by John Ellis
“I want you to read this,” I told my 13-year-old daughter as I handed her What Is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander.
“Okay,” was her unenthusiastic response.
She loves to read, but she loves to read books of her own choosing. Having a book plopped her in lap by her dad who listens to old-fashioned music like Nirvana does not excite her imagination.
“Look,” I continued. “I understand that your Mom and I have talked with you about this topic before, but this book has some very important things to say about sexual assault. Mom is going to read it along with you so the two of you can discuss it.”
There are several reasons why my wife and I want my daughter to read this book; my plan in this review is to unpack some of those reasons. However, the main reason why my wife is going to read and discuss What Is a Girl Worth? with our daughter is because Rachel Denhollander’s experiences recorded in the book provide helpful tools to further empower our daughter to speak up and take ownership over her body. Most importantly, the book does so in a manner that is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Speaking up and being heard is an important theme that Denhollander has cemented in her memoir. Throughout her recounting of the investigation into Larry Nassar and the subsequent trial, her concern that the victims’ voices be heard is expressed time and again. Helpfully, she makes sure to define the difference between speaking and being heard. As she explains on page one of the book, “as survivors of sexual assault will tell you, saying something is one thing. Being heard – and believed – is another.”
Shamefully, though – sinfully, in fact – American evangelicals have a poor track record of being counterculture in caring for those who have been oppressed and abused at the hands of those seeking power and control via the mechanism of sexual assault. As a group, we have historically done a poor job of hearing the victims of sexual assault and abuse. The good news is that What Is a Girl Worth? has landed in a milieu in which secular culture is waking up to the horrors of sexual assault and seeking ways to combat it. Denhollander’s brave honesty and willingness to endure the trauma that accompanies the continued retelling of her story in order to help provide a voice for others who have suffered abuse and sexual assault is already an important artifact in what appears to be a sea change in broader culture. Many professing Christians, though, continue to go beyond just stuffing their fingers in their ears and clinching their eyes tightly shut to block out the growing chorus of survivors who are unmasking the horror that we’ve all known is there. Many of those who claim to be Rachael Denhollander’s brother or sister in Christ are actively combatting her efforts to expose and combat sin and to be a voice for the oppressed.
Over the last several months, I’ve seen tweets, memes, and blog posts slandering Rachael Denhollander. The rancor and vitriol heaped on her by professing Christians because she is shining a light on the devastating sin of sexual assault and abuse is further evidence of how needed her voice is. It’s also evidence of how Satan’s lies have so deeply infected the hearts of professing Christians.
The current persecution has not taken Rachael and her husband Jacob unawares, though. Throughout her journey from speaking up, through the trial, the publication of her book, and all points before, after, and in-between, the Denhollanders have been exposed to waves of verbal abuse, insults, and emotional distancing. One of the more infuriating anecdotes among a series of heartbreaking and infuriating anecdotes recorded in What Is a Girl Worth? is the sinful treatment the Denhollanders endured at the hands of their previous local church.
Having been singled out as a divisive troublemaker for daring to question how her denomination and church were responding to reports of abuse, Rachael was confronted with the reality that her church family was less concerned about her and far more concerned about preserving appearances. She was also made aware of how little concern many professing Christians have for sexual assault survivors. These were realities that had been built up and confirmed over years for her, but one event in particular stands out in her book. An event that is equal parts absurd and sinful. An event that exposes how out-of-whack her church’s priorities were. And, frankly, an event that far more of us can imagine happening in our churches than are willing to admit.
During the buildup to Larry Nassar’s trial, Rachael frequently traveled to Michigan. Jacob did his best to accompany her as often as he could but work and seminary made that difficult at times. During one of her trips to Michigan, she received a call from her husband who told her that, “His van had been broken into overnight, and more than three thousand dollars’ worth of tools had been stolen – everything he needed to work.”
Rachael used the descriptor “bemused” of Jacob’s tone when writing how he told her that he had posted about the break-in on Facebook. Not long after, four leaders from their church reached out to him with offers of help. In her words, upon hearing that, she, “exhaled slowly. ‘Four leaders called to check on us because of the van?’”
After Jacob’s confirmation, she made the half question/half statement, “Are we even on the prayer chain for this national investigation?”
Chapter 19 ends with Jacob’s reply and Rachael’s takeaway:
“I heard him sigh. ‘I don’t think they understand. Or know what to do.’
He was right. We knew their silence wasn’t malicious. But no one had any idea what to do, and they weren’t asking. It was okay not to know what to do. It wasn’t okay not to ask what they could do.
By and large, the events of the last few months had been a sharp reminder of the uphill battle survivors face. To find justice. To be heard. To be understood. To have anyone even care. And I constantly wondered, as I reflected on how hard the process was for me, despite healthy relationships on both sides of the family, Who is going to find the survivors who have no one? Who is even going to see the survivor who isn’t on the news? Who will find these hurting people and tell them how much they are worth? [emphasis kept].”
Her conclusion to that anecdote is heartbreaking and reveals several things. For starters, it provides a concrete example of how churches frequently fail to care for those who have been sexually assaulted. We often aren’t even willing to hear them. Secondly, and building on that, it confronts the reader with the importance of hearing survivors. It confronts us with the need, by God’s grace, to shape our churches in ways that create faith communities in which survivors of abuse and sexual assault feel loved and respected enough to speak up. And, circling back to my introduction, this is the main reason why my wife and I are having our daughter read Rachael Denhollander’s book. This is also one of the main reasons why you should read the book, too.
