By all accounts, Steve Bearman was a charming and charismatic leader who had built an influential counseling school. With its promises of “healing, growth, and liberation,” Bearman’s Interchange Counseling Institute was a new-agey, sex-positive program that was well regarded among many Bay Area counseling professionals as well as the broader personal growth community. The Oakland resident often told his students that he could help them overcome their past trauma. And he regularly gave workshops, including at Burning Man, where dozens gathered shoulder-to-shoulder to hear him speak.
But in interviews with the Express and in court filings, several former students at Interchange also described Bearman as a master manipulator who learned key details about them through counseling sessions that he later used to control them. They alleged that he exploited their past trauma, manipulating their psychological damage so he could sexually assault them. One of the women called him the “fulfiller of nightmares,” because she said he knew she had been raped before and that after counseling her on her trauma, he used that knowledge to sexually assault her. Five of the women allege that he assaulted them after he talked them into taking psychedelic drugs, at times in doses far beyond typical recreational use.
On Dec. 8, six women sued Bearman for sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual harassment, and false imprisonment. They were joined in the 63-page complaint, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, by 12 other former students and employees of Interchange Counseling. They also accuse Bearman and his former business partner Margo Brockman of labor violations and fraud, along with several other illegal practices. The Oakland Police Department has also opened a criminal investigation into Bearman.
Bearman was forced to close Interchange in September after he was confronted at a meeting by members of his leadership team — a group of about two dozen mostly unpaid volunteers who helped run the school — just before the 2017-18 session was about to begin, according to three attendees. Many at the meeting demanded he relinquish control of the Treasure Island-based school and inform incoming students about the sexual assault allegations against him. Cornered, Bearman wept throughout the meeting, but by the end still concocted a plan to keep the school open.
The plan quickly unraveled. On Sept. 27, Bearman posted a message on Facebook that was similar to statements made recently by numerous powerful men, like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Louis CK, who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault. “Though everyone is unaware of their impact in some ways, this is an area in which I now realize I have been unbelievably ignorant, even despite many people’s efforts to get me to learn,” Bearman wrote. “I am only now starting to see the scope of what harm my actions have caused, so whatever I have to say will almost certainly still be inadequate and somewhat uninformed.”
Unlike most of his Facebook posts, this one was only available to his Facebook friends. His Facebook profile has since been removed, but multiple sources provided the Express with copies of the statement, including screenshots.
The women suing Bearman are represented by attorneys Ayhan Menekshe and Catherine Adams of the Menekshe Law Firm in Campbell. “In our many years of handling sexual assault and harassment cases for both plaintiffs and defendants, we have never before seen a case that reflects such insidious behavior,” the attorneys wrote in a statement to the Express. “He might have deluded himself and others into describing these as consensual relationships, but they were the result of the abuse of the power dynamic, as well as abuse of prior sexual trauma history of these victims, and therefore could not be consensual. We believe that unless there are consequences for his behavior, he will continue it.”
At a time when icons in Hollywood, politics, and journalism are suddenly facing consequences for years of abusive behavior, Bearman’s story is a stark reminder that sexual predators can be anywhere. His supposed commitment to feminism and mental health makes his actions even more insidious, and his betrayal more devastating, the women said. At least two of his alleged victims said he lured them with promises of healing and left them more traumatized than ever.[pullquote-1]
Bearman’s academic background in the psychology of sex and relationships also made his contention that he didn’t realize the harm he was inflicting difficult for his victims to accept. His accusers found his Facebook apology severely lacking and were unsettled by the congratulatory and forgiving tone in hundreds of comments responding to Bearman’s mea culpa.
In parts of his Facebook post, Bearman seemed to acknowledge that he had not obtained consent in his sexual relationships. “In too many circumstances, however, I now realize that I have convinced someone to let go of a boundary, or allowed someone, in the heat of the moment, to disregard what had previously been an important boundary for them,” he wrote. He pledged “to be available to any of the women who feel hurt by me, with mediation, to apologize, to hear what you would like me to know and more fully understand my impact, and learn what, if anything, I can do to make things right.”
But after attempting to contact Bearman for comment for this report, the Express received a written statement from San Francisco criminal defense attorney Christina DiEdoardo. “Mr. Bearman unequivocally denies the accusation that he has engaged in any instance of unlawful nonconsensual sexual activity during his time at Interchange or at any other point in his life,” DiEdoardo wrote. She added that because of the lawsuit and the criminal investigation into her client, “he has no further comment to make at this time.” Brockman did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
In interviews and the lawsuit, Bearman’s accusers said they had difficulty coming forward as they were fearful that the insular Interchange community would remain loyal to Bearman and wouldn’t believe them. But as their stories started emerging, Airial Clark, Interchange’s only paid staff member whose responsibilities included signing up students, said she resigned after she realized what had occurred. Her resignation put her family’s financial security in jeopardy, but it crippled Bearman’s ability to organize for the new school year.
