hugo schwyzer’s suicide attempt, the feminist response, and the tension of holding horrible things alongside possiblity
The term that keeps coming to mind as I think about this is “fundamentalism.” I see it so often all over the place and also in myself. I grew up in fundamentalism and as a result it’s imprinted on me to some extent. It probably isn’t exactly in my DNA, but possibly on my bones or maybe some cartilage, and through all my years in therapy and through my grieving and raging and healing process, I became aware that fundamentalist tendencies in me are probably stronger than in the average person (though I feel the average person does carry those stripes as well, only because as humans we love rules that will keep us safe and protected, and we don’t like muddling in the gray, where it gets dodgy. No alarms and no surprises, please).
So for whoever is reading this, I need you to know that I feel that whatever healing I’ve managed and whatever rage I’ve connected with over my mistreatment/abuse has been informed by my becoming aware of my fundamentalist DNA (or bones or cartilage). I could never have healed without realizing that I myself carry those fundamentalist leanings in some way. And this has been an awful realization because it puts me in the same league as my abusers. (I am so afraid that at this point many people will stop reading. That’s a risk, I guess.) But it’s also been a beautiful realization because it puts me in league with, well, humans. We all live in quiet desperation much of the time. We do bad things to others, and when we do, we need someone to say “what you did was wrong, and I am not minimizing how much harm you caused, but I think you have intrinsic worth so I’ll stick around if you make some changes.” That is health and that is redemptive.
I read a piece recently that said many people love a redemption narrative and will readily brush aside the abuse caused by the person seeking redemption in order to feel the good part of redemption. I think this is so true. I feel very strongly that there is something in human nature that wants to skip over the hard, ugly part and get to the fuzzy, copacetic part. But I also feel very strongly that we can’t have true redemption or forgiveness without exposing the bad part and bringing that to light. I have this thing where I am open to the possibility that we were meant for an ideal. I don’t know for sure that we are, but the idea resonates really deeply for me. And I feel very strongly that abuse separates both the abuser and the abused from that ideal. And honestly, the deepest and most euphoric freedom I have ever felt has been when I feel the effects of true forgiveness and restoration, mine or someone else’s. I could never put words to how it feels beyond saying I have the deepest sense that strong bonds of connection are being made and that something ancient and deeply purposeful is taking place. It feels sacred, I guess. It feels beyond anything concrete that I could come up with, and big changes have happened in my life and in my friends’ lives as a result.
Which is why I cannot, cannot get on board with hopelessness. I just can’t. I feel it’s antithetical to the humanist and feminist causes. I say this as a survivor of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and as someone who has been disowned by my parents after I set boundaries with them that they may not shame me anymore. I get really discouraged, but I work very hard not to lose hope because I have seen impossibly beautiful things come from the worst messes. I can never tell when exactly someone will have a change of heart and that redemption will take place, but I’ve seen it happen many times. Which is why I have been weeping over the response to Hugo Schwyzer’s recent suicide attempt. (I have been trying to rewrite that sentence for ten minutes now because the word “weeping” is dramatic and feels indulgent, but there’s no other word for what I’m doing, I am completely gutted by it.) In case you’ve never heard of him, Hugo Schwyzer is a gender studies professor who writes for Jezebel, Salon and the Atlantic who has admitted to sexual assault and to attempting to kill his ex-girlfriend. He’s done horrendous things. He got sober and talked about wanting to make changes, and it appears he did make steps towards those. (I am saying all of this as someone who does not know him.) Many people take issue with the fact that he calls himself a male feminist and aligns himself with feminist causes. I completely understand why feminists, or any humans, take issue with this. Many people feel that he has sought out press in a way that feels self-aggrandizing and unrepentant. It really rubs people the wrong way, for good reason. It comes off as obnoxious (to put it very mildly) to have committed rape and attempted murder and then to give interviews about your reformation. AND YET. Hugo is human and he just attempted suicide. He suffers from mental illness. He has horrible things in his past that he is working to overcome. He likely has no concept of truly giving himself kindness. A very significant part of my own healing has been to give myself space to screw up. For 32 years I never let myself screw up. I mean, I screwed up constantly, but I internalized so much self-loathing surrounding it. I could not cut myself the tiniest break. And this absolutely informed my treatment of others. I couldn’t cut them a break. I saw myself in them and in their screwing up, but I looked at them and myself with contempt. They were weak and pathetic, just like me. I couldn’t get past how others couldn’t foresee their mistakes and circumvent making them. I had no space for their humanity, just like I didn’t have any space for mine, and I want to say very earnestly and dorkily with no hyperbole that I was living in a sort of hell. To not have empathy and compassion on myself or on others was a form of being tightly bound and enslaved. I had no means of breaking those constraints because I couldn’t fully see what was constraining me. I was angry, for good reason, and I was without hope that I could ever be anything other than angry. I lived this way for at least 32 years.
