“Words have power,” reads the statement from the family of Mean Girls executive producer Jill Messick. “Seeing her name in headlines again and again...along with Harvey [Weinstein]’s desperate attempt to vindicate himself was devastating for her.”
Messick, who managed Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan in the late ‘90s, was reportedly bereft over press accounts and resulting online shaming that portrayed her as a kind of predatory and complicit villain.
The reality, her family and friends say, was so far from it. But Messick never spoke out. She suffered silently. She never wanted any of this.
Instead, the mother of two and Hollywood veteran—a woman Tina Fey describes as “fiercely dedicated,” “kind” and “instrumental in helping Mean Girls get to the screen”—agonized in private as Weinstein publicly released an email from her in an attempt to clear his own name.
Indeed, Messick chose to be silent as she anguished over mistruths being spread about her because, her family said, she did not want to hurt the justice being sought within the #MeToo movement by publicly challenging any alleged victim of Weinstein’s, no matter what.
Suffering from both depression and bipolar disorder, Messick’s family also said she suffered as the victim of “our new culture of unlimited information sharing,” “slanderous statements” that “sullied” and left her unable to “set the record straight” as she was wrongly positioned as a kind of anti-feminist predatory villain in league with the disgraced Weinstein. The reality, her family claims, was so far from it—and that disparity ultimately “broke” her spirit.
This week, she took her own life at the age of 50.
Of course, no one “causes” a suicide. But the social-mob vitriol directed at Messick, and the unspeakably damaging psychological toll it took upon her cannot be encouraged within the #MeToo movement. It cannot be ignored the way that a blood-curdling scream within the hollowed-out space of an echo chamber cannot be ignored.
Let’s listen if we can.
“Cady, there are two kinds of evil people,” the social-outcast character Janis (Lizzy Caplan) tells Cady (Lindsay Lohan) in the beginning of Mean Girls as she tries to explain the complicated morality of mob-style character assassination she experienced at the hands of the movie’s queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams). “People who do evil stuff, and people who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.”
Reading the reaction to Messick’s suicide is stunning. There appears to be a sort of agony lurking beneath the kneejerk assignation of blame and choosing of sides—a sort of speechless, frustrated desperation to begin a conversation about the “evil stuff being done” in the name of fighting evil—and how we can stop doing that. “If your response to this is yelling about who’s to blame and slinging more mud around, then i don’t think you actually read the statement from Jill Messick’s family,” tweeted the author Britt Hayes. “You should probably do that now.”
The Messick family’s blistering statement is worth reading in full at The Hollywood Reporter, but it begins with a shot aimed at anyone who tried to position the beloved family member as somehow hurting or against “The Reckoning” currently underway in Hollywood and multiple other industries since Weinstein’s downfall first began in October.
“‘The Movement’ just lost one of its own,” the statement begins. “Jill Messick was a mother of two children, a loving wife and partner, a dear friend to many and a smart entertainment executive. She was also a survivor, privately battling depression, which had been her nemesis for years. Today she did not survive. Jill took her own life.”
Messick was said to be devastated at the inaccurate portrayal of her after Weinstein released an email that she sent him. The movie mogul solicited the letter from Messick ahead of The New York Times’ and Ronan Farrow’s stories exposing his purported predatory behavior.
In her note to Weinstein, Messick relayed what she claims she was told by McGowan directly after an encounter with Weinstein, unaware that Messick’s recounting, which had not changed over the years and led to her defending the victim before anyone else after the incident originally occurred in 1997, would be shared with the media in an attempt to clear Weinstein’s name—in effect setting Messick up as an enemy to the #MeToo movement.
“When we met up the following day, [McGowan] hesitantly told me of her own accord that during the meeting that night before she had gotten into a hot tub with Mr. Weinstein,” wrote Messick in an email obtained by the Daily Mail. “She was very clear about the fact that getting into that hot tub was something that she did consensually and that in hindsight it was also something that she regretted having done.”
McGowan said that she had confided in Messick following the Weinstein episode, saying, “Yes, but she got a job with him for seven years right afterwards.” Messick was hired as VP of development at the Weinstein-owned Miramax shortly after McGowan is said to have settled with Weinstein for $100,000. Her family steadfastly claims that she earned the job on merit, and that she had no hand in (or knowledge of) McGowan’s settlement negotiations with Weinstein.
“The ensuing arrangements between Rose and Harvey were then negotiated, completely without Jill’s knowledge. At that time, all Jill knew was that the matter was settled and that Rose continued making films with the Weinsteins. She never knew any details until recently, when Rose elected to make them public,” wrote the Messick family.