“How many women has this happened to?” Clark said in a recent tearful interview.
Clark and members of Interchange’s leadership team started collecting the women’s stories as more came forward, enabling the confrontation with Bearman. But Clark is not done seeking accountability. She encouraged Bearman’s accusers to consult an attorney and report any assaults to police.
The six women accusing Bearman of sexual assault are only identified as Jane Zoe 1-6 in the lawsuit, which lays out the allegations against him in detail. Five of them agreed to interviews with the Express on the condition of anonymity. The Express also does not typically identify the victims of sexual assault without consent. To confirm the stories, the Express interviewed four people with whom the women had confided and seven other former students and staff members, six of whom have no connection to the lawsuit, who confirmed various details of the women’s stories and provided other evidence of similar behavior. The Express also reviewed written accounts and hundreds of social media postings. Two people, including his former employer, said he was kicked out of a similar program for sexual harassment.
One of the plaintiffs, an Oakland woman identified in the lawsuit as Jane Zoe 4, said she joined Interchange in 2015. In the lawsuit, she alleges that Bearman sexually assaulted her twice: once at a party at his Oakland home after he pressured her into taking a large dose of 2C-B — a strong psychedelic drug — and later during a counseling session that he arranged in his bedroom, where he exploited knowledge of her past trauma.
She had joined Interchange thinking she might like to pursue counseling as a career, she said in an interview. While she enjoyed the community that the school fostered, she found the classes emotionally draining, because the exercises encouraged students to “dive in” and “get messy.”
After she had complained about an unrelated matter, Bearman offered her a free counseling session at his Oakland home in an office area separate from the house, she said. She said that during the session, she confessed to Bearman that she had an abusive father who chased her through the house in violent rages as a preschooler. She alleges in the lawsuit that Bearman also counseled her on trauma from being raped in 2011. She said she told him she froze when it happened — which extensive research has shown is a very common response to trauma.
“I revealed a lot in that session about my background,” the woman said, “so, it’s pretty disturbing to me that he decided to target me later, and I feel like he used that information to target me.”
Despite the fact that she had some reservations about the program, she said that when Bearman offered her a place on the leadership team for the next year, she agreed. She said Bearman became more flirtatious as her second year began.
Early this year, Bearman learned that she had broken up with her long-term boyfriend and within days invited her to a party at his house in the Oakland hills where everyone would get naked and take psychedelic drugs, she said. She was curious and agreed to go.[pullquote-2]
According to the lawsuit, at the beginning of the party, Bearman gave a talk about consent. He provided two options for drugs: a “spicy” and a “mild” dose of 2C-B, a psychedelic that can cause intense hallucinations and is sometimes used as an aphrodisiac or mistaken for Ecstasy. Even the “mild” dose was 30 mg, which is very strong, and the “spicy” was 60 mg, an extremely high amount not typically taken recreationally.
Curious but inexperienced with psychedelics, the woman planned on taking the mild dose, but Bearman talked her into taking the “spicy” one, arguing that it was necessary to get the full effects of the drug, she said. As everyone in the room got naked and started talking to each other, she said, the other attendees expressed shock when they found out that she didn’t typically do psychedelic drugs or attend sex parties.
The woman said that as the drugs kicked in, she found herself incapacitated. Everything in the room was moving, as she searched to find something that looked solid. She lay flat on her back for a long time and was unaware of what was going on in the room. “It was scary to imagine sitting up or standing because nothing was solid,” she said.
Eventually, she alleges in the lawsuit, she blacked out until she became aware that someone was on top of her — Bearman. She said she struggled to figure out what was going on, or even who he was. “His face spans out like 40 faces are looking at me, it looked like a peacock,” she said in an interview, describing the effects of the drug on her. “And he’s saying stuff, and all 40 lips move, and there’s some kind of weird spiral pattern happening in his beard.”
In that state, Bearman asked her if they could have sex, though he acknowledged they were already having sex at that point, she said in the lawsuit.
As the drugs started wearing off, she was sitting on the couch feeling disoriented, disturbed, and overwhelmed, she said. Bearman sat next to her. She recalled that he said, “I’m so proud of us, because somehow even though we were both really high, you were able to form words and I was able to form words and I asked you if we could have sex and you said yes.”
“It was hands down one of the most disturbing interactions I have ever had,” she said.
The next morning, she left early. It took time for her to identify just how harmful the night had been, so she went back to work, though she resolved to avoid any future sexual encounters with Bearman. She said she felt “shut down” as she returned to Interchange.
Leadership team members say they were compensated with training instead of money and entitled to one free counseling session with Bearman. Jane Zoe 4 said she went to the free session toward the end of the year, which was once again at Bearman’s house. She recalled thinking that despite what happened at the party there was no way that he would breach his ethical boundaries so severely as to attempt to have sex with someone in the context of a counseling session.
