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Jennie Willoughby became a symbol of forgiveness and compassion in early 2018 when she wrote a blog post that became a viral sensation – and sparked the global hashtag #AndSoIStayed – detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, a top aide to President Donald Trump.
Jennie is now a writer, speaker and singer whose message encourages us all to strive for empathy, connection and self-compassion.
The reason I wanted to talk to Jennie is that the work that she’s doing is so in alignment with this podcast, and the movement behind the podcast: Stop the abuse. Foster healing. Fix broken systems. But wrap all of it in as much compassion and forgiveness as possible, without diminishing the first three.
Jennie’s performance of her blog post + 2 songs, at a fundraiser for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in October 2019.
Jennie’s interview with Mark Halperin (edited by Mark’s people prior to publication, so it’s lost much of Jennie’s perspective unfortunately)
The detailed allegations against Mark Halperin, in the words of the women he harmed
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On today’s podcast, I have the tremendous honor of talking with Jennie Willoughby. I feel like I say this on every episode, but gosh, am I excited to talk to her today! Jennie is somebody who became a symbol of forgiveness and compassion in early 2018 when she wrote a blog post entitled Why I Stayed that became a viral sensation, detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband.
And it sparked a global hashtag #AndSoIStayed. Using mindfulness and self compassion, Jennie offers new dialogues to use with ourselves and with others that foster empathy and connection. She teaches simple, accessible, meditation’s grounded in mindfulness and self compassion that help with anxiety, anger, stress, and healing from trauma.
The reason I wanted to talk to Jennie is that the work that she’s out there doing in the world is just so in alignment with what I am seeking to do with this podcast, and the movement behind the podcast. On the one hand, absolutely – people who have done harm, and certainly those who are continuing to do harm, need to be held accountable. The abuse must stop. And systems that support abusive behavior and allow it to continue also must be fixed.
And, all of that needs to happen in a container that allows for healing for everybody, both the victims and the perpetrators. And of course perpetrators are often victims themselves in various ways. But then also all of that needs to happen in such a way that we can access maximum forgiveness and compassion.
Not so much, of course, that we then, you know, we don’t want compassion that actually ends up allowing perpetrators to skate free. Obviously that’s not compassion. We want to be compassionate and forgiving only insofar as the abuse is still made to stop. And it’s complicated. It’s hard.
And Jennie’s blog post – her viral blog post, Why I Stayed – got to the heart of this conundrum in a way that made me realize, Oh wow, do I want to have a conversation with this woman. The work that she’s doing, the message that she’s spreading, the healing that she is facilitating are on point for what I am doing as well.
And so with that, Jennie, I am just so thrilled to have you here, talking with me today. Thank you so much for taking time in our coronavirus quarantine lives to come and join me today.
Jennie: [00:03:41] Wow. Thank you. Thank you for that beautiful introduction and for the work that you’re doing here.
Julia: [00:03:46] And I think – in addition to what I just said about you – I think the absolute best way to introduce yourself to the audience and also to kind of frame the conversation that we’re getting ready to have would be for you to actually read your blog post to us. Is that something you’d be willing to do?
Jennie: [00:04:02] Absolutely. I wrote this on April 24th, 2017, sitting outside of the marital home that I shared with my ex husband, Rob Porter. And really, really felt honest for the first time – probably ever – about this situation.
And So I Stayed.
The first time he called me a fucking bitch was on our honeymoon. I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.
A month later, he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me naked and dripping from the shower to yell at me.
Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious.
The threats were personal, the terror was real, and yet I stayed.
When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career. And so I kept my mouth shut and stayed.
I was told, yes, he was deeply flawed, but then again, so was I. And so I worked on myself and stayed.
If he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would have been easier to leave, but he could be kind and sensitive. And so I stayed.
He cried and apologized, and so I stayed.
He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling sessions and therapy groups. And so I stayed.
He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence, and so I stayed.
I felt ashamed and trapped, and so I stayed.
Friends and clergy didn’t believe me, and so I stayed.
I was pregnant and so I stayed.
I lost the pregnancy and became depressed and so I stayed.
Abuse is indifferent to education level, socioeconomic status, race, age, or gender, and no one can ever know the dynamics of another’s relationship. My cycle continued for four more years. Afterward I let go and welcome to the hard work of healing and forgiveness. My experience made me stronger and able to love more deeply, but my heart breaks for him. In the end, who was the real victim of his choices.
Julia: [00:07:06] That’s powerful. And you know, listeners heard you break down a couple of times as you’re reading it. They didn’t hear me, but I am too. I’m sitting here in tears listening to it. And what I want to elevate is that my tears – and I think also your tears – though I don’t want to speak for you – are, are, are, are not a bad thing.
My tears are, they’re a wonderful thing. I’ll also share with the audience that as powerful as that blog post is to listen to all on its own, you performed that blog post onstage and, and you sang a song. Both on the front end and on the back end of the blog post. And that’s available on YouTube and I encourage listeners to go and check that out. The link is in the show notes.
I’d love for you to share a little bit about that evening for you. Because I heard that performance of yours and I mean, I just broke down in retching sobs after listening to it. I mean, it just broke me open – in a wonderful way. There’s been all kinds of fury and rage and sadness and heartbreak building up in me for the last few weeks and I haven’t been able to access it and get past it. And that performance of yours broke me open in a way that was so necessary and so healing and so cathartic.
