I was already a survivor of sexual assault when I went to see Dr. George Tyndall at the University of Southern California student health center.
My experience with him triggered past emotions and memories, and caused painful new ones. It also made me part of a group of thousands of USC students and alumni abused by Tyndall over three decades.
My story, like those of so many others, began with a routine gynecological exam. As an older graduate student who identified as polyamorous and bisexual, I was fairly comfortable discussing my sexual history and orientation and was familiar with routine procedures.
But with Tyndall, I became uncomfortable very quickly. He was unprofessional in his interest about my sex life and asked about the best sex positions for two women. Without fully closing the curtain in the exam room, he performed a “skin check” by scrutinizing and roughly handling my naked body.
I had to schedule a follow-up appointment and I dreaded returning. When I arrived, Tyndall was excited about an additional “new procedure” he wanted to perform—an anal pap smear. He said it was the best way to have all the information about my body.
He didn’t give me time to think about it or offer a later date. It was an invasive procedure that left me feeling coerced and violated. I later contacted a non-USC gynecologist who told me that I never should have had that procedure.
Last year when the news broke about Tyndall’s years of abuse and I saw that a settlement was forming, I was relieved.
Tyndall was the only gynecologist available to me at USC, so I had no choice. Now, my fellow survivors and I finally do have a choice.
Pending before a federal district court is a $215 million proposed class action settlement that allows survivors to receive between $2,500 and $250,000 in compensation depending on how much they want to participate in the process.
It also provides for sweeping changes at USC, implementing best practices for dealing with—and preventing—sexual assault, to ensure this never happens again.
By offering compensation to all of Tyndall’s former patients, the settlement tacitly assumes that if you saw Tyndall, something unpleasant and potentially traumatizing happened. Survivors will not be grilled in order to receive compensation. They will be believed. If a class member chooses to tell her story, she can move into a different tier of compensation.
Separately, pending in the California legislature is an important bill, Assembly Bill 1510 by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, Democrat from Grand Terrace.
Reyes’ bill would expand the statute of limitations in California to allow sexual abuse survivors to bring a lawsuit regardless of how many years ago the abuse occurred. This ensures that those who want to pursue their claims individually can do so without having to overcome an unfair legal hurdle.
Individually, we must decide for ourselves how to move forward. The fact that we have the opportunity to choose between these options is why I support both the settlement and the bill. They provide survivors with a choice for how to proceed going forward.
The settlement offers a simple way to seek justice, based on what happened to each former patient and how much they want to participate in the process, all without the risk and trauma of adversarial litigation. The bill would give survivors of sexual abuse a path to seek justice through individual litigation if that is the route they choose.
For me, the settlement is best and I wholeheartedly support it. I also believe the California Legislature should move swiftly to pass Assemblywoman Reyes’ bill for those women who choose a different path forward.
Recovery from sexual trauma is not linear. It does not proceed according to a straight line from hurt to healed. It is cyclic, confusing, and sometimes intrudes upon otherwise happy, healthy moments.
As difficult as it can be to tell my story, doing so reminds me how strong I am for having survived it. I will continue to build strength as I join the many women coming forward.
I strongly support the settlement, and AB 1510 will not change my decision to be a part of it. What AB 1510 offers is more choice for survivors like myself, which can only be a good thing. Whether through the settlement or litigation, we will fight on—not for USC, but for ourselves and the thousands of women who have borne the burden of Tyndall’s abuse.
Vanessa Carlisle, PhD, is a writer, teacher, and alumna (‘16) of USC’s graduate creative writing program living in Los Angeles, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.