Hugo Schwyzer and the Consumption of Redemption Narratives

Cross-posted with permission from Faith and Feminism.

When I was starting college, I told my Uncle Bobby (who is a pastor turned professor) that I planned to major in theology/philosophy. As was typical, he asked me what I planned on doing with my degree. I told him I wasn’t sure, but that I felt called to some kind of ministry.

“Well, you know what you gotta do,” he replied, with a slight smile, “Is you’ve gotta take a couple of years off, go get really addicted to heroin, and then come back to the church. You gotta have a good story.”

My uncle was, obviously, joking, but this joke is not without a bit of truth. The church—no, our culture—really, really likes redemption narratives. We really like to hear about a person who was down in the muck and the grime and just a terrible person who had a Damascus Road experience and is suddenly a Whole New Person (TM).

Unfortunately, we also really like for things to be in simple, black and white, easy to digest sound-bites, which often denies the real struggle and humanity that is redemption. When we shortcut that process—as we do in so many cultural narratives—we ignore, to our detriment, the very real messiness that redemption is.

Take “male feminist” Hugo Schwyzer. In a huff this week, Schwyzer decided to quit the Internet. And proceeded to tweet about it, blog about it, and do an interview in New York Magazine about it. (And write again about it—see update below.)

If you’re not familiar with Schwyzer’s story, it’s a classic redemption narrative: man is addicted to booze and drugs and exhibits numerous destructive behaviors like rape, attempted murder, and domestic violence. He gets clean, sobers up, converts to Christianity (and maybe Judaism? It’s unclear), supposedly stops victimizing women, and becomes a megaphone for feminism. It’s a MIRACLE. He’s cured! Here’s someone who used to hate women who now clearly loves them—enough that he advocates for them!

But a lot of feminists noticed chinks in the armor, especially when he began to write about his past. Writing about how terrible you used to be is, of course, part and parcel of the apology circuit for the redemption narrative. But his writing exhibited a lot of red flags. He spoke about the attempted murders in such loving detail that it was disturbing. And then he wrote an article about how he was an “accidental rapist,” essentially admitting to raping an ex-girlfriend, but refusing to call it rape. Feminists started blacklisting him—after all, having a “former” abuser acting as a mouthpiece for a movement supposedly on the side of survivors of abuse? Not exactly a good look.

Then there was his behavior in reaction to the boycott. On Twitter, feminists had to develop pseudonyms when they discussed his work, because otherwise he would search them out and either respond or start tracking their tweets—especially if they were negative. When a woman of color—popular blogger Flavia Dzodan—called him out on his abusive past, he went through back channels to try and get her fired. He crossed boundaries in small, subtle ways—just enough for plausible deniability, but also just enough that the people he was targeting knew he was keeping an eye on them (in one example, he “favorited” a tweet from a friend of mine that was discussing how he triggered her).

So, finally, this week, apparently the pushback became “too much.” He decided to leave the Internet—not before, however, opening up about it to a sympathetic reporter at New York Magazine. And what he had to say in this interview is particularly relevant to the redemption narrative that so many people—including the editors at the Christian pop culture “progressive” magazine Relevant—bought hook, line, and sinker.

He had an affair, he confesses, giving just enough detail about the woman that people curious enough could probably figure out who it was, but does so under the guise of “protecting her.” This affair has been part of a mental breakdown over the past year and a half because of his fear of feminist anger and wrath toward him. He says of the affair that it was “off-brand” for him.

Yes, you read that right. Here’s the exchange in its entirety:

What are you going to do now?
Work on getting mentally healthy. I need to get my meds right. Second, I need to get my marriage right. There’s some bad shit that went down. I had an affair, which is very off-brand for me.

Off-brand … as in out of character?
In that I’m supposed to be reformed. The affair was with someone in the same circles that you and I move in, so I have to protect her. But there’s a lot of gossiping. It may reach you. Don’t be surprised.

“In that I’m supposed to be reformed.”

He seems overly concerned with how an affair (update: multiple affairs) goes against his image, his narrative of redemption. He’d built a consumerist brand, marketed his name and his writing under the guise of being “redeemed,” so to have an affair was to deny that narrative. Notice that he doesn’t seem to be regretting the affair because of the hurt it did to his wife and children, or even because it’s a morally repugnant thing to do. He regrets it because it was “off-brand” and doesn’t fit in with the neat and tidy narrative of redemption he’s staked his reputation on.

This, of course, is par for the course in redemption narratives. We like our redemption all neat and tidy and wrapped up in a bow, and those who distrust the word of those who have been supposedly redeemed are soundly punished for their suspicions. When I raised a fuss last year over Relevant magazine publishing Schwyzer’s work, for example, I was told that I was bitter and mean for being unable to accept his redemption narrative—despite obvious red flags that he was not as reformed as he claimed.

So often, our culture emphasizes the redeemed at the cost of their victims (and it’s worth noting, the redemption of a white man is worth infinitely more than the redemption of anyone else). We have turned redemption narratives into an art and crave and consume them, because we think they prove something about the human experience—when really, all they prove is that change is really, really hard, and we should be suspicious when someone claims to be 180 degrees different from whom they used to be.