And when I shared that with you, earlier this afternoon, you said, yeah, I get it. And tell, tell us why. What was that evening all about and why was there so much power in it?
Jennie: [00:08:48] The evening was a fundraising event for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And so it was in New York city, and it was a group of performers, musicians, Broadway actors, to benefit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
And I had been asked to give remarks, which I was very comfortable doing. I’ve been a classroom teacher, I’ve been a speaker. And yet one of the things that I think had been squashed in my marriage that I had not yet resurrected, some four years later, was singing and performing onstage. And so I had asked for permission to be able to, to do differently than just give remarks, give a keynote.
And so what I experienced onstage was the power of one more layer of breaking open of what I was fully, fully capable of. And the power of being seen in the healing that I had done, in the abuse that I had suffered and in the passion that I have now for the work that I’m doing.
I got really emotional singing for those reasons. And it just, yeah. I, I still, I still think about that sometimes because that really marked – maybe not the final step, cause I’m on a longer journey than that. But it marked another step forward for me from breaking away from the shame and the bondage of, of any type of abuse and trauma.
Julia: [00:10:32] Yeah. And the way that you described it earlier was you said that it was you breaking apart onstage. And, and witnessing that, tapping into that, experiencing it along with you, is – it contains the power to break the listener open too. Again, in a wonderful, positive, healing, cathartic way, you know?
So, gosh, I hope everybody listening to this podcast clicks on that link. It’s, it’s a 10 minute performance and — cause you’re also, you are a spectacular singer. I didn’t know that about you, but my God, it’s like why isn’t this lady on the radio or whatever? I don’t know about, I don’t know about the music industry. I don’t know where the big shots hanging out. But, I mean you’re, you’re amazing. You’re amazing.
You mentioned when you were describing writing this blog post your husband’s name. But it — unfortunately, we need to talk about who your husband is. I tend to avoid expressly political conversations on this podcast because they are so quickly just dragged down into partisan nonsense and people don’t even hear the story or what’s being said. Rather they look at what kind of a weapon or cudgel they can use against the person of the opposite party.
So given that I know and you know that that happens and we agree it sucks, the fact of the matter is that I would never know who you are and lots of people would never have heard your story if it weren’t because of the man you were married to.
So can you share with listeners, who, who is your ex husband?
Jennie: [00:12:11] My ex husband was the staff secretary, the initial staff secretary in the Trump administration. One of the top aides to the president and who had access, we’ll say, to sensitive information that that only a top few people in the White House would see. I’m very well aware that I was only given the platform that I was because of who my ex husband worked for.
And I see it as a blessing that he ended up in the position that he was, because it allowed me to tell a conversation that hopefully surpasses political party ideology. I tried at the time, and I will continue to try to do so, to separate this from the fact of who my ex husband was or who he worked for.
There’s a lot of stories to be told about that, but that’s not the story that I’m telling. The story that I’m telling is one of abuse that can happen at any level, that can happen to any person, and the lengths that we as society have gone to, to silence those voices and to cover up those situations.
I didn’t want to be forever – I’m a writer, I’m a speaker, I want a platform. But I didn’t want to be forever associated with “ex-wife of.” When you Google my name, I would like my name to come up, not ex-wife of.
But at the same time I’m grateful because if that is what it takes for me to be able to use my voice speaking about healing and forgiveness; if that’s what it takes to bring a spotlight on domestic violence, to bring attention to these causes; if that’s what it takes to raise the, the desire for resilience and self compassion in the world, I’m here for it. And I will take whatever negativity there was associated with how the story came to be. I will take that and I will use it for the betterment of any person or any victim or any, any man, woman or child who feels like they have been silenced and that they see themselves in my story.
Julia: [00:14:29] I love that. And, it does go directly into how your story kind of came to be. It seems to me as a casual observer – at the time, you know, before I knew you, I saw your story become public just like the rest of the world did. Many of the listeners of this podcast will already be familiar with Rob’s story and your story.
But just to briefly summarize: because of the fact that, as you said, Rob in his position as the staff secretary, had access to highly sensitive, very high level clearance information in the White House, he required an FBI clearance. And like many of the people that were initially named to the Trump administration, he had difficulty getting that FBI clearance. And it was a big story in the media for a while. All these people in the White House who weren’t getting their FBI clearances and why not?
In Rob’s case, it came to be known that part of the reason – maybe a lot of it, maybe only a bit of it – but some of the reason that he was not getting the FBI clearance was because it turned out that there were allegations of domestic abuse against him by both you and his first ex-wife, Colbie Holderness.
And so I as a member of the public and all the rest of the public became aware of you a year later, basically. I think we all became aware of it in January, February of 2018. And your blog post, Why I Stayed, had been published a year before.
And I thought to myself, huh. A year ago is when the FBI would have come knocking on her door to ask these questions. I wonder if part of the reason that you were stirred to write the post is because of the fact that the FBI came asking. Is that part of it?
Jennie: [00:16:34] That’s maybe the largest part of it. In fact, I mean, great, great observation. I, I was contacted by the FBI in January of 2017, which was right after the inauguration of the Trump administration to office. I met with them in February of 2017. As a result of both Colbie and I meeting with the FBI, we had to tell stories that we had not told. Or that we had only told to our most intimate and trusted friends and partners .
