Trigger warning for explicit descriptions of sexual assault and discussion of sexual violence and rape.
In mid-January a story about sexual harassment and assault in the music industry broke via social media. It began with a series of tweets from Dirty Projectors member Amber Coffman about the inappropriate sexual contact of a music publicist named Heathcliff Berru. Coffman’s situation had occurred publicly in a bar several years before, and she later shared that the experience prompted her label Domino Records to stop working with Berru and his company Life or Death PR. Her story was quickly corroborated on Twitter by other women who had experienced similar behavior to varying degrees. Soon the accusations that had begun on social media had snowballed into something much more substantial. Coffman began tweeting about the situation on January 18, by the following day Berru had resigned from his position as CEO of the company. This is how the system is “supposed” to work; victims come forward about abuse of power, and the abuser is removed from that position. Despite this seemingly tidy outcome, there’s much more to the story.
Brooklyn Magazine initially posted the tweets of Amber Coffman; publicist Beth Martinez; publicist Judy Miller Silverman, who corroborated reports; and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. In the piece, I offered to speak with other victims who had similar experiences or connections to the story. More came flooding in, both privately and via Twitter and social media; soon the story was everywhere. Later that day, we reported the assault of Roxy Lange, and the following day issued an editorial that included the assault story of a woman who wished to be identified only as Katie. In some ways, it felt like Coffman’s public statement opened the floodgates; women were sharing their stories of abuse within the industry at large even after Berru had stepped down. Many wished to remain anonymous, particularly as the situation evolved into such a volatile one. Reactions to stories like this are visceral and emotional. Everyone is bringing their own experience to the table; almost every woman I know in the music industry has faced some sort of sexism or abuse. This follow-up attempts to encapsulate the reach of this story in the industry, not just as it relates to Heathcliff Berru who has spoken about the allegations for the first time, but to the specters of sexual assault, harassment and sexism, in general, and the particulars of reporting on them.
After those first four women began to speak about Berru’s actions, it became difficult to keep track of all the others who came forward in their wake; the story unfolded with the swiftness and emotion that social media singularly provides. Following Berru’s resignation, his former coworkers dismantled Life Or Death PR and formed a brand new company. Women continued to come forward with their stories, but after the initial wave of reports passed, the Internet moved on to something else. In my research for this piece, I logged twenty women who came forward publicly on Twitter to indicate they’d experienced some degree of sexist, inappropriate behavior from Berru, if not full-blown assault. The earliest public account is from ten years ago; some of the most recent are from 2015.
Ann Powers, a music industry veteran journalist whose career spans several decades, said the situation struck her as a particularly unique one because of the use of social media.
“I’m trying to think of individual cases where something like this has happened, but I honestly can’t recall anything like this,” Powers said of the situation. “I think that’s because of social media. It happens so fast, and it’s so public. It didn’t have to happen in a court of law, and it hasn’t happened in a court of law, so that is a factor. It definitely happened fast without the kind of backup you get when something has to be reported or prosecuted in a more conventional way. But at the same time, it’s so hard to prosecute these kinds of crimes. Is it even defined in court as a crime? There’s so much grey in it legally. I think it’s almost impossible to call out men definitively.”
Privately, thirteen other women aside from Roxy and Katie directly contacted us about experiences of sexual misconduct (that ranges from verbal abuse to inappropriate contact and assault) with Berru and agreed to be counted in this article. Others who reached out opted not to be included. Eight friends of survivors also contacted the magazine on behalf of their friends to share stories and voice support for further reporting. Almost every person I have spoken with about incidents knew of at least one other woman who had gone through something similar with Berru. This still doesn’t give us any accurate statistics, but these private accounts taken together with the women who came forward on Twitter, total forty-three women I am personally aware of.
Here is a story shared by C.H. of her assault in 2007:
“Heathcliff and I had a handful of mutual friends from our time in Chicago. When I moved to NYC he was out here and invited me out for drinks. We met up and had a few drinks and then met up with some friends. At one point I was picking songs at a jukebox and he pushed me against it and kissed me. I wasn’t interested in him like that and stopped him and just laughed it off so it wouldn’t be awkward. At the end of the night he said he was coming home with me. I told him I was going home alone and he said that I could try to leave without him but he would just follow me home on the subway to make sure I got there safe. I told him again I didn’t want him to but he did regardless. He followed me to my apartment and insisted on coming in. I didn’t know what to do, I felt uncomfortable about it, but he came in with me and I figured I’d just let him pass out since I didn’t know how to get rid of him. I was close with many of our mutual friends and didn’t feel threatened by him, just annoyed. That was until I got in to bed to fall asleep. He laid next to me and grabbed my hand and jerked himself off with my hand trapped under his. He passed out as soon as he came and when he woke up early in the morning I told him to leave and he finally did.”
