Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and a survivor of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, speaks with Birmingham Public Schools high school students Jan. 17.

Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and a survivor of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, speaks with Birmingham Public Schools high school students Jan. 17.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Nassar survivor inspires students to ‘change the stigma’ of sexual assault

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 4, 2020


BIRMINGHAM — On Jan. 17, Rachael Denhollander, one of the former patients of Larry Nassar who helped bring the sports doctor and serial sexual abuser to justice, made an appearance at a luncheon fundraiser in Birmingham for CARE House of Oakland County.

But before that, the nationally known advocate for assault survivors made a quick stop at Seaholm High School to chat with junior and senior students of select programs, like health and criminal justice.

Denhollander said the changes that need to be made in the world’s systemic rape and assault culture aren’t going to be made with the cohort of adults out there today. The real hope is with the next generation.

“I want you to understand the power of the little decisions that you make,” she told the small crowd gathered in the school’s auditorium that morning. “By the time most people tuned in to Larry Nassar, we already knew who Larry really was. … Guys, Larry didn’t wake up one morning as a junior in high school and decide he was going to be one of the worst pedophiles in recorded history. The first time Larry chose to abuse his power, the first time he chose to excuse and minimize abuse and act like it didn’t matter and it wasn’t a big deal, the first time Larry pulled violent porn and child porn up on his computer and found sexual satisfaction in someone’s suffering — Larry became who Larry was one little decision at a time, when he thought no one was watching. And he continued because the community around him made a decision that they didn’t think it was important.”

‘But it was worth it’
Denhollander, the first in the case to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse while she was under his care in her teen years, spoke for about 30 minutes, taking frank questions from the students about her experience. Some question centered on the now-infamous instances when local law enforcement officials from Michigan State University, where Nassar worked — who allegedly were made aware of Nassar’s abuse — didn’t pursue an investigation.

She didn’t directly describe the assaults, directing those who wanted to know more of what happened in Nassar’s exam room to go online and watch her more than two hours of testimony on YouTube.

The students didn’t ask questions looking for those details. What most everyone in the audience wanted to know was how Denhollander found the courage to come forward 16 years after her abuse, and how the experience impacted her and the dozens of other accusers.

“The court process was not easy. Describing what he did to me in front of him, knowing he enjoyed it, was really awful. But it was worth it,” she said, adding that the experience served to validate her pain so she could begin to heal and separate herself from the abuse.

“To lay everything out is very empowering. That’s something I would encourage attorneys to do, is to rethink the idea of justice. Because a lot of times we think of justice as just being about punishment to the perpetrator. It’s really also about restoring what was taken, and the ability to restore a survivor’s voice.”

‘Treat it like any other crime’
Logan Morof, a senior at Groves High School, asked Denhollander how she hopes to prevent others from experiencing abuse or from not being believed when they report an assault. Denhollander replied that her goal is to help change the stigma of sexual assault however she can, not only so survivors are able to come forward to get the help they need to overcome abuse, but also so law enforcement and justice officials take the offense more seriously.

“I think one of the very first things we do is treat it like any other crime. We treat it like any other injury,” she said, presenting a hypothetical example of what would happen if one of the teens in the audience were to be drinking underage at a party, and their wallet was stolen during the course of the night.

“How would you feel if the officer turns to you, looks down to your shoes and says, ‘Those are some pretty expensive tennis shoes. What were you wearing when your wallet was stolen? Why are you flashing your wealth around if you don’t expect someone to take it?’” Denhollander said. “How would you feel if a police officer said, ‘You bought that guy a drink. You gave him some of your money. That probably means you wanted to give him all your money.’ Or if he said, ‘I think you don’t want people to know you gave him money, so you’re pretending your money is stolen,’ or, ‘You lent him money because you knew he needed it and now you regret it.’”

Bella Charay, a junior at Seaholm, said she’s studying health with an interest in possibly pursuing social work in the future.

“It was interesting to hear her story,” Charay said. “It was touching, and it’s interesting to learn other people’s stories.”

‘Children need to be believed’
The presentation was made possible by CARE House of Oakland County, and CARE CEO Blyth Tyler told the students a little about what the nonprofit does, working with police, Child Protective Services and prosecutors to help children who have been abused find the counseling they need and prosecute perpetrators. She offered the students community service hours if they want to help, and even crisis intervention services for themselves, if needed.

“We brought Rachael here today because I think it’s important to know and understand that disclosing abuse doesn’t have to define a life, and it doesn’t have to define who you are. It can just be part of your experience. Rachael’s story is very important and very critical for us to come to understand when a child comes forward, they must be believed,” Tyler said.