Heathcliff Berru’s Bullshit Apology Is Not Enough to Address the Industry-Wide Issue of Sexual Assault

Heathcliff Berru Sexual Assault Music Industry

On Sunday night, I noticed a story breaking on social media. I can’t remember who sent the original tweet telling me to check Dirty Projectors member Amber Coffman’s timeline, but I do remember that the tweet gave a h/t to MTV News Editorial Director of Music Jessica Hopper, a woman who fights tirelessly for other women to be heard. Reading Coffman’s tweets felt all too familiar; I hadn’t been through this exact scenario myself, but I’d been through similar ones and heard enough stories from my friends to find the incident immediately believable. However, I hadn’t heard of the serial predatory actions of Heathcliff Berru, founder of Life or Death PR and Management, before Coffman’s tweets. I have never met him but have maintained a close professional–and I would say personal, too–relationship with his employee Nick Dierl, who in my experience has been the best publicist with whom I’ve ever worked and a kind, gentle person at all times. The contrast between what I know of Dierl and what I was reading about Berru is a striking one and one I want to mention early on, one which Sadie Dupuis also touched on before her eventual decision to split with the firm. The other replies and stories that Coffman’s tweets prompted were just as upsetting and even more explicit. That night I reached out to Beth Martinez, another publicist I’ve worked with and admire—who confirmed Coffman’s account on Twitter and who has spoken out about her own experience with Berru—to let her know I’d be reporting the story in the morning. And that I unequivocally believed her. When I woke up, I half hoped someone else would’ve posted the tweets. No one had.

This is the part of the story that feels odd to me; why hadn’t anyone else reported it yet? I’ve heard people say that it felt “too insidery,” but since when is sexual assault and harassment “too insidery” to deserve proper reporting? Since forever, of course, and especially since a man with a real amount of power and cache is involved. But for me, while the attendant risk of reporting the story still existed, it paled in comparison to the very evident truth of Berru’s actions, which had—since Coffman’s tweets—been further corroborated by several women. So I posted the tweets. I reached out to Life or Death for comment via Nick, held off until a reasonable hour they could’ve conceivably responded, and then posted it. Honestly, anyone could’ve done it. But no one else did.

It’s hard to speak up in situations like this; I believe in many ways the conversation is deeply dependent on a victim’s own decision, but Coffman had already made that difficult decision, and these tweets had been public for almost twelve hours. It’s now our job to report on it with responsibility, yes, but also expediency. A new music video would never languish for that amount of time. The hard truth is, we have no sense of urgency when it comes to reporting women’s stories. There’s a hiccup here. Doubt is always the first response. That needs to change. Women can expect to reap nothing from coming forward, except perhaps a possibility of healing, and many of the victims who revealed their stories yesterday are currently trapped in their own cycles of guilt, shame, and fear—all just for speaking out. It took hours for the bigger, more respected sites to acknowledge the story’s existence. Most of them credited our reporting and shared the additional story of Roxy Lange. But some of them didn’t–and it’s infuriating. I am so proud of Amber Coffman and Bethany Cosentino and Beth Martinez and every well-known woman involved who came forward. But this was also the first time Roxy had shared her story publicly, why did Pitchfork erase her while reporting the uproar? Is it because she’s not a marquee name? Is that how we decide whose assaults matter now?

Meanwhile, Heathcliff Berru released a statement yesterday, and it got swift and speedy acknowledgement. In it, he rambles on about his “alleged” inappropriate behavior, and blames his predatory behavior on drugs and alcohol. He limply gestures toward therapy and addiction recovery, but doesn’t even try to explicitly state that he’ll stick to these paths. He’s trying. That is not enough for me, and should not be enough for you. I have received numerous stories from women who wish to remain anonymous–that’s how scared they still are of repercussions. I have been told about a woman who experienced this kind of behavior from Heathcliff Berru as little as a week ago. His apology does nothing for me. What bothers me more, though, is I’ve also received twice as many stories of assault from women about other men in the music industry, revelations which were triggered by this situation. These women wonder if their stories matter while this other one is unfolding; they think their experiences might distract from the women currently coming forward about Berru. Even in their own pain, they’re still thinking of other women. To all of those women: Your story of assault matters whether it’s the breaking news story of the day or not. You deserve healing, too. You deserve better.

As for the matter at hand, as much respect as I have for Nick Dierl, Life Or Death’s work, and their parent company, I need transparency. Have they completely severed ties with this predator? Is Berru still financially profiting from their work? Does that bother them? Did they really have no knowledge of his behavior, and if not, do they have plans to cut themselves off from him completely now that this had come to light? Blaming this kind of calculated, serial assault on drugs and alcohol is bullshit. Substance abuse doesn’t turn you into a predator. I am not afraid to call this man a predator, indeed that’s the only term that encompasses the scope of his abuse of power and the evil he’s inflicted into the lives of so many women, including, yes, some who I love dearly. Even so, a close friend involved didn’t tell me about her own experience until yesterday. The behind-closed-doors warning of abuse is one way for women to protect themselves, but it is by no means ironclad. And it’s a testament to men’s refusal to hold other men accountable. Sexual assault is not a woman’s problem, if anything, it’s a man’s problem. One that will persist as long as they refuse to name it, and forcefully close the door on any man who preys on women.