The narrative arc of the story is now familiar; on Twitter, Yasmine Kittles of Tearist shared her extremely similar encounter in 2011, Lange and Katie’s reported experiences have corresponding details. These accounts are not of rape, because there is no penetration, but it is sexual assault that occurs in an almost identical fashion in these four encounters, and in several others that have been disclosed to me. Two larger outlets, Pitchfork and New York Magazine opted not to include the assault Roxy Lange reported on January 18, something I criticized them for publicly. Her account, along with the story of assault shared by Katie that we published the next day were met with muted response. I believe every account of assault we devalue teaches another survivor to stay silent, but furthermore, the specificity of detail here felt important for other survivors to be aware of, to know they weren’t alone, and to confirm to other victims that what they went through was, in fact, assault.
Another woman shared her experience from 2015. Eight years later, the detail between the two accounts is strikingly similar:
“I met Heathcliff, a client of his and some other people out for drinks. After his client and folks left the bar, we went to a different bar and met up with my roommate and pals. We popped back to his hotel briefly. I was very drunk, and he shoved his tongue in my mouth and kept trying to make out with me and feel me up and I pushed him away. I sat down in a chair to check my phone and he sat on top of me so I couldn’t move, unzipped his pants and shoved his dick in my face. I said no and pushed him out of the way, and he grabbed my hand and put it on his dick. I froze and just didn’t know what to do. I said no and he ignored me. I was freaked out and super drunk, and didn’t know what to do. After he got off me he passed out drunk and I was so drunk I sat there trying to figure out how I could get my shit together to leave. I really didn’t know what to do. The next day he texted me, like nothing weird had happened, and I just wanted to pretend the whole thing didn’t happen. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and grossed out. I felt.. well, still feel, like it was my fault, because I was drunk, and put myself in a position where someone could take advantage of me and I didn’t do enough to fight back because I froze and didn’t know what to do.”
Some people don’t understand the reasoning behind women who wish to remain anonymous. Another source familiar with the matter offered insightful commentary on that: “If you speak the truth, then your name is associated with your abuser forever,” she said. Of course, no one ever wants to have to attach their name to a story about being assaulted, but considering all the women who feel like they can’t come forward, ignoring those who feel strong enough to do so is particularly egregious. That kind of reporting sends a message that some assault stories are more important than others, some will be taken seriously and others won’t. Though we know that is the case, we must work harder to change that fact. And when is a story like this really over?
“Someone asked me ‘oh, is that still going on?” Yasmine Kittles of Tearist said of a friend’s response a few weeks after the outbreak of allegations on Twitter. “Yes, it’s still happening. For me it’s been happening and will continue to be. We’re not done, we’re far from being finished. We have to go through the motions that hold people accountable. Coming forward about someone… I did to the people around me, and that didn’t stop anyone.”
Other critics felt the call for victims to come forward had descended into a witch hunt, as if striving for accuracy in reporting this story was excessive. Still, there is something particularly unsettling about watching these kinds of allegations unfold on social media. We’ve seen reporting on stories of sexual assault and rape go awry, from the Rolling Stone UVA story scandal, to Conor Oberst’s wrongful accusation of rape, and surely Twitter and Facebook are not the place for every abuser to be outed.
Kathryn Frazier, a former employer of Berru and the owner of the publicity firm Biz 3 said she thinks women speaking out on social media can be powerful, but is wary of deciding someone’s fate online over the course of a couple days.
“I think women speaking up about inappropriate men and having it spread sends a strong message to men that they can be held accountable,” she said. “It is very powerful if it begins to diminish bad behavior in the future. I think Twitter and the Internet are a slippery slope of power that can be so positive but also very negative. Women ending the silence of harassment-related shame is important, but I also felt uneasy at times watching how some ushered this entire accusation-to trial-to-judgement of Heathcliff Berru over the course of a couple of days, and all via Twitter and Facebook.”
There is a sense, though, that the court of public opinion is one of the only venues women have to achieve justice—or even something resembling it. For some women, speaking out about the abuse they suffered is the only chance they’ll even have to be heard, let alone find justice. For others, speaking out still doesn’t feel like an option. Many sources verify the fact that stories regarding this particular situation have been circulating for years, but it took a woman speaking out publicly to change the situation.
“After years of industry-wide chattering about Heathcliff Berru’s behavior, I don’t think there was another way this could’ve happened,” said publicist Judy Miller Silverman, who corroborated women’s reports on Twitter. “I do see the concerns about ‘witch hunting’ and how easy it is to make an accusation that is untrue. But this has been going on a decade or more, and yet nobody went public due to all the usual fears. In this particular case I think a lot of the women knew they weren’t alone and were tired of the perpetuation of the problem. It really can’t happen in every case, I think there should be a protocol of proper steps people can take to work on these issues quietly before they go public. But, men have to point-blank stop blaming being drunk or high as the reason for aggressive sexual behavior. Until women have safe outlets for reporting, which includes not fearing for safety, jobs, or being shamed, they are going to gather together if they can and find strength in numbers.”