Redemption narratives are based within a consumerist culture that laps up story templates while ignoring the person. As such, they depend on a cognitive dissonance in which the “redeemed” person is a completely separate entity from “who they used to be.” But, it takes years and possibly a lifetime of hard work to become someone for whom those old patterns of behavior are not automatic and ingrained. For those who have spent most of their life trafficking in the abuse of power, as Schwyzer has done, change is even harder.

Here’s the radical thing: we should approach redemption narratives with suspicion. It’s not the most radically gracious thing we can do, but it does treat the person involved as a human being and honors their journey. Blindly accepting redeemed persons at their word rewards the narrative only and does not encourage real, authentic change.

This is especially true when a radical ideological shift is a part of this redemption narrative. People who desire to be our allies need to be vetted and held to a higher standard—it is not simply enough that they claim to be redeemed. They must exhibit willingness to hand off the baton and give themselves space and time to become a different person. Rehabilitation doesn’t happen overnight, and we shouldn’t treat it like it does. If anything, the Schwyzer case confirms that suspicion is a good value and a good hermeneutic with which to approach the world.

It is OK to be suspicious of radical, even miraculous change. Indeed, it is a vital survival mechanism we should not readily give up, no matter how neat and compelling the narrative is. Call it cynical, call it nihilistic, call it pessimistic. But true Damascus Road experiences are rare, and belief in redemption doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind.


Update: I wrote the above prior to Hugo publishing a “Goodbye Part 2,” which contains a confession to multiple affairs and a chapter from his would-be memoir, in which he paints a picture of the attempted murder in lurid, pornographic terms, quite obviously reveling in the salacious detail. It’s, in a word, gross. As it is, he is quite clearly a man bent on attention, and the willingness to accept his narrative of his redemption (and his framing of these events as “backsliding” caused by feminist anger) demonstrates further how important it is to be cautious and suspect of supposed “reformed” peoples. Schwyzer is clearly figuring out ways to still cash in on the “reformed” narrative by portraying himself as a struggling martyr driven to relapse by those meanie feminists.

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  • whatever

    A few corrections.

    First, it was non feminists that long ago pointed out Hugo was a sociopath. Feminists can’t listen to non feminists, and feminists encouraged his misandry, and so it took feminists another 5 – 10 years to figure it out.

    Feminists need to examine how and why they were so eager to defend Hugo’s terrible behaviors, and why even now at his blog and on twitter, there are so many women still defending him.

    A lot of that has to do with feminist misandry as well as females loving a bad boy they can redeem.

    In fact, with hindsight, every complaint X that Hugo lodged against Patriarchy, and blamed men for, can now be seen as some horrible act x that Hugo would engage in. But Hugo, like feminists, cannot take responsibility for his actions, and so projected his horrible behavior onto all men, blaming all men, allowing him to escape. Feminism does that as well.

    Hugo’s current claim of being a victim?? And where do we hear that everyday? Oh yeah, on every single feminist blog.

    • cjvg

      I guess you would have preferred that he stayed a rapist and abuser, at least he would not have the “feminist” victim mentality then!
      Actually you should be proud of him, in reality he never quit being an abuser, but I guess the fact that he publicly did condemn rape was a little to much for you.

      Feminist actually object to rape period, regardless if the victim is a man or a woman!
      They also promote equality, as in gender should never determine what your legal rights are or how much you get paid!
      So in reality they are also protecting the rights of men
      What they strongly object to is men who feel they should have more rights then women just because of their gender.

      Some men, and apparently you are one of them, are extremely threatened by the thought that women do no longer fall under the ownership and guardianship of their fathers or husbands.
      These men believe that for women to own the right to determine how to live their own lives, men have to lose their rights.
      I guess if your biggest wish in life is to practice legal slavery you are right,
      Other then that, the fact that no woman or girl has to ask you for permission on how to live her life does not diminish your rights one iota!

      • whatever

        Are you a spam bot? I don’t speak with very many spam bots.

        Do you get human help to respond to captchas for you?

        • cjvg

          How typical.
          Another men need more rights then any other living being, who has not one single arguments to defend that position other then;” I want them mommy I want them, give them to me now!”

          • whatever

            I take it that’s a yes then. Thanks for acknowledging that.

            Hi spambot! No, I won’t go to your blog or work from home.

          • cjvg

            Now who is hallucinating?!
            If you see things that are not there, please visit the ER before you seriously hurt yourself

          • Jennifer Starr

            I’m sorry that cjvg’s posts are too challenging for you to respond to in an intelligent manner.

        • cjvg

          Says the coward who has to delete his comment because he can not stand by his words!

          • whatever

            I didn’t delete that. Rhreality check must have deleted it.

            It’s always been hard for feminists to listen to opposing opinions, or support alternative views.

