January 19 Update | Hugo Schwyzer has taken down the two blogposts mentioned in this essay. The original confession can, for the moment, still be found at this cache, and the followup post is cached here and duplicated here.
January 23 Update | Some final thoughts on the Schwyzer controversy, and on the harm he’s still inflicting on the feminist movement, can be found here.
Male feminist blogger and professor Hugo Schwyzer has been taking a lot of heat recently, much of it precipitated by a blogpost in which he detailed what he describes as “a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas.” (The incident took place in 1998, and he disclosed it publicly for the first time early last year.)
Schwyzer has put up a new post this morning expressing additional regret for the murder-suicide attempt, and apologizing for certain elements of the original piece. But his apologies evade many of his critics’ core complaints.
First, there’s the incident itself. The woman, his sometime lover, came to him for help after being tied up, raped, and abused by her drug dealer. They went back to his apartment, took more drugs, and had “desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex.” Then, when she passed out, he decided to kill them both. He turned on the gas on his oven, aimed its flow at his girlfriend, took some booze and pills, and lay down to die beside her.
Schwyzer now describes this act as one of “sheer monstrousness,” and it certainly is that. But it’s also something else. It’s a crime he construed and justified as an act of caretaking:
I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I’d had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) And then it came to me: I needed to do for her and for myself the one thing I was strong enough still to do. I couldn’t save her, I couldn’t save me, but I could bring an end to our pain. My poor fragile ex would never have to wake up again, and we could be at peace in the next life. As drunk and high as I was, the thought came with incredible clarity. I remember it perfectly now.
She was “fragile.” She was “broken.” But he was “strong enough” to do what she needed, what she didn’t have the strength to do for herself. He would bring her peace, a peace they would share forever.
It’s not enough for a feminist to describe this crime as horrific, though it is. It’s not enough to describe it as “something truly awful,” as he does. This was an act of a very particular kind, and Schwyzer never calls it by its name.
Because it’s not just the fact that Schwyzer committed an act of violence that’s of such concern, or even the fact that he committed an act of intimate partner violence. It’s that he committed an act of gendered violence, the nature of which he still hasn’t come to terms with.
Murder-suicide is a crime committed almost exclusively by men, with their intimate partners their typical victims. In the post he wrote this morning, though, Schwyzer refers to the woman he tried to kill as “another human being” twice, as “another person” once, as his “ex” six times, but never as his lover, his girlfriend, a woman.
In all his writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today. And though he construes the story as the final dramatic act of his old life of addiction and irresponsibility, it’s a story that resonates powerfully with his current public presence.
Here’s how Schwyzer described his relationship to his students not long ago:
Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.
This notion that feminism calls him to protect the weak — to save them from themselves, to guide them to the right path — recurs again and again in his writing. As the co-organizer of the LA Slutwalk earlier this year, he referred to his role as “Herding sluts. In the best and most responsible way.” His students say he’s an electrifying lecturer, but complain that he severely restricts class discussion. And he frequently conceptualizes moral behavior as a matter of denial and restriction. (He has, for instance, described feminism as a “cold pool” in which “none of us can fully immerse ourselves forever.”)
I don’t have any reason to believe that Hugo Schwyzer is likely to attempt another murder anytime soon. But the man who described his girlfriend as fragile and broken and in need of his sheltering strength as he plotted her death has not gone entirely away. The paternalistic impulse to save that young woman from herself — an impulse that came to him with “incredible clarity” then, one which he remembers “perfectly” today — is still in him, still driving him. It’s an impulse he’s redirected, but it remains unexamined, unchecked, and dangerous. (It particularly inflects and infects his writing about sexuality, about youth, and about people of color.)
Like Hugo Schwyzer, I’m a white male professor teaching history in an urban community college. Like Schwyzer, I consider myself a feminist. Like Schwyzer, I work with young people extensively outside of the classroom. And it’s from that perspective that I offer him this piece of advice:
You’re doing it wrong. You need to stop.
Update | An old blogpost has surfaced that calls into question Schwyzer’s claim that he called a friend to warn her about the murder-suicide attempt.
Second Update | Hi to all the folks finding this post via Tumblr and the Feminists Against Hugo Schwyzer Facebook page. I’ve included pointers to a lot of the discussion of this subject in the followup post I linked above, so if you’re interested in reading more, that’s a good place to start.