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the nation, one in six American women will be the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. An estimated 17.7 million women are survivors of attempted or completed rape. Nine out of ten victims are women, but anyone can become the target of sexual violence. The Bureau of Justice reports that 78 percent of sexual violence involves a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance. The Bureau further reports that 74 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and given the statistics just before this–that most women are assaulted by someone they have an interpersonal relationship with–that figure becomes easier to understand. But, using social media to speak out after the fact is a relatively new venue for survivors, and a resource for a generation of women and activists who are fighting to change the way rape culture functions in our society. Kesha is currently fighting for freedom from her mentor and producer Dr. Luke, who she says sexually abused her. Just last night, musician Larkin Grimm wrote on Facebook that her former mentor Michael Gira of Swans raped and sexually abused her in 2008.
“You’re seeing this historically, too, with the publishing of pieces like Jackie Fox’s rape story,” Powers noted. “That was like a magazine article, but having social media reinforces it, so other people are sharing the story and she is able to follow up on it. That’s correcting a historic wrong; that’s exposing things.”
For those who aren’t aware of the full definition of assault, here is how the Bureau of Justice defines it: “A wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. It also includes verbal threats.”
That definition includes things that are part of the daily life of most women and other marginalized people–getting catcalled, getting groped on the subway–these aren’t uncommon occurrences. But taking a public stand against this kind of behavior, and demanding more stringent standards for harassment in the music industry, is an emerging movement.
“There’s no code, like how do you respond?” Powers said. “I think what gives me hope at this moment is that your generation, the generation of Amber Coffman, is people who have spoken out; you’re trying to form that new code, that new language and way of speaking out.”
The effects of sexual assault are myriad, and can include depression, substance abuse, self-harm, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to RAINN, there are approximately 300,000 victims of sexual assault in America each year.
Heathcliff Berru began working in the industry through an internship at Pitchfork in Chicago. He was later fired, for reasons that had nothing to do with sexual harassment, but struck up a friendship with the site’s founder Ryan Schreiber. His next position was still in Chicago, working at Frazier’s publicity firm Biz 3, where he was fired for drinking and drug use. From there, he moved to New York and began working with the Wu Tang Clan at the firm Girlie Action. After a short stint there, he left Girlie Action but kept Wu Tang as a client, and moved to Los Angeles to work for Motormouth Media under Judy Miller Silverman. He was also fired from Motormouth Media and subsequently started his own firm, Life Or Death PR.
Though Berru acted as Life Or Death’s CEO, the company was backed by Knitting Factory Entertainment, who had an investor profit share. Since the allegations have come to light, Life or Death was disbanded, and the remaining publicists have reformed under a new venture called Liberal Arts. The new company is also backed by Knitting Factory Entertainment via their subsidiary company Figure Eight Publicity. Figure Eight Media president Ian Wheeler told Billboard in a statement he will be the managing director for the new company, and that they have cut all ties with Berru. Wheeler told us he had no knowledge of the situation, and firmly believes none of his staff did either.
“I had no knowledge that this conduct on Heathcliff’s part was taking place,” Wheeler said. “To my knowledge, none of the staff did either. I have asked them multiple times, they have looked me square in the eyes and told me that they did not, and I believe them, just as I believe every single person that has come forward with their own Heathcliff story.”
Former Life or Death PR president Nick Dierl will serve as the president of the new venture. He declined to comment for this piece but told Billboard that while he was aware of consensual extramarital sexual activity, he had no knowledge of nonconsensual behavior that Berru was engaging in.
“I’m fully aware that there is a belief out there that we had to have known [about Berru’s behavior],” he said. “On a surface level, I understand how someone from the outside looking in would assume that…I’ve personally accepted that there are people who know us well enough and will believe us based on our actions in the past. I have also fully accepted that there are a number of people who will not, regardless of what we say right now, and that those people have to be made believers by our actions in the future and the environment we create with our company.”
Some remain skeptical that Life Or Death employees weren’t aware, especially given that so many people in the industry did have knowledge of the situation.
“It was definitely very widely-known,” one music industry source said. “I knew about the experience Yasmine from Tearist had–I’d heard about it from three different sources–and I knew Beth’s story. I know of several more that still aren’t public. There’s absolutely no chance that his coworkers didn’t know; a lot of these incidents happened out in the open.”
Silverman also noted that she was aware of Coffman’s experience, as well as the experiences of multiple other women.
“Amber Coffman’s band Dirty Projectors is a PR client and I knew about her incident that night it happened,” Silverman said. “I knew personally about at least five others that ranged from aggressive behavior to assault. One prominent label head had his wife’s ass grabbed and was propositioned in front of his friends when he was not around. Nothing happened. Nobody did a fucking thing. The label head told Heathcliff not to speak to him anymore in a very direct email.”
Graeme Flegenheimer, a former Life or Death employee who was fired in 2012 said he knew of several incidents that occurred during his time with the company, and that claiming complete denial of knowledge about Berru’s behavior is not the full truth.