Colbie then reached out to me in March of 2017 and said, I have a sneaking suspicion that this probably dredged up some similar things for you that it did for me. If you would be willing to meet, I would love to.
I’d never met her. I’d never seen her. I’d never had any communication with her until she reached out to me in this way. And so after meeting her in March of 2017 and telling my story to the FBI in February of 2017 it just – it gave me the permission that I needed to recognize that I had nothing to fear. That telling the story was not something that was going to reflect badly on me and that any negative repercussions that would come from my sharing would not be mine to own.
Julia: [00:18:02] Wow. Yeah. And isn’t that — I don’t even know what to say. This….
Jennie: [00:18:11] The number one silencer for me and, I’ve now come to understand, for so many people in any kind of abuse situations is shame. It’s fear, certainly, of retaliation or of consequences from the perpetrator. But it’s, it’s probably shame more than anything else.
I was blessed to be the keynote speaker at the 2018 Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma. And there was a co speaker there and he said something that has stuck with me ever since on this topic of shame. He had been in gang violence, he had been sexually and physically abused as a child. And he was so ashamed to say something to these gang members, he said, because I was afraid they would hurt me, they would kill me, or they would even shame me. He put them in that order.
And I thought, wow, doesn’t that speak volumes that we are more afraid of being exposed in our shame than we are of death? And I think that’s very, very true. It was for me, that being exposed as less than – being exposed in my, in my, you know, worst moments, it was more terrifying for me than living in silence at that time.
Julia: [00:19:36] So that prompts me to want to ask two questions, kind of opposite sides of the coin. And I will invite you to go whichever direction you want to. One question is, can you describe what that shame is about? Because for some listeners, they will be intimately familiar. Some listeners have had experiences of harassment and assault themselves, and they know exactly what you’re talking about.
But some people who are listening don’t understand that. They find themselves saying, oh my gosh. Why do women stay quiet? Why don’t you say something? These are the people who I, I’ve talked about in a lot of episodes are the people that they’re at least intellectually, philosophically in favor of women’s equality, and they want to believe women, but they find it to be so implausible.
They think to themselves, Oh my God, if somebody, if somebody was hitting me or hurting me, or God forbid, if somebody tried to rape me, I wouldn’t stay silent. I would tell everybody. And they don’t understand the shame. And, and it’s kind of my hypothesis that if people like that hear the explanation from enough different voices, something will stick.
And so that’s one side of the question is, you know, explain the shame. And then the other side of the question is, and how do you get past that? You know, it’s, the question is, or the invitation is to describe your healing journey out of the shame. Which of those – if either of them – would you like to address?
Jennie: [00:21:08] I don’t know how much justice I can do to what that shame feels like globally for everyone, but I can speak about what it was for me. And for me personally, it was that I had come from a background and a childhood that wasn’t ideal. It was because I had made choices in my adolescence and early adulthood that had negative consequences that were embarrassing that I would not make today.
And that I now with that baggage and with that history, I ended up in a relationship with someone who did not respect me and did not treat me well. I was ashamed because I was owning that. As though where I had come from, what my parents had had subjected me to, decisions that I had made when my prefrontal cortex was not fully developed as an adolescent, that those somehow defined who I was and what I was allowed to receive as an adult. And I carried that shame, as I went into my marriage and, and as, as I left my marriage.
For me, the journey out of that shame has been really my life’s work, which is understanding and receiving self-compassion. Acknowledging that the circumstances that I found myself in as a young child are completely out of my control. Acknowledge, acknowledging that the Adverse Childhood Experiences that I was subjected to, we now understand through research – psychological and medical research – have dramatic and drastic lasting impacts on someone’s behavior as they move forward. And on relationships and on their susceptibility to abuse and violence and other things.
And to be able to see that as a bigger picture of what got me to where I was, as opposed to taking on ownership as though I had consciously chosen these things. And that’s not to say that I, that I don’t accept responsibility for mistakes that I’ve made. That’s not at all true. I think it was acknowledging that the mistakes that I made were made from the level of awareness and the level of self love and the level of self acceptance that I was capable of in that moment.
And moving beyond the shame is then of course learning to accept and be compassionate with myself in all circumstances, even the ones that are that are dark and painful.
Julia: [00:23:41] So what I kind of hear you saying – and please do correct me if I’m, if I’m now mischaracterizing what you said – what I kind of hear you saying is that part of the path of healing from the shame was also unbundling it. That there was some shame about simply what had happened to you, and also there was shame about some decisions and choices that you made that put you in circumstances that were ripe for additional misfortunate things to happen to you. And so there was, there was like there was what other people did to you and there were choices that you made.
And kind of at the apex of the shame or before the healing began, all of that was sort of bundled together. And it was, and it was by unbundling it and recognizing, look, there’s choices that I can take responsibility for. But to the extent that my ability to make good choices was impaired because of things that people did to me – especially when I was a small child, but including what your ex husband did to you – those are not for me to take responsibility. It’s not my fault that I got hit. Sure, I can take responsibility for my choice to date him, to marry him, to stay with him for four years. And it doesn’t mean that it’s my fault or that I should be ashamed of the fact that I got hit.
