In a candid interview, Jeff Herman, the Florida lawyer suing director Bryan Singer and other Hollywood power players, reveals his own, very personal experiences of sexual abuse.
When Jeff Herman sees a child held by their arms and legs it is, as he puts it, “an uncomfortable trigger. I have some vague memories of being very young, and there were two older girls holding me by my arms and legs, and they had cut my pants open.” The lawyer has tried to remember more, but cannot.
Herman, 54, is mulling my question about whether he has been sexually abused. He doesn’t know for sure, he says. If he sees a child held in such a way now, it gives him “an icky feeling.”
But there are other memories he will tell me about, as well as revealing that his older sister, who he asks remains unnamed, was sexually abused when a girl by their grandfather. He had known about it, although she had not told him directly until five years ago, when they sat down “with a bottle of Scotch” and talked properly. “I didn’t want to know the details,” Herman says, “shame on me. I didn’t want my image of my grandfather ruined.”
Herman is one of America’s most high-profile and controversial lawyers of the moment. He is suing “X-Men” director Bryan Singer and three other Hollywood power-players for the alleged sexual assault of two clients. Michael Egan claims he was drugged, threatened and forcibly sodomized as a 15-year-old boy. Over the weekend, The Daily Beast exclusively reported Herman’s second suit: an anonymous British man alleges that as a teenager he was sexually assaulted—among other things—by Singer and Broadway producer Gary Goddard.
The defendants strenuously deny the allegations, and say Herman is a publicity-courting grandstander, low on actual evidence, and seeking to “shake down” the accused in public. Of the second suit, Herman said: “The allegations highlight the insidious nature of child sexual abuse, which forces victims to suffer in silence. I am proud to give this brave young man a voice.”
Herman has litigated around 800 cases involving sexual abuse, he told me. He believes in being a “voice for victims,” and he has taken on some powerful institutions: the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and now Hollywood.
Last week, he told The Daily Beast that he had uncovered “another sex ring” there, involving agents for child actors. Directors, actors, and other industry players are also implicated, he added. He will file suits in the matter soon. But first he must see the Singer suits to their conclusion.
It feels a long way from Herman’s office in Boca Raton, Florida, to Hollywood. Herman Law is a bland office building on the side of a highway, with not much around it. In its spartan reception area are framed articles of Herman in Forbes magazine, another of an early case he won involving an abusive child-day-care worker, and a spread from People magazine about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash; Herman had represented five men who accused Clash of underage sex abuse. (All but one of the men’s cases has been dismissed.)
On his office desk is a stress-relieving baseball. On the wall is a fearsomely complicated mind-map, showing how damages’ sums can be calculated, which is really a multi-linked exposition of how abuse can damage a victim.
There is a “war-room” where Herman crafts cases, the rooms of other investigators researching cases with whiteboards of names I am not allowed to look at, and beside the office’s reception area, a sparsely furnished room with a little sofa with a giant soft toy on it, and alongside that a blackboard, on which is drawn a child-like image of a dinosaur.
This is the “kid interview room” where Herman Law’s youngest alleged victims tell their stories. It feels airless and a little creepy, which is perhaps inevitable given its purpose: This is where children are supposed to elicit their worse secrets. “I want to empower kids, so when they give their statements, it’s a helpful, healing thing, not a scary thing,” says Herman. He encourages them to draw timelines, and instead of “freaking out” if the child says they have been touched on their genitals, he says you should ask them how they feel and what happened next.
“You have to handle information in a positive way that’s going to be empowering for a child,” Herman says. “Kids love coming here and kids love coming back here,” he insists, mimicking one, ‘I want to go see my lawyer and tell him what happened, ’cause it feels so good.’”
Herman is silver-haired, thinning on top, and as brawnily compact as you’d expect from a keen school-age wrestler. He’s got four children, aged 11, 13, 17, and 18—two boys and two girls from two now-ended marriages. He grew up, comfortably and happily he says, in an upper middle-class family, in Ohio. (Well, it seemed happy: he learned of his sister’s sexual abuse later.) He always wanted to be a lawyer. His father owned a steel company, and Herman recalls one summer working in one of the steel mills. “I had to wear a respirator and double-soled boots, or they’d melt.” He smiles. “I did that for summer and thought, ‘OK, I’m going to law school.’”
