Professor Vanessa C. Tyson speaks as part of a talk, “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo,” at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on Feb. 12, 2019. (Nikki Ritcher/Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences )
A loving daughter and supportive friend. A political junkie. A diehard Californian and Dodgers fan. And a committed scholar, also known for her advocacy work on behalf of sexual assault survivors.
That’s how colleagues and friends described Vanessa C. Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in Claremont, California, who in early February alleged that Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
A second woman has since accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000 at a fraternity party at Duke University. He has denied both allegations and has called for a law enforcement investigation. Three people told KQED that Tyson — who declined to be interviewed for this story — had previously confided in them about the assault.
"Sometimes you have to lead by example, no matter how hard it is,” said Tyson, a race politics scholar, at a talk on Feb. 12 at Stanford University, when she was asked about speaking up about sexual assault.
Tyson's lawyer has asked the Virginia General Assembly, where Fairfax, a Democrat, is the Senate president, to create a bipartisan process to investigate the allegations. On Friday, Virginia House Republicans said they would hold a hearing where Fairfax, Tyson and the other accuser, Meredith Watson, can testify, The Associated Press reported. A spokeswoman for Fairfax has described the Republican-led hearing as “partisan."
Tyson, who is 42, said she met Fairfax at the convention, where they were both working, on July 26, 2004. They crossed paths during the first few days, and their interaction was “cordial but not flirtatious,” Tyson said in a statement through her lawyer in early February.
Two days later, Tyson said Fairfax invited her on an errand to pick up some documents from his hotel room. While there, she said Fairfax kissed her, but what “began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault.”
“As I cried and gagged, Mr. Fairfax forced me to perform oral sex on him. I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” Tyson said in the statement.
Afterward, Tyson said, she avoided Fairfax for the rest of the convention.
"After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame. I did not speak about it for years, and I (like most survivors) suppressed those memories and emotions as a necessary means to continue my studies, and to pursue my goal of building a successful career as an academic," she said in her statement. “At the time, I found this horrific incident especially degrading, given my regular volunteer work at a local rape crisis center.”
Tyson said her silence began to end when the #MeToo movement erupted in the fall of 2017, which was also when she learned Fairfax was running to be Virginia’s lieutenant governor.
"The passion and resolve of so many survivors, coupled with the job security that tenure afforded me, gave me the strength I simply did not have in 2004," she said in the statement, noting she began to disclose details about the assault to friends in October 2017.
Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Fairfax, said the lieutenant governor has “consistently” denied the allegations and has requested a “full, fair, independent, impartial, and nonpolitical investigation” by law enforcement.
‘She Was Rattled, Frustrated’
Tyson had reached out to The Washington Post shortly after Fairfax won office in November 2017 to report the alleged attack, the newspaper said. But The Post said, in a piece it did about her on Feb. 6, 2019, that it “did not run a story at the time because it could not corroborate Tyson’s account or find similar complaints of sexual misconduct.”
A number of Tyson’s friends and colleagues told KQED that she’d spoken with them about the alleged attack within the last year. Dara Strolovitch, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at Princeton University, said Tyson, a longtime friend, shared details about the incident in March 2018 when they were attending a political science conference in San Francisco.
Tyson was in disbelief that the man she said had attacked her had been elected lieutenant governor, said Strolovitch: “She was rattled. She was unhappy. She was frustrated.”
Kim Yi Dionne, an assistant professor of political science at UC Riverside, said Tyson confided in her on July 11, 2018 — a date she remembers because that’s when she closed on her home. Tyson, a fellow Californian who she has known since 1998, came over that day with some housewarming gifts: wine, toilet paper, cereal and face masks.
“I worried that his continued success would take a toll on her,” Dionne said about Fairfax’s election. “I worried that there was no good solution for that problem.”
Dionne said she thought Tyson's “experience with The Post left her really disappointed. And uncertain about whether there was a way forward.”
Tyson described the “parameters of the event very clearly about what happened to her in that hotel room in 2004,” said Freyd, who didn’t recall if she’d named Fairfax as her attacker. "Everything about her story was consistent psychologically and structurally with dozens, if not hundreds, of other accounts I've heard," she said.
Then, earlier this month, a racist photo surfaced in the 1984 yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, leading to calls for his resignation. Tyson commented on the incident in a post on Facebook on Feb. 1, 2019, saying that a campaign staffer who had assaulted her during the 2004 DNC “was about to get a big promotion.” She did not directly refer to Northam or Fairfax — who is lieutenant governor to Northam.
“It was not my intention in that moment to inject myself into what has become a much larger political battle,” Tyson said in her public statement issued by her lawyer.
Before Tyson had decided whether she would go public, conservative website Big League Politics published a screenshot of her Facebook post, saying she had hinted at a possible sexual assault by the lieutenant governor.
