By this point, we all know that Jonah Hill has been to therapy, right? He has, after all, made a whole Netflix documentary about it. In Stutz, Hill reveals his struggles with his mental health. As a result, the actor has embraced a seemingly faith-based, un-empirical mode of therapisation that most accredited psychotherapists would steer clear of. His therapist, Dr Stutz (who happens to be quite famous in his own right), is well-known for using methods that fall outside the borders of research-led practice.
In the last few years, we as a culture have developed an intense obsession with individualistic wellbeing, putting the act of going to therapy on an untouchable pedestal. No matter the nuances of the problem you are dealing with, regardless of your mental state or receptivity—supposedly, therapy is the medicine that can cure any ailment.
The problem with this is that it ignores that therapy can go wrong.
In Hill’s documentary, Stutz and Hill demonstrate an extraordinary rapport. They swear at each another frequently, and in one instance, Stutz jokingly tells Hill to “shut up and listen to what I say”.
In the capacity of friendship, you care deeply and personally about someone. You feel great empathy for them. When they go through something painful, you do what you can to take that pain away.
What you usually don’t—and can’t—do, is maintain professional objectivity on their problems. In your eyes, your friend is a good person. Their shortcomings are glazed over, while transgressions against them are magnified. Even when they are wrong, your friend is always a little bit right.
A good therapist needs to understand you and care for you, yes, but they also need to maintain a professional distance
Psychotherapists, on the other hand, are not invested in their patients being good people—only in getting them healthy. A good therapist needs to understand you and care for you, yes, but they also need to be able to maintain a professional distance.
What happens, then, when a therapist becomes a friend?
A string of alleged text messages between Jonah Hill and his ex-girlfriend, professional surfer Sarah Brady, seemingly reveals the answer to this question. In these messages, which Brady released on her social media in the past week, Hill appears to instruct her to take down photos and videos of herself from her own social media page in which she appears in a swimsuit.
The way he appears to do this is especially troubling. With the use of a loaded term like ‘boundaries’, Hill yields therapeutic language—no doubt learnt from his pursuit of perfect mental health, which has also become his personal brand—as a means with which to manipulate his partner.
Even if you were to ignore the misogynistic overtones of wanting desperately to control what a woman wears and posts on social media, Hill’s demands still seem ludicrous. Brady is—in case it bears repeating—a professional surfer. A swimsuit, ostensibly, is her work uniform. Don’t forget, Hill is famously a self-fashioned feminist.
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In one of these text exchanges, Hill points out specific photos and videos he wants Brady to remove from her Instagram. In response, Brady says: “3 removed, not the video yet, it is my best surfing video. Would you feel better if the cover frame was different? Any more specific ones that bother you?” Hill replies: “Yes one that isn’t your ass in a thong. And as far as other pictures you in a bathing suit surfing or not [sic]”
Fans defending Hill’s behaviour have argued that since he communicated his needs to Brady clearly, he has done nothing wrong. This line of thinking reminds me of one of the most common (and, coincidentally, worst) pieces of advice I have heard self-proclaimed relationship coaches swear by—communication is key.
Beyond its banality, what is most bothersome about that statement is its sore lack of specificity. It needs an adjective, a descriptor, any sort of modifier that would detail what sort of communication makes a relationship stronger and healthier. Conversely, it fails to recognise that communication—especially when hardened with the cold logic of therapy-speak—can harm not only the relationship, but also the individual people operating within it.
At the time of their relationship, Hill was 38 years old, while Brady was 25. (This is a fact that clearly bore weight in their dynamic, since, in one of his texts, Hill asks her not to “use the 25 card”.) He was, and remains, an actor in Hollywood with enormous fame, wealth and power. She was, and seemingly remains, a student and surfer interested in modelling.
These were the facts when Hill entered into a romantic relationship with Brady. If her lifestyle and choices (which clearly, were on the surface, since Brady’s swimsuit pictures were what Hill first responded to before they started dating) were not what he was looking for in a partner, he had ample time to change his mind about dating her. Instead, he decided to try and change Brady to fit his requirements instead.
Intentionally or not, Hill used coercive control tactics disguised as boundaries to push Brady into doing things she clearly did not agree with. He demeaned her choices and aspirations, reminding her that if she wants a good life (which equates to a life with him), she needed to give up her petty modelling dreams and stop giving her attention to friends he doesn’t approve of.
These are just his boundaries, Hill insists, no pressure. Brady is free to decide if she wants to honour them or not. Of course, refusing to abide by his instructions—sorry, boundaries—would mean that they would break up, and they would be breaking up primarily because of Brady, since she would have failed to fulfil the basic expectation of respecting her partner’s ‘boundaries.’ But sure, no pressure.
Ultimately, Hill’s ‘boundaries’ were about far more than a few bikini pictures on Instagram. His boundaries came at the cost of Brady’s autonomy—her agency over her body, her voice with which to share her perspective, and her control over the way she interacted with the world. No matter how clearly he articulated them, they could not have been part of a healthy relationship between equal partners. And sometimes, it takes a therapist who doesn’t also happen to be your friend to tell you that.