“I don’t think it’s possible not to know,” Flegenheimer said. “I feel like it’s bullshit that these people are claiming they had no idea. Heathcliff hasn’t been doing any work at the company for like a year, obviously the problem was coming to a head internally. I feel vindicated because I got fired for having my former drug problem come to light, but having a substance abuse problem is not the same as engaging in sexual assault. It was really confusing for me; I was being scolded for using too many drugs and boozing, yet Heathcliff and his staff’s sexual predatory behavior was deemed acceptable. I have old clients contacting me about how they knew and women reminding me of their stories.”
One woman who experienced Berru’s behavior firsthand said she thinks aside from his relationships in the industry, his connection to drugs was one of the reasons people didn’t confront him more.
“I think anyone denying they knew of his behavior is absolutely full of crap,” she said. “His behavior and antics were well-known by everyone around him, but it was mostly overlooked due to his connections to the music industry, people, and cocaine or other drugs. I think he didn’t know boundaries when he was wasted and has an addiction problem. Heathcliff was bragging to other guys about all the girls he hooked up with all the time, but usually we were skeptical it was even true.”
“The reason so many men are powerful is because of their friends,” one source commented. Aside from his connection to two of the most influential rap collectives in the country, Wu Tang Clan and Odd Future–and countless other powerful musicians–Berru’s connection to and distribution of drugs was fairly well-known throughout the music industry, as was his relationship to other high-profile figures outside of music.
Another of Berru’s friends was Pitchfork founder and Editor-in-Chief Ryan Schreiber. Several sources brought up their close friendship stemming back to Berru’s initial internship with the company years ago. When I reached out to Schrieber for comment he issued the following statement via Condé Nast’s publicist:
“I’ve known Heathcliff for many years and am deeply disturbed by the stories that are coming to light. Some who’ve come forward are friends of mine and to hear their accounts, and those of others, is tremendously upsetting. I have great admiration for those who’ve spoken out and hope this calls attention to long-standing issues of harassment and abuse in the music industry.”
As Dierl pointed out in his Billboard interview, there’s an obvious difference between having a close friendship with someone and knowing the full extent of their character.
“If you are taking those types of actions, you aren’t telling people,” he said. “There is a very clear history of people with serial behavior, particularly in positions of power, being very good at covering their tracks. He discussed giving up drugs and alcohol as recently as October… I made note of it adversely affecting our relationship. The first conversation was at the end of 2012.”
Scant allegations about Berru or members of his crew drugging women also surfaced online, which he has since vehemently denied. One woman who experienced his behavior said she doesn’t think he would ever drug women, but simply provided ample opportunity to access substances.
“I personally don’t know or think he ever intentionally drugged any girls, but rather he would give drugs to willing participants,” she said. “While at a bar, he would go in the bathroom and leave a small bag of cocaine in the bathroom, then, he’d let whoever know–in this particular case it was about five girls–and they would go in after one by one and benefit off the freebies. He would also get so drunk or fucked up himself that he was blacking out and making overly forward advances at girls.”
Another of his high-profile friends, Killer Mike, said he had no knowledge of the situation and voiced his disappointment in Berru’s actions in a brief Twitter spree about the situation. He later reconvened on Facebook to more fully share his perspective. Initially, his tweets struck me as flippant, (especially since he noted what Berru had lost before addressing what women had experienced), but as his later post clarified, his commitment to holding Berru accountable as a friend–and as a fellow man–is essential to helping change the entire community’s response to this issue. Mike said he is ending his business relationship with Berru, but considers it his responsibility as a man to help hold his friend accountable in his personal behavior.
“I called him immediately and ended our [business] relationship,” Mike wrote in the post. “I also told him how wrong he was and how disappointed and ashamed I am of his actions and that he’s gotta take whatever’s coming. I also encouraged him to work on being a better human being. I stand in solidarity with the women that have spoke out. No one should have to feel afraid for speaking out when wronged in any manner or feel like no one cares about them…. Another point I want to make sure that comes across—men have to be able to tell our friends and peers when they’re wrong. We cannot just say, it’s not my problem. We can’t expect [people] to improve if we’re not willing to hold them accountable and push them to be better.”
His former mentor and employer Frazier shared a similar mindset. She said she’s been in contact with him since the day the allegations broke on Twitter. In several long conversations with me, she spoke about her experience with Cliff; she hired him at Biz 3 over a decade ago, dubbed him ‘Heathcliff,’ and taught him to love rap. Despite her knowledge of his issues with alcohol and drugs, which led her to fire him early on, she said she always believed he had a good heart underneath deep insecurities. As a victim of several instances of sexual harassment and assault herself, Frazier said she also fielded his aggressive verbal requests for sex, without realizing there might be deeper implications to these interactions.
