Abuse survivor, Rachael Denhollander, shares her story and some thoughts around how to support victims of abuse
Unbelievable? recently broadcast a webinar panel discussion about sexual abuse and leadership scandals. The intention of the show was to serve the Church in learning from these crises and support victims of abuse. Among the panellists was Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and advocate for abuse survivors. Rachael was the first woman to publically accuse US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault. Hundreds more survivors of abuse consequently came forward, which led to his imprisonment. Rachael is also the author of ‘What is a Girl Worth?’ and advocates as an attorney and public speaker for abuse survivors both in the secular and church worlds.
Rachael shares her story and some thoughts around how we can support victims of abuse. This article is an edited version of some of that programme. You can listen to the whole show here.
My experience of abuse
The first time I was abused it was actually in a church context. I experienced the loss of my church community through that and just how so much of our Christian theology can be misunderstood and twisted and warped and weaponised. And that really did set the stage for my abuse with Larry Nassar later on. Because I learnt very early that if you cannot prove your abuse, do not speak out because it will cost you everything. And that incredible hurdle that survivors have to even the people who are closest to them to understand and trust their judgement that they know what’s happened to them.
I experienced that in the church around age 7 and then again with Dr Larry Nassar who was the physician for our Olympic gymnastics team and the chief medical coordinator for our elite programme. He was also a professor of one of our prominent state universities, Michigan State University in Michigan.
At the time I remember thinking very clearly: this is clearly something he does all the time. There’s no way this hasn’t been described before, other people haven’t talked about what’s going on in the exam room. And if somebody had described something or said something surely the other adults in charge would have made sure that this is legitimate treatment. So, the fact that I’m in here means this must be medical treatment, this must be this therapy that I’ve heard about; I had a category for pelvic floor therapy.
I didn’t just trust Larry, I trusted the community around him. That’s something that’s really critical for us to understand - the trust in the community and the depth of the community betrayal and how that impacts survivors. It’s not just one abuser, it’s our entire system.
God really orchestrated the events around me publicly coming forward about the abuse. I get the question all the time: “What took you so long to speak up?” And I think what we have to grapple with is most survivors are willing to speak up but they lack the safe place to speak up. And so rather than asking the question: “How do we make the survivor speak up?” We need to ask: “How do we make it safe for them to speak up?” And especially in the church space, how do we create places where survivors are heard and listened to and believed and supported?
I was incredibly blessed to have a strong family support system and to have had 16 years to walk through the healing journey and to have a significant amount of expertise in legal communication so that I understood what it was going to take and what it was going to cost. And I could bring the case to the detective and lay everything out from the medical and legal standpoint. But no survivor should have to do that. No survivor should be put in that position. I’m grateful that God allowed me to do that and orchestrated those events and put that in place, but I would never ask somebody else to have to do that. The question is how do we create those safe spaces for survivors?
Some of the most heart-breaking stories I get are from women in their 70s and 80s saying I was the first person they ever told about their abuse. They could not talk about this in their generation. I don’t think there has been an increase in abuse cases, I think we are just unveiling the darkness that has been there.
A lot of things are playing into that and one of the major ones is social media. Victims have a way, at least to an extent now, of starting to get control of the narrative. To be able to get the truth out there in ways they couldn’t before. So we’re starting to see a kind of a reclaiming of voice, a reclaiming of agency, and the ability to get at least enough of the picture out there that somebody else can say: “That was me too.” And we have seen a significant uptake in journalists covering these types of things, which again is giving voice to those stories in ways that hadn’t happened.
An understanding of the language and the framework, people being able to identify and verbalise: “This is what happened to me and this is actually not normal.” When you’ve been in an abusive and an unhealthy system for so long your entire perception of reality and normalcy is defined by what you’ve experienced, especially in a faith-based community because you are told by your authority figures: “This is what the bible says. This is what godly behaviour looks like. If you step outside of that paradigm you are no longer under your godly authority, you are no longer under the auspices of scripture, you are no longer acting in a righteous and holy way.” And so you stay in this paradigm and you don’t have a framework or words for what you’ve experienced and you also don’t know that it’s not normal anymore. And that’s something we’ve really got to grapple with.
We’re starting to see a huge movement beginning to relook at: what is power supposed to be? What is authority supposed to be? What does real submission look like? What does forgiveness actually mean? What are we supposed to be unified around? Starting to re-examine these concepts and pull them back and say: “What we’ve been teaching as biblical isn’t biblical at all. It’s antithetical to what scripture actually teaches.” And so it’s starting to give people a paradigm and words to look at what they’ve experienced and say: “That’s not actually Jesus. That’s not actually what the bible teaches. What I experienced isn’t what’s supposed to be normal, now I have words to articulate that.” And finding the courage and a community to begin articulating that.
I think that’s really behind what we are seeing in this reckoning here and what it’s causing us to have to do - to start to re-examine our theology. Because our ideas are driving our actions and I find the church space one of the most difficult to actually make any progress in because the reason we get these things wrong is typically theological. When we start to talk about it the immediate knee-jerk response is: “You’re being ungodly. You’re out to destroy a godly man, you’re out to destroy the Church, you’re a bitter, angry Christian.” And so it just continually gets weaponised.
