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Celebrity apologies can go wrong in a truly impressive number of ways. There’s the “I’m sorry you feel this way” camp. There’s the cohort of “I don’t remember it that way, but I’m sorry if it came off otherwise”. And of course, there are the evergreen, forever puzzling variations of “I didn’t do it, but I’m sorry.”
Ryan Adams’s most recent stab at the genre, however, falls short on more specific levels, all of which are worth examining. In case you need a refresher: In February 2019, Adams faced accusations ranging from emotional and verbal abuse, to manipulative behaviour and sexual misconduct. Those accusations are explored in detail in a New York Times piece, in which a woman named Ava alleges that Adams engaged with her in sexual conversations over text message when she was a teenager. Via his lawyer, Adams said he “unequivocally denies that he ever engaged in inappropriate online sexual communications with someone he knew was underage”.
Singer and actor Mandy Moore, who was married to Adams in 2009 until their split in 2015, described her ex-husband’s behaviour to The New York Times as psychologically abusive and controlling in a way that undermined her career. Musician Phoebe Bridgers also recounted emotionally abusive behaviour on Adams’s part. Adams, through his lawyer, disputed both women’s claims.
On Twitter, Adams admitted at the time to not being “a perfect man”, adding: “To anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally, I apologise deeply and unreservedly.” He called the picture painted by The New York Times’s piece “upsettingly inaccurate”, yet still vowed to “work to be the best man I can be”.
Time went by. Adams kept tweeting for a while, though he hasn’t done so since September 2019. Moore released Silver Landings, her first album in 11 years, in March 2020. Bridgers released her second ever, Punisher, in June. And now, almost a year and a half after the allegations went public, Adams has published a first-person piece in which he attempts to apologize for “the ways I've mistreated people throughout my life and career”.
In a bit more than 400 words, Adams states he’s “sorry”, insists that “this time it is different”, and that he’s “still reeling from the ripples of devastating effects that my actions triggered”. “What pain was I carrying myself that was so poorly and wrongly being projected onto others?” he asks, before mentioning that “in working through this, I have written enough music to fill half a dozen albums.”
“I hope that the people I've hurt will heal,” Adams writes, without naming any of the people in question. “And I hope that they will find a way to forgive me.”
So there we have it: a public apology that fails to reckon with any of the actual hurt, trauma, and pain that made the apology necessary in the first place. An apology that begins with “I’m sorry” and ends with a plea for salvation on its author’s behalf.
The failures of Adams’s open letter become all the more glaring once you take into consideration the fact that Moore says Adams has yet to apologize to her directly, and privately. Asked whether she believes Adams has changed during an interview with Hoda Kotb on the Today show, Moore replied: “I find it curious that someone would make a public apology but not do it privately. I’m speaking for myself but I’ve not heard from him. And I’m not looking for an apology necessarily, but I do find it curious that someone would sort of do an interview about it without actually making amends privately.”
This isn’t a detail. If you believe what Moore is saying – and why wouldn’t you, really? – then it’s hard, if not impossible, to take Adams’s apology at its word. The power of an apology lies in the way it is delivered, after all.
If you’ve ever had to apologize for anything (and if you’re old enough to read this website, I really hope you have, in fact, delivered an apology of some sort at any point in your life), then you know what the emotional experience of an apology looks like. First, you feel remorse. Then, you go through the extremely uncomfortable, usually very unpleasant process of facing the person you have wronged, telling them you realise you have wronged them, and communicating your regret in a way that feels authentic – because it is.
For an apology to be considered sincere, then the very apology itself must be the end point. In order words, an apology works, in some ways, like a declaration of love. It’s not a question. It doesn’t come with an expectation of reciprocity. It’s a string of words you have decided to put out in the world, simply because it makes moral sense to do so.
Apologizing publicly, rather than privately, also puts unjust pressure on Adams’s alleged victims to forgive him – and creates a false impression of accountability. The subtext goes like this: well, he’s apologized now! And he did so in front of the whole world! Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that brave? Aren’t we all ready to move on?
I can’t help but feel that typing a few words, or dictating them, or however Adams chose to deliver his public apology, requires far less vulnerability than delivering the same apology directly to the person, or people, it concerns. And I doubt it packs the same emotional punch for any of the parties involved.
If you’re really sorry, apologize privately first, and publicly only if you must. Any failure to do so is hard to interpret as anything other than posturing.