In her own words: Nassar victim’s emotional statement
Editor’s note: Rachael Denhollander gave The Detroit News a copy of her prepared remarks for her victim impact statement regarding Larry Nassar. Denhollander addressed the court using that statement on Wednesday.
Thank you your honor.
My name is Rachael Denhollander, I want to thank you first, for taking the time to hear the voices of myself and so many survivors, for giving us the chance to speak the truth, and plead for justice. Our voices were taken from us for so long, and I am grateful beyond what I can express, that you have given us the chance to restore them.
There are two major purposes to our criminal justice system your Honor — the pursuit of justice, and the protection of the innocent. Neither of these purposes can be met if anything less than the maximum available sentence under the plea agreement, is imposed on Larry for his crimes. Not because the federal sentence he will already serve is lacking, but because the sentence rendered today will send a message across this country. A message to every victim, and a message to every perpetrator. I realize you have many factors to consider in sentencing, but I submit to you that the preeminent question that must be answered as you reach a decision about how best to satisfy these dual aims in your court, is the same question I urged Judge Neff to consider in Larry’s federal sentencing: How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman, worth?
Larry is a hardened and determined sexual predator. I know this firsthand. At age 15, when I suffered from chronic back pain, Larry sexually assaulted me repeatedly under the guise of medical treatment, for nearly a year. He did this with my own mother in the room, carefully and perfectly obstructing her view so that she would not know what he was doing. His ability to gain my trust and the trust of my parents, his grooming, and his carefully calculated, brazen sexual assault was the result of deliberate, intentional and methodical patterns of abuse. Patterns that were premeditated and rehearsed on many victims long before I walked through Larry’s exam room door, and which continued to be perpetrated for 16 more years until I filed my police report.
Larry is the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to ensure a steady stream of young children to sexually assault.
And while Larry is unlikely to live past his federal sentence, he is not the only predator, and this sentence will send a message about how seriously abuse will be taken So I ask, how much is a little girl worth? How much priority should be placed on communicating that the fullest weight of the law will be used to protect another innocent child from the soul-shattering devastation sexual assault brings?
I submit to you that she is worth everything. Worth every protection the law can offer. Worth the maximum sentence.
The second aim of this court and our criminal justice system is to pursue justice for the victims already harmed. This aim too, can only be realized through imposing the maximum available sentence on Larry. And reaching this decision too, also requires answering the question, “how much is a little girl worth?” How much is a young woman worth?
This time, however, the little girls in question are not potential victims. They are real women and children. Real women and little girls with names, and faces and souls. Real women and children whose abuse and suffering was enjoyed for sexual fulfillment by Larry Nassar.
Denhollander, the first of Larry Nassar's victims to speak out about him publicly, gives her victim impact statement during the sentencing on January 24, 2018. Sarah Rahal / The Detroit News
I believe, sometimes, your honor, that when we are embroiled in a legal dispute, the words of our legal system, designed to classify and categorize and instruct, can inadvertently sterilize the harsh realities of what has taken place. Can serve as a shield against the horror of what is really being discussed. And this must not happen, because the truth about what Larry has done must be realized in its full depth if justice is ever to be served. So for a moment your honor I, like every woman who has come before me, want to drop this shield and expose Larry’s actions in all the horror that they are.
Larry meticulously groomed me for the purpose of exploiting me for his sexual gain. He penetrated me, groped me, fondled me, and then whispered questions about how I felt. He engaged in degrading and humiliating sex acts without my consent or permission. And Larry enjoyed it. Larry sought out and took pleasure in little girls and women being sexually injured and humiliated because he liked it. And as I and so many other women and little girls were being violated, Larry found sexual satisfaction in our suffering. As we were being sexually violated, even as very young children, Larry was sexually aroused by our humiliation and pain. He asked how we felt, because he wanted to know. He enjoyed it.
What was done to myself and these other women and little girls, and the fact that our sexual violation was enjoyed by Larry, matters. It demands justice. And the sentence you impose today will send a message about how much these precious women and children are worth. You have seen our pictures, your honor, moments in time captured when we were young, vulnerable, and violated.
I think of the young girl I was, and the little girls and young women all the survivors were, every day. I see them in the faces of my two precious daughters. I watch my daughters’ eyes light up as they dance to the Nutcracker, and I remember the little girl I, and all these survivors, used to be. The sparkle their eyes must have had, as mine did, before they were violated. I watch my daughters love and trust unreservedly, and I remember the long road it has been to let myself love and be loved without fear, after having my trust used against me like a weapon. I think of the scars that still remain.
