Must be nice to be able to decide to walk away from feminism. I do that and I still have to live with sexism. — Dani 2.0 (@DaniParadis)
At first I was confused – what would prompt him to quit?
I tend to shy away from other people’s opinions of people. I’ve always been a “give everybody a chance” kind of gal. I used to say that I’d trust anybody until they gave me a reason not to. I generally like to develop my own opinions of people. If you decide to hate Someone New based on Someone Else’s experience, you might miss a great relationship with Someone New that Someone Else just didn’t mesh with.
My occasional Twitter interactions with Hugo (dating back less than a year) were pleasant enough. We both had a complicated frustration with The Good Men Project and a wish that it could do more to advance gender issues. We both believed that men had a place in feminism and that our country has a nasty way of shaming all sexuality. I never felt like he was anything but a controversial guy with a controversial message and a controversial past, who was kind of self-absorbed and wrote some okay pieces about women’s issues.
His Twitter meltdown prompted me to research him further because I noticed that the feminist community had a lot to say about this turn of events. I now know lots of Someone Elses’ opinions and experiences with Hugo and they have drastically changed the color of my impression.
You know, that whole sleeping with students thing…and the history of abuse and trying to kill his ex thing…and the overt silencing of women of color…mocking of abuse survivors…and the alleged career sabotaging thing… Okay, so he’s been quite the royal asshole to quite a few women for quite a long time.
But now that it’s become so clear that he’s severely mentally ill – and at the risk of channeling my inner Chris Crocker – why can’t we just leave him alone?
Sure, he’s asking for all kinds of attention. He admitted to and shamed himself for many of his past actions during his meltdown. He even said he was sorry to some specific people, including several of the women of color he has harmed through his selfish actions.
Don’t misread me – this doesn’t excuse his behavior. Apologies don’t erase the pain that abusers cause and they don’t necessarily have to be met with forgiveness. That’s not what I’m advocating here. But what I don’t yet understand is the continued hostility.
Sure, to many, the sincerity and validity of these apologies are called into question by the fact that he was broadcasting this supposedly genuine apology for thousands of people to see – once again just being an attention-grabbing, manipulative prick, right? Right. And why was he being an attention-grabbing, manipulative prick?
Because he’s bipolar.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is characterized by severe symptoms that are treatable over the long term but difficult for family and friends to deal with.
Now, reading a fact sheet on bipolar disorder does not make me an expert of any kind. And I, of course, am a privileged white woman who does not have any serious mental health issues. I was never victimized by Hugo. So, if you think my opinion is invalid based on those facts, you’re welcome to ignore me. My privilege is there, and I’m more than aware of it.
However, I think I have enough personal experience with bipolar relationships to allow me an opinion on this. I studied mental health in college. I worked at a research institute analyzing access to mental health services for residents of poor and rural northern New York. Perhaps most pertinent: I dated someone with bipolar disorder for over 2 years.
In the beginning, my ex was an exploration. I hadn’t been out of the closet for long, wasn’t yet certain of my sexuality and had recently broken up with a long-term partner to explore my options in college.
Soon, she begged me for monogamy. Then she cheated on me – openly – without a care for getting caught. She screamed at me when she saw me drink alcohol, then consumed a rum and Coke at a party, right in front of me. She arbitrarily redefined our relationship about 10 times: We’re together! No we’re not! Yes we are! Open relationship! Need space! She blamed me for not understanding or accepting what she wanted. It was an utter roller coaster that I put up with because I was infatuated and intrigued.
She didn’t tell me her diagnoses until we had been playing tug-of-war for over a year. She was manipulative, self-centered and charming as all hell.
In the end, when we broke up, I got back together with that long-term partner. My ex went after him and she charmed him too. They boarded their own roller coaster.
Then, within weeks, she chased him down 6 flights of stairs in a dorm building, brandishing the jagged, broken leg of a metal folding chair.
While every diagnosis bipolar disorder is different and there is no “one size fits all” description of how different bodies and different brains will handle it, attention-seeking and manipulation are part of the package for many people. (Edit: not all bipolar people are violent. That’s an unfair stigma I definitely don’t want to perpetuate.) When I read Hugo’s Twitter explosion, I felt such a sense of déjà vu that I was nearly sick.
The responses to Hugo’s manic break in the feminist blogosphere were filled with vitriol, spite and a rehashing of all of his crimes. I was surprised at the tone and shocked at the attention that was being paid to this “event.”
With an understanding that many people with bipolar disorder thrive on attention and manipulation, why are we continuing to give Hugo the attention he craves? Why are we giving him exactly what he wants? It’s not going to change him, teach him any lessons, and it’s certainly not going to advance any of the goals of feminism.
I understand that Hugo’s victims need to vent. They need to feel closure, they need to feel self satisfaction at his demise. As I’ve stated, his behavior was inexcusable and victims of abuse should tell their stories and express their pain for as long as they need or want. Their healing comes first, not the abuser’s.
But consider this: might we all benefit from letting it go?
I wish I had seen it. I wish I hadn’t tweeted his work, bought his gimmick and been such a sucker for his redemption narrative. Heck, I even wish his views on gender and sexuality hadn’t aligned with mine. It feels confusing now, to share that with him.
But now, it’s time to break up. The only thing we can do to change the situation is move on.
Moving on doesn’t have to happen overnight. It doesn’t have to be smooth. You certainly don’t have to wish him well. You most certainly do NOT have to forgive him. I don’t forgive my ex; I hope I never see her or hear from her again. But I came to understand that she would not heal or change while I was still feeding her illness with my attention.
Hugo will not change as long as we shower him in attention. More importantly, I’m not sure we can heal, change or make change by continuing to talk about and rehash the actions of a man whose gift to the future of feminist thought is – at best – insignificant.
I see potential to forget about Hugo Schwyzer and whatever he did or thought he was doing or wanted to do or didn’t do for feminism. To take back what he co-opted for his own personal gain, driven by illness or self-absorption or whatever it was that motivated him. To rebuild what he tried to take. To banish him from the spaces he invaded, and be better for it.
I see the light at the end of the Hugo tunnel, and I think we should run for it.
[For the record, on the hunch that Hugo’s illness is very real, I do wish him well. I know he will get no sympathy from those he abused, and those who care about those he abused (myself included). But for the sake of compassion and every person’s right to actual (not fabricated) redemption, I hope he is surrounded by family and uplifted by somebody. No one deserves to suffer mental illness alone. I hope that someone can find a way to care for him. I hope that he gets the help he needs. Then I hope that he finds somewhere in himself an ounce of genuine humility, and finds a space to be happy.]
Edit – 8/14/13 at 4:15 pm
I have had a couple comments distinguishing Hugo’s bipolar diagnoses (which he mentioned in his Twitter break) from his “personality disorder cluster” diagnoses. My apologies for citing only his bipolar diagnoses, when his symptoms may be the result of his personality disorder. As far as I know, my ex’s behaviors were the result of being bipolar, and that’s the connection I made with the Hugo saga.
This post was also published on Sarah’s blog. Read it here.