This time, Bearman wanted to have the session in his bedroom, she said. “From the very first sentence of that session, he manipulated it,” she said. He brought up her childhood trauma and refused to give her an opportunity to shape the direction of the session, she said. When she wanted to take notes, he told her not to — that he would remember the session for her, she said. “Don’t figure it out,” he told her repeatedly, she recalled. By the end, she was feeling completely dissociated and had cried so hard that her contact lenses fell from her eyes. Right after that, he asked her to have sex, she said. She said in the lawsuit that he penetrated her without her consent. She told the Express that she lay nearly motionless throughout and left in a confused daze.
She said the experience has left her distrustful of therapists, complicating her efforts to heal. She has nightmares that Bearman is in her house and wakes up to turn on the lights to make sure that he’s not in her bedroom.
Steve Bearman grew up in Connecticut and went to college at Hampshire College, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts known for its alternative curriculum. According to his LinkedIn profile, he earned a bachelor’s degree in “Personal Transformation and Social Change.”
In the late 1990s, Bearman was a volunteer instructor in San Francisco with Re-evaluation Counseling, a Seattle-based group that practices co-counseling. It was founded in the 1950s by Harvey Jackins, who was later accused of sexual misconduct and rape in the 1980s.
Jane Zones (her real name), who was Bearman’s supervisor at Re-evaluation, said in an interview that Bearman was a volunteer teacher and student but that the organization stripped him of his teaching credential in 1999 because of a sexual harassment accusation to which he admitted. Two knowledgeable sources told the Express that Bearman admitted he got fired for masturbating on the phone while counseling a patient. Bearman had no further contact with Re-evaulation after losing his teaching credential, despite being eligible to stay on as a student, according to Zones and one person close to Bearman who said he told the person the same thing.
While she hasn’t talked to him since, Zones said she reviewed the Interchange website before talking to the Express and that there were many similarities between Re-evaluation’s program and Interchange. A major difference was that Bearman’s program was far more expensive: Re-evaluation’s teachers are paid directly by students in very modest amounts.
“It looks like he took the ideas that he had been exposed to in co-counseling and applied them to a place that he could make a lot of money,” she said.[pullquote-3]
But even as he left Re-evaluation, Bearman was gaining notoriety as an expert in gender roles and sexual development. His 2000 essay, “Why Men Are So Obsessed With Sex,” was quoted at length in feminist writer and activist bell hooks’ 2004 book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love. In the chapter “Male Sexual Being,” hooks argued that the conflation of sex with violence and power in the culture and the male psyche has left men obsessive, addicted, and in pain, desperate for release. Praising his “keen insight,” she quoted Bearman saying, “even if we do not engage compulsively in anonymous casual sex, pornography, masturbation, or fetishistic attempts to recover what has been forgotten, sex nevertheless takes on an addictive character.”
Bearman founded his counseling program, originally called Radical Counseling, in 2002. The next year, he enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, eventually earning his master’s degree in 2006 and a Ph.D. in 2009. But his degree did not qualify him to be a clinician. “The Ph.D. is a research degree,” notes the description of the program on the university website. “The program does not offer courses, training, or supervision in counseling or clinical psychology.”
In Interchange’s early years, Bearman taught small groups of 20 to 30 students who met at the San Francisco Zen Center. That began changing after Margo Brockman, a tech business development professional, enrolled in the program in 2009. The next year, she became Bearman’s business partner, kicking off a major expansion.
Brockman had years of experience in business and marketing for technology companies. According to her LinkedIn profile, she was the director of business development for FareChase, Inc., a travel search engine, until it was acquired by Yahoo in 2004. She stayed on at Yahoo as a senior manager for business development until 2008, when she joined video discovery engine VideoSurf as vice president of marketing.
Her LinkedIn profile also lists her as the co-owner of Interchange Counseling as of March 2011. On March 13, 2012, Interchange Counseling Institute, LLC, registered with the California Secretary of State’s office, with Brockman listed as the contact.[pullquote-4]
With Brockman on board, Interchange revamped its website, adding professional-quality videos and photos that gave it an air of legitimacy. The videos featured testimonials from former students and showed off Bearman’s fast talking, relentlessly positive, and engaging speaking style, projecting an air of wisdom and emotional maturity. He talked animatedly with his hands moving, his eyebrows arched, and a fixed, inviting smile.
In one video posted in 2013, called “How to Flirt (with everything),” Bearman discussed how he was so flirtatious, he could even flirt with inanimate objects like a tree. In another video published that year called “Getting Good at Getting Rejected,” he discussed the importance of recognizing an equivocal “no.”