“I easily brushed off his advances and essentially laughed in his face about it thinking how absurd it was considering my role in his life, age difference, etc,” Frazier said. “I thought I was some kind of Mrs. Robinson figure to him and unaware he was doing this to so many in a serial fashion. So I wasn’t realizing that those other situations could go down very differently if those women were of a different demeanor, age, or place in life (meaning I could say ‘fuck off’ and that was that and he moved away from me). I did not ever hear or view him as someone who harassed or assaulted women until this situation on Twitter began–it always seemed to be consensual cheating. In my conversations with him he seems to be strongly holding himself accountable for his bad behavior and is definitely owning it.”
Her decision to maintain contact with him now springs partially from dealing with an alcoholic father herself as a child, and firsthand experience with the decimating forces of addiction. She told me that her reason for being involved in this article is to present another perspective, one that she has heard exists in many other people but which has not been expressed in writing, namely one of empathy, with an express goal of healing for everyone involved—even the abuser. She and Berru had fallen out of touch–largely due to his addictions–until about a year ago, when she confronted him about his issues and spoke quite candidly with him about his extramarital affairs and coke addiction. Clients were citing this behavior as reasons to leave the firm and come to Biz 3, so though it was technically helping her professionally, she felt empathy for him and wanted him to seek counseling. Their conversation about this occurred prior to anything regarding his drug, alcohol or sex addiction being made public.
“I felt sadness that he couldn’t deal with his issues of profound insecurity and sex addiction—that’s the heart of it,” Frazier said. “My reaction to all this was sorrow for the women who were preyed upon, sorrow for his wife and his family who love him and were betrayed; sorrow for his co-workers who have tried to build something they believe in and had it fall apart in one day because of his long-running issues. I think all the women with stories about Heathcliff, including myself, have a right to be angry. Anger is a natural reaction to being wronged or hurt and it’s imperative to motivate action. But after that, I believe the healthy process is to start turning one’s attention to understanding and empathy, so real change can happen for both the victim of the abuse and the abuser who, to me, is also a victim.”
Frazier said she completely supports the survivors who have spoken out, but that she also hopes and believes Berru can seek healing for himself.
“It does take real courage to name who has been inappropriate with you, or hurt you, and I very much support and feel for all those women who stepped up, and also those who have not,” she said. “And I also reached out to Heathcliff to help him. Let me be clear: What he has been doing is fucking wrong. Period. It’s inexcusable and it’s a very real problem for these women and the millions of women around the world who have this happen daily. It’s all wrong and needs to stop. I’m choosing to believe he has real sympathy and empathy for how he made these women feel, and that he is going to take that and do something positive with it.”
Despite Berru’s struggles with addiction, Frazier said she believes he can heal, and is hopeful he will recover to become an example for other people grappling with extreme circumstances.
“It felt like it was the human thing to do, to give him some direction and support to head toward recovery. I hope for healing for him the same way I hope it for the men who harassed me or assaulted me–otherwise it means that behavior remains and is potentially hurting people. Revenge and anger does nothing but keep everyone hurt–especially the victims. Rehabilitation and recovery have the potential to bring everyone involved to a better place. Whether it works is only in that crystal ball that none of us have access to but it’s certainly part of the healing process to even try.”
Last night I spoke with Berru over the phone from his recovery center in California. This is his first public statement since the allegations in January. He is currently in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction as well as sex addiction. He said he understands that this had to happen for him to face the very real issues of addiction, depression, and self-hatred he has been grappling with for years. One of the things he wanted to address was that initial statement sent out the day everything came to a head. Now, he realizes that statement was the last vestiges of his response as a publicist, and not the heartfelt apology he believes the victims deserved to hear.
“I am so sorry to everyone that I hurt,” Berru said. “I was made an example of in a way that was necessary given the circumstances. It was time for me to pay for all my mistakes and accept responsibility and face what I did do. When I first spoke out and made that statement, that was me reacting as a fucking publicist. That dry, almost insincere response was the last bit of publicist in me, trying to put out a fire. I tried to live this lifestyle with disgusting disregard to those I hurt.”
To protect the anonymity of the programs where he is working, Berru is not referring to any specifics. But dealing with his sex addiction has been one of the key elements of his journey toward healing.
“I was a terrible husband, a terrible friend, a terrible human being on every level, and I found my escape through my drugs, alcohol, and sex addiction,” he said. “That’s something that’s hard, and really hard to admit. In the blind throes of my addiction I tried to live this lifestyle and disgusting fantasy out. What am I left with? Just a path of destruction out there. The life I built was a joke based on an unstable foundation. I can’t believe it went this far and I did so many things that upset so many people to such a degree that it consumed their lives and it is an issue they have to deal with in a very real way.”
Through the last few weeks he has been in recovery, Berru is grappling with his own self-worth. He also completely denies that he has ever drugged or raped anyone.
“I made mistakes, but I am not a mistake. I had a hard time coming to that realization,” he said. “I’m in detox and treatment right now; I’ve surrendered everything. I look back, and I can’t help but obsess over it. I look at the things I did, I have to say this: My behavior was wildly inappropriate, hurtful, and terrible. But I have never raped or drugged anyone. I can’t accept that.”