Activists on Twitter named, shamed and identified how Messick could be reached, with one even revealing Messick’s purposefully obscured LinkedIn profile (she did not use her full name) and encouraging others to reach out to her and let her know what they really thought of her.
Did these vicious attacks impact Messick? Her family says undoubtedly so.
Now, after Messick’s suicide, like the ouroboros that social media pile-ons always are, the attacks are pointed toward whatever target looks ripe for the shaming—including those who did the initial shaming of Messick.
Will this ever end? Does this lead to anything but an endless, self-propagating cycle of pain and isolation? Does forgiveness and healing ever occur?
Ironically, it’s abuse conducted in the name of fighting against abuse.
Perhaps now we might finally as a culture ask, in a truly critical way: To what end?
In the nearly three years since the groundbreaking publication of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson has increasingly declined to address specific instances of public shaming such as that which occurred in Messick’s tragic case. However, when The Daily Beast reached him, he did comment on one aspect of the seemingly changing climate of societal and media reaction to online mob behavior, which he referred to as “revisionist.”
“I’ll tell you one thing that really bugs me,” Ronson said. “I think that when my first book came out and Monica [Lewinsky’s] TED talk came out and people started thinking about this a lot, I think there was this sort of general agreement that ‘Okay having 100,000 people on Twitter sort of tell you that you’re garbage and to get out is very damaging to one’s mental health.’ I mean it is. There’s no doubt about it. It is. I mean unless you’re someone who is incapable of feeling shame, it can be devastating. And that’s why so many people kill themselves.”
Ronson continued: “But what I’ve noticed lately in part as part of a backlash to that article in Harper’s which I haven’t read so I don’t want to comment on it but that people are going, ‘Oh it’s just tweets.’ I’ve looked at a couple of pieces lately. One in The New York Times where the thrust of the article is you know: a social media mob is nowhere near as bad as a real life mob. Like having a real life mob outside of your house, that’s bad. Having some people yell at you on social media—that’s just tweets; that’s no big deal. And I find that very revisionist, and it’s wrong. It’s just factually wrong. And it’s all to do with people wanting to feel okay with shaming people willy-nilly.”
Where does the urge to do so come from?
“In part,” Ronson says, “because sometimes shaming campaigns work very well—like with Harvey Weinstein of course. But I’ve noticed it happening. I’ve noticed a real increase in that. ‘Oh it’s no big deal. Oh it’s just tweets. Stop complaining.’...And the number of suicides which can at least in part be attributed to being on the end of the shaming bears it out. It’s cognitive dissonance. People are doing it because they don’t want to feel bad about piling in on somebody.”
Amongst the suicides linked to public shamings recently, off the top of his head Ronson lists August Ames, Carl Sargeant, Dan Johnson, Ariel Ronis, and Tiziana Cantone.
“Not to mention all the kids you know who have a sort of mini-Internet shaming and then kill themselves,” Ronson says. “These are like famous adults. Think about the number of teenagers.”
In her initial tweet about Messick’s death, the writer Britt Hayes said: “Maybe the most heartbreaking part of this, for me, is learning that Jill Messick chose not to publicly contradict Rose McGowan so as not to undermine the movement or dissuade other women from coming forward. That is a beautiful act of selflessness.”
Not more than 24 hours after that tweet and the gentle, even-handed rebuke against simply the notion of the online mob mentality and the “impulse...to sling yet even more mud,” Hayes tweeted the sadly predictable reaction she received from others online.
“People are *still* yelling about this in my mentions,” Hayes tweeted. “Number of times i’ve been told to kill myself today: three. as if approaching complex, horrible situations with the nuanced and compassionate thinking they deserve instead of being outraged at everything makes me a dick.”
Let’s stop and ask ourselves a few incredibly painful questions as the brutality of social media only continues to become more vicious. Let’s do it as a tribute to the woman who brought the modern classic Mean Girls to life.
What purpose do ad hominem attacks serve in winning any kind of cultural, social or moral victory? Does the impotent rage expressed in assigning blame to a tragedy actually accomplish anything beyond self-congratulatory victory?
How does one fight abuse by inflicting it?
Of course, just like the so-called “Depravity Standard” that some forensic psychiatrists advocate to assign sentencing standards, raping a woman does not even exist within the same moral universe of atrocity as, say, jotting off a nasty tweet. (See the March-April 2018 issue of Journal of Criminal Justice for more on the research developed by Dr. Michael Welner to address the “[a]ggravating factors in United States criminal codes, such as ‘heinous,’ ‘atrocious,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘vile,’ or ‘depraved’...that warrant more severe sentencing.”)
