Deconstructing Hugo: Revisited

Nearly a year ago, I researched and interviewed Hugo Schwyzer. After the interview was published, I kept up the occasional email communication with Schwyzer and continued to peruse some of his work.

After a mental breakdown this summer, Schwyzer has admitted to sleeping with students as recently as 2011, various infidelities, and his role in silencing other writers and sleeping his way into getting published. He’s confessed that he used feminism to further his own agenda and that he was not fit to be a gender studies professor and expert, as he held a degree in medieval history. He has recently disclosed that he will soon be taking a disability retirement from Pasadena City College (where he had been teaching for the last two decades) and will not be teaching again at PCC, or anywhere else.

After his recent subsequent meltdown and public confessions, I thought that there was nothing to be said about Schwyzer that hadn’t already been said. I was wrong. Some ask why anyone is still writing about him at all. The answer is that the dialogue about Hugo is really not about him. The conversation about Schwyzer reveals how we think about privilege, redemption, addiction, and power.

Hugo and Women of Color

Hugo didn’t verbally attack others because they were women of color. It’s because in this white and male dominated society, if someone calls out someone for abuses of power and the advantages of white privilege, it’s likely to be a woman of color. Hugo didn’t attack women because they were of color, he just used that to his advantage to silence them. I once showed someone Hugo’s article on racial privilege and the justice system. He responded, “I get it. So if a black guy and Hugo are in the back of a police car, and they let Hugo out, he gives the black guy a fist pump and says, ‘keep the faith, my brother’ while jumping out of the police car.” That’s the most astute observation I’ve heard on Hugo and his exploitation of his white male privilege.

On Mental Health

The mockery of his mental illness bothers me. Not because of Hugo, but because I firmly believe that if the stigma of mental illness is to be challenged, it’s time to stop dismissing claims of mental illness as “faking it.” This includes everyone, people that we respect, people that we do not respect, people that we like, people that we do not like. Mental illness is not any excuse for his past, current, or future behavior, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Yes, his repeated claims to leave the internet and swift returns reek of manipulation. However, manipulation and having a legitimate illness aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s impossible to tell how much is one and how much is the other. Only one person (possibly) knows that. I suspect that at this point he may not know. He seems to feed off of the public flogging, and it’s not uncommon for an addict to forgo one addiction for another.

Reducing the stigma of mental illness, to me, means that we can view someone as being an asshole and being mentally ill as two separate things. That you don’t have to be a beacon of virtue or an inspiration to be mentally ill. That those afflicted with mental illness are a diverse a group as any other.

If he wants redemption, no one owes it to him. People can choose whether to forgive him or not.

Fooled?

What I find perplexing about the reaction to some of his confessions is that they were public knowledge, and have been for some time now. Schwyzer’s credentials (or lack thereof), his history of attempted murder of an ex-girlfriend, and history of addiction have been well-documented, and by Schwyzer’s own hand. So when his former supporters attempt to absolve themselves of blame by claiming that he fooled them, it’s not believable. They knew of his past, that he wasn’t qualified academically or otherwise to be an expert on gender studies and continued to promote him and his work. When Schwyzer defended them on Twitter, it only made the evidence more damning. Especially damning is that Schwyzer claims that Jessica Coen fired him not because of the constant barrage of requests by commenters to do so, or his unsavory past, or because of his privileged position, but because he no longer produced enough page clicks. On various outlets, Jezebel in particular, many commenters were silenced or outright banned for criticizing Schwyzer and/or the decision to retain him as a regular columnist. How can you regularly erase or hide comments from your website while claiming ignorance of what the comments contained? I don’t believe that there isn’t the appropriate outlet for any type of writing. What I do believe is that media outlets targeted to women, mainly young women, was not the place for his work. They couldn’t possibly have believed that they were furthering the cause of feminism in any way by posting, for example, a piece on why men want “facials.” By deflecting blame solely onto Schwyzer for this debacle, it sends the message “Oops, we were fooled! But we are still willing to throw our readers and other writers under the bus the next time a white male with charm and a big smile comes along.” If the system didn’t put men like Schwyzer in positions of power, he never would have been so successful at his aims of using feminism to further his own means.

Schwyzer seems to have lost everything — his family, career, tenure as a professor. He may not be perceived as a threat anymore, but he was never really the threat. He would never have flourished if not for the system that was in place long before he arrived. The threat was the collapse of an infrastructure that silences marginalized voices while putting those already in positions of power on a pedestal.

 

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Hugo: Revisited”

  1. Nailed it with that last paragraph, Z. Hugo didn’t create the system but he certainly used it to his advantage.

    I struggle with the mental illness aspect because, as someone who has battled depression for decades and survived numerous suicide attempts, I understand. But not everything can be chalked up to mental illness. Some of his issues may be a result of illness or addiction but some of it just him being a jerk. It feels too much like exploiting the system for personal gain which, as we’ve seen, Hugo is really good at doing. I draw the line at saying he’s faking it but I won’t feel bad about expressing my opinion that some of it has been exaggerated in anticipation of a disability claim or a memoir (or both.)

  2. Spot-on, Zahra. I was never one of the Hugo haters, but his narcissism over the past couple years has been both increasing and breathtaking. I certainly feel for him as far as mental illness goes, but I’m also glad that we have a clearer picture of him now. You’re right that none of this was hidden history, and the breakdown is just a sad end to it all. I do hope he gets the help he needs, but I also hope that he doesn’t continue to parlay this into another way to feed the addiction for attention.

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