Rachael Denhollander’s exclusive interview with Fearless: Advice to businesses, other organizations on how to prevent and respond to sexual abuse

Published by Nicole Grundmeier on

Individuals and institutions have become more aware of how to support survivors of sexual abuse — but major mistakes remain common, an advocate says.

Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to talk publicly about being sexually abused by Larry Nassar, a Michigan State University physician who was also the women’s national team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Stories about Nassar in the Indianapolis Star that quoted Denhollander helped bring about Nassar’s downfall and eventual imprisonment.

Denhollander, an attorney and educator who lives in Kentucky, spoke at the Chrysalis Foundation’s Inspired event on Nov. 13 in West Des Moines.

She spoke with Fearless a few days earlier about what businesses and other organizations get right and get wrong in handling sexual abuse cases.

“A community that didn’t understand trauma and couldn’t see the red flags missed the warning signs and ignored the disclosures of Larry’s abuse and left me and hundreds of other little girls believing the lies that it was all our fault and it was hopeless,” Denhollander said at the Chrysalis event. “And in most cases, that community response was without malice. It wasn’t intentional. Most of the time, we think about covering up child sexual abuse like it’s this dark, cigar-filled room with a bunch of people saying, ‘Oh, it’s fine, we don’t care.’ And that’s not usually what it looks like. Usually it’s good-hearted people who think they care but are ignorant. And that ignorance does incredible damage.”

Denhollander is the author of “What is a Girl Worth?” She praised the Chrysalis Foundation’s advocacy and programming to support Central Iowa girls and women and help them succeed.

Too often, Denhollander said, people who want to help survivors don’t have a complete understanding of the harm they’ve experienced, which makes it harder to engage with empathy.

She told a story about being momentarily terrified when her 12-year-old child jumped out of a closet to playfully scare her: “My heart starts to race. My stomach tenses. I start feeling nauseous. My skin tingles. I tense like I’m getting ready to run. That’s my body releasing cortisol and adrenaline, those stress hormones to try to protect me from what’s coming next. And fortunately, very quickly, I realized it’s just my 12-year-old son and my body starts to level out and then I start planning how I get him back,” she said. “But that feeling … that’s where survivors live perpetually. They’re constantly feeling that reality of something’s not right, something’s not right. And they can’t unfeel that reality because their body has gotten so used to pumping out the stress hormones to try to keep them safe from what they’re experiencing. These are not choices that survivors make. They are realities that they live with.”

Below are some highlights from a Zoom conversation with Denhollander just before her visit to Iowa. The responses have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You’ve continued your advocacy with calling out problems and cover-ups in other institutions such as the church. I’m curious if you have an assessment of what businesses, companies, nonprofits, in general do well and where they fall short when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the workplace?

I think there’s two parts to that. There’s the what do you do beforehand, and what do you do when something happens – the proactivity and the reactivity.

I think the first thing you see is a lack of proactivity. We don’t tend to do much until something really bad happens. Or we do the bare minimum. Oh, we have our HR policy, that box is checked. We have our internal ethics code, that box is checked. There’s not an intentional discussion about what the ethics of our organization are and how our policy culture and structure is going to be informed by that.

Working with institutions is actually one of my favorite things to do, because there’s so many layers to it. One of the things that you see with that proactivity piece is, a) we’re not proactive, but oftentimes where businesses are, they’re proactive with the wrong people. One of the biggest mistakes that I see made on both sides of the spectrum – the attempt at prevention and the response – is that most of the time, businesses engage with law firms for those questions. Oftentimes, they engage with corporate defense firms for those questions, rather than engaging with ethics and compliance firms that are run by trained attorneys.

This makes a world of difference on a number of levels. First, as much as people might think otherwise, attorneys are not trained on these dynamics in law school. They’re really not. And a lot of even the continuing legal education courses are very poorly done in terms of understanding abuse, abuse dynamics, trauma responses. They’re very incomplete or myopic in terms of understanding these dynamics. So working with a very skilled ethics and compliance firm, rather than a law firm, will get you a much more robust picture of what needs to be done on an institutional level.

Most of the time, we are not comprehensive in our approach. A good comprehensive, proactive prevention policy is going to look at the culture of the organization: What are our internal ethics codes? How well are we communicating those? Are there things happening in our organization that are making it difficult, potentially, for survivors to speak up or are feeding abusive dynamics? This can go to the tone from the top down, it can go to how well we communicate on those issues.

