He was L.A.’s most prominent male feminist, a professor of gender studies who used his online presence to burnish his reputation. Then Hugo Schwyzer’s bad behavior—sex with students, substance abuse, and a chilling act of violence—came to light, and Twitter users around the world took him down
Hugo Schwyzer was back on Twitter, determined to self-destruct. Just three weeks before, the Pasadena City College professor had promised to take an “extended hiatus” from social media, but here he was again in August 2013, apologizing, confessing, declaring himself a “monstrous hypocrite” and a fraud. “I’ve been such a liar. A terrible liar,” he wrote in one of 140 tweets he spewed out over an hour and a half. “Yes, no shit, I’m having a manic break right now.” He was deliberately letting it happen, he said, “so you can KNOW THE TRUTH.”
Schwyzer—a boyish-looking man of 46 with reddish-brown hair, freckles, and an easy grin—had gone off his medications for bipolar disorder. They were right there in front of him, he said, “lined up.” Lithium. Seroquel. Klonopin. Wellbutrin. Lexapro. He’d skipped them all to reveal the “authentic Hugo.” To that end the popular gender studies professor, who’d developed a national reputation for writing about sexuality and female empowerment, began ticking off his sins. “I fucked porn stars I met through my classes,” he tweeted. “I cheated on my wife and pretended to be reformed. I wrote an article in the Atlantic condemning age-disparate relationships the same week…that I was sleeping with a 23-year-old. And sexting a 27-year-old. Not my students at least.”
Or so he said. Should anyone believe him? Now he typed that he was “the most notorious bad boy male feminist out there” and said he had traded on his transgressions to build a narrative of redemption. “I secretly wanted to be THE male feminist,” he wrote. “And I used it sexually too. It was part of my game.” He continued: “I wanted attention so f-ing bad.… I built a brand.… I networked like a motherfucker to get promoted.” When people who knew him began e-mailing, begging him to end his public rant, he refused. “Why should I stop, friends?” he tweeted, assuring everyone his account hadn’t been hacked.
Not everyone was a friend, of course. Not by a long shot. Schwyzer’s antics—inviting porn stars to his class, blogging about past affairs he’d had with students—had drawn controversy and angered many. As his tweeting became more frantic, he seemed bent on addressing all his misdeeds. “I was a shitty writer and I was a fraud and I did try to kill my ex,” he typed, offering no explanation for that final revelation. Days before, he said, he had informed the college that he was going on medical leave: “I can’t be near students.” Meanwhile he’d put himself on another sort of leave: He was done writing about gender and women’s issues, he said. “I’m out of feminism,” Schwyzer promised, “not because I don’t believe in it, but because I’m such a pisspoor example of it all.”
This is about the time when two police officers came strolling down the hallway of Schwyzer’s mother’s home in Carmel, where he was staying, to take him to Community Hospital in Monterey. When he was released a few hours later, he got right back on Twitter. “It is time to return to my original pledge to leave social media, and—without deleting today’s manic rants—that’s what I’m doing now.”
He would be gone three days.
If not for a shift in the relationship between American feminism and media, Hugo Schwyzer might have remained a little-known academic. His rise was fueled largely by Web sites geared to young women who embraced what you might call a sexier brand of empowerment. By 2007, a vibrant feminist presence was emerging online, with Web sites like Feministing, Feministe, and Jezebel generating millions of hits. Unlike Gloria Steinem, who helped popularize the 1970s slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” or Susan Faludi, author of the 1992 best seller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, the millennial feminists were as interested in fashion trends, Lindsay Lohan, and orgasms as they were in “slut-shaming,” birth control, and rape. And unlike Steinem or Faludi, they didn’t need to found Ms. magazine or win a book contract for their voices to be heard. On the Internet they could self-publish and say whatever the hell they liked. The writing was smart, funny, and provocative—and designed to attract page views with such click-happy topics as celebrities, porn, and sex. When it came to that last one, especially, Schwyzer saw an opening.
