Mr. Charles Terpstra, member of Faith PRC in Jenison, Michigan and full-time librarian/registrar/archivist at the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary
The following book is reviewed by Mrs. Cherith Guichelaar, pastor’s wife and mother in Grace PRC in Standale, Michigan.
What Is a Girl Worth? One Woman’s Courageous Battle to Protect the Innocent and Stop a Predator— No Matter the Cost by Rachael Denhollander. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2022. 352 pp. Paperback, $17.99.
Rachael Denhollander’s book What is a Girl Worth? sat on my shelf for months before I finally decided to read her autobiography. Where I was intrigued by her story, I was nervous her memoir would not provide the type of education on abuse and trauma that I was looking for. But as Rachael’s gentle spirit, devastating abuse, beautiful faith, and fierce love pulsed in my ear, I was drawn into her history from beginning to end. Her book is a rare gem, proving to be one of the most heartbreaking and inspiring works I have ever read. I found myself lying awake at night, the author’s questions nagging within, “Who is going to find these little girls? Who is going to tell them how much they are worth? How valuable they are, how deserving of justice and protection? Who is going to tell these little girls that what was done to them matters?” (p. 312).
What is a Girl Worth? records the events that led Rachael Denhollander to speak out against her abuser. The book describes the way our culture looks at, treats, and abuses females, and even children. It also lays out how we do not listen, believe, or properly engage with victims/survivors. Denhollander expertly and passionately describes the dynamics and effects of abuse, and immediately tackles ignorant questions such as, Why don’t victims speak up sooner? She says, “The truth is, I did say something sooner—many of us did. But as survivors of sexual assault will tell you, saying something is one thing. Being heard—and believed—is another” (p. 1). She also states, “The idea many people want to cling to—that survivors just don’t know how to speak up—simply isn’t true. It’s a notion we need to let go of and instead do a better job understanding what really keeps victims silent” (p. 5).
Denhollander’s real and raw experiences of trauma and confusion provide the reader a window into the long-term physical, emotional, and spiritual damage that victims and their loved ones must sift through following abuse. Rachael discusses the embarrassment, shame, guilt, and the often overlooked “freeze” response to fear. One of the most devastating aspects of the abuse for me was how it affected Rachael’s faith. She began to write out Bible passages and songs—letting someone else express the depths of hopelessness and grief when she no longer could. She writes, “The book of Psalms, in particular, enabled me to ride the waves of pain I couldn’t seem to escape” (p. 95). In addition to all the damage, once Rachael reported her abuse, she recalls “by and large; we as survivors were told what was happening to us; we weren’t consulted first. We had little to no voice in the process. And afterlosing my voice once, losing it again was traumatic and painful” (p. 230). As Rachael struggled through the trauma, she wrote in her journal, “Just when I think it is over, think it is done, I find myself shivering again, in the warmth of the sun” (p. 92).
I was struck by the stark contrast between the faithful sacrificial love of Rachael’s family, friends, church, and advocates over against the selfish desires of her abuser, institutions, coaches, and, unfortunately, at times, the church. Of her family she writes,
A saving grace through my abuse had been my parents’ relationship with each other and me. My mom was an abuse survivor, too, and she didn’t hide that. I knew there were men out there who could walk through the grief and pain alongside survivors, who could help them heal instead of hurt them, because my dad had done that for my mom. From both my dad and my brother, I knew that healthy masculinity was a gift (p. 113).
Rachael’s husband portrayed this Christlike masculinity by consistently walking beside her in patience, encouragement, and compassion.
On the other side, when it comes to the mistakes, lies, and failures of individuals, institutions, or the legal system, Rachael does not shy away from respectfully pointing out where they have gone wrong. For example, when leaders sought to cover up reports of abuse in Sovereign Grace Churches, even going so far as to pray against the survivors, Rachael said,
All the survivors attributed the mishandling of their cases to the church’s theology. They alleged dynamics like an excessive view of pastoral authority; a refusal to engage with secular authorities or abuse educators outside the church; teachings on concepts like unity, forgiveness, and grace that resulted in abusers being “forgiven” while victims were silenced by being characterized as “bitter.” It wasn’t a new story—not to anyone who understood the reasons churches typically mishandle abuse (pp. 140-141).
I appreciated the way in which Rachael consistently draws attention to the fundamental truth that our actions must always be governed by love. She remembers,
The pattern of love that was displayed by Christ on the cross was the one my parents followed. Their love wasn’t obsessed with authority for power’s sake. Instead, it sacrificed daily for us, even in the little ways, like taking time to listen to the concerns of a young child or petulant teen. They taught us that their authority was limited and would only be exercised for the right reasons and in the right way. This meant that they would discuss with us, hear, and respect our input; and work with us to find a way forward. It didn’t mean that obedience wasn’t necessary or that we were allowed to argue them into changing their minds. Rather, it meant that we could approach them and be heard (p. 11).
From them she also learned that “love would ensure a willingness to hear and see the truth, even if it meant admitting I was wrong. Love would ensure compassion even for those who did wrong, while still enabling fierce pursuit of the truth” (p. 5). Even later, as Rachael wrestled with how God’s love could mesh with the amount of abuse in the world, she came to confess, “Whatever I didn’t understand, whatever answers I hadn’t yet found couldn’t contradict what I did know… there is good and evil. There is a God who defines it. He is just. He is loving” (p. 104).
The necessity of protecting the vulnerable is imperative. Denhollander says it well when she writes, “The weight of how we fail our children pressed on me as an attorney for victims who’d been abused by priests told a Globe investigative reporter: ‘Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.’ And it does. It always has…it takes a village to stop the abuse too” (p. 268). Denhollander does more than needed in sharing the details of her abuse. And why? Because as she frequently states, “The more you love, the harder you fight” (p. 217).
It is hard to do the right thing. It is hard to educate, protect, and deal with abuse properly. Quoting from the author once again,
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 team, 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 (pp. 321-322).
The truth is that there are victims of many forms of abuse all around us. We cannot afford to look away. We cannot afford not to know the signs. We cannot afford to enable abusers. We cannot afford not to know how to respond. We cannot afford not to know what a precious soul is worth.
Like Rachael, we must boldly profess “I care about the survivors. I care about the church. I care about the integrity of the gospel. When we get this wrong, it does terrible damage” (p. 147). We must get this right, admitting where we have done it wrong. May we strive, “to do what is right, no matter the cost. To hold to the straight line in the midst of the battle…the darkness is there, and we cannot ignore it. But we can let it point us to the light” (p. 323). “Love is the motivation that will give joy and peace when doing the right thing is hard and hurts” (p. 237).