Here comes the redemption narrative that people aren’t so sure about. But it makes sense that some people are wary of redemption narratives. We are skeptical of them because the concept of grace has almost certainly been used against us if we grew up in fundamentalism. We were taught to excuse our abusers and “give them grace,” and then we were shamed if we did not want to or could not give them grace. That shame was placed back on US. That shame actually belonged on the person who harmed us, but instead it was transferred to us, the victims. I believe that’s called gaslighting: being made to feel as if you are the one in the wrong so your abuser doesn’t have to carry the consequence of what he or she did. As victims, we were conditioned to accept this kind of treatment. And when we finally woke up to the reality that we were being abused, we named it and attempted by whatever means we could to expose it, and were told to “just give grace” to our abusers. This excused the behavior of the abuser, and true grace and forgiveness were not able to take place. And I have to say that when this happened, evil won. Destruction won. We were crushed and we were owned and innocence was lost. That demands to be mourned. Our mourning turned to rage, very justified rage. And that rage had no outlet because we were trapped within the cycle fundamentalism.
A catalyst in my recovery was this perspective by Desmond Tutu:
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing….Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering — remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
This sentiment is so powerful and it is why I’m drawn to Christianity, even though I can’t call myself a Christian. I feel with my whole heart that this is a philosophy that can change the world. And it is a very, very tenuous thing to hold well. Excruciating tension is present in this picture. In order to truly enter into forgiveness, we need to name and expose the abuse, the awfulness, the hurt, and the truth. And it sometimes makes things worse. Bringing the horrors of abuse will almost certainly exacerbate the situation. Telling these truths humiliates your abuser, and they very likely will not want to own their part in your harm. I know this because I have abused people. I have been spiritually and emotionally abusive and have deeply harmed people. Being confronted with it drove me into denial. I thought I couldn’t possibly have harmed someone the way they say I harmed them. It was much too painful to conceive that I could have harmed as I had been harmed. I didn’t have space for that possibility. And when, by some means I still have no explanation for, I did make space for it, the effects were devastating. I went through all the stages of grief. Because that is really what it was about: the deep grief that I could have done what had been done to me. I was in the lowest space I may have ever been in, and what brought me out of it was kindness. I was told that I was forgiven. And I was more moved than I’ve ever been because I recognized the risk they were taking by offering me kindness and, well, grace. I had never known grace to be a healing measure. I had only known it to be another mechanism of abuse. It had been wielded against me and I had been shamed for not giving my abusers grace. But my abusers had only attempted superficial reconciliation. They did not acknowledge their abuse when it was exposed. When I received actual grace, when someone reserved their right to hit back at me when they had every reason to, I finally saw how healing was possible. They did not endorse forgiving and forgetting. They remembered my abuse towards them and they named it, but they also forgave and we moved forward and I was a changed person. I am a changed person.