One of worst parts of this entire process was knowing, as I began to realize what had happened to me, was how many other young women and little girls had been left destroyed too.
I was barely 15 when Larry began to abuse me, and as I lay on the table each time and tried to reconcile what was happening with the man Larry was held out to me to be, there were three things I was sure of:
1. This was something Larry did regularly.
2. Because this was something he did regularly, it was impossible that at least some people at MSU and USAG were unaware of this regular method of treatment.
3. Because people at MSU and USAG HAD to be aware of these treatments and had not stopped them, there surely could be no question about it’s legitimacy. This must. Be. Medical. Treatment.
And because I had friends who were physical therapists who practiced legitimate internal pelvic floor work, I also knew that it required specialized training and certification. Surely, anyone who heard Larry was penetrating young girls would have demanded to know where he got his training. And if there was any question about it, he would never have been allowed near me.
And on the first two points I was right — it was something he did often, and others had described Larry’s treatment before. In fact four girls and women in three different athletic departments at MSU had described Larry’s penetration in detail, and reported their belief that they had been sexually assaulted, to Kathy Klages, MSU’s head gymnastics coach, to the track coach, and to multiple athletic trainers and supervisors, before I ever walked in Larry’s door.
But I was wrong in my third belief — that surely, if someone was made aware of what Larry was doing, they would report it, and ensure it was legitimate before ever letting him near another child.
I did not know, at 15, that in 1997, THREE YEARS before I walked into Larry’s exam room, that MSU’s head gymnastics coach, Kathy Klages, had waived a report form in front of Larissa Boyce, after being told by two separate gymnasts that Larry was penetrating and groping them, and told Larissa there would be consequences for her if that report form was signed.
I did not know that Tiffany Thomas Lopez had reported the penetration and sexual assault to athletic trainer Destiny Teachner-Hauk, and other athletic trainers and supervisors, two years before I walked into Larry’s door, and had also been silenced.
I did not know that Christie Achanbach had reported the penetration and sexual abuse to her track coach and athletic trainers, and been silenced, one year before I walked into Larry’s door.
I did not know that Jennifer Bedford had also reported to Destiny Teachner-Hauk, asking if she could file a report that Nassar’s behavior made her very uncomfortable, and that she had also been silenced.
At 15, I believed that the adults at MSU surrounding Larry would do the right thing if they were aware of what Larry was doing. And I was terribly wrong.
I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, USAG was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches, in a file cabinet, instead of reporting them, creating a culture where predators like Larry, and SO many others in USAG, up to the highest level coaches, were able to sexually abuse children without fear of being caught. I did not know that, contrary to my belief, the elite gymnasts were far from protected, and that USAG, rather than supervising Larry, was allowing him to “treat” these girls in their own beds, in secret, without even having a medical license in Texas.
I did not know these things. And so as Larry was abusing me each time, I assured myself it must be fine, because the adults around Larry at MSU and USAG, would never have let him near children, if it wasn’t.
My misplaced trust in my physician, and my misplaced trust in the adults around Larry, were wielded like a weapon, and cost me dearly, and followed me everywhere.
I would like to take a moment now to address both organizations whose gross failures lead to my abuse.
MSU, we have been telling our stories for more than 18 months, and you have yet to actually answer a single question I have asked. Every time I repeat these facts about the number of women who reported to employees at MSU and were silenced, you respond in the exact same way.
1. You say that there was no cover-up because no one who heard the reports of assault believed Larry was committing abuse. You play word games, saying you did not “know” because no one “believed” it was sexual abuse. MSU, I know that. And the reason everyone who heard about Larry’s abuse did not believe it was abuse is because they DID. NOT. LISTEN. They did not listen in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, or 2014. No one “knew” according to your definition of “know” because no one handled the reports of abuse properly. Victims were silenced, intimidated, repeatedly told it was medical treatment, and even forced to go back for continued sexual assault.
2. You have stated in the motion to dismiss our civil suit that the reports that were given in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 to track coaches, gymnastics coaches and athletic trainers and supervisors don’t “count” as notice because these teenagers didn’t report to the right official. That NO reports of sexual assault count as “notice” unless it is a report to someone capable of firing the alleged perpetrator. This entirely contradicts the letter President Simon sent to all 11,000 MSU employees in 2012, reminding them that MSU policy requires them to report ANY suspected child abuse to MSU PD, and any allegations of sexual assault against someone at MSU, to MSU PD. So which is it? Do you think all your employees need to protect children, or not?
