During her exam he was able to disguise very inappropriate touch as a form of treatment and do it with her mom in the room, not realizing what was going on. This went on for over a year, escalating in nature. At the time, the reputation of Larry as the premier sports doctor for USA gymnastics, as well as a teacher of other physicians at Michigan State University, made it seem impossible to suggest he may be guilty of this evil. Due to the climate of victim-blaming, Rachael and her mother had to wait to see if an opportunity to speak out ever presented itself.
In the meantime, Rachael articulates so well the fallout of being a sexual assault survivor. She describes a heightened state of awareness and fear in public places. A fear of men standing behind her, even in a fast-food line. The inability to verbalize what had happened to her, making it impossible to consider going to see a mental health professional. With her family’s support she attempted to process her feelings through journaling and prayer. This part of the book is, I think, the most enlightening to readers who have not been a victim of abuse. The physiological changes, the emotions, and the way memories, nightmares, and fears resurface time after time for the rest of a survivor’s life is something we need to understand more in order to truly support those we come in contact with who are survivors. She explains every cultural bias against victims, point by point, making it easier to see how these biases are played out around us when we don’t even realize it.
For Rachael, as a person of strong Christian faith, her interactions with her church are also worth learning from. She describes sitting in Sunday School and discussing stories like Bathsheba and Dinah and the messages that can be transmitted to children about issues of sexual assault. If you grew up in church, like I did, it is easy to be desensitized to the horror of these stories. But when you think about them from the perspective of a survivor, it is easier to look at the messages we are often sending our children when we teach these stories, including when inappropriate comments are made by other students and not addressed by the teacher. They are a part of the Word of God and therefore have value in teaching. But it is so helpful to listen to the point of view of a survivor before discussing these issues, to help us avoid the pitfalls of our cultural biases.
Some of the messages of this book that translate to a better understanding of being trauma informed are these: Survivors need as many choices as possible as they deal with the aftermath or reporting of their abuse. Choice is a form of control and abuse always represents a loss of control for the victim. In order to recover, find their voice, and retake control of their lives, it is important to give them as many choices as possible when telling their story or seeking help. (I do want to be sure to say that when the victim is a minor at the time of disclosure, there is no choice in reporting for any adult who becomes aware of the abuse or the victim discloses to. Choices should be given when possible in who they talk to, the setting, who is present, etc. Whether or not it is reported to law enforcement or child protective services, is not a choice. It must be done.)
Something else it’s important to remember for being trauma informed is that a survivor’s perception of safety is more important than leadership’s perception of the safety of their organization. This can be called Felt Safety. If you are in leadership – a teacher, pastor, CEO – and you feel your organization is a safe place, both preventing abuse and open to receiving a disclosure of abuse about a leader or staff member and able to follow best practices in reporting and supporting the victim while investigating the claim, your opinion is secondary to whether a survivor feels safe enough to come forward in your organization. When we discuss outside instances of abuse whether in the news, books, movies, or religious texts, we are sending messages to survivors about how safe they would be discussing their abuse in our presence.
Another message that she grapples with and expresses so well is that God loves justice just as much as He loves forgiveness. The Bible teaches that vengeance belongs to Him, and there will be an eternal judgement for the evil we commit. Whether that justice is meted out in our lifetime or after life is not always in our control. But when it can be meted out by our courts, the message that sends to survivors is important. When considering the punishment for abuse, the sentence reflects the worth of the victim. That is the meaning of the book title, What is a girl worth? The answer should be everything. The punishment for victimizing the innocent should be the maximum the law allows. When we try to minimize or mitigate the evildoing of an abuser, we diminish the perfection and beauty of the goodness of God.
The story of Rachael Denhollander, to me, is an Esther story. Esther is told to use her position in a time of crisis, for "who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?" Esther 4:14. Rachael developed the gifts God had given her which included an analytical mind and the ability to become an attorney, her supportive family, and her faith. With these three things she became the one person who could bring a police report against Larry Nassar in such a way that she could withstand the institutional push-back from Michigan State University, and get her story out into the public sector where other survivors could see it and join her in coming forward. Without the support from family and personal faith, as well as a few perfectly placed individuals who also sought truth, including a reporter, a detective, and a prosecutor, her story would not have been able to pierce the public arena and bring the judgement of our courts down on Larry Nassar.
I hope that others will take this opportunity to look at the institutions we are a part of, whether they be schools, churches, clubs, corporations or other spheres, for how we can make sure they are as prepared as they can be to both protect the innocent and to be a safe place for victims to disclose their abuse, seek help in reporting, and get support for healing.
One organization I've seen that provides this expertise is https://ministrysafe.com/ They have some great short videos about this issue on their site as well at https://ministrysafe.com/who-we-are/
Laura Shamblin, MD
Editor-in-chief of TraumaInformedMD.com