Is that an accurate restating or am I mischaracterizing it now by putting those words on it?
Jennie: [00:25:18] That is accurate. It’s the conflating of those two things that somehow this happened to me because I’m incapable of making a different decision. That’s the shame and I can speak again, just from my own experience, and I hope that someone can find some sort of clarity in that, that I ended up in a relationship that was not respectful, that was violent, that that was abusive in a number of different levels in a number of different ways. Gradually, over the course of my entire life, I made decisions that ended me up in that relationship. And then I conflated the two together that somehow I then deserved that relationship because I ended up there.
And I can see that certainly in the Me Too movement and rape culture that a woman was drunk at a party. Well, she made the decision to drink too much. She made the decision to be at the party where they were – you know, her friends left. And then that gets conflated in her mind as though she was responsible for having put herself in that situation.
No. It was Rob’s choice to behave the way that he behaved. It was Rob’s choice to, to continue that behavior. It was a perpetrator of violence or a rapist’s choice to take advantage of someone when they had become incapacitated with alcohol. We all have our own choices.
And so the unbundling, as you were talking about, was me being able to unbundle which of these choices were mine that I can now work through and, and own and, and, and relinquish the, the narrative that that has on my life; and which were not mine to own. And I can say, that’s your problem. You did that. I did this.
Julia: [00:27:07] Mm. Mm. Yeah. What you just said, it’s — because of the choices that I made and the things that I’ve done, I deserve what I got, is what you’re saying.
Jennie: [00:27:17] It’s such a false narrative that so many people internalize. And again, I’m going to speak about ACE factors, Adverse Childhood Experiences, particularly then they get internalized as though this is, this is who I am. As opposed to these are factors that are contributing to how I perceive the world and I have control over being able to, to reframe that or move through that or make a different choice as soon as I’ve been educated about something and wants to do it differently moving forward.
It’s hard for me to see sometimes the way perpetrators of abuse and violence are portrayed in the media. Including my ex husband, if I’m being honest with you, because they don’t always show the, the full – the whole dynamic experience of being a human being. As though if I make a dangerous violent choice, therefore I am a dangerous, violent person.
And yet that is not empirically true. Good people, good husbands, good fathers, good workers can make devastating choices. And I don’t believe that any one person should be judged wholly on the worst decision they’ve ever made in their life or the worst action that they’ve ever contributed to. That to me is the opposite of what compassion and and human experience is. We’re here to learn.
Julia: [00:28:46] I love that you said that. That came up in the most recent episode that I published with Alicia Garza. She talked about Bryan Stevenson, who is a lawyer in Alabama, who has devoted his life to helping get men mostly, but people, off of death row in Alabama. They’ve made a movie about him called – I think it’s Just Mercy, I think is the name of the movie. And he’s written a book.
And what Alicia said that the, what she said, it sticks in her finger like a stinger is his statement that no person is the sum of the worst thing they’ve ever done. And I just butchered that quote, I know, but it’s, it’s close.
And it’s what you just said, that the very worst thing that any of us has ever done is not what should define any of us.
Jennie: [00:29:36] And let’s talk about how the, the misperception of assuming that someone’s worst situation is what defines them. If we do that, what we’re actually doing then is closing our own pathway to redemption, or at least our belief that we can be forgiven and redeemed for our mistakes.
Because if we say, when someone screws up – however big or small on the spectrum – that that now is a defining characteristic of them, we’re ultimately saying that that’s true for us too. And you know, psychology says that the more that we want to reject something, the harsher we are attacking it externally. And so if we feel as though there’s something in our lives that we’re ashamed of, there’s a, there’s a dark, secret space that we’re afraid that people might not accept or might not forgive or might not love, and then we say to someone else, you are unlovable and unacceptable because you’ve done that thing we’re then further pushing our own fear and shame down.
Julia: [00:30:36] Yeah, yeah. A hundred percent. And, and that gets us pretty squarely into what is the central hypothesis of this podcast project and website project, is, how do we do it different? You know? Is it possible for people to change? And if it is, what ingredients need to be present in order to catalyze change?
Jennie: [00:31:03] I don’t think it is possible for people to change if we purport that when you do something wrong, it is an inherent flaw in you. Because that does not give any motivation for someone to, to question their behavior or to, to seek remorse. Instead, that perpetuates what I see a lot of celebrities and people doing who are in these accusations digging their heels in. Denial.
And I think that that, the reason that it becomes that sort of black and white push and pull is because the societal understanding is that that one wrong thing means that they are perpetually going to be doing that one wrong thing forever and ever.
And if we then say, can we look at this? Is it a cycle of behavior over many, many years? What are the therapies and treatments for that? Versus this was one situation and their deepest, darkest moments and they regret it deeply. Well, what is the treatment and the therapy look for that? And we’re able to address each person individually as opposed to this, this blanket statement of guilt and trial by public opinion.
Julia: [00:32:14] So let’s push on this idea of can people change? And let’s just stipulate, let’s just take it as a given, that what you just said is in place. Let’s just take it as a given that we can wave our magic wands and we can declare that all people who have been found to have done wrong things are offered appropriate therapies for their particular flavor of wrongdoing. Exactly how you just articulated.