It's been 18 months, and I am still asking the same questions, and receiving the same straw-man, word-game answers you have been giving for over a year. And so I ask them here again:
When Kathy Klages humiliated Larrissa Boyce and the second gymnast, and waived the report form in front of Larissa, telling her there would be consequences of she reported, was that the right way, or the wrong way, to handle a child’s disclosure of sexual assault on an MSU campus?
When Tiffany Thomas Lopez reported her abuse to athletic trainers and supervisors, and the trainer used the emotional pain Tiffany was in after her father’s death, to convince her it would be too exhausting and painful to bother filing an official report form, was that the right way, or the wrong way, to handle reports of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
When Christi Achanbach reported sexual assault to her track coach and athletic trainers, and was also silenced, was that the right way, or the wrong way, to handle disclosures of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
When Kyle Stephen’s parents reported Larrys’ sexual abuse of their daughter to an MSU Psychiatrist, and he brought Larry in to talk to the parents, instead of reporting as he was mandated by law to do, was that the right way, or the wrong way, to handle disclosures of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
When Amanda Thomashow reported to the Title IX office, and Larry was allowed to handpick the four colleagues to be interviewed to determine whether his treatment was legitimate, was that the right way, or the wrong way, to handle sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
And after all this, in 2016, I came forward with an entire file of evidence and made a police and Title IX report. I brought:
- My medical records showing Larry never charted penetrative techniques
- Medical records from a nurse practitioner documenting my graphic disclosure of abuse to her in 2004
- My journals showing the mental anguish I’d been in since the assault
- A catalogue of national and international medical journal articles showing what real pelvic floor treatment looked like
- A letter from a neighboring assistant district attorney vouching for my character and truthfulness and urging detectives to take my case seriously
- A cover letter going point by point through Michigan law and case law explaining how ever element of First Degree Criminal Assault was met with specificity
- A witness I had disclosed to in 2004
- Evidence of two more women unconnected to me who were also claiming sexual abuse by Larry
- And three pelvic floor experts willing to speak on my behalf
And what was the response of officials in MSU? Dean William Strampel, the head of the college of osteopathy, immediately wrote Larry an email and told him “Good luck, I’m on your side.” President Simon, is that the right way to handle a report of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
And when my video testimony came out in the Indystar graphically describing the abuse Larry perpetrated, disclosing horrific details to the world that no one was ever supposed to know, Dean Strampel forwarded that video to the MSU provost, and he mocked me. He called it the “cherry on the cake of his day.” President Simon, is that the right way to handle a disclosure of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
When Brooke Lemmen, one of the doctors Larry was allowed to handpick to clear his name in 2014, was interviewed for my investigation, she said I hadn’t really been penetrated, I only thought I had because “when I’m a 15 year old girl, I think everything between my legs is my vagina.” I only thought Larry put his fingers in me for up to 40 minutes at a time, for a full year. I was just “confused.” Sounds eerily familiar to what Amanada Thomashow was told in 2014, that she “didn’t understand the nuanced differences between a medical exam, and sexual assault.” Sounds eerily familiar to what every woman was told all the way back to 1997 — there were wrong, they were just confused.
President Simon, is this the right way to handle disclosures of assault on MSU’s campus??
And if that were not bad enough, when I finally joined the civil suit five months later, after waiting almost half a year for MSU to do the right thing, the Vice President of the Board of Trustees, Joel Ferguson, went on television and gave a press interview wherein he claimed those of us who had filed civil suits through our attorneys were “ambulance chasers” who were “looking for a pay day.” MSU has never contradicted, or retracted, that statement. In fact, I know that at least one other high-ranking MSU official has specifically said that I am in this for the money.
President Simon, is this the right way to treat victims of sexual assault on MSU’s campus? We have waited 18 months to be told no, this is not how we handle sexual assault and treat assault victims on MSU’s campus, but not only have we not been told this, everyone at MSU has doubled down on the claim that they did nothing wrong. The only conclusion that can be reached then, is that you truly see nothing wrong with any of this, and that is terrifying. And that is why so many of us have called for a complete change in leadership.
Because of the willful ignorance, victim-silencing, and mishandling of sexual assault reports against Larry in 1997, 1998 and 1999, I walked in Larry’s door, and have never been the same.
