Updated March 25, 2021 at 3:15 p.m. PT.
Editor’s note: On Thursday, the University of Southern California announced it will pay more than $1.1 billion to the former patients of Dr. George Tyndall, a university gynecologist accused of sexual abuse of hundreds of his women patients. The payout sets a record for university sex abuse cases.
The piece below, originally published in May 2020, is a powerful reflection from one of his former patients.
I went in for a routine gynecological exam with Dr. George Tyndall over 20 years ago, during my first semester in graduate school at USC, and last month, I received a check for $2500. I’m in good company. There are over 18,000 claimants in this class action suit. I’ll receive more money, next year, after the interviews and assessments are made. I not only saw George Tyndall for an exam; I was sexually assaulted during that exam—thousands of us were.
He was a professional predator. He knocked me off balance at the start of the appointment and never stopped talking. He gave me access to his thoughts, he wondered aloud why I’d want to use a condom for birth control.
Wouldn’t it be more pleasurable to feel a man inside you without a condom? Wouldn’t you prefer a diaphragm? Yes, it would involve a more extensive vaginal exam, but it would be worth it for the pleasure you would experience in the long run. And your partner would enjoy it more, every man does.
I was unsure, something didn’t feel right, I looked outside to the sunny, Southern California day. The eucalyptus branches swaying in the breeze.
“What about the cost? I’m a student.” I cast about for any reason to say no, other than my discomfort, that didn’t hold enough weight in my mind. He was a doctor. The Head of the Student Health Center. I refused to consider that he could be untrustworthy, that option felt too terrifying.
He followed up, “In the long run, you’ll save money. You’ll come back here and thank me.”
I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss, I didn’t want to hear the familiar refrain of what a difficult girl, or woman, I could be. Graduate School at USC was the beginning of my new life. I’d cut ties with a family member who raped me as a child and his most egregious enablers. I was here on my own. I was beholden to no one. I assented to the procedure.
He complimented my vagina throughout the exam.
“So young. And lubricated.”
“Tight and pink.”
I’d never heard my vagina discussed with such interest. His attention to detail made me feel uncomfortable, but instead of stopping the exam, I berated myself for feeling ashamed.
“Why can’t I just relax and casually discuss my vagina? That’s what a liberated and badass woman would do,” I did not accept, or even entertain, until the charges were brought against Larry Nassar and George Tyndall, that a vaginal “medical” exam could be sexual assault.
Nor did I use the word rape to describe my rapes until last year. I tiptoed around it, concerned that I’d be showboating by naming my trauma by its legal definition. I’d talked myself out of it for years, “None of my assailants used a weapon. None of them were strangers. None of them broke my bones.”
They were my family, my friends, my doctor and they only broke my spirit. The wounds they left were invisible, but gaping and painful, nonetheless.
When Tyndall finally left, I threw on my clothes, worried he’d come back to check on me. I was shaking,
“The exam rooms are so cold.” I told myself, “It’s normal.”
I swallowed back tears, gathered my things and left.
I never saw Tyndall again, I made sure of that, but the damage was done.
I was 24, three months into my MFA program in Film and TV Production at USC when he derailed my hard fought sense of safety and worth beyond my physical appearance and ability to please. In our prestigious program, it’s worth noting that in our semester of 50 students only 15 of us were women (and only four of those were women of color). And so there were the expected comments about my looks and that of my actors, all my leads were women.
One man in my first production class let me know, “The only reason I can sit through your chick flicks is because the chicks are hot. Make sure to keep ‘em hot.”
And yes, one of my teachers did grab my butt when I went to sit on the dolly—but I was told, we were all told, “This is how it is. You’ve got to be tough to make it in this business.”
For a time, I was able to deflect the comments, the looks and the inappropriate touching, after all I was a woman in a man’s world and if I couldn’t take it, I was never going to get to make movies. End of story.
Being re-traumatized by Tyndall did a number on my psyche and the reverberations of that trauma affected my ability to think clearly and advocate for myself.
A year later, when my thesis advisor verbally abused me, screaming with so much vigor he left my face covered in his spit, I sat there and I took it. When he called me a “whore” for writing about a woman who enjoyed sex, I politely disagreed. When he called my character a “whore” in a class of 50 people, I endured comments from classmates piling on and letting me know that my character was deeply unlikeable.
“How could a woman who likes sex be a main character, anyhow? Sluts aren’t sympathetic.”
My thesis advisor tried to get me removed from class for being difficult because I repeatedly refused to change my character into a self-hating wallflower. The one woman professor in my cohort stood up for me. I kept the film, but endured abuse from my advisor and many of my peers for a semester. I cried before and after class, but during class I remained stoic, determined not to expose my vulnerability. I told myself that if I couldn’t cut it at USC I would never make it in the “real world.” I convinced myself that I needed the abuse, that my abusers were doing me a favor, that they had my best interests at heart, just as Tyndall did me a favor by convincing me to assent to a procedure I did not want. I told myself it was good training and that, in the end, it would make me a better director.
As with Tyndall, I did not take my complaints to the higher-ups. I didn’t even consider it. I’d learned early that complaints usually led to re-traumatization. When I ran away from my rapist in high school, shaking and sobbing, our mutual friend, that I’d known since I was five, caught up with me to patiently explain that,
“This is how boys are. Stop being such a drama queen, it’s embarrassing.”
I pleaded with her, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
She laughed in my face. And let me know our friendship was over unless I apologized. I didn’t apologize. We never spoke again.
Last week, I received a check for $2500, and there will be more. I took a selfie; in it, I’m smiling and holding the check. We need the money—most people need the money right now.
I stood in the shower that night and thought an unspeakable thought:
“Was it worth it? All he did was objectify me (happens all the time), touch me without my consent (wasn’t the first or the last time) and remind me of how little power I had in a humiliating way. Only that.”
I’ve thought about the complicated narrative I had to weave as a girl, a teen and a grown woman. The one that assures me that I’m the cause of all of this because I’m defective. I’m broken beyond repair and that I somehow deserve this. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never been abused but it made me feel safer.
It’s frightening to accept the chaotic nature of life, especially as a child. It was easier to believe that the world wasn’t unsafe for everyone. Just for me. Just for girls like me and if we learn the rules and toughen up, if we can just be strong and smart and inventive enough, we’ll survive.
I am resilient. I am a survivor, but no amount of money makes it worth it.
He stripped me of hope, but not forever. He gave my self-loathing new depths to plumb. It’s nice to have the money—it may cover the cost of my therapy—but the money can’t give me back the years when I struggled to believe I deserved the space I took up in the world. Only I can do that.
Unraveling the narrative I built to protect myself is a slow, and oftentimes, painful process. It is the most important work of my life. I deserve the space I take up, in fact, I always have. I know it now, deep in my bones. I deserve to be here. We all do.