Through the recovery programs he is in, Berru said he is able to separate out his behavior as an addict, and work through his issues. He said he knows recovery is a lifelong battle but he is committed to fighting it every single day.
“In my cleanliness and my sobriety, I’m not that person,” he said. “In my addiction, in my multiple addictions, I’m a person that could be considered to do those things. I am determined not to revert back to that state of being; the depression, and self-hatred, and insecurity. This is a lifelong daily battle that I need to fight and I’m still just at the beginning of the journey. The day this broke, I was suffocated and consumed with so much fear that I felt I was left with no options. I didn’t go to a work meeting, and I didn’t answer my lawyer’s calls. I went to a meeting to deal with my addiction. I’ve been working on my own personal recovery from that day onward.”
He said his choice to go sit in a room full of addicts that day was part of what saved his life, and inspired him to continue moving forward on his own journey.
“I went straight to a meeting that day and it saved my life,” he said. “Honestly, that room full of people was more empowering to me and more inspiring than any Grammy after party or any bullshit music industry event. I’ve met some amazing people in this world who are creative, and talented, but they’re not as inspiring to me as a roomful of addicts trying to make themselves better.”
Above all, he spoke out because he wanted to emphasize that he is utterly sorry for everything and all the pain that he has caused.
“I want everyone to know I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for everything, the pain, the anguish, the hurt… the fucking distrust and the bullshit. I’m sorry for not letting people feel like they could be themselves around me, for making people feel uncomfortable and taking advantage of goodwill or abusing my position as a male in this industry.”
Berru wants this experience, and the example of what happened to him, to help other women speak out about mistreatment and to enact real change in the music industry and in the world. He is determined to work on his recovery and become an example for other people that recovery is possible.
“I think it’s very brave and bold when people stand up,” he said. “I hope this motivates women and anyone to stand up, and put one foot forward in a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable. Particularly sexism in music or entertainment, or in industries where people drink, use drugs and do other things that they’ll use to excuse themselves the next day when they clean up. I want to be a good example for people that have addiction issues. The reason I’m even speaking today is to express sincere apology and to acknowledge that I was a really shitty person and upset a lot of women. Men everywhere are shaken as a result of these stories, and you know what? It’s time that people own up.”
For women in the music industry and beyond, if you speak the truth and you’re not believed, the ramifications on your career can be enormous. LA-based journalist and critic Rebecca Haithcoat spoke about this on Twitter after publicly sharing her own experience with Berru. “Say my friend and I, not Bethany and Amber, come out with it,” she wrote on Twitter. “Would NY Mag pick it up? Nah. But Heathcliff Berru sees, and starts subtly sabotaging me, blackballing me, defaming my character to artists, PR, editors. And a lot of them thought he was cool! Besides, they need access to his artists more than they need me as a writer. And now my career is f—ed. So, do I brush it off like I have the past five years or risk my career? This is the internal battle a woman wages. Your mind reels with the ways this can be skewed against you, the ways it’s been skewed against women forever.”
This is another reason why women choose to come forward anonymously, or not at all. But others argue that urging women to come forward about sexual assault isn’t the right way to handle the issue. In our current climate, coming forward as a victim of sexual assault can lead to more hassle and harm for survivors. Those who do come forward are going to be believed or supported based on the same systems of privilege that allow men to assault women without receiving punishment.
Donna Chaiet is one of the co-founders of Prepare, a New York-based educational organization that offers educational services on comprehensive violence prevention, including classes designed to help dismantle stigma and misinformation around sexual violence. She addressed this issue of privilege when coming forward about assault.
“Different people have different levels of privilege around verbal and physical resistance (self-defense) and how the system will treat them,” Donna Chaiet said. “People with less privilege will not be treated as fairly and may even be criminalized themselves. Further, even if folks want the kind of ‘justice’ the legal system might offer, reporting to the police is no guarantee that will happen. There are very real barriers, consequences, and costs to reporting and pursuing legal action, criminal or civil. Emotional toll, community backlash, financial expense, time required, and so much more. Any quick look at news coverage of these cases makes it perfectly clear to even a casual observer that it just might not be worth it. These roadblocks make it hard for us to truly get a handle on the prevalence of sexual violence in our society and discourage reporting at every turn. That only benefits those who are the aggressors, not the victims of their crime.”
So even if survivors do choose to go to the police, the legal system itself rarely convicts those accused of rape or sexual assault, if the case makes it all the way to trial without being dropped by investigators or prosecutors along the way. Because of these deep-seated flaws in the legal system, Prepare offers programs equipping people with options and tools, such as verbal skills, adrenaline management, and heightened emotional and physical skills to protect themselves and to be powerful allies to others. The process of class supports survivors as well, addressing the long-term effects of trauma to help heal survivors and regaining a sense of safety and agency. All participants can benefit from understanding the social context of sexual violence.