          • cjvg

            Sure, says the coward who will not defend his words but has to resort to inane and completely unrelated as well as irrelevant spam bot allegations

          • whatever

            Your first reply to me had nothing to do with anything I wrote or suggested. You were busy just hating on me, so I responded that you must be a spambot.

            And now when I tell you rhreality deleted my post, what you might be doing is reconsidering your support for a movement that cannot take correction, criticism, or non-threatening alternative points of view.

            Instead you just double down on your derp.

          • cjvg

            My first post was a direct reply on your inane assertions that the behavior of this guy (Schwyzer) was all caused by the evil phenomena of feminism.
            That the fact that he was a lying sleaze was somehow caused by all the femininazies who where somehow enabling and protecting his duplicitous behavior!
            You completely dis regarded the fact that this article (on a pro feminist site) was extremely critical of him and also reiterated the fact that people (that includes women who are feminist) where, should be and are critical of sudden ideological conversions!
            For some unexplainable reason you felt the need to display your incoherent and unwarranted hatred of a group who feels that all people should be equal regardless if gender.
            You then illustrated this hatred by a unsupported unreasoning diatribe linking his behavior directly to the fact that there is such a thing as feminists!
            What correction or reason was there to be found in your so called “constructive” criticism other then “feminist are at fault when a man behaves like that”, what alternative points where you offering other then feminism is at fault?!
            Please do tell!
            Ironic that you feel the need to dismiss my statement as not worthy of a response from you and must be met by belittlement and dismissal. How ironic that you (a man) who just spend a whole post conflagrating the distinctly disrespectful towards females behavior of one man as caused by feminism!
            So how far can you bend reality to make it work for you?
            because feminism, you know!

          • whatever

            I didn’t assert any of what you assigned to me.

            I didn’t disregard what sort of site this article was on, I added my point of view to it.

            If you are halfway honest, you will admit there was nothing wrong with my comment,even if you disagree with it, that should have resulted in rhreality deleting it.

          • cjvg

            Repost it (it will still be in your own disqus history) and show where exactly your “helpful” criticism is located.
            There was nothing other then a diatribe of nonsense where you presume to lecture the public at large about the evils of feminism and that it is the feminist that are supporting and ignoring his behavior, as well as that it is non feminists that exposed him and called him to order?! links please!

            It is very obvious that you had nothing positive at all to contribute, except for some unsubstantiated vilification of feminism as the cause of all bad behavior in men!

            It is exceedingly ironic that you play the victim card when called to defend your own statements and your arrogant and dismissive behavior when refusing to do so.i
            It is laughably dishonest, but typical, that you are trying to insinuate that you are the injured party.

            If someone points out your arrogant and unsupported and plain ridiculous claim that blaming the bad behavior (towards women( of a man was “supported” and concealed by feminists, you immediately display your own lovely flavor of dismissive belittlement of a woman who dares to disagree with you!

            Of course you are a victim and your not so bad, it is all evil feminist womens fault if you behave like an ass

          • goatini

            Actually, it’s forced-birthers and misogynists for whom it’s hard to listen to opposing opinions, or support alternative views. As amply evidenced and demonstrated by your posts. Projection – it’s what the radical right wing does best.

  • ukash kart

    Here’s the radical thing: we should approach redemption narratives with suspicion. It’s not the most radically gracious thing we can do, but it does treat the person involved as a human being and honors their journey. Blindly accepting redeemed persons at their word rewards the narrative only and does not encourage real, authentic change. This is especially true when a radical ideological shift is a part of this redemption narrative. People who desire to be our allies need to be vetted and held to a higher standard—it is not simply enough that they claim to be redeemed. ukash They must exhibit willingness to hand off the baton and give themselves space and time to become a different person. Rehabilitation doesn’t happen overnight, and we shouldn’t treat it like it does. If anything, the Schwyzer case confirms that suspicion is a good value and a good hermeneutic with which to approach the world.

  • Martin Wagner

    “I’m rage-quitting the Internet…but I want EVERYONE paying attention when I do it!” Cripes. Just call the man Ego Schwyzer.

  • HeilMary1

    We all have had cyber Bermuda Triangle issues with Disqus from time to time. The spam filtering system here doesn’t like links.

  • Turtle Soup

    @ukash kart: @Dianna E. Anderson

    Most men have at least some dominant masculine traits, and masculinity is part of their core identity. What you demand of men to be allies requires a ‘radical ideological shift’ for most men in mainstream society,

    In order to be allies, first men are requried to suppress or reform their ‘hegemonic masculinies’. Then they are asked to go out and champion women’s rights by ‘evangelising’ to other men, often hostile to feminism, in culture that’s still male dominated, which to all intents and purposes is an appeal to male chivalry.

    So for male feminists I’d say redemption narratives and cognitive dissonance are the rule not the exception. Without them they wouldn’t be able to deal with the conflict between their masculinity and the demands put on them to be allies.

    This video of Jackson Katz giving his action man style presentation is a good example of ‘redemptive’

  • Liz

    Maybe you need a second update as he admitted to sleeping with his current students. PCC is considering their options.