“If you start asking for what you want a lot, you’ll find that a lot of people are not very good at saying ‘no’; they want to say ‘no,’ but they’re not good at it,” he said in the video. “They waffle, they’re ambivalent, they make excuses, and if you notice that happening, you can say, ‘Hey listen, it seems to me that you’d really just like to say ‘no’ to me. And I want to invite you to do that. If you’re down, I’m open to just receiving a clear ‘no’ from you, if you’d like to practice saying ‘no.'”
Yet despite the fact that Bearman extolled the virtues of informed consent in his videos, the lawsuit and the women tell a very different story of how he behaved behind closed doors.
The second woman who talked to the Express about Bearman is identified in the lawsuit as Jane Zoe 5. In her interview and in the suit, she describes attending a sex party with Bearman in July 2012 at his house, where they also took 2C-B.
She said that, at the party, he offered “mild,” “medium,” and “spicy” variations of the dosage, but in this case the “spicy” dose was much more in line with typical recreational use, about 25 mg. After being up all night at the party, the woman said she fell asleep, exhausted.
“As the sun was rising, I woke up to Steve having sex with me. Blurry eyed and not knowing what was going on, I asked him how long this had been going on for,” she said. About 10 minutes, she recalled him telling her. She made the same allegation in the lawsuit.
“It was very disorienting and very confusing,” she said. “I didn’t quite understand the impact of it all, but I knew I didn’t feel well.”
The woman said that a couple days later, she called a rape hotline and was told that most rapes are committed by people known to the victim, rather than by a stranger. At the time, she didn’t want to put Interchange and Bearman at jeopardy, so she declined to identify herself or Bearman to the rape hotline counselors — something she says she now regrets.
She alleges in the lawsuit that she confided what had happened to Brockman, who at first was concerned but later dismissed her. When the woman confronted Bearman, he told her that he hadn’t raped her and to stop using the word “rape,” she said.
“That really shut me down and left this trauma unprocessed for many years,” she said. “For many years, I was silent about this. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. Out of fear of ruining Steve’s reputation and ruining Interchange, I didn’t speak about it.”
The third woman who talked to the Express, an Oakland woman in her 30s identified in the lawsuit as Jane Zoe 1, said in an interview and the suit that she was assaulted by Bearman during a confusing series of “experiments” that he concocted — counseling sessions ostensibly held to help her get over her issues of shame around sex, but which ultimately left her feeling traumatized and betrayed. She said he introduced LSD and Ecstasy into the experiments — drugs she had no experience with.
She had attended Interchange when it was much smaller. She enjoyed the program and found it helpful with her development. “He really positively helped transform a lot of things for me,” she said.
After finishing Interchange, she kept in touch with Bearman and one day in 2012 she went out to dinner with him and two other people, she said. The woman said she sat down with Bearman at the restaurant first while the two others were still outside, and Bearman bluntly began the conversation by asking: “So, how’s your sex life?”
She said she was taken aback but trusted him because of her experience with the program and confessed that she was still struggling with shame issues that got in the way of her sex life. The conversation was short, because the other two people came to the table, but after dinner, as the woman was dropping everyone off, Bearman was the last to get out of the car and told her he’d be “happy to help” with her shame issues, she said.
The next day, she sent him an email, asking him about his offer. She was confused about what exactly he meant — whether he was offering to counsel her and whether she would have to pay him for the service or not. Bearman responded, asking what she wanted and suggested that they set up a time to meet, she said.[pullquote-5]
She said he had her meet him in his bedroom, where she shared her troubles about setting boundaries, how she had difficulty backing out of a situation that she’d already said “yes” to, and how she tends to freeze in such situations and is unable to communicate.
Bearman proposed an experiment but said he would not be a counselor, but instead bring his “whole human self” to the sessions, she said. He asked her if she saw him as a peer or as a teacher still. “I said that I saw him as a peer, but I don’t think I really understood the power differential that was still there,” she said. He also agreed that nothing physical or sexual would happen without her explicit request or consent, which made her feel safe, she said.
The sessions started fairly innocently. Bearman had her practice setting boundaries, asking her questions like if he could put his hand on her knee and having her say “yes” or “no,” she said. But he also sought to have her push her boundaries and push the edge of what she was comfortable with, she added. By the end of the first session, they both ended up stripping down to their underwear, she said.
After the first session, she wasn’t sure if they would continue, particularly at no cost. But Bearman wrote to her weeks later. “I was just thinking about how much I enjoyed the first part of our two-part session,” he wrote in a Facebook message that the woman read to the Express. “When did we say we were going to schedule part two?”
When she pointed out that they had never discussed a second session, he wrote, “I’m glad you appreciate my slightly coercive humor.”
