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Jonah Hill and some of the messages he allegedly sent his girlfriend (Photo: Getty Images; design by Tina Tiller)
Jonah Hill and some of the messages he allegedly sent his girlfriend (Photo: Getty Images; design by Tina Tiller)

OPINIONOpinionJuly 19, 2023

Those Jonah Hill messages and the weaponisation of mental health

Jonah Hill and some of the messages he allegedly sent his girlfriend (Photo: Getty Images; design by Tina Tiller)
Jonah Hill and some of the messages he allegedly sent his girlfriend (Photo: Getty Images; design by Tina Tiller)

The actor’s controlling demands of his partner through a series of ‘therapy talk’ messages he allegedly sent to her is a reminder of the danger of conflating gender-based violence and men’s mental health issues, argues Alice Black.

In the wake of the Jonah Hill situation (if you miraculously managed to avoid this screenshot saga last week, this Sopranos meme covers it off nicely) and increased media discussion of “therapy talk”, I’d like to delve into the social factors that enable and excuse male violence against women in the context of mental illness.   

In short, Jonah Hill is an American actor and comedian whose ex-partner, Sarah Brady, recently shared a number of  screenshots of alleged conversations between herself and Hill throughout their relationship and for some time afterwards while they remained friends. The conversations show Hill allegedly asking Brady (a professional surfer) to comply with a list of demands in order to align with his “boundaries”. These included requests not to surf with men, post photos of herself wearing a bathing suit, engage in modelling work, or have “friendships with women who are in unstable places” (this one still baffles me: if he’s referring to actual tectonic plate movement, I guess he has a point?) 

I admit I was a little late to this story, only stumbling across it during my nightly intake of Reels (I’m 31, so I can’t legally download TikTok). The parodies were horrifyingly accurate, and I, like many of those who have worked in the field of intimate partner violence, am not averse to using dark humour to cope with the harrowing everyday realities that this work so relentlessly presents. 

The backlash against Hill following the alleged conversations was swift, brutal, and completely warranted. There has been ample coverage of the dangers of “therapy talk”. Essentially, terms such as “boundaries,” “trauma”, and “self-care” have become popularised ad nauseam in recent years and amalgamated into the cesspool that is commercialised wellness culture. Naturally, as they have become increasingly used, they have become increasingly misused. Boundaries, for example, are not about making demands, but about communicating your feelings and needs transparently and respectfully. While pop psychology filtered through the lens of social media is riddled with inaccuracies and problematic implications (my pet peeve is when people misuse the word “trauma”, for example), that’s not what concerned me about this situation.

As Natalie Thorburn, principal policy adviser for Women’s Refuge in Auckland, recently stated, Hill’s alleged behaviour is a textbook case of coercive control (more on that term later). But the problem runs even deeper than that.   

In recent years, (white middle-class) male violence against women has frequently been implicitly excused by the media because of the perpetrator’s alleged experience of depression or other mental health concerns. There are countless examples of this, particularly in Australian cases of familicide (where a perpetrator murders their partner and children), but thankfully this problem is increasingly being recognised (see: here, here, and here). 

You may be thinking about the current Christchurch triple homicide trial of Lauren Anne Dickason, who has admitted to killing her three daughters on September 16, 2021. Her mental health is a key focus of the trial, given she has pleaded not guilty with the defence to argue insanity and infanticide. While this is a horrifying case, familicide is almost exclusively committed by men, and it is the ongoing conflation of this (and other gender-based violence) with mental health issues that I wish to discuss. 

It’s difficult to know where to start when men who have committed premeditated familicide are glorified and excused following the murder of their loved ones. The contradiction is blatant. As Helen McGrath pointed out in a 2018 article, “A lovely guy does not shoot his young daughter in the face as she cowers on a bed… They say he was such a good father and a good parent… he must have been mentally ill.” She goes further in her book, Mind Behind the Crime, stating, “The fact is, most fathers who kill their children do so deliberately and while unaffected by psychosis or any other kind of mental illness.”  

One more time for the people in the back: violence against women and children is not a symptom of ANY mental illness and it is incredibly harmful and stigmatising to conflate the two.  

Importantly, men who kill their wives and children are not aberrant monsters either, as claimed in media elsewhere. Like many realms in life, this artificial dichotomy serves no one (except the perpetrators) and fails to address the social structures that enable endemic violence against women. However, the focus on men’s mental health in this specific context implicitly justifies gendered violence and obscures the underlying cause. 

Violence against women (psychological or otherwise) is fundamentally about power and control, with Evan Stark’s groundbreaking work on coercive control particularly pertinent here. While significantly harmful in and of itself, controlling behaviour is also a significant predictor of physical violence and ultimately homicide.  

 This story is about much more than the dangers of “therapy talk”. It sits within a broader context where women who leave their abusive partners are framed as the problem and where, in the men’s rights activism world, women’s rights are perceived as somehow contributing to men’s mental health problems.  

When I briefly discussed the pitch for this story with a friend, she immediately disclosed her experience of this exact phenomenon with her former husband. Throughout their relationship, she found his violence was categorically downplayed and excused by those around her because he lived with schizophrenia. She once accompanied him to the hospital, for example, while he was experiencing a psychotic episode. The doctors and nurses determined that his episode had likely been triggered by her trying to break up with him and her behaviour subsequently became the focus. There was no consideration of her own wellbeing, the reason she wanted to leave, or the broader context of violence against women in Aotearoa. She ended up staying with him for much longer than she wanted to because she felt consumed by guilt and on many occasions when she did try to leave, he threatened to take his own life. This is an alarmingly common experience, with threats of suicide a frequent tactic of psychological abuse when women attempt to leave (alongside an escalation in violence and an increased risk of fatality).  

Improving men’s access to and uptake of mental health services is vital work in Aotearoa and conformity to traditional masculine norms is part of this problem. But we cannot fall into the trap of conflating symptoms of mental illness with any kind of justification for violence against women. At the end of the day, Hill’s mental health status or experience of trauma is immaterial to how he behaved. This is simply another high-profile case of something that occurs every day in Aotearoa and often follows a tragic trajectory. 

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

If you or someone you know is living with violence, there is a range of community organisations you can contact for support.

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