Herman says he was “always the protector, always the guy looking out for the underdog,” standing up to a bully who used anti-Semitic insults against his younger brother at school (“I picked that guy up and threw him in the dumpster”), and becoming a friend and guardian to a disabled girl who was picked on. His great-grandmother’s brother was Leon Trotsky, who stayed at the family’s home in the 1920s and left with a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.
Herman developed his own landscaping business while in high school. At law school he thought about becoming an entertainment lawyer, until he saw some of the profession at work in Los Angeles, which made him realize it didn’t interest him—now, of course, he is set dead-against the Hollywood legal establishment.
Herman was working as a commercial litigator when, in 1997, he was asked by someone to get involved in the case of a parent whose child had been sexually abused at a school. “I was horrified. It turned out the school had hired a convicted pedophile and didn’t do a background check. It really hit home for me. The families, whose kids were autistic, had nowhere to turn: The pedophile had fled the country. The moms were devastated at not just what had happened to their kids, but that he was now out there abusing other kids.” He clearly builds a close rapport with his clients: They call him at all hours of the day and night, he says.
Herman did “a lot of learning and forensic training” and now trains investigators himself. “It felt like a life calling,” Herman says, checking himself before adding, “That sounds…whatever…but it was, and it really became so important for me that I felt like I had a responsibility to go out there and protect kids who don’t have a voice.” His practice was built on suing the Archdiocese of Miami in a raft of clergy sex-abuse cases, which reported in 2008 it had paid out $21.3 million in settlements, the majority of the money going to Herman’s clients.
Yet five years ago, Herman reveals, he had had enough and thought about quitting. “I couldn’t take it any more. I was feeling physically ill, hearing these stories every day. But I have to hear it.” One “really dark” case had affected him, of two toddler-brothers who had been forcibly sodomized and orally raped. “They were so helpless, it really got to me. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I thought, ‘I can’t take this. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this any more.’ Even though it was rewarding, it became such a heavy burden.”
It wasn’t Herman’s only difficult professional period. He was suspended from practice for 18 months in 2009, having been found to have acted “dishonestly” after investing in and ultimately controlling a company that went into business in competition with a client.
“Herman shall accept no new business until he is reinstated to the practice of law in Florida,” the Florida Supreme Court wrote in its 20-page opinion of the case. Reports from the time show Herman was judged to have violated the Florida Bar’s conflict of interest rules when he started up an aviation company in the late 1990s that directly competed with a client in the same business, without disclosing it.
The client, Aero Controls of Seattle, sued Herman and his law firm. After a 2005 out-of-court settlement, Aero filed an ethics complaint against Herman with the Florida Bar. ‘'His failure to disclose was dishonest and deceitful,” the judge wrote in his report. The judge recommended a three-month suspension, but the Florida Bar imposed a suspension that was six times longer, and further ordered that Herman pay $11,741 in legal costs.
The case has been cited by Herman’s legal opponents in the Singer suits. “It’s on the public record, and it’s all fair if they think it's relevant,” Herman says. “To try to attack my credibility, it is what it is, it’s a fact. I never denied I made an investment in a company. I didn’t think I needed a waiver, the Bar said I did. It’s obviously not relevant in court now. The defendants are trying to save their reputations, and they are entitled to do whatever they want. I don’t think it helps them. Every time I hear this pushback from defendants, I hear from more victims.”
Herman returned to work in 2011 and tackled the sex-abuse cases with renewed zeal. He didn’t always win, most notably in representing the alleged victims of Elmo puppeteer Clash. Five men had claimed they had been sexually abused by Clash when underage, but the cases were dismissed last year because the statute of limitations had run out. One more case is still outstanding.
At the time, Clash’s attorney said: “As we have maintained all along, our goal has been to put these spurious claims behind him, so that Kevin can go about the business of reclaiming his personal life and his professional standing…The judge’s decision to dismiss and close the three lawsuits is an important step in that direction. Kevin is looking forward to a time in the near future when he can tell his story free of innuendo and false claims.”
When I mention the failure of the cases, Herman gives an unexpected response. “What do you mean I didn’t win?” he asks. “I give my clients a voice. That was a win for them. I win by filing. It’s about taking back power and control and standing up for yourself as a victim.”
Herman says this heartily, even if it sounds absurd. Surely if a ruling goes against him, that shows—for whatever reason—that Herman’s case wasn’t strong enough. Herman still holds out hope that one more case, filed in Pennsylvania—which has a longer statute of limitations—rather than Manhattan may go the accuser’s way.
