How Do You Know You’ve Been Slimed?

Jolie Holland’s creepy run-in with Ryan Adams helped inspire a song.

I had a painful brush with Ryan Adams in 2006. Now that so many women are outing him for his manipulative and abusive behavior, I am able to contextualize why I felt like hell after being in his orbit for a few hours.

By no means am I shocked by the allegations against Adams. I am grateful for the clarity his accusers have afforded me. They have relieved me of any lingering ambiguity. Truth-telling, derided as gossip or shit-talk, is part of the unofficial safety network that women rely on in the entertainment industry. I wish someone had warned me about him at the time.

No one in my circle of friends ever talked about Ryan Adams. I didn’t know a single person who was a fan, so when we met backstage at an English festival I was surprised he threw me this line: “I heard you don’t like my music.” I have no idea if he was lying or fishing. I had never heard his music.

He asked me to play violin during his set, and I obliged. I love getting a chance to be a “sideman.” I figured if I completely bombed, it was all his fault for inviting me, unrehearsed, onto the main stage. I think I did alright. I tried to stay out of the way of his very professional band.

I was 30, freshly single, extra skinny from having been sick. He offered me a ride back to London, and I was happy to get a break from my own entourage. We had a nice hang in the back of his car. Our conversation was kind of philosophical, upbeat, refreshing. I think it wasn’t a very long drive, just a couple hours.

He offered me a place to stay, and I thought, “Well, if I get laid so much the better.“ My heart was disengaged at that point. I was just being practical. We got back to a hotel room and played some songs. I was looking for a sincere connection, even as a one- night stand. I was into the idea of playing music with him, either opening or in his band.

He had made some super-vague enthusiastic allusion to those possibilities, but as the night wore on, those lures evaporated, never to re-appear. Maybe he lost interest because he could tell I could really take it or leave it. I had my own thing going on, unlike the unnamed teenager he was (allegedly) about to start sexting. At the time, I was on a prestigious label. My booker was one of the most respected guys in the business. I was on the cover of a few magazines, and one of my albums had been reviewed on page 82 of Rolling Stone.

He asked me if I was seeing anyone. “I don’t know,” I said. I sort of had a thing with some men, and I sort of had a thing with some women, but I didn’t really live anywhere. He bragged to me that Keira Knightley had a crush on him. Was he trying to make me jealous? He told me I was beautiful, and I said, “Whatever.” I’ve had a nasty case of body dysmorphia for as long as I can remember. He insisted I should to go to therapy, because I was “objectively beautiful,” and I ought to know it. I think that was the hook that got me. My inner dialogue: “Oh! This isn’t a one night stand. This isn’t just a chance to get a gig or two. This is someone who might actually care about me.” That one moment when I lost my balance resulted in an emotional hangover that lasted for weeks.

We didn’t make out. He grabbed my clothed breast without consent, then inexplicably ran into the bathroom like a total weirdo. I don’t know how long he was in there, fifteen minutes at most. My mind was a blank. It was very late at night, or early in the morning. He came back to bed, and we stayed as far away from each other as possible. I’m a terrible sleeper in general, more so when beset with confusion. I don’t know how I got to sleep in my half of that king-sized bed. I must have been exhausted.

The first two verses of my song “Palmyra” refer to the next morning. (For the record, the roses had nothing to do with him; they were stray petals in my guitar case, mementos from my grandmother’s recent funeral, something to help me feel grounded in my travels.)

“Only a few old petals left on the rose that touched your hand
My little heart is a graveyard- it’s a no man’s land
You could tell I didn’t care
You kept pushing till I did
Woke up in a pit of despair on your bed
And I wondered how I could do without you
How absurd- how absurd- how absurd

I put my lipstick back on
I looked myself in the eye
I’m headed out in the cold, hard world
And I’m getting very good at saying my goodbyes-
My goodbyes- my goodbyes….”

I got dressed in the bathroom and told myself I was alright.

Good Hearted People of this world, how do you know you’ve been slimed?

I felt like hell for a few weeks. He disappeared. After that strange intimacy, he was a ghost. My best friends got some sad phone calls from me as I regained my bearings. I never got into his music. I just got an annoying and painful temporary attachment to him. Even though he wasn’t “that much” of a creep to me, just being in his orbit for a while was a drag. As my best friend often says, “There is no such thing as a little piece of shit in the punchbowl.”

Now that so many women have come forward, I can understand why I felt so horrible. As they say, how you do anything is how you do everything. Those hours I spent with him were confusing, but now they’re fully contextualized.

I’ve brought up the story to some friends now, and many of them have offered me sincere sympathy. That’s interesting to me, because what happened to me is nearly nothing. Off the top of my head, I can think of 20 other far more damaging experiences throughout my musical career.

It’s nothing like the time I went into a studio to start producing an album and the house engineer assumed that my male friend was the producer. Or the time my label took a careless male engineer’s word over mine, and consequently left tracks off the first pressing of one of my albums. Or the time my tour manager bullied me over a period of weeks. It’s nothing like the complete failure of anyone in the industry to mentor me during the first seven years of my career.

Death by a million paper cuts: shaking hands with a promoter who makes eye contact with my male bandmate rather than me; times when colleagues made stupid sexual or gendered innuendos; when sound guys only speak to the men in my band; all the embarrassing moments with journalists who hefted their misogyny onto me, either in person or in their writing…

I am still haunted by this one question. The journalist described the sound of my album and then asked me if it was “intentional.” How? What? How am I supposed to make sense of that?! I asked if the journalist intended to ask that question, and the interview was quickly ended.

I am proud of the people who have come forward publicly, and I respect the decisions of those who are keeping quiet. I wish there was no stigma in making an accusation. I wish the blame stayed with the accused.

There’s a stereotype that victims have some list of pitiful characteristics in common that make them marks. A recent study conducted by Donna Andersen of found that women who were targeted by narcissists actually do have features in common:

  • They are more extroverted than the general population.
  • They tend to value relationships highly.
  • They exhibit cooperativeness, rating in the 95th percentile compare to most people.

None of those attributes are shameful, and as a matter of fact, they’re all highly desirable features in entertainment. Our work is so collaborative.

Some people take false comfort in the idea that they are immune to being manipulated, and studies show that those people are actually more vulnerable. Intelligent, dedicated, and kind-hearted people can be manipulated. Sometimes all it takes is a moment of vulnerability, and a skilled manipulator can get their hooks into you. I happened to be getting over a serious illness, and I had just been through a breakup. Trustworthy, empathetic people can be lured into giving a creep those first, second, and third undeserved chances.

The shame lies with him. He used his platform to crush other people’s dreams. He treated people who relied on him, people who looked up to him, people who were intimate with him as props for his inflated ego.

Women and non-binary people in my industry deserve mentorship without exploitation. We deserve colleagues who work with us and not against us. We belong here, in our respective fields, as artists, producers, engineers, and in all aspects of the music business.

And I want to be super clear: By no means am I saying love and sex can’t be part of working relationships. I had a love affair with a prominent artist. We were never an official item, though we really loved and love each other. That man has been nothing but supportive to me as a person and an artist. Good men are not unicorns, even in my industry. There are enough brilliant and highly skilled people who aren’t abusive.

Can we stop protecting the creeps?

(Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)

Jolie Holland is a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist who lives out of suitcases. She writes non-fiction and music, and she makes a very mean heart tartare. Her band is based out of New York City. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and her website is here.