An ongoing debate among advocates of women’s rights is, Can a man be a feminist? While some women have no problem letting men join discussions of female-related issues—the more allies, the better!—others think men should shut up and butt out. The argument gets stickier still when deciding whose voices to publish in women’s forums. Don’t guys already get more than their share of exposure in print and online? someone always asks. And who wants to hear their condescending views about women anyway?
Against such a backdrop it’s easy to see how a particular kind of man finagled his way into this precious space. That man was adept at wooing well-known editors and writers, gushing over their posts, linking to their blogs. He was a skilled writer—familiar with feminist lingo—who had an eye for buzzworthy topics. It didn’t hurt, frankly, that he was well-spoken and charming and had a compelling back story. Or that he was a master of social media. For nearly a decade Schwyzer used flattery, self-promotion, and guile to step into what he saw as an “unfilled niche.” As he told me in several conversations we had after his meltdown, “There were no men writing intelligently about women in a way that would resonate with a feminist audience. I got a lot of attention for that, for saying something no one else was saying.”
Schwyzer became a gender studies professor by accident when he filled in for a colleague who was on maternity leave from Pasadena City College, a two-year junior college. With his Ph.D. from UCLA in British medieval history, he was hardly qualified. His only background was two women’s studies courses he’d taken as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. In the years since, he had done no research or scholarly papers on gender issues. But the college let him teach the class. Right away Schwyzer discovered that he enjoyed the attention from his young students, particularly the female ones. At the time, the mid-’90s, men who built their identities around championing equal rights for women weren’t exactly prevalent. Sensing this could work in his favor, Schwyzer began creating a persona for himself as a male feminist.
The child of divorced parents, he’d grown up in the ’70s with his mother and a younger brother in the seaside town of Carmel. His mom, Alison, taught philosophy at Monterey Peninsula College. She was also an ardent feminist who raised her sons to believe that women should have the same opportunities and rights as men. Schwyzer loved telling the story of seeing Ms. magazine on the coffee table as a boy. He also loved recounting how his mother had influenced his desire to teach feminism.
In the fall of 1995, Schwyzer—then 29 and married to his second wife, a social worker (his first marriage, to an elementary school teacher, had ended in 1993)—says he asked the social sciences department at PCC to let him teach women’s studies as a regular gig. “I was able to sell the interview committee with enthusiasm over experience,” he told me. Indeed, what Schwyzer lacked in credentials, he made up for in energy and chutzpah. His class, “Women in American Society,” was hugely popular. He covered the usual stuff: the suffragette movement in the 1860s, women winning the right to vote in 1920, the inspiration of “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II. But it was his performance that set him apart. As Schwyzer paraded around the room, hopped up on caffeine, his lectures were mesmerizing. “He was a very compelling speaker,” recalled a former female student, who considered Schwyzer her mentor. She asked me not to use her name because she’d been falsely identified online as a student who’d slept with him.
Schwyzer required his students, most of them minority women in their late teens and early twenties, to keep journals. He urged them to share their feelings, their family experiences, and their struggles with sexual identity. One student I spoke to thought this was a little unusual, but she said, “Hugo felt like a very safe person.”
In reality he used the journals to suss out potential sex partners, he told me. If a student addressed him as “professor,” he learned, she wasn’t interested. If she wrote “you,” she probably was. Within months Schwyzer began sleeping with his students—sometimes, he says, conducting several affairs at once. During one student lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in April 1997, he says he had sex with four coeds, three of them at the same time. This was a period when he was also drinking heavily, abusing cocaine and prescription drugs, and swept up in a stormy relationship with a woman in her twenties.
In 1998, Schwyzer, now divorced from his second wife, would see his destructive behavior catch up with him. After a drug and alcohol binge, he landed in the hospital. He went into rehab and got sober and, he says, initiated discussions with Pasadena City College officials about his past philandering with students. As part of his amends to PCC, he wrote the college’s first policy governing sexual relations between faculty and students, and then returned to the classroom. Schwyzer began carefully building a new story for himself, one that came to be known, mockingly, by his online feminist critics as “Hugo’s redemption narrative.”
