USC sex abuse survivor Sarah May details her assault and healing journey in new book, ‘The pain of healing is worth it’

In 2017, former University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall was asked to resign after a nurse at the schools clinic reported him to USC's Sexual Violence Prevention Services. After an investigation, Tyndall, 74, was accused of sexually assaulting thousands of women who visited the clinic, and is currently awaiting trial on 35 counts of sexual misconduct. One survivor, Sarah May, a former USC student who was sexually assaulted by Tyndall in 2004, is speaking out.

In her new book, To the Shadows, May bravely shares how the sexual assault impacted her life, and how she’s healed from the trauma. "This book is not just for people healing, it's for people supporting healers. I think the more we understand about what goes on during the healing process, the better we are able to support the people we love."

May dreamed of working in the film industry, and after attending film school in Toronto, she decided to get her masters in screenwriting from USC. As a student, May made a gynecological appointment at the University’s health clinic where she met Dr. Tyndall.

In 2015, Sarah went through what she calls a "nervous breakdown" when memories of her past assault as a child came rushing back. That's when she started therapy and the very difficult journey of addressing her traumas. As Sarah focused on her healing, the case against Tyndall grew. More accusers came forward, and USC asked Tyndall to resign, with a severance package, in 2017. Shortly after, the LAPD began a criminal investigation into the allegations of abuse. When May saw Tyndall’s case emerge in the news, she knew that she had to speak out.

“Because I had done so much work healing and working with my trauma, I picked up the phone to call lawyers within five minutes of seeing the news. So that's the difference between being unhealed and healed — our ability to just stand up for ourselves,” says May.

Video transcript

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: In 2018, former USC gynecologist George Tyndall was charged with 35 counts of felony sexual misconduct. Today, I'm sitting down with USC sexual assault survivor, Sarah May, who's sharing her healing journey in her debut book, To the Shadows. I'm Brittany Jones Cooper, and welcome to Unmuted.

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Sarah, the case against George Tyndall has made national news and involves thousands of victims. Your story starts back in 2004. Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to USC.

SARAH MAY: My dream was always to work in the film industry. And I went to USC to study screenwriting. Unfortunately what happened at USC put me in really place of not believing in myself. And so my dreams never came to fruition.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: So sorry to hear that. I think trauma has such a long lasting impact on our lives. In 2004, you went to the USC clinic for a gynecological visit. Can you take us back to what happened that day?

SARAH MAY: I had made an appointment with Dr. Tyndall. And when I went in, he proceeded to ignore what I had come in for. And he assaulted me vaginally with no gloves on his hand. And I could feel the whole appointment that something was happening. I think what really got to me is that he seemed so comfortable doing it. I was like, maybe he's doing this to other women.

I remember my hand on the doorknob after I'd gotten dressed, and I did not want to open that door. I didn't want anyone to see me. This is emotional, right? So I felt like garbage. And that was really difficult for me because I feel like I had already been fighting my entire life to get out of that belief because of what happened to me as a kid. I actually had childhood abuse. So then that happens again. And it's like this is who I am. My body is for other people. It's not my own.

Perpetrators know how to spot victims. And I walked into that office as an unhealed person because of my childhood abuse. George Tyndall saw that, and he took advantage of it. The key takeaway from my book is that we have to heal ourselves. We have to heal our kids when they've experienced trauma so that they don't have to have repeat traumas as adults because that's very, very common.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: The first step to that and the hardest step, though is speaking out and sharing your story. You first came forward in 2010, and your complaint was dismissed. How does that make you feel that women are silenced when they're telling their truth?

SARAH MAY: I mean, it makes me livid. Before me, people had complained. If they had listened to those complaints, I wouldn't have had to go through that. And ultimately I think what this has highlighted for me is that these schools are a business. They say they're there to educate and take care of their students. But as we see, there are various institutions that are not taking care of their students. And they are going as far as enabling perpetrators under their watch.

This is not an isolated case. I think it's always been happening. We've seen the case at UCLA. We had Nassar with the gymnastics. Gymnastics Canada is going through the same thing. Hockey Canada is going through the same thing. I mean, I hate to say this, but this is a positive thing. These things are coming up. The collective is ready to finally look at them, and now we can deal with it. And maybe things will start to change.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: In 2018, George Tyndall was finally charged with sexual assault. How did you come back into the story? And how were you introduced to the lawyers to tell your story?

SARAH MAY: Because I had done so much work healing and working with trauma, I picked up the phone to call the lawyers within five minutes of seeing the news. That's the difference between being unhealed and healed, our ability to just stand up for ourselves. There is about 1,000 plaintiffs give or take. About 20 of us were deposed including myself. I think that was a lot of pressure, you know that you're fighting on behalf of all these other victims. At the same time, you're constantly rehashing the abuse. And so it was very emotional and just wanting to do a good job for everyone that didn't have a voice.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: Ultimately, USC paid $1.1 billion in settlements to thousands of former Tyndall patients. It's the largest sex abuse payout in education history. Do you think they did enough?

SARAH MAY: I would have liked an apology.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: Yeah.

SARAH MAY: No one apologized. And it's interesting because they paid that amount of money but couldn't take responsibility for what had happened.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: Sarah, you've come so far on your healing journey. What do you hope that readers learn from your book?

SARAH MAY: First of all, this book is not just for people healing. It's for people supporting healers. I think the more we understand about what goes on during the healing process, the better we are able to support the people we love. You really have to look at the pain and understand what it's doing to your body. I'm not a huge advocate for just basic talk therapy for trauma. When that trauma has lived in us for decades, how do we verbalize that?

So I'm really a fan of body work such as somatic experiencing and so forth and work with someone who is trauma informed and understands how to help you move that trauma out of your body. I want people to know that the pain of healing is worth it. Trauma is it's passed on through the genes. We heal ourselves. We're healing our lineage. Every time a person heals themselves, we're making a better world for our future.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: Healing takes work, and to see somebody engaged in it is empowering. So thank you, Sarah for sharing your story with us today.

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