Not long after I stopped seeing Larry I transitioned from athlete to coach, and every day that I nurtured those baby gymnasts, I wondered if any of them would ever find their way into Larry’s exam room. When one of my little girls was referred to him, I took a chance and spoke up, and was cautioned for my own sake to remain silent. My little baby gymnast was sent to Larry before I even knew a decision had been made to not hear my warnings, and I wept for that little girl. Her family moved away almost immediately thereafter, so I prayed that her tiny seven-year old self was below the age range Larry “preferred.” But then after I filed my police report, Kyle Stephens came forward, and she was only six, a year younger than my little gymnast. And I wept and wanted to throw up. I do not know to this day if she came out the same child that went in.
I transitioned from coaching to working in public policy and fought fear every time I commuted or worked in close quarters with my male colleagues. I dreaded working on current events or legislation that involved sexual assault, because I knew the memories that would come with it. I still watched gymnastics, but looked away whenever the camera panned to the sidelines, in case Larry would be there. I wondered almost daily if there was any chance my voice would be heard.
I began lawschool at 19, and wrapped up in blankets whenever I had to study crimes or torts that related to sexual assault, and hoped my face wouldn’t betray me in classroom discussions. And I researched internal pelvic floor procedures, and tried to find out what had happened to me, and I watched for any sign that I would be believed.
I met my future husband, and told him what I never wanted to tell anyone, and wondered if he would walk away. He didn’t. But I couldn’t even hold his hand or look up at him, because closeness wasn’t safe. Trust wasn’t safe.
We got married, and my 25th birthday came, and I sat up for nights before, believing my ability to file a police report would expire on that birthday, not knowing the statute of limitations had been lifted. I woke up the morning I turned 25, and instead of feeling joy at a milestone, felt only hopelessness and grief, because I thought I had lost my chance to stop this man. I thought daily about all the little girls and young women walking into his office, and wondered if there would ever be a chance to make it end.
I became a mother, three times over, and the fear that hung over each birth, knowing I would be vulnerable in a medical setting, cast a horrific shadow over what should have been an occasion of pure joy. And I watched for a chance to be believed, and I waited. I held my firstborn, and then my two daughters, and each time I remembered the day you brought (your daughter) into the office, a newborn, so I could hold her. And I prayed to God that you would at least leave your abuse in the exam room, and not bring it home to the little girl who was born with black hair just like her daddy.
And then the IndyStar story came out about the rampant coverup of sexual abuse at USAG, and I knew this was the chance, and I wrote immediately. But because of what Larry did, the cost to making it end has been so high, and the effects of Larry’s abuse has been redoubled in the effort it took to stop him. Choosing to live those moments over and over and over, daily releasing every shred of privacy I had, living with the reality that I not only did not get to choose what you did, I also no longer get to choose who knows about it. My status as a victim has even impacted my ability to advocate for sexual assault victims, because once it became known that I had experienced abuse, people close to me used it as an excuse to brush off my concerns when I advocated for others who had been abused, saying I was just obsessed because of what I’d gone through, that I was imposing my own experience on other institutions who had massive failures, and much more. My advocacy for sexual assault victims cost me my church and all our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left completely alone and isolated because I chose not to be silent, and when it became known I was a victim myself, my sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me, often by those who should have been the first to support and help. I was subjected to lies and attacks on my character, including very publicly by Attorney Shannon Smith, when I testified under oath, being attacked for wanting fame and attention, for making a story up to try to get money. And your honor, since these attacks were made on my character in public, on public record, I would like to take the opportunity now to correct them. Out of the two women in question that day, Ms. Smith and I, who were attempting to communicate through either questions or answers, I would like to note that only one of us was taking pictures of the court rooms on her cell phone. Only one of us posed for the press and said “I feel like I should say cheese!” And out of the two of us, only one of was making money from the court appearance that day.
The cost, emotional and physical, to see this through has been greater than you will ever know.
But Larry, I want you to understand why I made that choice, knowing full well what the cost would be, and with little hope of succeeding. I did it because it. Was. Right. No matter the cost, it was right. And the farthest I can run from what you have become is to daily choose what is RIGHT instead of what I WANT. Larry, you have become a man ruled by selfish, perverted desires. A man defined by his daily choices over, and over again, to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wicked desires, no matter what it cost others. The opposite of what you have done, therefore, is choosing to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.