So let’s just take it as a given that we acknowledge like, okay, there’s this kind of wrongdoing, there’s that kind of wrongdoing, and here’s the therapy that’s available. To what extent, or what percentage of people, or under what circumstances, do you think people say, “Okay, I will take advantage of this therapeutic healing opportunity that’s being presented to me and I will do the hard work to change.”
Jennie: [00:33:15] Me personally, and the idealist in me, says every person. Every person is capable of that, and every person wants that. And my theory is that the, the many, many people that we see who don’t seem to be taking advantage of that and who don’t seem to understand that they have a choice, are conditioned that way because of the, the punitive nature in our society around these issues.
But now we’ve seen particularly since 2016 – 2017 with this rise of the Me Too movement, that there’s no pathway forward. So why would anyone then seek to change? Why would anyone then open up and make themselves vulnerable to those kinds of attacks? And the, the way that we invite people to learn and we invite people to really go, go in, introspective and analyze, why did they end up in this situation? Why are they acting this way? What are the behaviors? The way that we invite people to do that is by normalizing that it’s okay to make that mistake in the first place. Not okay in that there shouldn’t be repercussions and that there shouldn’t be justice served, but that generally you are not an unworthy, evil human being because you’ve made this mistake.
Julia: [00:34:33] Right, right, right, right. And that’s one of – and there’s, you know, we could spend an entire podcast talking specifically about the ingredients of our current culture that are preventing — any opportunity there might be for real change is being prevented, in so much of what’s happening in our current culture.
This seems like as good as any of a moment to talk about Mark Halperin.
For listeners, Mark Halperin is a news — was a newsman, a newscaster, a media figure who was caught up in Me Too allegations. And on the broad spectrum from let’s say Harvey Weinstein, who most people categorize as like, you know, he’s the Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, whatever, those are like the defining worst of the worst.
And then over on the other end, we’ve got maybe like your Al Franken‘s and your Joe Biden‘s, and I don’t know who else is in that category. There’s a couple of movie stars, I think, who’ve been accused of grabbing some side boob in a photograph. That’s kind of on the other end of the conversation.
And Mark Halperin was, I would say, in the middle of those accusations. I don’t believe that he’s been accused by anybody of having raped them, but it was more than just grabbing some side boob. There was some “Hey, come sit on my lap and let me demonstrate to you that I’m aroused by your presence.” Which is pretty gross and kind of extreme. And he was fired.
You had the opportunity to have some pretty in depth conversation with Mark about what has happened with him in the wake of that stuff becoming public. And I should clarify, that you’ve interviewed him publicly. You’ve got full license to talk about him and his story. And what can you say about his process? What can you share with us about what you’ve learned about him specifically and what kind of spotlight or what kind of illumination this throws on the topic as a whole?
Jennie: [00:36:25] In March of last year, March of 2019, he reached out to me after I wrote a piece in the Washington Post where I talked about redemption and I left the door open for redemption for my ex husband. And Mark reached out to me curious, what does that look like? You know how, how, what is that path forward? Because I’m trying to navigate it and I don’t understand. Help me. Teach me what that looks like.
And in getting to know him and in having more conversations with him and in doing all the deep research online of everything that’s ever been accused and everything that’s been said about him, the first thing to say is, he did a lot of it. And he admits it. And it’s like you said, it’s gross skeevy stuff, and he admits it and says that it was gross skeevy stuff and wants to do better and be better. And wants to, in, in whatever way is possible at this point, 10, 12 years after the fact, make amends with the women that he hurt. And is receiving a lot of public backlash and hindrance to even being able to speak in that compassionate way towards his victims.
And what I’ve seen from him is – I guess the reason that I agreed to meet with him, and the reason that I see his case is a little bit different than say, a Harvey Weinstein or, or a Bill Cosby – is the incidents for him were chronic. They were multiple. And they happened years in the past and there haven’t been any since then. Because in his words, in his telling, he acknowledged he had a problem and that this was going to take him down. And so he removed himself from that station and went to therapy.
Now, he didn’t do that publicly and no one ever talked about, you know, this is why he left and there was, and there was penalties on that. So we can talk about the networks enabling this type of behavior in a, in a complete, separate conversation.
But for Mark, that was unique to me because what’s happened with a lot of the people who’ve been accused in the Me Too movement is they’re accused out of nowhere. And, and it’s like they didn’t see it coming. They didn’t acknowledge that they had a problem. And so here’s somebody from four years ago and last year and from 10 years ago, and it’s because they never acknowledged they had a problem. Mark did not acknowledge it publicly that he had a problem, but privately he did and went to therapy and attempted, in the best way that he could at the time, to just pretend like it didn’t happen.
He acknowledges now how insulting that is to the women that he hurt. That he had the privilege to be able to just walk away and do the therapy and pretend like it didn’t happen. And that is why now his, his desire is to be able to share with these women, “I kind of understand and I recognize there’s nothing I can do to take away what I did, but what can I add going forward? How can I be a part of this conversation going forward?”
And that to me is, is an example that I, that we, that we need in this particular movement. There, there haven’t been many who have openly acknowledged, yes, I did these things. I’m sorry I did these things and I’m willing to do the work to understand them better and to be a part of the solution going forward.