To finish off this editorial, I am sharing the story of another woman who was abused and assaulted by Heathcliff Berru. I am sharing it in full detail because the horrific, serial nature of these assaults needs to be told–and the impact on the women who experience them also needs to be told. This account is very triggering for survivors, and will be difficult for anyone to read. If you are capable, I suggest you read it, so the full scope of this man’s behavior is revealed. Believe women.

Katie’s story:

woah. wow. shock. anger. humiliation. heartbreak to revisit my experience and that period of my life as a whole. but ultimately, RELIEF. Bear with me because it isn’t easy to revisit, publicly share this story or disclose details of my personal dark past. I do so for the greater good. k. here goes:

From the moment I scanned this headline, my stomach sank and it was with certainty that I knew I would stumble upon Heathcliff’s name in the article to follow. 2012 found me in the darkest most emotionally vulnerable place of my lifetime. Weeks into my move to Los Angeles, a supposed friend took advantage of that vulnerability when I needed a friend most. Eager to celebrate wrapping a few month long project, I naively met up with Heathcliff and his friend Chris or something (Manager to Big Boi) at a hotel in Hollywood. Almost immediately upon my arrival, an inebriated and coked up Heathcliff tried to pull me between his legs a few times. When I turned him down, he asked me to walk him out. While I felt the threat straight up, I obliged because I knew I’d be in a public place by way of the lobby and could hopefully remain safe. He said he needed to piss so we swung by the bathroom in the hotel lobby. He immediately began trying to aggressively make out with me. I nervously laughed and told him I was a lesbian and dating someone to which he replied “So am I. Come on.” He went for it again then proceeded to restrain me with his forearm to my throat against the bathroom stall, unzipped his pants and tried to repeatedly force my hand against his dick. I screamed for him to stop, shoved him away and I resisted as best I could but he overpowered me and I so I stood there restrained at the neck and shoving his body away from me with my spare arm while he jerked off and came all over the bathroom floor. Stunned, I started laughing at his pathetic, desperate sexual assault and told him to get the fuck out of my face. He zipped up his pants and left the bathroom. I ran to his friends hotel room to consult him for help to which he responded “That’s fucked up. But you’re hot. Can you blame him?” My mind was blown. Had this fuck just validated Heathcliff’s sexual assault? To know me is to understand that I’m a lesbian woman….like goldstar lesbian so my sexual encounters with men are highly limited and this was most certainly a first time something like this ever happened to me. I was mortified, humiliated, angry, confused and felt somehow guilty as if I had brought it upon myself. Shamefully, I confided details in less than a handful close to me and wasn’t given the most supportive feedback but no matter how you cut it, it was unprovoked and unwelcome and I was seriously sexually violated. The assault drove me deeper into my existing depression and ultimately served as a tipping point to a pretty serious suicide attempt a few weeks later.

Fast forward 6 months or so later and I finally mustered the courage to confront him via text for what had gone down. Mind you, I had 0 contact with him beyond his occasional unanswered pervy texts encouraging us to “do it again sometime. haha” He apologized seemingly sincerely and explained that he had been “turnt” and in recovery in Al Anon, family members had passed away, another OD-ed, etc etc. I was desperately battling suicidal depression and couldn’t bear to hold onto it any longer and so for personal reasons, I accepted his apology in order to release all the weight associated and move on with my life. Until now, I had forgiven him as if it may have been a one off while he was battling addiction etc. I now know by way of his familiar seemingly half-hearted, sympathy inducing public statement, that he’s continued using and abusing countless women and owning up to all these accusations of almost parallel experiences. I’m both relieved not to feel alone in this anymore but also angered and gutted to learn that many many more have fallen victim to his sexually predatory behavior. Best case is that he’ll reap consequences far beyond stepping down as CEO of his own damn company, optioning rehab, and being publicly fired by the majority of his artists.

So while at the time, my reasoning for keeping quiet was for personal safety amidst an emotionally dangerous period of my life, I can since relate that with the caliber of his success and roster, I didn’t feel many would stand with me for it to have a real blowback onto him or Life or Death. Many of his artists were ones I respected, artists I was a legitimate fan of. It was always unsettling to watch them publicly developing personal relationships with an abuser like Heathcliff as if validating his behavior. Many of his other victims were in positions in the music industry where they felt powerless against him or that their careers might be compromised by speaking up.

With that said, I honor Amber’s bravery for initially exposing him as well as the outpouring of women who’ve publicly shared their stories. I’ve now come forward in solidarity with the other women who suffered the consequences of Heathcliff’s destructive behavior NOT WITH THE INTENT TO GARNER PERSONAL ATTENTION OR SYMPATHY but rather to shine some light upon living in a world where women are silenced by a patriarchy of powerful abusive men and lend muscle to sexual abuse victims so that they might not feel alone in their experience as I had until now. This goes on so much more frequently than most could imagine. Ladies, lets elaborate upon this very real conversation and lay to rest the stigma and shaming of sexual abuse victims.

I will continue to respond via open DM and email to any and all women who want to share their stories, whether that is anonymously or not. You deserve to be heard. I believe you. Here’s my email: caitlin@northsidemediagroup.com

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2 COMMENTS

  1. It’s amazing how predators like Berru (or Cosby, for another) are allowed a conspiracy of silence for so long. It is a conspiracy. A lot of people knew about this guy, and yet they kept doing business with him, covering for him, protecting him. It’s depressing as hell that we as a culture are still so backward.

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