But what about when there are hundreds of them? What about when there is an endless pile-on of private messages telling you that you are worthless, you are bad, you are garbage, you are irredeemable. Does it get a little bit worse? Does one form of violence (a rape) negate all other forms of violence in a kind of ends-justify-the-means moral compass? That’s a question perhaps more people need to be asking when the ultimate goal is a more peaceful, more just, more humane society that abhors abuse—of any kind.
“Here’s what angers me about the Jill Messick suicide,” one thoughtful tweet by content strategist Wynter Mitchell began. “She was trying to walk through a highly contentious and uneven world filled with disrespect and disloyalty with compassion and integrity and it killed her. This can’t go on...it can’t keep feeding on people.”
And the anger that fuels outrage culture and finger-pointing mobs provides an unlimited buffet of pain. Research indicates that as we become angrier, our bodies produce more testosterone and less cortisol, culminating in a feeling of temporary strength and subdued anxiety.
It takes skillful maneuvering to resist the temptation not to give in to the endless cycle of rage, but some observers of this latest tragedy are giving it their best shot.
“I couldn’t find a story on the tragic death of Jill Messick that didn’t...show Harvey’s face to get its message across so I won’t share any,” tweeted actress Amber Tamblyn, echoing the policy espoused by the families of victims of mass shooters who suggest a “No Notoriety” policy in the press. “We are living in painful times. Deep compassion and care is required. I send every pulse of my heart to Jill’s family today.”
McGowan, for her part, issued the following statement on Messick’s passing in an Instagram posted late Saturday: “For Jill: May your family find some measure of solace during this pain. That one man could cause so much damage is astounding, but tragically true. The bad man did this to us both. May you find peace on the astral plane. May you find serenity with the stars.”
And several of the stars of Mean Girls issued plaintive cries of despair as to how this could have happened to a woman who was so loved, so kind, so there for others in the trenches of the messy tightrope act that is empathy.
“Simply sad and horrified to hear of Jill Messick taking her own life,” tweeted Daniel Franzese, who played Damien in Mean Girls. “She was a joy to work with on Mean Girls and I can only picture her with a smile on her face. If you or someone you know may be suicidal please call Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.”
“She was wonderful,” Amanda Seyfried, who embodied Karen in Mean Girls, tweeted in reply. Separately, Seyfried tweeted a link to The Hollywood Reporter piece and quote-tweeted the excerpt: “There is a responsibility when using a platform to accurately expose criminals, predators, mistruths...and misdeeds while protecting the actual truth of third parties. Words have power.”
“I’m so sad to hear that Jill Messick has passed away. She was nothing but kind to me while working together on Mean Girls,” tweeted Lacey Chabert, who played Gretchen in the film. “My thoughts are with her family.”
Of the many wrenchingly beautiful tributes to Messick’s life in this Deadline piece recounting those who worked with and loved her deeply, a remembrance from film and TV producer Cathy Konrad particularly stands out. It echoes the lasting impact of not just the critical role kindness and compassion must play in modern society but also the timeless resonance of Mean Girls 14 years later—a message the world may never have received were it not for Messick.
“She approached the often relentless day-to-day of our business with stars in her eyes, holding fast to her Hollywood dream,” Konrad said. “Jill’s dreams ended too soon and her story, now shared by her family, illuminates yet again the devastating and toxic weight many women have been carrying, in silence, for fear of lost opportunities, or getting pushed out of a profession that they love. Our community continues to hear these complicated narratives that all echo with a common and, too often tragic theme—wonderful, vibrant woman, struggling emotionally to make sense of painful workplace traumas. I am so sad that Jill did not feel she had greater champions for her voice, as she devoted so much energy to carry others across the finish line. Jill was a star in her own right, and I am sure that she is now burning brighter than ever, in what is surely a beautiful place, that has enough space for dreams as big as the universe will allow, in peace.”
Everyone wants to direct their collective, suppressed, utterly-choked-down rage against some kind of a clear-cut villain. It’s such an understandable impulse. But as much as we want to hate and rage and blame and villainize and demonize and shame, we can also remember the impulse driving our tendency to do so, which is ironically shared by the target of our rage: humanity.
Appealing to humanity whenever we can is the eternal message of Tina Fey’s glorious breakthrough film.
Rewatch it if you can and think of Messick. Think of anyone and everyone who suffers, including those who must be in an unimaginable amount of pain. Think of the online mobbers themselves, who are lashing out in cruel acts of online vitriol again and again for the sake of the “greater good.”
As Mean Girls comes to a close, Cady (Lindsay Lohan) marvels at her character’s trajectory while surveying the tribal and sociological implications of a modern high school student.
“And me?” Lohan says. “I had gone from home-schooled jungle freak to shiny Plastic to most hated person in the world to actual human being.”
Look how Cady Heron ended up: An actual human being.
Fade to black.