Isn’t that what, what the movement is asking for? Isn’t that what we want, is we want a change? The only way we can facilitate that change is to allow former perpetrators to come and teach, this is what you need to know. This is how you get out of it. This is why it’s wrong. And if we don’t allow for that, then we can’t allow for redemption for anybody.
Julia: [00:40:05] And why do you think there is such resistance? Why, why, why do you think that there are so few men that have done that? Why do you think men are so resistant to doing it once it happens? You know, it gets back maybe to my question, you know, can people change?
Like you, I have a bias that I believe people can change. I know that I personally have changed an enormous amount in my life, through many years of therapy. Years ago a cousin said to me, wow, Julia, you have changed more than people change. And that was years ago. I’ve changed a lot since then.
And, and frankly, I spent my entire twenties – I spent 10 years going to therapy twice a week, every week. And at the end of it, my therapist said to me, when you got here, I honestly didn’t think that you would ever get out of what you were in when you came here. So that’s a different way of saying it, but a therapeutic, like certified way of saying, yeah, I changed a fricking lot.
Jennie: [00:41:13] Yeah, you did. You did come out of it. You acknowledged the problem. Internally first, and then stuck through the hard work of changing, of growing, and creating a new future for yourself, a new path for yourself. And I believe that’s, that’s what we want to believe is, is available for everyone.
To the original question as to why men – we’ll say men, since we’re talking about the Me Too movement, and it’s largely been men – why men don’t do that is because there have been systems in place forever that that made them able to not have to take accountability. That you could first of all, normalize misogyny up until probably two years ago that that allowed that kind of behavior and that kind of talk in the workplace. And it, and it wasn’t challenged in any way.
So we’re basically seeing men – generalization – men in society as a whole are finally being asked to question whether or not it’s okay. Why was that okay? Was it really ever okay? And now that you are aware, can you continue to pretend it’s okay going forward? And we need models of men going through that awakening process.
Julia: [00:42:32] Yep. And we have so few of them, but one of – a recent podcast episode, I interviewed a man by the name of Christian Picciolini. And while what he acknowledged and has healed from is not sexual assault, he was a Neo Nazi skinhead and he did a lot of awful things.
And he interestingly says the exact same when I asked him the question, why do you think that you’ve escaped cancel culture? Cause at this point he, his life’s work is about getting – his whole brand is, I used to be a shithead and now I’m a good guy, basically. And he spends his life, his life’s work is helping to get people out of hate movements.
Christian said – what he said was largely what you just said, is that maybe the reason that he escaped cancel culture is because he took responsibility for the bad things that he had done before somebody, quote unquote, caught him.
And I think that’s a lot of what comes up, not just in the context of sexual assault. Another big headline story of somebody doing wrong and now being asked for forgiveness is Michael Cohen, the long time, quote unquote fixer for Donald Trump. He spent 10 years allegedly doing all kinds of illegal things for Donald Trump. And then when he got caught, he flipped. Hard. He went before Congress and testified. I can’t quote him chapter and verse, but he essentially said, I see the light. I have done so many awful and illegal things because I got caught up in this guy Donald Trump, and now I get it. And I’m telling you people that are still mesmerized by him, you got to stop.
And pretty much nobody wanted to give him any credit for that, you know? And what I heard from person after person after person is he’s not sorry, he’s just sorry he got caught. And I think that that – it very much goes to what you’re talking about with Mark. Even though his own process wasn’t terrific, at least he quote unquote caught himself before anybody else caught him.
Jennie: [00:44:34] And I want to challenge that notion that he’s not sorry, he’s only sorry he got caught. Good. Because that means we have a starting point. He acknowledges it was wrong. Even if he’s only sorry that he got caught. That means that we have an entry point for changing the way that he sees things cause we can say, you got caught. That means you knew, you know it was wrong. And perhaps while you were in it, you couldn’t see that they were going to be consequences. Or there were systems in place that were protecting you. But here you are now and you can say, Oh okay, I get it. That was wrong. So let me apologize, let me do what I want to do. But that’s an, that’s an opening. That’s an entry point.
Julia: [00:45:12] Yeah. Except, let me push back on your pushback because I think what people think – they’re, they’re skeptical of him. And they say, no, he doesn’t think it was wrong. He’s SAYING he thought it was wrong because that’s what he thinks he’s got to say to get himself off the hook.
Jennie: [00:45:25] Well, I mean, I don’t want to lose the thread about, how do we acknowledge where someone is truly contrite and where someone is just going through the motions to escape that? And I don’t want to lose that thread because I had the thought about, we’ll say the civil rights movement, when there are people on camera spitting in people’s faces and calling them all sorts of horrible racist names and racist slurs and righteously indignant that they were right in their hatred. Who now in their 60s, 70s are horribly ashamed at that behavior. And yet that exists. Are we going to say that because we have that documented that they couldn’t have grown in the 40-50 years since? That’s, that’s hard to prove.
And I guess what we’re, what we’re in right now is an accelerated movement because we have cell phones, we have recordings, we have videos, we have all the online blogs and tweets that you’ve ever sent. And so there is a record of the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. It’s there.