Unsurprisingly, working in such an emotionally charged field, Herman amasses nemeses. Marty Singer, Bryan Singer’s lawyer, has accused him of “reckless and irresponsible” conduct in the Egan case. He says he still hasn’t been served with a copy of the complaint (Herman Law says this is nothing more than an administrative matter.)
“Clearly, Mr. Herman doesn’t want to litigate this case,” Singer has said. “He just wants to host press conferences and issue press releases for the media. This is nothing more than an effort to ruin Bryan’s career and reputation, which he has worked so hard to establish. It’s clear that Mr. Herman is using these lawsuits as an opportunity to promote himself and his law firm.”
Herman’s 2009 suspension, said Singer, indicated his “reputation for honesty as an attorney leaves a lot to be desired.”
Like Singer, the Catholic Church in Miami also criticized Herman’s parading of accusations in front of the cameras. In 2012, after a press conference in which Herman had named a pastor as the abuser of a 16-year-old boy, Mary Ross Agosta, the archdiocese’s communications director, said: “When the news media cover these Jeff Herman press conferences, they do not come away with the full truth. They are either not asking follow-up questions or Jeff Herman is not revealing any details.” She accused Herman of “manipulating the media.”
Is Herman a fame whore, grandstanding at these press conferences? “Is there another word for it?” he asks, askance at my use of the term. “I don’t mind it, I don’t get nervous. I make my livelihood doing this. We absolutely have to market ourselves. It’s a win-win for me.” He freely admits to being “opportunistic”; he gives the press conferences so publicly because more publicity means, he hopes, more victims coming forward, and because it brings something more fundamental into the open—the alleged abuse having been carried out in private, and the shame felt by the victim also felt acutely privately.
But the accusatory pressers put Herman in the position of publicly humiliating someone who has not been convicted—or even arrested—for a crime. There’s no due process to prove these men are predators; just Herman’s say-so. The lawyer doesn’t seem to countenance the possible innocence of some of the accused perpetrators he names in front of cameras. But, he insisted to me, he didn’t make accusations lightly, or to just make headlines. “The last thing I want to do is file a frivolous case,” says Herman. “It’s certainly unfair to accuse a perpetrator and it discredits other victims.”
Healing, Herman, says, doesn’t begin until a victim has fully disclosed what happened to them; to that end he gently but firmly gets them to break down their movements around any incident, moment by moment. He seems to relish taking on organizations or institutions like the Catholic Church or Hollywood, I say. “The similarity in all the cases is people looking the other way because they’re scared. My message is all about making it safe for adults to protect kids.”
Hollywood’s silence, Herman says, works brutally simply, because people are scared for their jobs. “If you speak you get crushed.” He says he knows there are PR campaigns being waged against him, and he gets calls suggesting he might be being followed. “I say, ‘Where to?’ To my son’s lacrosse game, or my daughter’s dance recital? I’m not worried about anything.”
Parenthood is the most important thing to him, Herman says. He is “extraordinarily close” to his children, and tries—despite his day job—-not to be too over-protective. However, he says that that when he goes into a room he can spot a predator. “It’s a little scary sometimes. You see the way people interact with kids, there are these red flags. We all have this innate ability to sense danger.” He tells parents to go with their gut: “If someone makes them feel uncomfortable, take them out of your kid’s life. What’s worse? You insult somebody, but if you don’t you’re wrong and your kid could be abused.”
Isn’t this approach in danger of seeing abuse where it doesn’t exist? Of encouraging paranoia about adults being around children? Herman shakes his head. “I’m just saying go with your gut, go with caution.” He has even produced an app, which is a quiz for adults and children, aimed at identifying likely abusers. “You should never leave your kids, below a certain age, alone with an adult male. 90 per cent of adult predators are male.” But not all males are predators: again, this sounds uncomfortably blanket and paranoid. Herman also says: “No parent wants to see their child abused,” which surprises me, because some parents do abuse their children and surely he must have seen that.
As we eat a sandwich-lunch in his office, Herman again turns to the sexual assault he has experienced more personally.
“So, I was assaulted when I was in law school in a men’s room, It was the weirdest thing. In a stall.” He pauses. “When I look back and think about why I am motivated about cases, a couple of things hit home for me.”
Another pause. “I’ve never reflected like this,” he says. He recalls that when he was 10 years old his mother told him a story about a little boy being molested in a bathroom. “He was raped. It scared the crap out of me. It was so horrific. I think she was telling me to be careful. That story stuck with me. I felt so bad for this boy, how helpless he was. And it affected me.”