Reporting on instances of sexual violence can be traumatizing, too, particularly if the writer is a victim themselves. Regardless, it is a difficult and demanding process that usually requires some education. More than one of the victims I spoke to for this story shared painful experiences about reporters asking them deeply inappropriate questions. To that end, music journalist and editor Jes Skolnik published a series of guidelines on Medium for entertainment reporters who suddenly find themselves thrust into the position of reporting on sexual assault.
Artist manager and freelance journalist Haley Potiker has firsthand experience with the process of reporting on rape when she wrote about her own experience for Broadly last year.
“I published my rape stories last year on Broadly,” she said. “The reception was really incredible at first and positive reinforcement from other women made me feel like I had an impact. But as the months went on, it definitely became a double-edged sword. I heard so many rape stories, and hearing all those other stories really took an emotional toll on me. It also made me realize how incredibly privileged I was to be able to publish my stories in the first place; they truly paled in comparison to the ones I was told by other women.”
While Potiker was surprised and hopeful about the way this story unfolded, with other women backing each other up, she cautions that coming forward publicly won’t be helpful for all women.
“We do have to remember that some of these survivors were pretty high profile, so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “‘Random girl with no Internet following accuses music publicist of sexual misconduct’ isn’t a great headline. For women who don’t have a big social media following and support system, a tweet about abuse might do more harm than good. Social media can be a platform where we reach a lot of people, and make sure our stories are made public on our own terms and in our own words, but the major thing to remember is that coming forward isn’t an option for every woman. We have to make sure not to make share your stories the rallying cry. We cannot imply that women who don’t feel comfortable sharing their stories should feel guilty for not doing so.”
One of the most common responses survivors of sexual assault face when they come forward is the question of why they don’t report the incident to the police. In some cases, reporting the assault can be just as traumatic as the initial experience.
“It’s very individual, when you report to the police, what kind of response you will get,” Chaiet said. Good training for police is critical. People of all backgrounds have shared with me that the reporting of the crime was an awful process. They are challenged, judged, disbelieved, and even turned away from making a report. So it’s always the victim’s choice what to do.”
Even if survivors do choose to go to the police, the legal system itself rarely convicts those accused of rape or sexual assault. RAINN reports that only 3% of rapists ever see a conviction, and the victims who accuse their abusers often suffer even more after the legal system fails them.
“When I was in high school, my friend was raped by two boys,” Potiker said. “They both got off, and the legal process was a nightmare for her. She was called a liar, started to doubt herself, and wished she hadn’t gone through with it. So when it came time for me to make that decision, I was already convinced nobody would believe me. It seemed easier to just forget. Often when women do report to authorities, they are given similar advice: This won’t be worth it for you, or you don’t want to re-live this in court, it will be even worse than the rape itself.”
Aside from these larger obstacles, victim-blaming is a huge barrier that prevents countless victims from speaking up. Sometimes they internalize social victim-blaming scripts and blame themselves for being targeted, or for their own response or compliance, or the aggressors, friends, family and the legal system blame them explicitly, and make excuses for the assault.
“People who are the targets of sexual violence have not done anything wrong–I can’t emphasize that enough,” Chaiet said. “But they experience shame because they froze, a natural response to fear and stress. Afterwards they say, I wish I had… or why didn’t I? And it’s the pain of shame and victim-blaming that are just a few of the long term consequences of assault. In reality, all these people did was exist in a woman’s body, or in the body of someone whose social stature makes them easy to dismiss.”
Kittles spoke about her reaction in the moment to the assault; why she didn’t go the police at the time, but why she believes going to the police is one of the best ways to help diminish the prevalence of sexual violence in the music industry.
“The thought is not rational in that moment, when it happens,” Kittles said. “You’re in shock and the police don’t exist basically. Going to the police doesn’t even cross your mind, because abusers are surrounded by people who will cover for them and who will still work with them. They’ve got all these connections. But if a person has something on their record, it will make it harder for people to back them. We have to go through the law. I think people shouldn’t be afraid to go to the police and file a report, because then that’s on record. Had there been a ton of police reports in this situation, things might have been different. I know that some people really don’t want to, because it’s scarier. We’re not protected in the industry, so that’s scary.”
“When I first read the headline, I had to stop to think if the story could be about me.”
That’s what one woman told me her close male friend, who is also in the music industry, said when the news about Berru first started circulating. If anything speaks to the pervasiveness of this behavior in this specific industry, it’s a reaction like that one, from someone this woman considers a friend.
Assault and harassment ignite personal responses in those who are dealing with the trauma, but their existence relies on a system of sexism that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, and in the music industry in particular. Many industries have government regulations that protect women from harassment or assault in the workplace, but for women working in music, there is little in the way of protection.
“It is all many, many shades of sexism, and it’s systematic,” Powers said. “I think that’s the most important thing to remember. For the people who have experienced it, it’s very personal. For all of us, it’s personal, but it’s bigger than any one person and it’s not just about individual character. I think that’s the most important thing to remember, because that’s how it becomes acknowledged as a political phenomenon and not just a bunch of bad guys.”