And I guess what my argument was, wasn’t so much that it didn’t matter if he was really sorry or not. What my argument was, is the more that we can call attention to the fact that people can see that we are holding them accountable – that it is wrong – the more likely it is that someone will do it before they get caught. Or the more likely it is that other people will not cover for them if they see this behavior, or if they know about this behavior.
But that doesn’t shift until we have sort of that maximum load that makes it more desirable to do the quote unquote right thing than it is to deny and try to avoid it. And I truly believe that we are at that tipping point right now.
That the quote that I, that I, we have been often quoted on from an op-ed last year, is we all crave a redemption story. We all want to see people taking ownership of their inadequacies and their mistakes and their sins because we desperately want to believe that we too can be redeemed for our own. And so globally, what I think would be helpful in, in moving this, this life after Me Too movement forward, is showing that you can have a life after Me Too. Because right now if you get accused, you get fired, you get ousted, and then your life stops, that’s really not offering a solution in any way. That’s just saying there’s a consequence.
Well, our criminal justice system says there are consequences, and then there’s rehabilitation. That’s the whole point of our criminal justice system is that people —
Julia: [00:48:07] At least theoretically.
Jennie: [00:48:08] Yes, theoretically. There’s so many problems with that, that we can get into it another time, but the theory is that you do something wrong, there is a consequence – a strict consequence for that behavior – so that we can teach you that there’s a different way to be. And you can now contribute to society effectively, hopefully, maybe even against what it is that you, that you did wrong.
Julia: [00:48:29] So let me ask then, I mean, okay, great. I agree with you. Let’s go do that. Like how, how do we set that up? Because I, it seems to me that it’s not something that the individual can do on his own. His or her, but in this case, almost all of the Me Too perpetrators are men.
Mark is a great example. And there, there have been a number of other notable examples. Matt Lauer tried to quote unquote come back and so did Charlie Rose and they were sort of rejected. Well, Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari have both quote unquote come back, and they’ve pretty much been welcomed. Aziz Ansari is on tour and Louis C.K. is on comedy stages. And there’s rumors that Al Franken wants to run for elected office again, but so far he’s not actually moving on that as far as I know. And so there’s individual men that are trying it, but it does seem like – it’s like there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason in terms of who gets to come back, so to speak, and who doesn’t.
And I actually think that it behooves society. It behooves the system. It behooves any given workplace to decide, this is how we are going to set you up for reentry. Here’s what needs to happen.
Jennie: [00:49:44] These are the criteria that are the bare minimum criteria, that we’re going to allow for. The same way that we would with someone who has an alcoholism or a drug problem being able to reemerge back into the workforce after being, you know, some, some horrible mistake that happens in that way. The same way that we do with delinquent parents, if their children are taken away by child protective services, there is a minimum criteria, and then we say, okay, we want you to be with your family.
Because honestly – though we’ve kind of gone up and down in the roller coaster of emotion in this, in this conversation, my life’s work is that compassion, that forgiveness, that, that opening to redemption. And I have that opening. And I believe that that’s something that everyone is, it’s available to everyone because of all of the opportunities that I’ve had in my life.
And what we need to see going forward are frankly, more people like you and I, who are willing to sit down and have those hard conversations to, to expose and shed light on what it takes to quote unquote change, to truly, repent to, to, to forgive and mean it. To apologize and mean it. And until we have examples of that, there is no playbook.
Julia: [00:51:07] Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, in the course of this podcast, I have had conversations with many people about this exact question. How do we create a container in which redemption, compassion, forgiveness, all that can happen? And over and over again, the answer that comes back is that fundamentally it’s, it’s that is that as soon as we – society or a workplace or whoever it is that is going to do something to hold a perpetrator accountable – becomes soft or gentle or compassionate, that opens the door for being abused all over again. ie, for the perpetrator to say, “sucker! I’m out.”
Over and over and over again through a bunch of different lenses, I’ve talked to people who worked in victims advocacy, who work in women’s equality and workplaces, who work in the law, who work in HR – I’ve, I’ve had many conversations with many people who basically say, well, yeah, it’s all well and good to – the examples that you just listed, Jennie, alcoholics or parents who have been denied access to their kids. Those are all relatively disempowered people within our society. It’s relatively easy for us as a society to clamp down on those people. And, and we can feel pretty confident that as we ease up on restrictions, they’re not going to get away from us, you know?
Whereas we feel the explicit lack of that when what we’re talking about is some of the most powerful people in our society, namely affluent, successful, white men.
And so the question then becomes, how do we actually do it? Within the context of let’s say a company – even though there’s lots of workplaces in which lots of abuse and, and, and harassment happens that are not companies, there’s lots of workplaces, you know, restaurants and even domestic situations – but let’s just take a company, cause that’s where most of the affluent, successful white men hang out is in companies. How do we actually do this?
How can we imagine if — if you and I were writing a blueprint for a company that is open to do this. They’re like, look, we don’t have any active lawsuits so our lawyers are telling us we’ve got just a tiny bit of wiggle room here, but we know there’s some issues. You know, we’ve been doing some surveys of our corporate culture, and we know there’s some people who don’t feel so safe. There’s, there’s some harassy kinds of stuff happening, and we want to nip it in the bud.
What can we recommend to them? Let’s say that some company hired you and me as a consultant to come in and help them fix this situation. What do we actually tell them to do?