She went for a second session, and then a third, all in his bedroom and moving toward sexual activity, she said. She had refused to kiss him, but he pushed her to break that boundary, she said. She alleges in the lawsuit that, in the third session, he talked her into taking a small dose of LSD. They ended up naked, with Bearman on top of her, when she started crying, she said. But, according to her interview and the lawsuit, he stopped when she wanted to stop, so she felt safe.
She said that at the very next session, he ended up on top of her, naked once again. This time he started chanting, “open open open open” as if to say, “open up and let me in,” she alleges in the lawsuit. She froze. “All of a sudden I felt like I lost control. I got super scared. I felt like all the power and control that I felt in the situation was gone,” she said. She disassociated and froze, a response she’d already told Bearman she had in such situations, but she said Bearman didn’t seem to notice or care.
Bearman entered her without a condom, she alleges in the suit. The assault was brief because they were interrupted when someone knocked on his bedroom door, she said. The woman left still feeling frozen and stunned.
She said Bearman had explained to her how he felt like condom use was unnecessary, that he had researched how, within his community, rates of sexually transmitted diseases were low, and furthermore, he could control his ejaculation. Several other women told the Express that Bearman said similar things to them.
It was so traumatizing, she said, that she tried to block the experience from her mind. She didn’t know what to do and didn’t feel safe talking to anyone about it because he had told her not to speak to anyone from Interchange about these experiments, she said. She was confused and she still badly wanted healing around her shame issues, which she still hoped that Bearman could offer.
In another session, Bearman suggested they take Ecstasy together, but she initially declined because she’d never taken drugs like that, she said. Bearman told her that he had done another counseling session with someone on Ecstasy and thought it could be helpful to do it together, she said. Despite her declining, Bearman kept pushing the suggestion, and eventually she agreed, she said.
She said that when she took the drug, Bearman suggested they immediately get naked. As it kicked in, she was hit by waves of fear and shame and started crying uncontrollably. “I was just bawling my eyes out about how terrified I was,” she said. He spent a long time reassuring her before she started feeling more comfortable and even euphoric from the drugs, she said. This time, she initiated sex because she wasn’t feeling so ashamed anymore, she said, but acknowledged in retrospect she wouldn’t have initiated sex if not for the drugs.
She said the experience did feel healing — that because of the drugs she didn’t feel any shame around sex. But she said Bearman accidentally ejaculated inside of her, and so she took a morning after pill the next day.[pullquote-6]
After that, Bearman’s attitude toward her changed, and she felt like instead of helping her with healing, he was asking her on dates and treating her like a lover, she said. He invited her to sex parties, including one for his birthday where everyone was taking LSD, she said. Bearman convinced her to take two hits of LSD, she said, despite her only experience with the drug being the small dose during the earlier session. Bearman tried to initiate sex there as well, but, overwhelmed by the drugs, she rebuffed him, she said.
The boundaries of the experiments and the idea of healing seemed to be gone entirely, she said. When she asked Bearman about it, she recalled that he said that he thought she’d “graduated.”
In retrospect, she said, the entire ordeal left her with “a lot more trauma.”
“I’ve never felt so betrayed by anyone,” she said. “My trust for people is significantly worse. Now, I’m questioning myself, questioning everything. It really hurt me, it rocked my whole community, it’s not just me, it’s everyone I’m around.”
In the 2011-12 school year, Interchange moved to a larger space at Fort Mason. With Brockman on board, the program grew quickly: There were about 60 students that year, and the next year, about 140. In 2013-14, there were 150 students, and Interchange reached its peak during the 2014-15 class, when there were about 160 students and 20 members of the leadership team. Tuition cost up to $8,800 per student, and classes were held on 10 weekends between October and May. Each weekend had a theme, like “Love and Shame,” “Healing Old Hurts” and “Deconstructing Limiting Beliefs.” A major aspect of the curriculum was co-counseling, during which students would take turns counseling each other. They confessed secrets, took notes, and uploaded them to the Interchange website, where Bearman could access it all.
Bearman would perform public counseling demonstrations a few times each weekend, a favorite activity for many of the participants. According to several participants, he would often surprise those he counseled by revealing intimate details about them to the entire group. The revelations led to deep bonds between Interchange students, who still describe each other like family and speak fondly about their participation in the program — even those who ended up feeling betrayed by Bearman. But even among those who liked the program, there were whispers about Bearman’s behavior.
Airial Clark, who would be hired as one of Interchange’s few paid employees and would become integral to its day-to-day functioning, first joined Interchange as a student in 2014. Clark had graduated with a master’s degree in relationships and sexuality from San Francisco State University in 2012. But her degree didn’t have a clinical aspect, so she was looking for a coaching certificate. She had heard about the program and decided to join after a man she was dating had a good experience at Interchange. A single mother of two teenage sons, she arranged for a work-trade to help her afford tuition.
