I have always wanted to help others and be a force for social change. What I didn’t know is that my path to this would involve experiencing assault from a medical professional in a space I presumed was safe — the University of Southern California’s Engemann Student Health Center.
Last year, I joined the approximately 500 women accusing George Tyndall, the former gynecologist for USC, of abuse and harassment. Our allegations against Tyndall and the university were consolidated into a master complaint filed in May. Tyndall has denied the allegations and his response is due in court this month. This decision to join has unexpectedly gave me the chance to stand up for what is right and give voice to what others could not bring themselves to say.
Today, I am confused and hurt by USC’s response to women like me. But I am also inspired by the opportunity to break the culture of secrecy and corruption at USC.
A monster in a medical coat
My story began in 2016, when I was raped on New Year’s Eve of my freshman year of college. I was home at the time of the rape, but when I returned to campus I reached out to USC for an STD and pregnancy test. I was referred to see George Tyndall, who worked as the school’s only full-time gynecologist for nearly 30 years. It was there that I experienced the consequences of the culture of the USC Engemann Health Center.
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This was my very first gynecology appointment, and I had no idea what were appropriate gynecological practices. Tyndall made crude comments, touched me inappropriately and molested me. He prodded me and made me yell in pain. His behavior was so inappropriate and abhorrent that the nurse-chaperone announced that she felt uncomfortable and left the room. She left me half naked and alone on the exam table.
To my knowledge, the chaperone never reported what happened that day. When I think about this experience, I can’t help but wonder whether this had become routine for her; if she was traumatized watching young girls be exploited by a monster with a medical degree.
Brennan Heil in Los Angeles, California, in April 2019. (Photo: Family handout)
After being mistreated by an authority figure — a medical doctor who I had expected to help me after an already-traumatizing rape — I felt incredibly alone. I became increasingly unable to control my emotions and actions, causing debilitating panic attacks. I told myself this was my problem to solve. I had none of the tools to help myself, so I invented my own — not many helped.
Assault and abuse often have consequences that manifest themselves in the rest of a victim’s life; I am no exception. I spent nights at friends’ houses; I was fearful most of the time. I craved human touch and feeling safe. I started asking people to hug me, squeeze me, cuddle with me. I needed to be held in order to feel safe. I began working out more than I ate, drinking more than my body could take, and being more sexually active than was normal for me.
All the while, I masked my pain with productivity. I created a narrative outside of myself that I told the world was the truth. The more I hid my deepest, most painful secrets, the worse I felt.
In 2018, the spring semester of my junior year, I studied abroad in London. A few weeks after I returned, I was scrolling down my Facebook feed when I saw Tyndall’s face — The Los Angeles Times had reported on an USC investigation that found his examinations amounted to sexual harassment. In a secret deal, the university allowed him to resign and receive a payout. The news was devastating and I was immediately reminded of what he did to me — my reaction was visceral.
Financial settlement will only bury the past
The university agreed in February to a proposed $215 million class-action settlement, approval of which has been delayed by a federal judge. But this settlement is just further evidence of USC avoiding accountability and their responsibility to acknowledge the pain and suffering of hundreds of women. Even now, USC does not admit liability and Tyndall has yet to be charged with a crime.
USC also hired a lobbying firm to work to defeat AB1510, a California state assembly bill which would grant anyone who has experienced sexual assault or abuse at a student health clinic, but who falls outside of California’s statute of limitations, a one-year window to report it. Killing this bill would effectively allow USC to close the case, cover up what happened and avoid accountability.
People enter the University of Southern California's Engemann Student Health Center in Los Angeles, in May 2018. (Photo: Richard Vogel, AP)
It hurts to know that USC continues to shirk its responsibility for the abuse I and many other women endured. Tyndall took advantage of his circumstances, which USC tolerated and effectively sanctioned by its inaction.
My experience at USC with Tyndall has changed the course of my life in unexpected ways. It enabled me to seek proper health care and reorient my life’s work toward a career in political communications. I hope to make a difference, through legislation, for all women, victims and survivors.
Now that I have graduated from the University of Southern California, I am reminded not of what USC has helped me become, but of the person I fought to become despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they sent my way. I have the opportunity to use my experiences and my unexpected platform to make a difference in the world; I intend to use it.
Brennan Heil graduated magna cum laude from the University of Southern California in 2019.
Editor’s note: Neither the University of Southern California nor George Tyndall have admitted liability. Tyndall has maintained his innocence and has not been charged with a crime.
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