Fairfax’s staff responded the next day, Feb. 4, via Twitter, saying it was a “false claim” and that “he has never assaulted anyone — ever.”
On Feb. 6, Tyson issued her first public statement on the alleged assault in a three-page letter. She wrote that it was “with tremendous anguish” she was sharing her experience: “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”
After Virginia state Republicans called for a hearing into the accusations against him, Fairfax likened what was happening to a political lynching.
“We talk about hundreds, at least a hundred, terror lynchings that have happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia under those very same auspices — and yet we stand here in a rush to judgment with nothing but accusations and no facts, and we decide that we are willing to do the same thing,” he said during a speech he made to the state Senate on Sunday.
Tyson's lawyer, Debra S. Katz, said in mid-February that her client will meet with the prosecutor's office in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, to detail her allegations.
A Survivor, Not a Victim
Tyson grew up in Whittier in Los Angeles County. She had long been open about being a survivor of childhood incest, several friends and colleagues told KQED. When she was 8 years old, she said, her father was convicted of molesting her.
Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a professor of political science and gender studies at USC and a mentor to Tyson, said Tyson told her about the molestation in 2013 at a conference in Chicago. Hancock Alfaro recalled Tyson sharing a story from years earlier about when her father tried contacting her while she was an undergraduate student at Princeton University: “The fact that he was trying to reach out to her was too much.”
Tyson said she lost legal protection from her father when she turned 18 during her first year at Princeton. Around this time, during late fall of 1994, Tyson said her panic attacks started.
"I willingly kissed someone for the first time, and this one small act unleashed a tidal wave of emotions, coupled with flashbacks to years of terror from my youth,” she wrote in October 2018 in an essay for the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, publishing in March (Brown, the Purdue professor guest-editing the issue, shared a draft of the essay with KQED).
Tyson said she tried to “fix” herself while in college and graduate school, reading books on trauma and childhood sexual abuse and using available counseling resources, she said in the essay.
Then she turned to advocacy.
At 26, she began speaking publicly about child sex abuse, and soon after co-founded the Survivor Speakers’ Bureau of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Tyson said in her essay. She also started a program teaching self-esteem and self-awareness at a girls detention center in Framingham, Massachusetts.
In sharing her story, she hoped to “help fellow survivors in the way that others’ stories had helped me,” she wrote in the essay. “My greatest inspiration, however, remained the deep-seeded belief that my efforts might help to reverse a cycle of abuse and trauma that seemed pervasive in our society.”
Tyson has also joined efforts to address sexual harassment in the political science community as part of the #MeTooPoliSci collective, said Brown and Strolovitch. In her latest work, she is shifting her focus from race and representation in Congress to sexual violence against women and children — research she has been incubating for years, said her friends and colleagues.
Tyson wants to examine political discourse surrounding assault, corresponding policies and the unique identities of survivors.
Dionne said Tyson’s new project could also trigger her own trauma: “I think that that is really hard and that's why I think what she's done has been so brave — because it's so hard.”
Political Junkie. Dodgers Fan.
The political science academic community, and others, have rallied around Tyson, using the hashtag #IBelieveVanessa. A GoFundMe account, set up to raise money for legal and security expenses, has raised more than $30,000 since it launched on Feb. 6. Some of her supporters have been circulating a statement of support for Tyson.
The surge in donations didn’t surprise Melissa R. Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College in Atherton who has known Tyson for many years and started the GoFundMe effort.
"It shows me how well loved and respected Vanessa is," she said. "I think that's testament to her reputation as a human being, as a scholar, as someone who is trustworthy, as someone who should be believed."
Friends said they’ve communicated with Tyson since she went public, mostly by text or Facebook messages.
“She's hanging in there,” said Purdue professor Brown, who noted that Tyson recently sent her an email to thank her for her support. “But this is hard. And she's also reliving the past trauma from her father.”
“I think for the first little while she was clearly completely overwhelmed and trying to, as she put it, remember how to be a human in the midst of all of this,” said Strolovitch.
And that’s one thing friends wanted to stress about Tyson: “She's also a normal person,” Dionne said. “She has a dog that she loves. She's a big Dodger fan,” who has attended spring training, and is “super close” with her mom. Brown, like others, described Tyson as a political junkie, who knows a lot about California politics. And friends said she was a connoisseur of fine wine and champagne, sharing special bottles to mark important events, like birthdays and awards.
“I hope people will be able to focus on the (her) research,” Dionne said. “And, going forward, I hope that that's what she's going to be known for — is that she's doing really fantastic research and that we should all be reading it.”
During her Stanford talk, Tyson called on people to stand by survivors of sexual assault and not to “glance away” from such violence.
“Don't be afraid to see survivors for who they are,” she said. “… And know that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. They have nothing to be ashamed of, and they are not alone.”