people tend to not believe victims because they didn’t come out right away. “You’ll remember the sites and the sounds and smells, but you are watching that memory unfold.”
Denhollander then opened the discussion to a question-and-answer with the audience. Aside from students, even staff members of Manhattan College got involved in the discussion. Manhattan College Women’s Basketball Coach, Heather Vulin, asked Denhollander, “Being a survivor and being someone who’s been through it, what are some best practices that you would recommend for universities and colleges to learn how to move forward to protect our student athletes?”
Denholannder answered, “Most important thing you have to start with right out of the gate is to get the staff board trauma informed and trained. Because a lot of times, the people handling Title IX investigations don’t understand what evidence looks like. They’re not trauma informed so the way they conduct these investigations can be very damaging to survivors.”
“The difference you see in the person who handled my Title IX investigation versus the 2014 Title IX investigation was night and day different. Most campuses that are larger have their own police department that’s responsible for handling these claims. And if you don’t have investigators who are trauma informed and trained on how to handle them, you’re going to miss evidence that is there.”
In the end of her lecture, Denhollander handed out copies of her book “What Is A Girl Worth?”, signed autographs, and took pictures with people who attended the event.
“Hopefully people come out of this feeling inspired to stand up for themselves,” John Bennet said. “Hopefully people feel empowered, and just live each day trying to be a little nicer to one another than they were the previous day.”