A very thorough cultural analysis really should be done of any organization, ideally, proactively. In addition to that, we need to look at the policy and the structure of the organization. On a policy level, there are a lot of things that we don’t necessarily think of as involving abuse and abuse dynamics, but that really play out very heavily in that context. Everything from whistleblower policies to internal board ethics codes to power dynamics. In addition to that, the structure of the organization often goes unassessed, and the structure of the organization can actually create a lot of pockets where abuse can flourish.

We saw this with Michigan State. Just one example of this is we had what we call communication silos. At Michigan State University, you have this complex organization, and you have different pieces that are functioning largely independent of each other, and there is no clear pathway for where allegations are supposed to go. So you had a situation where you had reports being made against Larry in multiple departments in multiple schools, across the entire university, but they all stopped there. Everybody only had one piece of the puzzle, rather than having a clear organizational structure where the communication silos were done away with so that the entire puzzle could emerge.

We also had significant imbalances between – and still do – between the administration and the board, and how they interacted on a political level that gave the board more power than it really should have had, and a lot of infighting between the board and administration over sexual-abuse-related issues.

So, doing a proactive cultural analysis, policy analysis and structural analysis is absolutely critical. Then we see the same kind of breakdown in the crisis response. When something does happen, the natural instinct is to call your corporate defense attorney or to bring in a legal defense firm to do the analysis, and attorneys are liability-minded. They’re going to be looking for “how do I minimize the risk to the organization” rather than taking a very broad and less myopic approach to crisis response.

A good crisis response is going to ask the question: What are the internal values of the organization? How do we, as fiduciaries, steward those values? What is the long-term fallout from not stewarding those values? Well, it’s going to understand being a fiduciary is not just “protect the money,” but rather is also “protect the organization as a whole.” How do we do right by its reputation? How do we regain trust with our stakeholders? An attorney at a legal defense firm, which is what most groups tap for this type of work, is really going to be looking just at minimizing the risk and is going to interpret the facts they find in light of minimizing that risk, rather than taking a very broad brush and a multifaceted approach to understanding what were the breakdowns and how do we fix them going forward?

One thing I’ve always wondered is why you trusted journalists to accurately tell such a personal and sensitive story. Statistically, when you look at people in the United States who are among the least-loved professionals, you’ve got lawyers and you’ve got journalists. What made you trust the Indianapolis Star reporters and the institution of journalism?

I probably don’t fit into the category of a lot of people who hate both those professions. As an attorney, I can absolutely say beyond a shadow of a doubt that attorneys are 99% of the problem in sexual abuse cases. They’re the ones that set the child protection policy. They’re the first people who get called when there’s a crisis. Attorneys are the absolute worst. Journalists, on the other hand, I love. I had actually considered journalism before going to law school, because journalists are supposed to be truth-tellers, right? They’re the ones that are supposed to shine the light. I knew when I was 17, that that was what it was going to take. It was going to take a very skilled journalism team that could get control of the narrative, that could put the pieces together in a way that would cause other [Nassar] survivors to realize that was their story, too.

When I disclosed to my mom, and we were starting to figure everything out, even long before I realized how severe the abuse was and knew the extent of it, I knew I wasn’t going to be the only one. I just remember walking around the block with my mom – because that’s what we did when we had to talk about hard things, we walked – and she said, “What do we do with this?” And I said that “one voice alone is never going to be enough. I am going to have to have journalism coverage.” We actually talked about going down to the local news station at that point in time.

When I saw that Indy Star article, I read the article right away, and then I read some of the other things that team had written. There were a couple of things that really stood out to me. I could tell they had put the time and the resources into an in-depth investigation. They had spent a lot of time, which tells me they spent a lot of money. So they valued it. They prioritize telling the truth in this context. And then in the way that they told the story, you could see how they used the facts of the case but wove the facts of different stories together to be able to show the grooming and the institutional dynamics and the societal conditioning and explaining why victims take so long to speak out. Being able to bring the trauma responses to life in a relatable way.

