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Reese Witherspoon still feels “guilt” and “extreme anger” over teenage sexual assault

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Kayleigh Dray
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LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 01: Reese Witherspoon attends a special screening of Apple's "The Morning Show" at The Ham Yard Hotel on November 1, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Apple)

“I sometimes get really upset and it runs the gamut from sad to heartbroken to extreme anger,” says The Morning Show star.

In The Morning Show, respected TV anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell) is fired amidst a sexual assault scandal. But, when field reporter Bradley Jackson – portrayed by critically-acclaimed actor Reese Witherspoon – learns that almost everyone at the show knew about Mitch’s behaviour, she sets out to expose this culture of corporate silence.

It is in this way that the show holds a mirror up to our post-MeToo world. And it resonated with Witherspoon for many reasons, not least of all because of her role in the Time’s Up movement. However, during a recent interview about the show – which sees her re-join forces with Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston – Witherspoon said that working on The Morning Show caused her to reflect on her own past traumas. 

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In 2017, Witherspoon revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by a director when she was 16, and was instructed by agents and producers to keep quiet about it. 

“I have my own experiences that have come back to me very vividly and I find it really hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to communicate a lot of the feelings that I’ve been having about anxiety, honest, the guilt for not speaking up earlier,” the actor said at the time, as reported by EW

“[I feel] true disgust at the director who assaulted me when I was 16 years old and anger at the agents and the producers who made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment… I wish I could tell you that was an isolated incident in my career but, sadly, it wasn’t. I’ve had multiple experiences of harassment and sexual assault assault and I don’t speak about them very often.”

She felt, she added, “guilt for not speaking up earlier”.

Now, speaking to The Guardian, Witherspoon notes: “When stories [about assault and harassment] come out, I sometimes get really upset and it runs the gamut from sad to heartbroken to extreme anger. I think it probably drives me to tell more stories about it because art is the best antidote. 

“It makes me determined not to let this happen to other young women. I’m so grateful to the women who spoke out about things in their past because I’m in a different position, obviously, but those women had nothing to gain, and some lost their jobs over it. They are the real heroes in my mind.”

However, when challenged over whether she wishes she’d spoken about her own traumas sooner, Witherspoon’s answer is blunt and to the point.

“No. It was a culture of silence and silence was a condition of my employment. That’s what I was told,” she says.

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In 2017, Oprah Winfrey revealed that Witherspoon had displayed symptoms of PTSD after the initial allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first reported in October.

At that time, the A Wrinkle in Time co-stars were shooting together when they had a discussion about Weinstein with a group of women.

“This was like two days after the Harvey scandal had broken in The New York Times,” Winfrey told Salma Hayek during a special live taping of the podcast SuperSoul Conversations.

“Everyone, including Reese – I’ve said this to her – was acting like, I was seeing some of the girls at my school behave, who were suffering from PTSD,” Winfrey continued.

“Everybody was acting like they were afraid and they were having the conversation.”

“And I remember Reese saying, ‘Oh god, this is just so upsetting. And someone mentions his name, I start tearing up. And every time I hear someone else speak, it just causes me to be upset and I haven’t slept in two days,’” Oprah added.

“So I said, ‘Jeez, you guys are suffering from PTSD. Did something happen to you?’ Nobody said anything at the time.”

It was later that month that Witherspoon publicly revealed she had been sexually assaulted by a director when she was 16 years old.

PTSD, as the NHS explains, is caused by stressful, frightening or distressing events, and symptoms often include sufferers reliving the event though nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts or images at unwanted moments.

Further symptoms include problems with sleeping and concentration, and feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt, often severe enough to have an impact on sufferers’ day-to-day life.

It is a recognised mental health condition and can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event. However, any treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event – so, if you believe you are suffering from PTSD, it is advisable that you visit your GP as soon as possible, so they can refer you for further assessment.

Independent Sexual Violence Advisors

If you have been a victim of sexual assault and would like to speak to someone or seek advice at any stage, you may wish to contact an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA). Many specialist support agencies, including Rape Crisis, provide an ISVA service to victims of rape and sexual assault.

You can find further information and advice from Rape Crisis here, or you can call them on 0808 802 9999. 

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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