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Rachael Denhollander on the power of Larry Nassar's manipulation

Ex-gymnast on Larry Nassar, new book
Rachael Denhollander on the power of Larry Nassar's manipulation 06:00

Former gymnast and sexual assault survivor Rachael Denhollander set off one of the largest investigations of its kind in U.S. history after she became the first to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse. More than 150 survivors later came forward, and Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

Denhollander recounted her experience with Nassar in her new book, "What is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics." She also authored a children's book, called "How Much is a Little Girl Worth?"

Denhollander on Wednesday told "CBS This Morning" that Nassar abused her during her first appointment when she was 15 years old – but that she didn't know what to do. "I didn't just trust my abuser, I trusted the institutions that surrounded him. I trusted the community that surrounded him," she said. "I knew as I was laying there, I was not his first victim."

Her mother was in the room while she was abused, Denhollander said, adding that Nassar was so "skilled" at abuse that her mother didn't notice.

"He would block her view so she couldn't see what I was doing — of course, I didn't realize that," she said. "My thought process was, 'There's no way that someone hasn't described to MSU and to USAG what Larry's doing. If there's any question about this treatment, surely someone would do something.'"

Denhollander wrote in the book that she went through a similar experience in her church, and that "it also left me with a lesson I've never forgotten and had in fact taken into the exam room with Larry: If you can't prove it, don't speak up. Because it will cost you everything."

"That's a lesson every sexual assault survivor knows," Denhollander told "CBS This Morning." "We watch how sexual assault is discussed when it comes up in the political sphere, when it comes up with a prominent sports figure, and we see what people say about those survivors. We see how they rally around the person who's been the abuser, and we know it's not safe to speak up."

Denhollander said that her experience says a lot about American culture. "I think something else we really need to learn from this is that enablers don't look like a bunch of men sitting in a smoke-filled cigar room saying, 'We think child rape is fine and we're gonna let it go on,'" she said.

"More often than not, it's someone in our community who desires to do the right thing, but has not taken the time to learn what the right thing is, and doesn't understand the dynamics of abuse, so when they receive a disclosure, they respond in a way that silences the survivor and causes insurmountable damage," she continued.

Michigan State University, which was under a dozen state and federal investigations, told "CBS This Morning" in a statement that "for the investigations that have concluded, we are fully committed to accepting responsibility of change and accountability in the findings and reports."

But Denhollander doesn't think accountability has happened yet. "It absolutely has not happened, not with either organization," she said. "Every investigation that's been done, they have either refused to comply by not waiving attorney-client privilege and releasing the facts, or it's been done with significant arm twisting."

"Taking responsibility looks like what I require my little children to do," she added. "To say 'I am sorry that' and to identify the failures, and to identify the harm that was caused. And then to ask, 'How can I make it right?'"

Nassar's apology and guilty plea didn't mean much to her either, she said. "To hear Larry admit what he did was a gift that I really never thought I would get. It's a gift that most survivors don't get, and I don't take that for granted," she said. "That being said, I had reached a point where my healing was no longer dependent on that. Because when you're dealing with an abuser, you're dealing with a consummate manipulator. So I knew that my healing couldn't be dependent on what Larry said or did."

"I think what we saw with Larry is exactly what we needed to see," she added. "We saw the power of manipulation."

USA Gymnastics said their process for addressing reports of sexual misconduct is now "stronger and better defined," with changes like mandatory reporting and policies that set boundaries between staff and athletes.

But Denhollander said that isn't enough. "Their last two appointees were already under investigation in SafeSport for having abusive environments in their gym, and they didn't manage to catch that before they appointed them, or didn't think it was a problem before they put them in charge of athletes' safety," she said. 

"So, if you have to be told to do a background check on your appointees three years into the worst sexual assault scandal in sports history, I don't think you've learned very much." 

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