While she had little interaction with Bearman in her first year, Clark caught Brockman’s attention. In April 2015, Brockman noticed a website Clark had put together for her own coaching practice and recruited her to help Interchange revamp its website. In expanding her role and working with Brockman, Clark quickly discovered that Bearman was doing little of the day-to-day business, like admissions and accounting. Most of that was handled by Brockman.
Brockman eventually offered Clark a full-time job to handle administrative work while she concentrated on renovating a new space at Treasure Island. Until Clark was hired, Brockman and Bearman did not intend for Interchange to meet during the 2015-16 school year. But with Clark’s assistance, they managed to open the Treasure Island space, dubbed Hearts Open Minds Expanded or HOME, by October 2015, and the school met there for the first time. Students were signed up for the program as quickly as possible.
Clark also had access to the business accounting, and she said that while Interchange was pulling in as much as $750,000 per year, the few paid employees were classified as independent contractors and paid no benefits or overtime. Much of the other labor, including group leaders, photographers, web designers, and manual labor was paid through tuition exchanges. The Treasure Island facility cost $10,600 per month to rent, but because they were only using it one weekend a month, they could make up the cost by renting it for other events.
With Clark on board and the Treasure Island project done, she said, Brockman’s role in Interchange declined considerably, and by the end of the 2015-16 school year, she was doing basically no work, though she continued on as a co-owner. Clark conducted admissions for the school alone for the 2016-17 session, a task that took her 70 hours a week, but she was still being paid as an independent contractor, she said. On Jan. 6, 2017, new documents were filed with the Secretary of State’s Office listing Bearman — not Brockman — as the contact.
Clark recalled that as her role in Interchange grew, Bearman told her that she’d learn more about him but that he expected her to keep his secrets. At the time, Clark knew that he had sexual relationships with people on the leadership team and would make advances on students shortly after they graduated but had no sense of anything beyond that. And while she didn’t get along well with Bearman, she loved the broader community, thinking of them as family, and wanted to keep her job.[pullquote-7]
On March 28, 2016, the state Board of Psychology sent Bearman a cease and desist letter warning him to remove language on his LinkedIn and Yelp pages indicating he was a licensed psychologist. According to state law, to call himself a psychologist or therapist, he needed a license through the state, but anyone is free to call themselves a counselor or life coach.
The letter, which the Express reviewed, pointed out that Bearman’s LinkedIn page listed him as a “social psychologist” in the field of “mental health care.” His skills section listed expertise in psychology, therapists, and treatment. A follow-up letter sent on April 20, 2016, warned Bearman that he was still not in compliance, because he continued to list skills in psychology. Sandra Monterrubio, enforcement manager for the state Board of Psychology, said in an interview that Bearman was found to be in compliance in May 2016 and was never disciplined.
A San Francisco woman identified in the lawsuit as Jane Zoe 2 alleges that she was assaulted twice during parties at Bearman’s house in Oakland, inside a sauna that was in his bedroom, she said in an interview and in the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the woman was an Interchange student from 2015 to 2016. She said she enjoyed the program but didn’t really have any interactions with Bearman for months until she went to a separate workshop he ran — the Deep Dating workshop — in March 2016 and Bearman invited her and her partner at the time to a party at his house that night.
It was a big party with about 200 people wandering his large property in the Oakland hills. As she and her boyfriend were exploring Bearman’s spacious house, they discovered the sauna in his bedroom and went inside. At first, they were alone, but Bearman and a few other people came in a few minutes later.
Bearman and the others were naked, she said, and he encouraged her and her partner to take their clothes off. Eventually, they did, she said.
“At that point, he grabbed me and pulled me onto his lap and started groping me,” the woman said. “I was very frozen. He was kind of touching me everywhere. He was nuzzling his head into my neck and making some moaning sounds.” She made the same allegation in the lawsuit.
It went on for a couple minutes, she said, with the sauna quiet until her boyfriend spoke up. “Can I have her back?” she recalls him saying, which prompted her to unfreeze and move away from Bearman.
Back at Interchange, Bearman treated her differently. “He got very flirty, a little creepy” in a way that made her uncomfortable, she said.
In August, after the Interchange session was over, the woman went back for another party at Bearman’s house. There were about 100 people there, and when Bearman saw her, he lavished attention on her, she said.
“He was kind of following me around. He was looking at me a lot. He was trying to get my attention and talk to me a lot,” she said. “He was very forceful with his attention, and I was very overwhelmed by it.”
Bearman convinced her to go to the sauna with him, despite her hesitations, and once they were there, he was all over her, she alleges in the lawsuit. She said she tried to tell him that she didn’t want to be sexual with him, but he didn’t say anything in response.
He tried to insert his penis into her without a condom, she said in the lawsuit and an interview. She squirmed and asked what he was doing, and he started telling her about how condoms are useless, she alleges in the suit.