He switches back to his own assault. He was in a mall with his mother and sister in Cleveland. It was Hallowe’en. He went to the bathroom, which was crowded. He entered a stall. Suddenly next to him, coming from under the partition, was someone’s hand. First he thought the person might have wanted to borrow some toilet paper. “I was trying to figure out what to do. The hand started to come up towards me, and scared the crap out of me. I stand up and it grabs my leg. Now I’m in shock. So I stand up on the toilet and the guy drops down on the floor and the hand is coming up to me.”
Herman left the stall and went into the bathroom’s main area. He looked at himself in the mirror, and wondered why he was afraid: “I was a big guy.” He was waiting for the man to exit the neighboring stall, feeling ever more riled, when he decided to kick the door down.
“The guy was sitting on the toilet with his shirt off, pants down, masturbating. I just went at him. I just beat the crap out of him, really just to teach him a lesson or whatever. I ended up bringing him out in a headlock to find the police. People were screaming because there was blood everywhere, he was begging ‘Let me go,’ and I did and he just ran off.”
You know that some of the people that go to public bathrooms looking for sex are lonely, withdrawn, I say, thinking about the terror the man must have felt to have been set upon, especially in such humiliating circumstances.
“Well, he grabbed me,” says Herman. “There was no question I was being assaulted. It shook me up.” I wonder if he thought about the other guy. “The perp [perpetrator]?” Herman says. “Well, not then, but I think about it now, why perps behave in the way they do. It’s sad. This wasn’t two people engaging in consensual sex. He grabbed me.”
As he beat the man up, Herman says his mind was on “that 10-year-old boy, who that was, I could have been that little boy, what if I was that little boy?” Herman wasn’t fired by the anger of the assault on himself, it seems. “Right, it was what happened to that little boy.” I ask if the ferocity of his violent outburst surprised him and he says yes, it did.
Herman’s grandfather didn’t just abuse his sister, but other relatives too, Herman tells me; they formed an informal support group to help one another. A difficult conversation was the one Herman had on his sister’s behalf with their mother, whose father was responsible for the abuse.
“I understand when people are afraid to tell parents,” Herman says. “You don’t know what they know. You’re afraid of what they know, or afraid what you might tell them is hurtful for them. You either have, ‘What do you mean, you knew?’ or ‘I didn’t know, I failed to protect you.’ My only concern was to free my sister, and that happened.”
As to whether Herman thinks his grandfather may have abused him, he says, “Not in my conscious memory, although I suppose anything is possible when you’re young enough. It’s enough for me that it happened to my sister. I idolized him when I was growing up. He was a bigger-than-life kind of man. When my sister told me what he did it was devastating. I had seen it so much from the outside, I really understood then how hard it was for people to accuse someone who everyone loves and respects. I didn’t want to believe it or hear it.”
The actual event underpinning his fragmented memory of being held by his arms and legs and having his pants cut still eludes him. “I would like to know [what happened]. I’ve tried, put some effort into trying to remember but I don’t. I think it’s important to know for people.” He has “no idea” if the fullness of the memory will ever materialize.
Herman shows me a military-style gold-hued medal he gives to clients: one side says, “Tribute To Survivors From Jeff Herman,” the other “Healing Begins With Empowerment,” with a scales of justice labeled on each side, “Courage,” “Bravery,” and “Justice.” The medal seems a little weird, hokey and over-the-top, but Herman sees it as an affirmation for those who have been abused and their bravery in coming forward.
His one-issue focus is, from the outside, admirable, but I ask if he ever worries a client is lying, maliciously or not. “The answer is yes. That’s the feeling I operate under when every client walks in.” This is interesting, because as much as he is a zealous advocate for victims, taking their side absolutely and shaming his accused in public, he is a lawyer first. Only a handful of his 800 or so cases have been lies, he tells me. But still: with a subject as toxic as sex abuse, every lie can result in a life poisoned. Sometimes, he says, the victims are so damaged by their experiences their testimonies are undermined.
Before I head into the cloying Florida heat, as we stand in the unnerving “kid interview room,” Herman tells me of a little girl who had been abused. “The perp would wake her up. She used to see monsters in the mirror, someone coming up at her from behind. Her mother had to put sheets over the mirror.” The case went to trial, the “perp” was successfully prosecuted. “Six months later, the mother told me the little girl didn’t see monsters any more.”
We look at the cuddly toy and blackboard with its dinosaur. “That’s the rewarding stuff,” says Herman.