Denhollander tells Michigan students, 'Say no to the lies' about sexual abuse

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Birmingham — Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, told Michigan high schools students on Thursday that finding the courage to speak out begins with little choices.

"If you are a survivor, it is the power of the little decisions to tell even yourself the truth," Denhollander said before a crowd of 200 students at Seaholm High School in Oakland County. "When you have experienced abuse, there are lies that flood your mind ... You have the power to say no to the lies. You have the power to tell those lies it is not your fault. No one deserves abuse."

Denhollander, in her first public talk with high school students as an advocate for sexual assault survivors across the nation, told the mostly juniors and seniors that they are the solution to the problem of sexual assault being ignored by those in power.

Abuse Survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, speaks to students at Birmingham Seaholm High School about her courageous decision to publicly accuse Nassar.

"I want you to know you can find someone safe," Denhollander said. "There are adults who will believe you. You have the power to speak truth to the lies you hear in your head and to reach out for help and I want you to know how important that is."

Denhollander told the students she became the victim of sexual assault for the first time when she was 7 years old when a pedophile from her church abused her and she "lost" her community when some people chose not to believe her.

"The message I internalized as an 8-year-old survivor was 'if you can't prove it, don't speak up,'" she said. "And that was the first time I heard that lie in my head. It took years and years to overcome it."

Eight years later, Denhollander said she became a victim again when she met Nassar, the team doctor for the USA Olympic team and a professor at Michigan State University.

Denhollander said "when things didn't seem right in that exam room," she did what everyone around her did and blamed the victim.

"It must be my fault. I was reading into it. I was oversensitive," Denhollander said she told herself.

Birmingham Seaholm High School  students listen to Rachael Denhollander on Thursday, January 23, 2020 about her courageous decision to publicly accuse Larry Nassar.

When Denhollander realized Nassar was an abuser, she said she heard more lies like "this is your fault," "why didn't you?" and "if only you had." When she finally overcame the lies, Denhollander said she was left with the question of who was going to believe her.

"By 17, I understood what happens to someone who speaks up. I understood the uphill battle I was facing," Denhollander said

"As a junior in high school, I told my mom, 'I can't do this myself. I can't do it quietly. I can't do it anonymously. I am going to have to have media involved. Something is going to have to take control from Michigan State and from USA Gymnastics and from Larry ... if I have any hope of being believed.'"

Denhollander, an attorney who lives in Kentucky with her husband and four children, said she got her chance in 2016 when a newspaper ran an expose on how USA Gymnastics covered up sexual abuse by coaches on gymnasts. She sent the reporters an email about her abuse by Nassar.

"That's when I became the national face of a sexual abuse scandal," Denhollander said. "I will be honest with you. Speaking up can be difficult but it's also incredibly redemptive. And what transpired over the next two years literally changed the world."

Nassar was sentenced to decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he molested them under the guise of medical treatment, including while he worked for Michigan State and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

Denhollander said Nassar, who possessed violent child pornography on his computer, didn't wake up one morning and decide he was going to be one of the worst pedophiles in recorded history.

"Larry became who he was one little decision at a time when he thought no one was watching," Denhollander said. "Over and over again, Larry was allowed to continue abusing because of the community that surrounded him that made a decision that they didn't think it was important."

Abuse Survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, prepares to speak to students at Birmingham Seaholm High School, Thursday, about her courageous decision to publicly accuse Nassar.

Denhollander said when she came forward and finally told her story to a Michigan State Police detective, that person took it seriously.

"She treated abuse like it mattered when it was just me. Her decision literally changed the world,"  Denhollander said. "Speaking up mattered. It was a tiny little decision. 

"It's the little decisions in your life that are going to set the trajectory for who you become," she said. "You have time if you are survivor to tell those lies the truth and to reach out for help. To raise your voice and find a safe place to disclose."

School officials had counselors present during the talk and made them available to student after in case anyone needed to talk.

Seaholm student Marley Wolf said Denhollander's comment about abuse victims hearing lies in their head and challenging those thoughts was helpful advice and reassuring to hear.

"This speech was the most inspirational that I've ever heard regarding wanting someone to step out and reveal their story," Wolf said. "I feel more confident and equipped with a lot more knowledge on where I could go and the resources."

Denhollander was invited to Michigan by CARE House of Oakland County’s Circle of Friends to speak about her experience at a luncheon at The Townsend Thursday afternoon. 

Blythe Tyler, president and CEO of CARE House of Oakland County, a child advocacy center, said children and teens in every community risk falling under the influence of abusers. In Oakland County in 2018, there were 15,169 investigations of suspected child abuse, Tyler said.

"We reached out to Rachael to bring awareness of child sexual abuse to the community and to prevent it from happening," Tyler said. "Rachael's story is one we hear often ...

"She was the first person to be speak about that publicly. We reached out to her because of her message about believing children and young people when they disclose."