The fallout from the sexual harassment scandal around music publicist Heathcliff Berru this week has been fast and furious: a public resignation and follow-up statement, a number of bands cutting ties with Berru’s firm, and a great deal of media attention. The irony that the firm represented so many artists known for being politically progressive, from Killer Mike to Speedy Ortiz, has not been lost — mindful of their values, several artists have quickly made statements condemning the alleged behavior and announcing that they’re no longer working with Life or Death PR.
This tempest brought many issues of harassment and sexism in the music world and larger entertainment industry to light. “These things happen just as often in DIY scenes that eschew PR… as they do in the more capitalistic side of things,” the writer Jes Skolnik noted. And it goes beyond music. Indeed, to an outside observer, the episode felt like deja vu because right before the New Year, a similar story arose around a different but similarly small and powerful PR firm, Trevor FitzGibbon’s FitzGibbon Media: a decidedly progressive firm that was also known for its work with feminist organizations, including pro-choice ones.
Like Berru and his Life or Death PR, FitzGibbon was the founder and head of a respected PR firm. While the slew of stories about Berru spilled out on Twitter, in FitzGibbon’s case they came to the fore during a company-wide retreat, where one account led to another, and many women who thought they alone had been targeted say they first realized that the pattern was widespread. In this case, accusations of harassment and inappropriate behavior roiled things up to the extent that the company FitzGibbon built was shut down, its employees immediately terminated. The fear that speaking up would cost employees their jobs ended up coming true.
Two PR firms, two very different industries. But, again, the story isn’t just limited to the PR world, which — given its reliance on schmoozing and jockeying for access — is an understandable locus for misconduct. Also in late December, comedian Beth Stelling posted an image of her bruises to her Instagram, describing physical abuse by a boyfriend and acknowledging that even the strongest-seeming people can suffer in abusive relationships. Since then, another woman has come forward alleging similar behavior by the man in question, while he has taken to social media to defend himself — but the larger story has been about women in comedy.
Julianne Smolinski wrote about her own abusive relationship and noted that the cognitive dissonance in comedy makes it harder for women to come forward: “it seems like the shock factor here — that brave, creative women of some means experience assault and often don’t talk about it — is part of what keeps them silent.” This seems pertinent to music and activism, too, industries which tend to at least think of themselves as fostering strong women and sensitive men.
There are differences in all these allegations, of course — but what’s remarkable is what seems similar across these worlds of comedy, music, and progressive activism. And every story begins with silence: the silence of women who are afraid to speak up because they don’t think they’ll be believed and don’t want to risk their careers; the silence of male and female onlookers, who know and see what is happening and don’t speak up; and the silence of those who don’t know and don’t ask. This combination represents the far reaches of rape culture. In the last few months, inspired by these high-profile cases, a new website called ShineSquad.org has opened to allow women to document anonymous incidents of sexual harassment and bullying. The stories it details are painful echoes of each other.
At Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote honestly about FitzGibbon after the firm imploded, admitting that she had met him many times and had no idea about any of the rumors swirling around him. She interrogated the semi-hush that surrounded his reputation for years:
In theory, most of us know that men who commit sexist aggressions appear to be perfectly ordinary; they are not some special breed of leering monster. Still, when someone we know as a nice guy turns out to be sleazy, we’re thrown. These situations force us to choose between a number of unpleasant possibilities. We can regard the man as a sort of double agent from the land of misogyny, and treat everything we know about him as a lie. We can accept that some men, including men with admirable qualities who we know and like, don’t see women as fully human, which can leave us wondering about all the men in our lives. Or we can think that since the guy was nice, maybe what happened didn’t actually happen, or wasn’t so bad, or won’t happen again.
The final option, which is essentially writing off an incident as a one-time thing, is clearly the easiest. But even if you do tell a few people, as Berru’s accuser, Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman explained to The Cut, going public is a whole other level of self-exposure. “I told Domino Records and I told my friends and people who I knew but I guess I didn’t really think to take it public. And it wasn’t until now that I realized that I was actually kind of scared to in a way,” she said, adding later that when she realized others had similar experiences but were also hamstrung by fear, she knew it was time to speak up more publicly. And from there, the momentum built. “It wasn’t until Bethany from Best Coast said something that I felt more relieved, like okay, another person corroborated this story,” publicist Beth Martinez told Jezebel. “I thought, it’s not just me saying this and looking like a crazy person.”
If these stories seem familiar in 2016, the year in which we might see a Cosby trial — after literally dozens of accusers took courage from each other to come forward — it’s not a coincidence. Indeed, though silence and self-doubt continues to plague so many victims, we’re beginning to see a new trend, in which survivors of assault and abuse are listening to others’ stories and finding the strength to tell their own.