The Jonah Hill Texting Controversy Isn’t About Jonah Hill at All

“This is a warning to all girls,” Sarah Brady wrote on Instagram Stories. “If your partner is talking to you like this, make an exit plan.” The professional surfer accompanied her warning with a series of screenshotted text messages seemingly demanding that she delete photos of herself wearing a bathing suit from Instagram. The alleged sender? Her very famous ex-boyfriend, Jonah Hill.

Further screenshots appeared to show Hill telling Brady to stop modeling, surfing with men, and maintaining friendships with women in “unstable places,” among other things. The revelatory messages, posted on July 8, immediately went viral (transcripts of them are available on Newsweek). Some onlookers were dismayed to learn that their favorite, awkwardly endearing leading man seemed like an inconsiderate, controlling partner. Others cited Hill’s messages as examples of emotional abuse. And others defended his behavior as self-preservation, an example of clear boundary-setting.

Online, the divide is clear: Hill is either an irredeemable abuser or the unwitting victim of “cancel culture” whose private communications were aired on the internet. But Hill’s reputation shouldn’t be the takeaway here. “Most people have good parts and bad parts,” says Rebecca Berger, a licensed clinical psychologist and the clinical director at Mindwell, a therapy practice in New York City. “If we focus on whether or not a person is good or bad, we lose sight of the meaning of their behavior: How did this develop? What’s the function of this behavior? What’s the impact it has on somebody else?”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines emotional abuse as non-physical behaviors meant to control, isolate, frighten, or belittle someone. This sort of abuse can be obvious (yelling and name-calling) or subtle (acting jealous of a partner’s friends). “Common outcomes of [emotional abuse] include diminished self-worth, increased depression, and anxiety,” Berger says. “Based on Sarah’s reports about what her own experience has been over the past year, it sounds like she did experience some of those consequences.”

On subsequent Instagram Stories, Brady described Hill as emotionally abusive and detailed the effects of his alleged behavior: In addition to controlling her friendships and online presence, according to Brady, Hill had her turn down jobs and “ruined” a photoshoot that she produced for surfwear brand Seaa. The pair eventually split in 2022, leaving Brady to process their approximately one-year-long relationship. “It’s been a year of healing and growth with the help of loved ones and doctors to get back to living my life without guilt, shame and self-judgment for things as small as surfing in a swimsuit rather than a more conservative wetsuit,” she wrote online.

Still, a certain corner of the internet jumped to defend Hill, arguing that his texts were innocuous and simply stated his wants in a partner. Others parroted an assertion Hill made in several messages to Brady: That he was setting boundaries for their relationship. But according to Berger, a boundary is meant to clarify the limits of one’s own comfort — not somebody else’s. “It’s a conversation that furthers equity and can enhance closeness,” she says. “[Boundaries] are not intended to be punitive.”

Diana Baik, a licensed master social worker at Avita Psychological Care, adds that reciprocity is key to boundary-setting. “It includes a willingness to listen and compromise with the other person. We don’t have the full context of the conversations but based on what we’ve seen, that mutuality seems to be missing.”

Mary Dobson, a licensed marital and family therapist, clarifies that there’s nothing inherently wrong with sharing discomfort and vulnerability in a relationship. However, she and Berger recommend sticking to “I” statements when discussing these concerns. “It’s acceptable to say, ‘This behavior makes me uncomfortable and I wish it didn’t,’ or, ‘I wish I could avoid this feeling of discomfort,’” Dobson says. “It’s another thing entirely to say, ‘This behavior makes me uncomfortable and because I’m uncomfortable, you need to alter your behavior in a way that gives me a feeling of comfort.’”

Hill’s text messages raise other red flags. Both Berger and Baik cite his judgmental statements about Brady’s friends as a cause for concern. “Judging or degrading people’s loved ones can lead to their partner feeling more socially isolated and avoiding their loved ones,” Berger says. In serious circumstances, it can push people to abandon their entire support network, leading them to rely solely on their partner. “A healthy relationship is like a Venn diagram: There’s a part in the middle that overlaps, and there are parts that don’t. We want to encourage that… [it] helps stabilize a relationship and create longevity. That’s not something I observe reading the text messages.”

To Dobson, “the power and economic imbalance” between Hill, a wealthy celebrity, and Brady, relatively unknown at the time of their relationship, is another red flag. “His tone with her implies superiority and is pedantic, patronizing, dismissive, and ridiculing,” she says. “His knowledge of his celebrity and status comes as entitlement and expectation that she will cater to his wishes.” Dobson also references a text message in which Hill offers to pay for Brady’s therapy. “Sarah’s financial dependence on Jonah is a power differential. She may have been beholden to him more likely to acquiesce to his demands because he was helping her.”

Then there’s the question of therapy-speak. Throughout his messages, Hill throws around terms like “triggering” and “trauma,” words that serve a clinical purpose for mental health professionals. Whether or not Hill “weaponized” these therapy-centric terms — a phenomenon that Berger defines as “using psychological phrases to appear like an expert and exert control over the outcome of a situation” — comes down to his intention, which is difficult to determine based on the limited material Brady posted. However, Berger offers the following: “The more therapy-speak, the more insightful language, the more emotional language somebody uses, the trickier it becomes to identify it as invalidation.”

Dobson adds that there’s a distinction between attending therapy – something Hill explores in his documentary Stutz – and being a mental health expert. “His experience as a longtime therapy patient does not qualify him as a therapist himself.” she says. “He’s certainly not [Brady’s] therapist.”

Breaking the silence surrounding abuse can be key to opening up conversations on violence, both physical and non-physical (just look at the cultural shift #MeToo prompted). It can validate the experiences of other survivors, and even push them to seek help. On one of Brady’s Instagram posts, mental health advocate Amy Knelson, a former ESPN reporter, commented: “I have a similar story with a former [very] public-facing partner. Emotional abuse is crippling; I almost lost my life to it. You have no idea how much your story makes those of us feel seen.”

Online, Brady stated that keeping her experience with Hill to herself was “causing more damage” to her mental health “than sharing it could ever do.” Unsurprisingly, her decision to make Hill’s messages public swiftly garnered criticism — both from far-right commentators and members of the literati left. When asked if this criticism was warranted, Berger demurs. “As a psychologist, it’s my job to comment on things I can observe myself. I have no way of observing what [Brady’s] internal experience has been… so I think it would be unfair to offer too sure of a take on this,” she says. “The internet can be a brutal place. I would guess that she has gotten some of what she needs [by sharing publicly], but she’s also probably gotten a lot of what she doesn’t.”

Instead of demonizing Brady or Hill, Berger hopes that onlookers can adopt a more nuanced view. “It’s our natural inclination as human beings to be all or nothing. I can’t tell you how much of my work in therapy is busting that myth that everything is black or white,” she says. “[Somebody we love] may have wonderful attributes and they still may not treat us well — they still may engage in things that make us feel small or disrespected or unsafe.” Ultimately, Berger urges us to take a closer look at our own relationships. “Look at yourself: How do you feel in this relationship? That is the biggest tell – not how you feel about the other person, not what other people are saying,” she says. “It’s almost always the case that we do not feel good about ourselves in a relationship when the relationship is problematic.”

If you or someone you know is being emotionally abused, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers anonymous help by phone, text, and online chat 24/7. Additional resources can be found at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Love Is Respect, Safe Horizon, and Crisis Text Line.