Jennie: [00:53:51] The situation can only be fixed from an individual level. And it’s not like a cookie cutter thing where this is the policy that we have and therefore it’s going to work for every person. You find the one person that is quote unquote problematic and you sit down with that person. The onus is not on the victim to to shift their understanding or to shift the cultural understanding of what’s happening.
The onus is on the, the people who are close with that person to then point out what is problematic with this behavior. And then that brings a light on something bigger, which is the systemic things that then protect – as you’re describing – white, privileged, cisgendered males, powerful men. There’s so many systems in place that protect them that are ingrained societally.
And what we’re seeing now, thankfully, is the, the awareness that that’s not the only paradigm that exists. The, the power of women’s voices now being brought to the table to say, Hey, that’s not exactly how things play out. But also we have like, we have cancel culture for a reason. And that is because it originated on Twitter. We now have a space where minority voices or disenfranchised voices have a platform to speak and say, this is not okay. And that’s what we need to do is continually have the people saying, this is not okay to the perpetrator, to the person who is doing it.
And each time you have these individual conversations, each time someone like you or I is willing to be really uncomfortable, to be hated, to be judged and attacked for standing for someone, the more likely it is that we’re going to be able to shift the societal opinion of it.
In a panel that I did a month or so ago – well before the coronavirus, so a couple of months ago – one of the things came up about cancel culture is that there are so few companies, executives, maybe comparable sister companies, that are willing to stick their neck out for someone when they’re cancelled – a celebrity or a spokesperson or something – that are willing to do that for fear of the backlash on them.
And I guess what I’m saying is I am willing to be that voice and I am willing to take on that backlash because I believe — no I know, that compassion and the openness and the acceptance of this full and dynamic spectrum of human experience is so much more powerful than anything anyone could throw at me.
Julia: [00:56:29] That sounds like a wonderful way to move towards wrapping up this conversation. Gosh, it’s been wonderful to talk to you, Jennie. You’re just a, a dynamic, powerful, strong voice. And, and it’s, it’s, the alchemy of all that you’ve been through.
Jennie: [00:56:52] That’s, that’s exactly what it is. That I, I have had enough experiences in my life that now I have no fear in using and speaking the truth that I know it to be true, which is that we are all on equal playing fields when it comes to being worthy of our experience here.
Julia: [00:57:09] Yeah, yeah. And while this conversation is coming to a close here, I trust that this will not be our last conversation. Listeners to the podcast might have you back again. And in other ways, the conversation I hope will continue.
Jennie: [00:57:23] Thank you. Me too. I hope so.
Conclusion + Links
Julia: And there you have it. Another episode in the can. Jennie Willoughby. Wow. What a powerful voice that woman is. “Compassion and openness are so much more powerful than anything anyone can throw at me.” Yes. That one is a quote for the quote board. I tell you what.
I hope that you loved this episode. There are a couple of links in the show notes that you might want to follow.
First of all, if you want to know more about Mark Helprin, there is a post about him on the Solving Me Too website. It’s not an editorial; rather, it is a collection – a curation, if you will – of all the journalism that has been published about him. And more importantly, we have found as many of the women as we could and posted their stories in their own words on the site. So you can read for yourself what they had to say along, with his responses, and determine for yourself what you believe. Or, who you believe.
Because all too often, people make a judgment about women making sexual allegations without even listening to the women’s stories. And that is a grave injustice. So to make it really easy for you to listen to what the women have to say, we have put all of their stories in one place.
You’ll notice that Mark Helprin isn’t the only one that we’ve done, not by a long shot. We’ve got stories about a few dozen of the men who have been publicly accused and it’s a work in progress. It’s a Herculean task. We’re adding more every week. So if you keep on coming back, you will keep seeing more of these profiles.
And there is a link to the post about Mark Helprin in the show notes, or you can also find it by going to the website, SolvingMeToo.com. From there, you want to click on the tab called perpetrators in the news, and then scroll down on that page to the Media section and click on his picture.
And of course the second link that might be of interest to you is Jennie’s performance, the one that we talked about in the episode. Which she gave at a fundraiser for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in October, 2019.
The performance was two incredible vocal performances as bookends to a reading of her viral blog post, Why I Stayed, which of course is the blog post that she read for us live today. But having it bookended by those two songs? Wow. As we talked about, it was a, you know, break you open kind of an experience. So if you’re looking for that kind of an emotional catharsis, be sure to check out that video, which is available on YouTube and the link is in the show notes.
And as always, if you want to let us know what you think about this episode or any of our others, we are on all the socials. We are on Facebook. We are on Twitter. We are on LinkedIn. Not so much with the Instagram, not just yet. Yours truly hasn’t quite figured that platform out yet. I’m not exactly an early adopter. It’s only been five years. Why should I be on Instagram? I mean, we are there, but not active.
But wherever you want to have a conversation with us, if you want to add a hashtag to your message, it’s either #SolvingMeToo or #TheSMTPodcast.
And finally, if you just want to send us a good old fashioned email, you can do that firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you are having a great coronavirus quarantine May. Wherever you are in the country or in the world, you might be opening up, you might be staying put, but whatever you’re doing, I hope that you and your family are safe and healthy.
And please do join us back here again in a couple of weeks for our next episode.