Let Victims Tell Their Own Stories

On Monday morning, Brooklyn Magazine published a piece about a well-regarded music publicist named Heathcliff Berru and accusations of sexual assault and harassment lodged against him on Twitter by Amber Coffman, one of the members of the band The Dirty Projectors. Tweets collected in the piece detail the kind of disgusting and cavalier treatment many women face when trying to thrive in male-dominated industries and spaces.

After Coffman shared her story, other women working in the music industry with similar stories felt compelled to do the same. By the end of the day, Berru had resigned from Life or Death PR — a company that represents acts like D’Angelo, Odd Future, GZA and Wet.  They released a statement, the full text of which is below:

“Life or Death as a zero tolerance policy for the type of conduct alleged in today’s on-line postings. We take these allegations very seriously.

The men and women who make up this company do not and will not condone or tolerate any conduct described in the online postings. Life Or Death is 3 men and 3 women who are committed to promoting art and serving the clients that we’re so privileged to represent. We are taking measures to ensure that the alleged behavior did not, and will not, make its way into company operations or impact our commitment to promoting art and assisting our clients.

We are grateful to Heathcliff Berru for all the work he’s done to date and his creative vision at the company. We appreciate and support his decision to step down as CEO of Life of Death.”

Berru also issued a statement to L.A. Weeklyoffering a caveat-laden apology, citing drug and alcohol issues and vowing to “Create a world with one less inappropriate man.” Sadly, it seems the damage has already been done.

This story is the same story we’ve seen played out so often, with different characters. We’ve seen this with Beth Stelling’s public confession of abuse; the fall of feminist porn hero James Deen and most notably, with Bill Cosby’s rapid fall from grace in the light of over 50 women coming forth with eerily similar stories of sexual assault. I’m sure there are more stories like this in every industry. We will keep hearing these stories. Not all men are bad, but the ones that are leave indelible marks on the people they harm.

Speaking up about any and all abuse is an act of bravery, to be sure. Sexual assault and inappropriate behavior towards women by men in positions of power is rarely discussed in public and rarely brought to light. As a culture, we fail each other miserably when it comes to reporting rape and sexual assault cases to the authorities. According to RAINN, only 68 percent of rapes are reported. Out of every 100 rapes that are, only 7 actually lead to an arrest and out of those seven, only two rapists actually serve time for the crimes they’re committed.

The statistics show that sexual assault and rape cases are often perpetrated by people the victims know. In a study conducted by the Department of Justice, 82 percent of rapes are acquaintance rapes, acts of violence enacted by familiar faces. Telling the authorities about sexual assault at the hands of a stranger must feel like a futile act. Telling the authorities about sexual assault at the hands of someone you know comes with its own unique combination of guilt and shame and fear. If the victims chose to share their stories and are joined by others in solidarity who feel compelled to do the same, they should be applauded. Feeling comfortable enough — or, in some cases uncomfortable enough — to out an abuser is a choice. But, it’s important to remember that it’s not the only choice.

We so rarely value or respect silence in situations like this. The first victim to speak out is very often a catalyst for all the incidents other victims have held onto for years. Lauding people for their decision to share their stories is fine, but it’s important to understand that not everyone feels comfortable speaking up. It doesn’t matter what their reasons are. Maybe they’re personal. Maybe they’re not ready. Maybe they’re still processing the trauma and haven’t had the time and the distance to discuss it in any forum other than their therapist’s office. Amplifying victims’ stories when they come forward while also urging those content to keep quiet to come forward feels disrespectful to the victims who aren’t ready to share.

Choosing to remain silent is a powerful choice. Victims who choose to keep their story to themselves do it all for very different reasons. Speaking out against your rapist sounds good in theory, but if you fear legal recourse or have already come to peace with your situation and don’t really want to talk about it anymore, keeping quiet and moving on with your life is an act of survival. Not every victim wants to share. Not every victim will. Not every victim feels safe to share for reasons beyond what anyone could imagine. Frankly, it’s no one else’s business.

The thirst for justice in feminist media and in a public forum, be it Twitter or private Facebook groups is very, very real. But, any accusations against other victims or women who are defending their positions, regardless of what they are, isn’t healthy. Believe women and believe victims, but don’t shame others for not telling their story. Justice meted out in Facebook groups and on Twitter is an empty justice. Once the story and the momentum behind it peaks and washes out with the tide, the victims are left to pick up the pieces and go back to their lives. In situations like this, the only person that should be dragged through the mud is the perpetrator, not the victims who are unwilling or unable to share their stories themselves.

Public confession serves as powerful social currency. In a culture where so many transgressions are tried in the court of public opinion, the pressure to be forthright with a shared experience whether you want to or not is omnipresent but entirely unnecessary. No one should be made to feel worse for choosing not to speak up. No one is required to tell their story because everyone is different. Breathless reporting on an avalanche of victims feels necessary, but piggybacking on other people’s pain is nothing more than self-aggrandizing and disingenuous. Watching a story unfold that shares striking similarities with your own private pain is irritating at best and triggering at worst.  A survivor of an absuive relationship who was later diagnosed with PTSD told me that “the spectacle quality of the whole thing is so clueless and insensitive.” In these cases, there is no “should.” To come forward with something so personal is a choice, plain and simple.

Support victims by listening to their stories, not demanding them. Their pain is theirs to share. Amplify the voices of those who wish to be amplified, but understand that there are others who don’t feel the need to be so public. Everyone has their reasons and those reasons are nobody’s business but their own. Unintentionally shaming victims by implying that keeping quiet is akin to cowardice is counterproductive and more harmful than anything else. Let victims be in charge of their own narrative. Their stories are theirs to tell.