While What Is a Girl Worth? will not completely inoculate readers from becoming victims of sexual assault, it does provide a foundation upon which girls and boys and women and men can stand and take ownership over their own body and voice. What happened to Rachael Denhollander is tragic and should cause us to cry for King Jesus to return quickly. However, her bravery and willingness to be an advocate for survivors of sexual assault as she uses her voice and story to force churches and communities to have this conversation makes What Is a Girl Worth? required reading for everyone, but especially Christians.
Through it all, the events leading up to the book, the publication of the book, and via the many platforms God has given her in the aftermath of her willingness to email the reporter from the IndyStar, Rachael responds, dialogues, and confronts with humility and graciousness. Make no mistake, though, she also employs boldness, intelligence, and clarity of thought as she seeks to protect her voice against those who would silence her. Humility and graciousness do not require passivity, after all. By God’s grace, across all her platforms, including What Is a Girl Worth?, Rachael Denhollander is an example of how to engage in the fight against Satan. My wife and I want our daughter to learn from her example. We want to learn from Rachael’s example. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to learn from her example. This is why I can’t recommend What Is a Girl Worth? highly enough.
This timely and needed memoir should dominate church’s book stalls, church book discussion groups, youth groups, women’s ministries, and men’s ministries. As followers of King Jesus, a King who is very concerned with how His people treat and minister to the oppressed and hurting, Christians should make Rachael Denhollander’s voice part of our cultural lexicon.
On a practical note, What Is a Girl Worth? was on my mind when I recently took my daughter to the doctor’s office. Having injured her knee in some unknown manner, we wanted to make sure that something serious wasn’t going on. As the gregarious, kindly doctor examined her knee, I thought about how Larry Nassar sexually assaulted Rachael in his office with her mom present.
One of the criticisms of those who are unwilling to hear Rachael and other victims is the self-aggrandizing statement that they would never have let it happen. If they were Rachael, they would have put a stop to it. If they were her mom, they would have recognized what was happening and put a stop to it. Those thoughtless claims are not just harmful, they’re also most likely untrue.
While sitting in the chair in the corner, watching the doctor place his hands on my thirteen-year-old daughter’s leg, I realized in a panic that if he did do something that made me uncomfortable or that raised questions about appropriateness, I would most likely be afraid to speak up. How foolish would I feel if I wrongfully accused this friendly man? How much damage would I do to his reputation if I mistook a legitimate medical procedure for assault? My fear of man came roaring to life as I thought back to What Is a Girl Worth? and Rachael Denhollander’s sexual assault by her doctor. In that moment, all I could do was pleadingly pray, “Father, you have called me to protect my daughter. I am afraid that I will fail in that if needed. Please give me the strength and courage to do what is just and holy.”
The thing is, I am almost twice the size of that doctor. I have long considered myself an outspoken ally in the fight against abuse and sexual assault. Yet, as I thought about the possibility of sexual assault while sitting in the doctor’s office, I realized that I was not as brave nor as strong nor as willing to speak up as I believed. And, again, I’m almost twice the size of that doctor. I can only imagine how much the specter of the difference in size and strength comes into play with women during those moments.
Thankfully, and to be clear, the doctor did absolutely nothing that made me uncomfortable. Afterwards, my wife and I asked our daughter if he had done anything to make her feel uncomfortable and she confirmed that he hadn’t. Later, as I contemplated what had happened, the resonance and needed truth of What Is a Girl Worth? hit me deeply. I need to do a better job of empowering my daughter to speak up. I need to do a better job of being cognizant of the potential for abuse and steeling myself to speak up, even it might make me uncomfortable. Like all females, my daughter is worth far more than any discomfort I may feel at speaking up. For me, even as someone who has prided myself on my stance against the abuse of women, What Is a Girl Worth? was a needed wakeup call. A wakeup call that I mistakenly believed was for others and not for me.
Read this book. Pass it along to others. Read it again. Discuss it with others. Allow it to reveal blind spots in your own heart. Allow it to confront you with your own sins, if needed, and it will most likely be needed. And then repent.
One final thought, and considering the nature of the book’s topic, this seems slightly crass to point out, but What Is a Girl Worth? is wonderfully written. Rachael Denhollander not only put a lot of work into writing it, but the book is evidence that she understands storytelling and is a consummate storyteller. Many needed and meaningful memoirs aren’t always as easy to read as one would hope. But readers engage anyway because the topic is so important, and the speaker has valuable things that we and society need to hear. What Is a Girl Worth? is not only a needed and valuable resource in the fight against the sin of sexual assault and abuse, it’s a well-told, engaging read, too.
Rachael Denhollander is a timely voice calling us to repentance. Instead of attempting to shout her down, we should humbly listen to her poignant voice.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Rachael Denhollander, What Is a Girl Worth? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2019), 1.
 Denhollander, What Is a Girl Worth?, 220.
 Denhollander, What Is a Girl Worth?, 220.
 Denhollander, What Is a Girl Worth?, 220.
 Denhollander, What Is a Girl Worth?, 220.