In the secular space you could file a civil lawsuit, if you’re lucky, and you can apply enough outside media pressure that your typical board of trustees at a university or a secular group is going to go: “We don’t want to have to deal with this again so we’re going to make some changes and do the right things because it cost way too much when we didn’t.” But in the church space it doesn’t work that way. They become more entrenched in their ideology. The Church is one of the most difficult places to make any forward progress because our actions are theologically driven. And so, at the core of what we’re seeing is a re-examination of our theology. Is what we’ve been teaching as biblical and scriptural actually biblical and scriptural?
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Sheep and wolves
Something we’ve got to wrestle with on a theological level is what it means to be a wolf. We talk all the time as Christians about the importance of protecting the flock from a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But when leaders talk about wolves in sheep’s clothing they point to somebody over here who is not a follower of orthodox Christianity at all and they don’t look like a sheep, they look like a wolf. That’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that’s just a wolf. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is somebody in the Church who looks and talks and walks as sheep. Who does all of these things in God’s name and yet has something that’s not right that should show us they are not part of the flock.
We’ve got to wrestle with our concept of depravity and what it means to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, what those red flags and warning signs are. Then we also have to wrestle with how we understand authority. Right now we have flipped the concept of church discipline and leadership on its head. Leaders are supposed to be held to a higher standard. We’ve got this very warped standard of what biblical justice looks like that actually puts a leader at a much higher level rather than a more accountable level. We don’t take seriously the passage of scripture that says: “Let not many of you be teachers for you will incur stricter judgement.” And we don’t look at the passage of scripture where Paul rebukes Peter in the company of all. We don’t look at how it talks about how we are supposed to rebuke a leader who has fallen in the presence of all so that it will be a warning. The principle there is that the rebuke for an ungodly leader goes as far as their platform goes. When we have a leader who is not demonstrating the fruit of godliness, who is leaving behind them a wake of brokenness, as long as they are otherwise saying the right theology and doing all of these other good things in Christ’s name, we don’t hold them accountable and we don’t rebuke them.
A lot of times in our network of church ministry in this system we’ve created we want all of the benefits of co-labouring and none of the responsibility. We want to all be able to show up to conferences and share the platform together and do all these great things for God together. The only people that can protect the sheep from a wolf are other people at the same level who have the ability to apply the necessary pressure to say: “Brother, there is something wrong and we cannot continue to increase your platform and work alongside you while we’re seeing this happening.” So we’ve got to get back to understanding our theology of power and authority and church structure much better.
We all have to start reckoning with the depth and the damage of abuse and how ungodly and wicked it is. Because the reality is this: we don’t treat abuse like it actually matters. We can say “Sexual abuse is terrible, spiritual abuse is terrible, when we weaponise the gospel that’s terrible.” But when push comes to shove, we don’t think it’s terrible enough to actually do something. You want the emotional satisfaction of thinking it’s terrible, you don’t want the practical reality of acting like it is terrible.
We’ve got to get back to our theology and from that theology good systems of accountability can be built and flow. But if we don’t understand how absolutely evil abuse is and we don’t understand what biblical authority and biblical power structures look like, we’re not going to put good systems in place.
How we talk about these issues is important. The pastor at our local church was talking about church authority and structure and said: “This is what abusive leadership looks like. And if you ever see us doing something like this, here are the systems we have in place, here are the people you go to, here’s how you access them so that you can go outside of our structure, and these are what the red flags look like.” They taught very well on what abuse authority would look like and how to go outside for help. When leadership messages well on issues of abuse, it signals to survivors: “You’re safe to speak up.” It’s also what signals to predators: “This is not a place that I want to be.” Predators are incredibly skilled manipulators, they are looking for systems and structures they can manipulate. So, how we teach on forgiveness, unity, authority, submission, all of these concepts that are tied to abuse is absolutely critical.
On a lay person level, how we talk about those things in our social circles, whether in person or on social media, is also very critical. Survivors are always watching how people talk and working out if someone might be a safe person. On a statistical level, a significant number of people who are on your Facebook or Twitter feed have experienced those things (30 per cent of women have experienced sexual or domestic violence and one in six men) and probably haven’t verbalised them yet because they haven’t seen you signal that you’re safe.
I think the healing journey is incredibly different for every individual and that’s got to be recognised at the outset. Is healing an erasure of the consequences, does it mean there is reconciliation of the relationship so that the victim and the abuser are in the same room? No, it does not. Forgiveness really springs from a well understood theology of God’s justice. Either it is going to fall on the abuser or if he repents it will fall on a God who stood in their place.
I can look at the cross as a survivor and say: “That’s how much what was done to me matters to God. It matters so much and it was so evil that it cost the Son of God his life.” The cross doesn’t just tell me how much I need forgiveness or the depth of my sin. The cross tells me the depth of the sin done against me and how much it matters to God. That is the framework from which forgiveness springs. But how that journey progresses for every survivor is incredibly personal. It is a very long process.
We also have to define healing in a way that is accurate. As a survivor I wanted healing to mean that I became who I was before. That when I responded ‘rightly’ to my abuse that the consequences of it would eventually become erased; I wouldn’t have triggers, I wouldn’t have flashbacks, I wouldn’t have nightmares. I really had to grapple with the reality that that’s not what healing means on this side of heaven. I think a much better definition of healing is not that we don’t experience the pain any longer - though healing does mean a diminishment of it and I’m grateful for that - but rather we know what to do with the pain when it comes. We can grieve in ways that are constructive rather than destructive.
Rachael Denhollander is an attorney and advocate for abuse survivors. The author of ‘What is a Girl Worth?’, she was the first woman to publicly accuse US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault.
This article is an edited version of some of that programme. You can listen to the whole show here.