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Victims of former Ohio State doctor struggle with memories of sexual abuse

The Columbus Dispatch
July 25, 2018
by Jennifer Smola

It was years ago. Before families and children, before jobs and careers.

Before caps and gowns and diplomas, something happened, during what should have been routine physicals or visits to the health center — something multiple former Ohio State University students say they are trying to make sense of decades later.

As the investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by former Ohio State physician Richard Strauss continues, ex-students who say they were abused by the doctor are left to unpack their experiences with him, long buried underneath countless other thoughts and memories.

“I don’t sleep most nights,” Ohio State alumnus Brian Garrett said. “There’s a certain picture (of Strauss on television) that I see and I just get nauseated, sick to my stomach.”

Garrett, a former Ohio State nursing student, worked briefly for Strauss’ private medical practice, where he said he was sexually abused by Strauss and witnessed Strauss sexually abuse another patient. He has sought regular counseling since learning of the investigation into Strauss, who killed himself in 2005.

Gary Avis was a manager for Ohio State’s men’s gymnastics team between 1983 and 1985. He had buried his experience, but when he heard the university was starting an investigation into a former doctor accused of sexual misconduct, he didn’t need to hear the name or see the photo.

“I knew who they were talking about, immediately, I knew,” Avis said. “At the time, I had no idea if it happened this way exactly to other people. Now I know.”

During one physical with Strauss, Avis said the doctor had him cough multiple times as he held his genitals during a hernia check. Strauss then touched Avis’ genitals as though he was “trying to masturbate me,” Avis said.

Avis said he felt frozen, dissociating from the experience as it happened, until he noticed Strauss’ face was about a foot away from his genitals. Fearing what might come next, Avis quickly and sharply stepped back, he said.

Avis said his teammates exchanged comments about Strauss, but only euphemistically. He doesn’t believe his coaches knew about Strauss’ actions. But with each news story and each new victim coming forward, the experience comes flooding back.

“I’m reliving it over and over again,” Avis said. “It’s emotionally hard for me.”

There’s anger toward the man at the center of it all, Garrett said. “You’re mad at Strauss, but he’s dead, so you can’t face the guy.”

But there’s also a percolating disappointment toward the institution that Garrett has cherished — where he’s met countless friends and has dedicated time and money. The place — in the ’Shoe — where he asked his wife to marry him.

“It’s a big part of my life, and then here, the institution kind of let you down,” Garrett said. “That’s the bigger piece.”

Ideas that men and boys don’t cry, that they’re strong, that they can defend themselves, can sometimes keep them from seeking help right away or even at all, said Meredith Alling, development and communications director with 1in6, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.

“When boys and men do experience sexual abuse or assault, the way that masculinity has been internalized can play a really large role in the way they cope or don’t cope with what’s happened to them,” Alling said.

As former students speak out, often angered over Strauss’ behavior and what they describe as the university’s lack of response at the time, they’re dredging up uncomfortable memories.

“When I’m fired up, and I’m angry, and I’m talking about it and thinking what they did to me and what they did to all these other people, it’s easy to sit and talk about,” said Steve Snyder-Hill, who complained to student health services administrators in 1996 about possible misconduct by Strauss during an appointment. “But then afterwards, when you’re sitting alone and you’re watching TV, it just feels very personal. It’s hard.”

Sometimes, boys and men aren’t sure how or if to categorize unwanted sexual experiences, Alling said.

“They don’t know if what happened to them was abuse, was assault, was nothing,” Alling said. “Sometimes, they’re just not ready to name it, they don’t want to name it. Other times they haven’t really gone there yet … sometimes, they just want to call it an unwanted experience.”

Some of the victims now coming forward with complaints about Strauss “hadn’t talked to our spouses about it,” said one former wrestler. The Dispatch does not identify victims of sexual abuse unless they agree.

The political component tied to some of the allegations — whether U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan knew about the abuse while he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State in the 1980s and 1990s — hasn’t helped, the wrestler said.

“I’m getting hate mail from people saying I’m part of the ‘deep state conspiracy,’” the former wrestler said. “I don’t even know what that was. It’s absurd.”

Jordan, a Republican from Urbana, has repeatedly said he didn’t know about the abuse and that it was not reported to him.

Some former students who have spoken about Strauss have received words of support from those around them.

“The Army reached out to me and they asked if I was OK,” said Snyder-Hill. “My commander reached out and asked if I was OK and asked if I needed any resources.”

But some friends and family members aren’t quite sure how to help or be supportive, victims said.

“Even my mom doesn’t know what to say, my wife doesn’t know what to say,” Garrett said. “They try to be supportive.”

There is also a misconception that sexual abuse “just doesn’t happen to boys or men,” Alling said.

A power dynamic is often at play when males are sexually abused, Alling said, with perpetrators often having — or working to — establish an upper hand over the survivor.

“Because of the nature of that dynamic between perpetrator and survivor and the way that men’s bodies do naturally react … there can be a lot of guilt about (survivors’) perceived role in it,” she said. “That can be a really difficult thing for men to overcome.”

“What kind of sick system is it where it’s more difficult to report your abuse than it is to endure your abuse and keep it quiet?” the former wrestler said.

Victims like Avis, Garrett and Snyder-Hill are speaking out — revealing the most-personal details about their encounters with Strauss — for a single, simple reason:

So it won’t happen again.

Men looking for support regarding an experience with sexual abuse or assault can contact an advocate through the free and anonymous 1in6 helpline at