What is a Girl Worth? — Highlights

19 October 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

Rachael DenHollander’s What is a Girl Worth?  is the most powerful book on sexual abuse I’ve ever read.  Her “story of breaking the silence and exposing the truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics” is well-known.  What I didn’t know is that she’d also been molested by as a young girl by someone at her church.  That case hadn’t been handled well.  And right around the time the Larry Nassar case was developing, the church that Rachael and her husband Jacob were attending was experiencing a scandal involving the cover-up of sexual abuse.  So the book isn’t just about a sports doctor – it’s also about how churches deal with this issue.  Here are some highlights: 

A common thread in the societal response to abuse is the argument ‘I’m not saying it was her fault; I’m just saying I’d have responded differently.’ It feels safer to believe that abuse happens only to people who ‘let it.’ But this is in fact blaming the victim, because it implies that if the victims had just responded differently, they could have stopped the abuse. This myth needs to be abandoned, and we need to make an effort to better understand why survivors don’t speak up during, or even after, abuse.” (p.5)

As so often happens, misguided theology and a refusal to interact with experts on this issue led the church to miss — and then cover up — sexual abuse within its own walls. And it hadn’t affected only me. Other serious and credible allegations of abuse had been buried. For a small church of only a few hundred people, sexual abuse had become a predominant, well-kept secret. Each time an abuser was found or a scandal uncovered, the response was the same. Quietly dismiss the abuser. Hush it up. Tell no one.” (p.59)

“…I noticed that fellow Christians pretty much talked only about our need to understand the wrong things we’d done. No one talked about God’s supposed hatred for the wrongs done against us. Whenever anyone at church talked about injustice in the world, it was almost always to emphasize how wrong it was to be angry, bitter, or unforgiving, as if not being those things was the cure for pain — that they mattered more than what any abuser might have done.” (p.99)

I wanted answers, but they never seemed to come. What are my alternatives? My eyes flew open. What if God were removed from the picture? I shook my head. I’d mentally been down that path many times and it didn’t fix the problem. If truth’s parameters were established by people alone, I had no way to define evil, or even justice for that matter. Something from C.S. Lewis’s writings rang in my mind, ‘A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.’ Removing God didn’t fix the problem of evil. It actually made it worse.” (p.100)

Why don’t victims report? Because most of the time, the only thing reporting accomplishes is heightening the trauma to almost unbearable levels. It invites an audience to view your sexual assault. It’s choosing to have no voice in the process after having it stolen from you. That’s why victims don’t report.” (p.271)

My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated…When I came out, my sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me.” (p.306)

Some prominent evangelical groups that had heralded my victim-impact statement for its gospel message cooled when I continued to speak about the scandals and serious allegations made against prominent leaders and religious groups — the community of Christians I call my own. With a heavy heart, I saw again that everyone appreciates advocacy when it’s directed to those ‘outside the camp,’ but when it demands that we evaluate our own faith communities, political parties, favorite sports teams, candidates, or beloved leaders, we scramble for reasons why things are ‘different’ in that space. This is the blind spot that keeps abusers protected and convinces victims that it’s never safe to speak up.” (p.322)

So much work remains. So much evil to fight. So much healing to reach for. So many wounded to love. Consider this your invitation to join in that work. To do what is right, no matter the cost. To hold to the straight line in the midst of the battle. To define your success by faithfulness in the choices you make. The darkness is there, and we cannot ignore it. But we can let it point us to the light.” (p.323)