In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the court, and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness, so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know that the definition of sacrificial love portrayed in it, is of God Himself loving so sacrificially that He gave up everything to pay the penalty for sin He did not commit. By His grace, I too, choose to love, no matter what it costs.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness, but Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, then you know that forgiveness does not come by doing good things, as if good deeds can wipe out the incredible evil you have committed. It comes from repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done, in all its utter depravity and horror. Without mitigation. Without excuse. Without pretending you can cover it with good things. The Bible you carry says it is better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And Larry, you have wounded hundreds of children. The Bible you carry speaks of a final judgment where all of God’s wrath, in all its eternal terror, is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the weight of guilt in the face of the horrific evil you committed, will be crushing. And that is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it gives hope and grace where none should be found. And I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt someday, so that it can be followed by true repentance and forgiveness from God.
Throughout this process I have clung to a quote by CS Lewis, where he says “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked — the crooked line — because it was. But I can KNOW that it was evil and wicked, because there is true goodness — the straight line against which all is measured. This straight line is not measured based on your perception of good, or mine, or any other person’s. This means that I can speak the truth about my abuse, and call it what it was, in all its evil, without minimizing or mitigating, because the straight line of truth exists. And where there is true goodness, there is hope.
And this is also why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define evil, they lose the ability to truly define good. When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have also lost the ability to truly love.
Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have, and should have, brought so much joy. And I pity you for it.
You could have been everything you pretended to be. I have experienced the soul-satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love, safety, tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys. And it is beautiful. It is glorious. And it is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing.
I have lived the deep satisfaction of wrapping my small children up in my arms and making them feel safe and secure, because I was safe, and my touch was safe. This is a rich joy beyond what I can express, and you have cut yourself off from it, because you and your touch are not safe.
I have been there for young gymnasts and helped them transform from awkward little girls to graceful, beautiful, confident athletes, and taken joy in their success because I wanted the best for them. This is a joy you have cut yourself off from forever, because your desire to help was little more than a façade for your desire to harm.
In losing the ability to call evil what it is, without mitigation or minimization, you have also lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. And that is a prison you have fashioned for yourself that is far, far worse than any I could put you in. And I pity you.
That is also why in many ways, the worst part of this process was each name, each number, who came forward to the police. With each Jane Doe, I saw my little girls — I saw the little girls and young women these survivors were and had been when they entered the exam room. The little girls walking into Larry’s office that I could not save, because no one wanted to listen.
And while that is not my guilt, it belongs to others, it is pain I share with them. I cried for them, and wondered with each tear who will tell these survivors how much they are worth, how valuable they are, how deserving of justice and protection? Who will tell them that what was done to them matters? That they are seen and valued? That they are not alone and unprotected?
But we are here now, and today that message can be sent. With the sentence you hand down, you can communicate to us, to every predator, to every little girl or young woman that is watching — how much a little girl and woman is worth.
I am asking that when we leave this court room, we leave knowing that when Larry was sexually aroused and gratified by our violation, when Larry enjoyed our suffering, when he took pleasure in our abuse, that it was evil and wrong. I ask that you hand down a sentence that tells us that what was done to us matters. I ask that your sentence allows each little girl and young woman we once were, to know that we are worth everything. Worth the greatest protection the law could offer. Worth the greatest measure of justice available. That you would send a message today to everyone who is watching, that our country and all the ideals we espouse, surrounds and protects the victims. That we would know we are not alone.
How much is a little girl worth?
And to everyone who is watching, I ask that same question. How much is a little girl worth? Larry said in court that he hoped education and learning would happen from this tragedy. I do as well. And this is what we need to learn:
This is what it looks like when you have a man who gives himself over to evil desires at the cost of his own humanity and all of ours.
This is what it looks like when the adults in authority do not respond properly to disclosures of sexual assault.
This is what it looks like when institutions create a culture where a predator can flourish unafraid, and unabated.
This is what it looks like when people in authority refuse to listen, put friendships in front of the truth, ignore red flags, fail to create or enforce proper policy, and fail to hold enablers accountable.
It looks like a court room full of survivors who carry deep wounds. Women and girls who have banded together to fight for themselves because no one else would do it. Women and girls who carry deep scars that will never fully heal, but who have placed the guilt and the shame on the only person it belongs to — their abuser. But may the horror expressed in this court room over the last six full days be the motivation for anyone and everyone, no matter the context, to take responsibility if they have erred in protecting a child. To understand the incredible failures that lead to this week, and to do it better the next time.
Judge Aquilina, I plead with you, as you deliberate the sentence to give to Larry Nassar for his crimes against all these women and children, send a message that these victims are worth everything. In order to meet both goals of this court, I plead with you to impose every measure the law can offer under the plea agreement. Because “everything” is what these survivors are worth.