This is why I grieve Hugo’s suicide attempt. He has committed vile abuses and he has done a lot of interviews about it that people feel are self-aggrandizing. This kind of behavior is extremely frustrating, to put it nicely, to those who have abuse histories and are desperate for true equality. We want so much for our humanity to be taken seriously and we are furious at the cycle of abusers being let off the hook. Here is where the tension lies with the Hugo Schwyzer situation: it appears that Hugo represents yet another instance of being given cheap grace and superficial reconciliation in widely publicized articles. As a victim of the same things Hugo has done to other people, the notion of anyone getting away with violent assault makes my stomach turn. It makes me scream “how can we hold this tension well and perpetuate healing and true reconciliation and true redemption?” Not cheap, false redemption for the sake of another white male redemption narrative that will get a lot of pageviews and make the abuser look like a tortured martyr. True redemption that exposes the awfulness, it does not forget, and it does not use the right to hit back. How can we hold this situation with full exposure, realism, and also possibility?
In articles on Hugo’s recent suicide attempt I keep reading this: “The prof says Twitter and article comments roasting him as a woman hater and regurgitating a 15-year-old suicide attempt and attempted murder of a girlfriend have taken their toll.” And I continue to find many responses that maintain that the feminists who “roast” Hugo are not actually bullies. I can see both sides. Hugo has done horrible things, and he has apologized for them and made what appear to be corrective steps. He is a father. He has sought help for his illness and addictions. I can state all these things as facts, but I cannot speak to his true motives. But I can speak to my experience: the futility I have felt when someone repeatedly brings up something for which I have apologized for is one of the most desperate feelings I have ever felt. I understand that many people do not feel Hugo is truly sorry, and I understand why many do not want him to have a voice in feminism. They are likely disgusted by him and never want to hear his name again. This is valid. And I don’t say “this is valid” in a quick, cursory way: these instincts are all truly, deeply valid. They are informed by these peoples’ histories, possibly with their own abusers and how they were violently wronged and their abusers were and never will be brought to light. And alongside that, while holding every ounce of pain caused by Hugo and myself and any other abuser, I feel that assigning motives can be very dangerous. I have no idea if Hugo is truly sorry and I will probably never know, but in order to perpetuate the dignity and humanity of all people (which I believe is foundational to feminism), I believe we must honor all humanity. This is implicit in exposing the awfulness of what they have done in order to have true reconciliation. Does there come a point where my questioning the honesty of an apology and assigning motives to someone’s actions puts me in the abuser’s seat? I don’t know. I’m still working that one out, but there is something compelling about it.. I do feel there are many ways to say “I do not think Hugo should be the voice of feminism and I feel he reads as narcissistic and oily in interviews” without removing his personhood and assigning motives. I’ve seen amazing redemption happen in other places in areas I have thought were hopeless. I feel that much of the writing I see about Hugo reduces him to being less than human.
What if we saw everyone as if they are in the middle of a redemption story? The world would change. The world would drastically change. It will take space and patience to pull this off. The eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth mentality is the same as the patriarchy, which says ‘if you break the rules then you will get broken in half, and we will hold grudges against you until you look like us.’ But mercy knows nothing of that. And when people are coming out of their abuse and are processing it they often can’t hear the words mercy and grace because those words were used against them as part of their abuse. And that is a stage we have to go through. I want to allow space for people who are in that stage. I want to make room for them to be in that stage as long as they need to. What does it mean to allow them to be in that stage, as I was in that stage, while I also hold hope for someone like Hugo? We all need help and mercy, we need to be told the truth, and we need to not be given cheap, placating treatment. How do we name harm done, while refusing to let our abusers off the hook, while refusing to be hopeless? This is my big question I am holding. It sucks. I feel pain in my chest and have been having anxiety responses all day as I’ve been trying to write this, but I honestly want to ask others to play with this question along with me and entertain it and wonder alongside me. It is much too big for me to hold by myself (that’s what she said) and I need others with me in this.