“‘I’m not even sure I like you. I certainly don’t like you like that,” she said to him, according to the suit, and he responded, “I love you,” and penetrated her without her consent, while she lay still and frozen.
A Berkeley woman identified in the lawsuit as Jane Zoe 3 accuses Bearman of sexually assaulting her after pressing her repeatedly to take a high dose of 2C-B with him. She alleges in the lawsuit that he had already shown a lack of respect for her boundaries, including penetrating her without a condom before she’d consented, trying to coerce her with his spiel about how condoms aren’t necessary.
The woman had first heard about Interchange at Burning Man and joined in 2015. She had gone to an introductory session at Bearman’s house, where Bearman did a public counseling session about vulnerability and struggles with disease. The woman, who was suffering from cancer, was impressed by the session and decided to join.
She thought of Bearman like a professor, though she became aware that he was likely having a sexual relationship with at least one member of the leadership team.
After the year was over, the woman attended the Advanced Loving Retreat, a retreat for Interchange graduates that included exercises like pretending to be on Ecstasy and interacting without inhibitions.
Bearman spoke extensively about polyamory and sexual freedom during the retreat — concepts he’d introduced several weeks into the Interchange program. The woman said that during some of the exercises, Bearman would lie on top of female students.[pullquote-8]
At the retreat, the woman said, she realized she was feeling some attraction toward Bearman and decided to address it with him, expecting him to set clear boundaries as a teacher and counselor. Instead, he told her he was excited about spending more time with her, she said.
She said his response left her confused and unsure of how to proceed. She worried that she would need to pursue the relationship to fit in, in particular because she’d already applied to be on the leadership team. She alleges in the lawsuit that she found herself constantly trying to prevent him from touching her, and at one point, he even pulled her on top of him while he was naked in a hot tub.
Despite not having experience in polyamorous relationships, she found Bearman’s idea of polyamory lacking, because he wasn’t practicing clear and open communication, instead behaving secretively about who he was having sex with, she said.
She returned to Interchange the next year as a member of the leadership team, and she felt Bearman was working to chip away at her boundaries, she said. He would cuddle her and sit on her during breaks while she was trying to socialize with other people, she said. “When you do that to a person in a public space, you’re not exactly setting me up to be in a place where I can say, ‘Please don’t do that,'” she told the Express.
She attended a free counseling session with Bearman as part of her compensation for being on the leadership team, which he held in his bedroom, according to the lawsuit. During the session, she said, he tried to counsel her on her cancer and eventually pulled her on top of him, held her stomach, and told her, “You’re OK now, you’re safe now.” She cried for an hour. Eventually, he started to move his body sexually, gyrating his hips against her, she said in the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, a month later, in March, the woman was back at Bearman’s house for a leadership training day and they started making out, she said. After they got undressed, Bearman suddenly penetrated her without a condom, she said. She tried to stop him and tell him she wanted to talk about what was happening, but he said, “I trust you” and continued, she said in the lawsuit.
She was uncomfortable with the experience, and tried to talk to him about it, but he again lectured her about how condoms were unnecessary, she said. She attended a safe sex workshop a short time later and described to the leader there what had happened, who called it out as coercion.
In March, Bearman started asking her to take 2C-B with him, she said in the lawsuit. She kept rescheduling, partly because of a scare that her cancer had returned and partly because she was uncomfortable with the idea, as she had little experience with 2C-B.
Bearman got upset with her, telling her how terrible it felt that she kept cancelling their plans, she said. She tried to make plans to do something else, but he insisted that they do something equivalent to what he wanted: taking 2C-B, she said in an interview and the lawsuit. He finally pressured her into setting a day in April and asked her to keep it a secret, she said.
He gave her an extremely large dose — 60 mg — and she quickly became overwhelmed; her body was shaking and she could barely talk, she said. Once she was in that state, Bearman started raping her, she alleges in the lawsuit. She could barely talk but tried to stop him by waving her hands and asked for water. He responded, “You seem to be OK,” and continued, she alleges in the lawsuit. She fell into an unconscious dream state and couldn’t move for the next six hours, she said.
The other woman accusing Bearman of assault in the lawsuit declined to be interviewed, but her story as told in the complaint shares many similarities with those of the other women. The Oakland woman, identified as Jane Zoe 6 in the lawsuit, describes going to Bearman’s house last summer, where he talked her into taking 60 mg of 2C-B anally. She alleges in the complaint that she could barely move or speak under the influence of the drugs, when Bearman raped her.
The other 12 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who are identified in the complaint as Jane Zoes or John Roes, make a litany of accusations against Bearman, Brockman, and Interchange. The lawsuit calls out Bearman’s lack of qualifications for the work he was doing, how Interchange had no accreditation as a school despite comparing itself to other accredited programs, and says members of the leadership team should have been financially compensated for their labor. The suit alleges that enrollees at Interchange were subject to sexual harassment by Bearman, who made students uncomfortable by touching them inappropriately during a school setting. The suit also states that Bearman used psychological tricks to quash harassment complaints, deflecting criticism back to the accuser and saying that their discomfort was merely a manifestation of their own issues or trauma.