After the wave of allegations against Berru, an anonymous woman started a Tumblr called The Industry Ain’t Safe where women were encouraged to share stories of their assaults–and name names. But the Tumblr quickly revealed just how volatile anonymous reporting online can be; one story was attributed to a woman who hadn’t written in, and she was then prompted to go write in to clarify that she had not been the one to make the post. Currently, the Tumblr has not been updated since late January. When accusations like this aren’t true, or draw in women who had nothing to do with anonymous claims, the platform social media provides turns dangerous very quickly. As everyone moves forward, it is important to seek out ways to address sexual violence and rape culture with as much delicacy as possible. Demonizing specific people doesn’t necessarily do much to overthrow rape culture as a whole.
“This isn’t about one individual, it’s about rape culture,” Chaiet said. “When I refer to rape culture I am referring to the privilege men get to touch, talk about, assault and rape women’s bodies. They get that privilege from a culture and a legal system that doesn’t recognize these violations are crimes because the minimization of these acts is all too common. The aggressors know they can act with impunity, know there will be no consequences, or minimum consequences; they’re counting on the silence and shame of their targets. That creates a system where men can sexually assault and rape in a serial predatory fashion.”
Powers also spoke to the structural implications of male power in the music industry. That isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, even if speaking out against it publicly is.
“Men abusing their power to gain sexual access to women in the music industry is extremely deeply rooted,” Powers said. “In my opinion, it’s rooted in thousands of years of social structure. This has been going on for the entire history of popular music.”
In the ensuing weeks, instead of taking new allegations public, many women have joined private Facebook groups to form a support network for one another; they are doing this to recover, talk about the abuse they’ve faced, and figure out productive ways to call out their abusers moving forward.
“In all of this, many women have brought many other names to the table,” Silverman said. “We as a community are trying to be completely level-headed and are asking them to try working with either legal or employment channels before doing anything rash. If they can get nowhere that way, then do they let this fester? There is no handbook that tells any of us how to proceed with reporting that a really ‘cool’ dude in the music industry attacked or raped you.”
Overall, creating community with other women is an important and powerful way to build a defense against this kind of behavior. Powers noted that even if women disagree with one another, they can be empathetic in a way that even the most sympathetic men can’t be.
“I really do think women need to seek each other’s counsel,” she said. “Seek the support and counsel of other women–even if it’s just one person. Not all women agree on these issues, or how to approach them, and we’ve seen that is going to happen, too. But as long as you aren’t the only woman in the room, you have an ally. I’m not saying that a man can’t be sympathetic, not out of an essentialist standpoint, but because of the social position that women are in, it’s important to create community. So that’s absolutely number one.”
Situations like this one are also important for helping women come to terms with their experiences of sexual violence and what constitutes assault. Chaiet said some people lessen their own experiences or don’t realize what happened to them fits the definition of a crime.
As this situation began to unfold, and survivors were able to speak openly, many of us who work in the music industry were left feeling raw and shaken up. Whether it was through reporting on the story, exposure through social media, or even reading stories, the tremors from the incident spread far and wide. For a community that is small and rather tight-knit, the emotional damage was intense. This feeling is a real phenomenon and can have lasting effects long after stories like this come to light. Chaiet identifies this reaction from people who aren’t primary victims in this situation, but are still involved with it, as something that is not uncommon.
“What’s happening is called vicarious or secondary trauma; it didn’t happen to you, but it happened to your community or people close to you,” she said. “You may experience trauma symptoms as well. Our class is also recommended as a prevention and healing place for vicarious and secondary trauma. We often work with first responders and people who do outreach in traumatized communities, like journalists and social workers.”
Another element that stood out as the community attempted to process through the story, was the number of men who were left feeling powerless and confused about how they could actively support women who came forward, and do their part to help combat sexual violence. Women form systems to support and warn one another, but men are often left out of the conversation all together.
“The first thing we can do is include all genders in education about rape and sexual violence,” Chaiet said. “We can let everyone know they have a role in not perpetuating rape culture. We can define rape and sexual assault, and provide them with options if someone tries to assault them. We can teach them how to really listen and support (without victim-blaming) when someone discloses to them such an experience.”
Aside from learning about rape culture and taking an active stance in preventing it, there is an even more powerful way that men can help change the industry for the better. Powers closes with a very simple and effective way men can help: hire women.
“If you’re in a position of power, share your power with a someone who doesn’t look like you, who doesn’t have your same anatomical make-up,” she said. “For men in the music industry, that means sacrificing some power; not simply giving power to women, but changing the structure. For the women who have spoken up, in some ways, the best revenge is their paper; their work still shines and that’s a beautiful thing. The fact that they have been able to make their beautiful music and survive while dealing with these issues is very inspiring to me. I hope that we all remember not to reduce the women who speak out to simply this moment. Their speaking out is interwoven into the fabric of their creativity, their imaginations and their strength.”
Special thanks to Ann Powers, Karen Chasen and Donna Chaiet of PREPARE, and Jessica Testa.