That team was very skilled. In addition to that, the story was trending, which means people were actually paying attention. That was new for gymnastics. It’s not that there hadn’t been news coverage on abuse in gymnastics spaces before. The Indy Star was probably the most in-depth and comprehensive, but it’s not that other journalists hadn’t tried, it was that nobody cared enough when they tried.

I emailed them right away and said, “I wasn’t abused by a coach. I don’t know that this is in the purview of your investigation, but this is my story. And I will come forward as publicly as necessary if you can just get the truth out.” Because I had always known that was how it would have to be done. To be honest, I can’t think of another major sexual assault scandal that’s been uncovered without journalists. I mean, I can’t think of one. Because that’s what it takes. It takes getting control of the narrative away from the abuser and from the institution surrounding him to be able to change the dialogue, to be able to generate enough public pressure. I can’t think of anything that has happened significant in the sexual abuse space that has not involved and really started with an excellently skilled journalism team. I love journalists.

One of the things I really loved about your book is how you seem to remember so well everything that your mom did in those weeks following your disclosure, and her language choices and how ultimately, she let you steer the ship. She let you choose how to go forward. What advice would you give to parents whose children have told them that they have been sexually abused, sexually assaulted, or even grooming behaviors? What would you tell those parents to do or to say?

The first thing that was really helpful for me, and tends to be a consistent thread with survivors that I work through, is properly mirroring the grief. Being able to say “I am so sorry,” mirroring the emotion. But mirroring in a way that’s not overwhelming, right, especially for assault survivors that have been subjected to long-term abuse or violent abuse. It’s very natural and right to be angry when someone you love has been hurt. But being very visibly, and demonstratively angry, can be very triggering for a survivor that has been subjected to violence.

So, being able to use your words and appropriate emotion and tone to accurately express the emotion that should be present. “I am so sorry. It makes me really angry that that was done to you. That’s not OK.” But not yelling and screaming. “I’m so angry.” To properly mirror the emotion in a way that is non-triggering, right? Because the survivor needs to know that it matters to you. To them, to share something so personally is an intensely, deeply emotional process. We need to be able to express that it matters to us, so properly mirroring the emotion, validating the wrongness of the conduct. “That was not OK.” And verbally refuting the lies that survivors are going to hear in their own head. “That was not your fault.” I think those things are key when responding to a disclosure.

The other thing that is really important to remember is as much as possible to restore agency to the survivor. I tend to think of healing as the undoing of what was done. So if you understand the wounds of trauma, it gives you a framework for how to respond to trauma in a way that helps be the opposite of what happened. If you break a bone, you need to undo the bone being broken, the bone needs to go back. If you sprain a ligament, you need to undo the overstretching of that ligament. Trauma wounds are not really any different. You need to do the opposite of what happened.

The things that are stripped in sexual abuse are your voice and the relationship and the power. Do everything that you can to restore the voice to engage in a healthy relational context and to restore authority or power, agency, to the survivor to be the opposite of what was experienced.

It seems to me like you could do anything, career wise. What are your long-term career plans?

That is something I’m still kind of figuring out, to be honest, because there are so many levels to working on this crisis, and I do have a background for a lot of them. I really enjoy taking a very multifaceted approach. I have done some legislative work. But I think what I actually enjoy the most, more than anything, is being able to do prevention and crisis response. Because when it is done well, it allows me to engage with survivors in a way that is really redemptive, and to see survivors get answers that a lot of survivors don’t get, for them to be able to emerge from a process that is well done, and have confidence that the institution really has engaged with transparency and accountability, that they have reckoned with and accurately diagnosed what went wrong. The heartbeat of survivors is to know that what they went through isn’t going to happen to somebody else.

When I can help an institution that really wants to take the right steps, to actually take those steps and do it well, and to hear the survivors’ voices and to grapple with what happened and to make real change going forward, it’s incredibly redemptive for the survivor community to get to see that happen. And it’s incredibly redemptive even for the institution – that’s what helps protect the next generation. So that proactive assessment and that crisis response is an area that I love to prioritize.

Doing corporate training on a wide range of things, just from understanding, “Hey, why is this something we prioritize?” Talking about ethical decision-making and leadership in the corporate context, I think, is really critical. I do a lot of speaking and educating, which I really enjoy. I work with our military academies, universities, nonprofits. The education and the crisis response, especially with how it interplays with survivor care, is something that’s just really important and precious to me.