Some members of the leadership team said that, last summer, they started hearing accusations that Bearman had committed rape. One member confronted Bearman directly and accused him of assaulting his girlfriend. The man, who asked not to be identified because it would identify his partner, said the conversation lasted about an hour, with Bearman making excuses for his behavior and why the encounters were consensual.
Airial Clark said Bearman then asked her to remove the man from the leadership team and refund his money. She said that when she asked Bearman why he wanted the person removed, he admitted that the man had accused him of nonconsensual sex but claimed that the woman was actually just upset because he didn’t want to date her. She said this was the first time that she realized what Bearman might have done.
In August, Bearman went to Oregon for the total solar eclipse and immediately after went to Burning Man, so he was gone for most of the month. Clark was left in charge of preparation for the upcoming school year. During that time, a woman contacted Clark and told her over dinner that Bearman had given her a large amount of drugs and had sex with her while she was incapacitated, Clark said. The woman said Bearman had warned her not to say anything because it would be bad for Interchange, Clark said. Suddenly, Clark was sure that she had to act.
Meanwhile, other members of the leadership team started hearing more stories and a few people began devising a plan to confront and potentially expose Bearman. When Bearman returned from Burning Man, Clark confronted him with what she heard, and, according to her, he said he’d made some mistakes, called it a misunderstanding, and said he would handle it.
When Clark went to confide in another friend, her friend said that she’d had a similar experience with Bearman, too, Clark said. “She was so afraid to tell me,” Clark said.
The same thing happened when Clark confided in another friend, whom Clark said told a similar story and said she had heard stories from other women. Clark said she resolved to quit her job, told Bearman she wasn’t coming to work the next day, and sent a resignation letter two days later.
Without Clark, Bearman attempted to proceed with the Interchange session this fall, holding an introductory day and enrolling students. While some members of the leadership team pitched in, Clark reached out to many of them and explained why she had quit. As a result, many of them refused to help Bearman.
More women started coming forward to Clark, and eventually, more than a dozen women told her some kind of disturbing story about Bearman. Clark and other members of the incoming leadership team started collecting written accounts from the women, closely guarding the details, and then held two meetings to review the stories and discuss them.
On Sept. 24, the leadership team called a meeting to confront Bearman. According to three people who were present at the meeting, Bearman cried throughout. Many of the people there were clear that Interchange could not continue, because it had no accountability mechanisms for Bearman. But not everyone was convinced. Some people had not had a chance to read the women’s stories, creating some confusion, while others seemed to try to minimize the seriousness of the allegations, arguing that Bearman, as a leader, was being held to a higher standard than others in the community would be.
Despite the pressure to step down, by the end of the meeting, Bearman had come up with a plan to turn Interchange over to a small group from the incoming leadership team. The details of the transition were never worked out, however, and three days later, Bearman posted his announcement that Interchange would shutter.
But even after announcing the school was closing, Bearman seemed to imply it could all be temporary. “All of this is why I am taking a hiatus from teaching,” he wrote. “While maintaining a boundary with students and graduates of my programs going forward is a straightforward way to make sure I don’t cause future harm, it’s not enough. The extent of my unconsciousness, and the degree to which I’ve been defending it, makes it inappropriate to continue teaching at the moment. Until I get enough help to become more conscious, I’m not fit to lead.”
The women accusing Bearman of sexual assault told the Express that they found his post deeply unsatisfying. One woman described Bearman’s apology as “image saving” and scoffed at the implication that he didn’t realize that what he’d done was rape. Bearman presented himself as an expert in consent but tried to plead ignorance of all the boundaries he had violated, she said. The congratulatory nature of many of the comments, praising Bearman for his courage, were just as painful to her. “It was horrifying. I was so mad,” she said.
“When I read it, I sat there and I just bawled my eyes out,” another woman said. “First of all, I didn’t know it was coming; it just shocked the hell out of me. He did say some things in it that were helpful that I needed to hear, and that’s what I took in first, and then I was like, ‘But wait a second, there’s a whole lot missing here, and you’re getting praised left and right for this, and you’re not admitting what you admitted to privately.'”
Bearman never responded to any of the hundreds of comments on his Facebook post. And in the weeks after announcing Interchange had closed, his public profile vanished. Whether it was his intention to try to return to teaching is unclear, but the lawsuit and criminal investigation will likely make that extremely difficult for some time. “I am determined never to harm anyone in such ways again,” Bearman wrote. “I am also determined to uproot whatever made it possible to cause such harm in the first place.”[pdf-1]