On Jay O’Berski.Posted: February 9, 2023 Filed under: Uncategorized 1 Comment
UPDATE, February 10, 2023: I’ve been notified that the clinic that had employed Jay as an intern has cut all ties with him. Therefore, I’m removing their contact information from the post, though still naming them for the sake of public record.
I’m writing this public, searchable account about Jay O’Berski’s history so that no one can claim in good faith any longer that they “just didn’t know.”
To summarize: Jay O’Berski is a former professor of theatre at Duke University, and the founder and former Artistic Director of the now-dissolved Durham theatre company Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. As of February 9th, 2023, he is training as a therapist at Wake Forest University and practicing at Art of Wellness in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, specializing in sex addiction.
To those of you who don’t know me: my name is Monica Byrne. I’m a novelist and playwright. I was a friend and collaborator of Jay’s for ten years (2007-2017), a member of Little Green Pig, and a Resident Playwright of that company. Jay directed two of my plays (Nightwork and Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo), and directed me as an actor in two (Fistful of Love and Richie), among countless other smaller-scale gatherings over a decade—readings, consultations, cabaret shows, auditions, company dinners, and so on.
At a reading of my new play in January 2017—then called Wild America—Jay, who was slated to direct, was triggered by the subject material (women’s responses to the recent election of Trump). He demeaned and belittled me at length in front of everyone present, repeatedly speaking over me and anyone who tried to intervene. Though I’d seen him treat others this way, I’d thought that our friendship somehow made me immune. (I regret this deeply and have made apologies for it. Some folks in the community are right to be, and remain, angry with me.) Afterward, via email, I asked that Jay step down as director, and that a woman in the company direct instead. He responded by canceling the production. I responded by leaving the company.
In the year afterward, I began reaching out to other company members who’d left. I expected stories of bullying, as well as racist, sexist, and sexually suggestive comments (especially to women of color). I’d experienced it also—this is a text he sent me, just before the reading of Wild America, to which I did not respond. I generally laughed it off and maintained boundaries and thought that was enough. I wanted to continue the production relationship, which are very hard to come by in theatre.
I did hear the stories I expected.
But I also found out that Jay had been grooming, pressuring, sexually harassing, and sleeping with his undergraduate students in the theatre program at Duke University, and also in his theatre workshops in Durham and abroad; specifically in China, where he used sexualized direction as a way to “open [them] up.”
I know this because I talked to these students; talked to those who talked to these students; was forwarded emails between him and a student he was in a sexual relationship with; was forwarded sexual pictures and video of him with a workshop student; and was forwarded email exchanges where he admitted to the relationships. I’m not at liberty to share the pictures or video, both to protect privacy, and for legal reasons (doing so could constitute a felony).
Given the extent of these abuses, one would think that there would be public record of them, from academic, journalistic, and/or legal sources. I’m now going to explain why this is not the case here.
In March 2018, I wrote to the President, Dean, and Associate Dean of Duke University with my concerns. They referred me to the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), which oversees Title IX compliance (i.e. gender equity and sexual harassment). I met with Howard Kallem and Cynthia Clinton. They immediately informed me that they couldn’t guarantee the confidentiality of anything I told them, nor could they guarantee the confidentiality of any student who told them anything. I was stunned at this. However, I’ve since learned this is common practice: this study in Nature, while focusing on the sciences, details how universities like Duke circumvent Title IX protections by constructing policies that first protect themselves from legal liability—at the expense of students’ safety.
This is why almost none of Jay’s former students spoke to the OIE, though many expressed to me and others that they would have, if their confidentiality had been guaranteed.
From what I understand second-hand, Duke still did not renew Jay’s teaching contract, which (coincidentally) was up for review shortly after this. However, they did pay him a large sum of severance money, presumably in exchange for not pursuing a lawsuit. This is why the reasons for Jay’s contract at Duke not being renewed are not public—not “Google searchable,” not appearing on a background check, and not available from Duke as his former employer. There are several Facebook posts by his former collaborators (e.g. here from Adam Schultz, here from Caitlin Wells, here from me), but those are also not searchable.
Two reporters at IndyWeek worked on a story for over a year, but came up against similar issues to Duke: none of his former students wanted to go on record. The reasons were:
- They feared retaliation, and rightly so. Jay threatened the employment of at least two whistleblowers (which is illegal), including one of the women he’d had a sexual relationship with;
- Jay had conditioned them to believe that there was no abuse of power involved, that they were equally responsible for the relationships, despite his having power over them, as their professor;
- They were recently out of college, beginning to build their careers, and didn’t want to be known for being whistleblowers;
- They were traumatized by their experiences and didn’t want to revisit them.
Again, I know this because I spoke to the students, or spoke to people who spoke to them.
However, word did spread among members of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, especially when Jay admitted to sleeping with students in an email exchange with an LGP member. He shut down the company in December 2019. Before the website was shut down, the webmaster changed the homepage to this image.
As for legal records, there’s only one that I’m aware of: in September 2019, Jay threatened to sue me for defamation, for nonspecific “statements made on social media.” My lawyers asked his lawyer to name a single instance of a defamatory statement (i.e. one that was false and malicious). They could name none.
I’m happy to provide that email exchange upon request.
To reiterate, those who are unfamiliar with #MeToo cases are often under the impression that if someone has a history of abuse, that information must be public. This is not true (to put it mildly). As the last five years have shown, there are many obstacles particular to #MeToo cases that prevent histories of abuse from becoming public.
But because nothing has been published—because of institutional cowardice and abdication of responsibility, especially on the part of Duke University—Jay was free to leave quietly and enroll in a graduate program in Santa Barbara, and then another at Wake Forest University. I’d heard rumors that Jay was studying psychology, but not more than that. I learned that Jay was actually training and practicing as a therapist specializing in sex addiction three weeks ago. I was horrified, and remain horrified, that someone with such a history was allowed to simply start over again—in the same community. (I also reject the suggestion that Jay’s becoming a therapist constitutes a “healing journey” on his part. Accountability begins by reaching out to those you’ve harmed and taking responsibility for your actions, and having the humility to step away from power. Not immediately placing yourself in another position of authority where you have even more intimate access to even more vulnerable people. I’ve never heard of Jay taking responsibility for any of the above; on the contrary, as with me, only that he becomes belligerent when anyone suggests that he does.)
One would hope that institutions like Duke University, with their vast resources, would do the right thing by communicating the reasons for Jay’s termination to future places of employment and education. But as I’ve described, this is rarely the case.
Which means that, again, all of the legal risk and responsibility falls on individuals. Usually the same few individuals.
This is not sustainable.
It cannot keep falling to the same handful of people to do this work. It takes a community.
If you’re part of that community—past or present—and you have concerns, please consider expressing them.
Here is the contact information for Art of Wellness, the clinic where Jay is currently practicing:
Update February 10, 2023: I’ve been notified that this clinic has cut all ties with him.
Therefore, I’m removing their contact information from this post.
And here is the contact information for the director of the Graduate Program in Counseling at Wake Forest University, where Jay is enrolled:
Dr. Nathaniel Ivers
And here is the contact information to file a complaint with the North Carolina Board of Licensed Mental Health Counselors, which is the state body that would eventually be responsible for issuing him a license:
And here’s where to read more accounts of Jay O’Berski’s history from his former collaborators.
Thanks, Monica. This is horrifying.