Making Amends and Moving Forward by Hugo Schwyzer
Since Clarisse Thorn’s interview with me appeared at Feministe about two weeks ago, there’s been a huge outpouring of shock and anger surrounding revelations about my past. I’ve only read some of the posts and the comments at various sites, but I’ve seen enough to recognize that these revelations have understandably touched a deep nerve.
Exactly a year ago, I wrote a post about the last time I used drugs and alcohol, a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas. The post was written in haste as a response to a friend’s query about forgiving oneself for a terrible error. The example my buddy Bill offered was of neglecting a dog he’d been housesitting. Foolishly, I regrettably offered the most painful example from my own life of a dreadful action – the time I tried to kill another human being and myself. It was grotesquely insensitive of me to compare what Bill had done with a pet to what I did to my ex, and I deeply regret having framed the story in that way. I also am sorry that the post was written so as to frame my feelings alone in a way that eclipsed my ex, the victim of this episode.
I do want to clarify one point from that post for the sake of the record. I never lied to the sheriff’s deputies about a suicide pact, as some bloggers have alleged. I was barely coherent when they kicked down my apartment door, and made no statement to them about what was happening, other than to ask the deputies why they were handcuffing us. After I’d been placed on a hold in a mental hospital, it was a psychiatrist who told me that the deputies had told him that this had been a suicide pact. Filled with remorse, I immediately told him the truth. He then notified the sheriff’s department. My ex and her family declined to press charges, and so no case was filed.
For many years, I’ve said that my behavior on and before June 27, 1998 was unconscionable. I was an active alcoholic and addict who caused great pain to a great many people. I was fortunate indeed never to be arrested. (Race and class privilege surely played a part in that, as I wrote in this post.) I did have consensual sexual relationships with female students in the two years prior to my last drink, something which was profoundly unethical and immoral. Even when I wasn’t high, my behavior during those years was compulsive and frequently destructive. But nothing compares to the sheer monstrousness of trying to kill another human being. The fact that I was trying to kill myself as well, and that I was high as a kite on a cocktail of street drugs, prescription pills and alcohol, does little to mitigate what I did, or my ultimate responsibility for such a horrific act.
By grace and by effort and by the help and love of a great many people, I have been sober for more than thirteen and a half years. I have been actively working a program of recovery during that time, and work one still today. Part of that recovery program has been making amends to the people whom I injured during my using years. The details of those amends are obviously private.
I also owed amends to the community I damaged through my reckless behavior. After I got sober, I sat down separately with my division dean, the college president, and the dean of human resources to tell them about my using – and about my sexual misconduct with students. Though it was terrifying to do so, I offered to resign from my teaching position. Though troubled by what I confessed, these administrators (and my colleagues, who included a number of feminist professors) felt that I could do more good by staying on. And they urged me to start finding ways to make amends.
It was the college president, Jim Kossler, who pointed out that Pasadena City College didn’t have a ban on consensual relationships between faculty and students. President Kossler suggested I chair a committee to write a policy that would outlaw the very behavior in which I had been engaged. Part of that amends, he noted, would include publicly “outing” myself as an offender. In 2000, less than two years after I got sober, I did out myself in an interview with the college paper as the president requested. The policy I helped write was finally adopted by the college Academic Senate in 2004.
But I could not as easily make amends for the attempt to take another person’s life. The hospital psychiatrist contacted the sheriff’s deputies, who declined to investigate. My ex-girlfriend and her family refused to press charges. My confession alone was not enough for an arrest, I was told. My ex-girlfriend wanted no contact with me, and I have no reason to believe that has changed; a direct amends attempt would be violating. As my sponsors told me in 1998 and continue to tell me, the best amends I can make is to live responsibly and soberly without expectation of forgiveness. That is an imperfect and incomplete solution and I understand that it doesn’t feel like enough. But it is the best one I know.
I know I’m not the man I was when I was drinking and using. But I also know I have no right to demand that others accept my transformation. I have no right to insist on being trusted. I have no right to expect forgiveness. There are places I may never be welcome as a result of my past, and I accept that. I don’t get to dictate the terms on which I’m received into any community.
This whole episode has raised questions about issues of atonement; restorative justice; privilege; the role of men in feminism. I’m willing to dialogue around those issues if a forum can be found in which that conversation can take place safely for everyone. I’m open to suggestions as to how, when, and where that dialogue can best take place. Some of the criticisms I’ve received have been valid, and I promise you, I’ve heard them.
I am interested in engaging in a productive discussion with a community that I deeply respect.
Hugo Schwyzer, Ph.D., is an American author, speaker and professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College where he developed the college’s first interdisciplinary course focusing on “Beauty and the Body.” Hugo received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and is co-founder of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a body image transformation program bringing a message of hope and insight to high school students. He also serves as a director of Healthy is the New Skinny and is an adviser to Natural Models LA, a management agency. Hugo was a featured columnist as well as Sex & Gender editor for the Good Men Project Magazine. He currently writes the weekly “Genderal Interest” column at Jezebel. His articles have also appeared in the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Alternet,Mamamia, Modern Mom, The Frisky, and many other sites. Schwyzer co-authored Beauty, Disrupted – the autobiography of famed supermodel Carré Otis (HarperCollins, 2011).