Jonah Hill and “therapy speak”

When having "boundaries" is actually just trying to control others.

When news broke of Jonah Hill’s alleged emotional abuse of his ex-girlfriend Sarah Brody, my friend and I got to talking about seemingly “evolved” men who could never see themselves as perpetrators of abuse. She told me about her husband’s former boss, a self-described liberal and supporter of feminist ideals, who out of nowhere one day hung a nude sculpture of himself in the lobby of the office. Understandably, his employees were disturbed seeing a likeness of the head honcho’s hog every time they went to grab a coffee, so one decided to put a pair of daisy dukes on it. You know, to look presentable in the workplace. 

When the boss saw his artistic form partly obscured by shorts, he went absolutely ballistic on the person who did it and reportedly yelled like he never had before. Because no matter how liberal a guy purports to be, no matter how many equity trainings he’s been forced to do, far too often, in the end, his preferences—his needs—come first. You will get his respect as long as you play by his rules.

And that’s exactly what we see from the texts Brady posted to her Instagram Stories this past Friday: Hill using “therapy speak”, or language that looks and sounds emotionally intelligent, but is actually meant to manipulate. The term entered the zeitgeist in the past few years, and was crystallized in a great piece by writer Rebecca Fishbein this past April called, “Is Therapy-Speak Making Us Selfish?

One source who spoke to Fishbein about her brother abruptly cutting off communication with their parents described it like this: “He created this whole thing about his safety, his boundaries, his rules. Obviously that’s important, but it’s like he came into it with the framework like he’s the only real person in the world and everybody else has to do exactly what he says to make him safe.”

In his quest to feel “safe” (or perhaps less insecure), Hill asked Brady, an avid surfer and instructor, to remove from her Instagram any photos of herself wearing a bikini. The texts show Brady confirming that she removed the posts Hill flagged, with him replying, “Good start. You don’t seem to get it. But it’s not my place to teach you. I’ve made my boundaries clear. You refuse to let go of some [photos] and you’ve made that clear. I hope they make you happy.” 

Putting aside the patronizing garbage that is “good start,” what leaps out here is his gross misuse of the word boundaries. As NBC News reporter Kat Tenbarge put it on Twitter, “People calling this ‘boundaries’ are misusing the term and failing to recognize controlling, abusive behavior. Boundaries are things you set for YOURSELF…You cannot control other people.”

In addition to asking her to take down photos of his choosing, screenshots show Hill giving Brady a literal list of behaviors and activities that would make her an unsuitable partner for him. The list includes “surfing with men'', modeling, and “friendships with women who are in unstable places and from your wild recent past.”

But truly the cherry on top of this misogynist sundae is the fact that just last year, Hill directed and starred in a documentary film about his own psychiatrist, Phil Stuz. The film, “Stutz” on Netflix, features conversations between the two men about the doctors methods and how he’s helped his famous patient through debilitating anxiety and grief over his brother’s death. 

How could a man so in touch with his feelings be so cruel and manipulative towards his partner? But as one review noted, “Hill’s film is more for him than it is for us, even if that would seem to contradict its stated purpose of spreading his therapist’s light.” In other words: The film is a result of Hill’s effort to portray himself as the ultimate evolved man, and not evidence that he actually is that man.

Hill was noticeably absent from his sister’s (actor Beanie Feldstein) wedding last month, and immediately the wheels in my head started turning. The two had previously been very publicly close and supportive of one another’s careers in a way that I found touching and genuine. So when Feldstein and wife Bonnie Chance Roberts’ Vogue wedding photo spread dropped and Hill was not just visually absent but not even mentioned in the accompanying story, clearly something was amiss. And perhaps this brewing PR nightmare was the reason.

I’ve been in therapy for the better part of a decade. My mom is a therapist. To say I respect the profession and believe in its power is an understatement. That’s what makes it so difficult to talk about the ways in which people can take what they learn in therapy and wield it as a weapon. Just because someone is in therapy doesn’t mean they’ve actually healed the parts of themselves that brought them there in the first place.

I hope Sarah Brady finds solidarity in the support shown by other victims of emotional abuse—and I hope Jonah Hill finds a new therapist.

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