In 2001, he wed his third wife, a graduate student, but the union lasted just 16 months. In 2003, he started a blog that focused on his past, the lessons he’d learned, and his efforts to be a better man. Although his primary audience was women, he wanted to preach the feminist gospel to men, too. By way of introduction he wrote at the top: “The assorted musings of Hugo Schwyzer: a progressive Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat (but with a sense of humor), a community college history and gender studies professor, animal rights activist, ENFP Gemini, avid marathoner, aspiring ultra-runner, die-hard political junkie, and (still) the proud father of the most amazing chinchilla on God’s green earth.”
Schwyzer described his sexual promiscuity, his crushes on students, and tales of his drug and alcohol addiction—all in the voice of a changed man. One of his early pieces was about the difficulty he had forming relationships with men. “As a shy, unathletic, narcissistic child, I had had a pretty unhappy and rough time in elementary and junior high school,” he wrote in June 2004. “I realized, with that sudden mixture of shame and relief that accompanies such a realization, that as a consequence of these early miserable experiences, I had spent two decades avoiding intimacy with other men.”
The post that first won Schwyzer notice in the blogosphere, in late 2005, was relatively mild for him. By this time he was married to his fourth wife, an entertainment executive he’d met when she was his student, and in an essay titled “A very long and personal post about men, women, childishness, and responsibility,” he mused about the pitfalls of partnership: “As the son of a feminist mom, I was always very big on doing my share of the housework. I was a loyal washer of dishes, a frequent doer of laundry (I actually LIKE doing laundry), and a good grocery shopper. But I thought of what I was doing as ‘doing chores,’ in much the same way I did chores as a child. I did not take responsibility for making decisions about the household, even as I seemed to be—to the outside world—an equal partner in the running of the home.” With its self-effacing tone, the post painted Schwyzer as a nice, supportive guy just trying to learn from his mistakes with women. But it also satisfied his desire to reach men. He exhorted husbands to “help our wives escape the prison of mandated gender roles…by being willing to say ‘Hey, it’s my kitchen too. I can take care of it, and I will take care of it. Let me be your equal partner here.’ ”
The professor seemed to sense that he’d tapped into a lucrative topic. In late 2006, he wrote a post called “Closing the Door: young women, aging men, and ego,” which argued that the reason older men chase much younger women, as he had done, is because they’re afraid of aging. “Attracting a girl barely out of her teens reveals the enduring power of our youthful appeal.” Later he would appear on The Ricki Lake Show to discuss his decision to get circumcised at age 37. Looking handsome and clean-cut in an expensive suit, he said that the procedure had enhanced his sex life, among other medical benefits.
Schwyzer developed a strong feminist profile at PCC. He cofounded the college’s Feminist Club and mentored students. He attended conferences of the National Women’s Studies Association and Women, Action & the Media. In 2008, the student Web site RateMyProfessors named him the “hottest professor in America,” boosting his national image even higher. Schwyzer also continued to peddle his story of reformation: how he’d overcome his narcissism, or what he called his “Hugo problem.” A new wrinkle emerged in 2006, when he began detailing his struggles with mental illness. “Years ago, I was diagnosed with a whole ‘personality disorder cluster.’… I was one self-destructive, self-involved, egocentric puppy,” he wrote on his blog. “One shrink had me pegged as ‘narcissistic personality disorder/borderline personality disorder’ with (drumroll…) ‘psychotic features.’ I don’t think the good doc was far from the mark.”
Schwyzer had always been adept at playing to his audience. His first post for Jezebel, in late 2010, is a case in point. It ran under the headline “The Problem with Being ‘Sexy But Not Sexual.’ ” In it he lamented the sexualization of young women like his students and quoted prominent feminists—Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs—to boost his credibility. After a few more well-received pieces, he pitched Jessica Coen, the site’s editor-in-chief, the idea of doing a weekly column. He was in.
“I think it’s very important for men to be involved with feminist discussions, and I was impressed with Hugo’s credentials and his writing,” Coen tells me, explaining why she hired him. “I thought he would be a very interesting voice to bring into the discussion. I liked that he presented controversial opinions but did so in a manner that was both acceptable and academic. A lot of academic approaches to gender studies feel inaccessible to the mainstream population, and Jezebel is very much a mainstream Web site.” He also, not incidentally, generated two things that drive traffic: attention and debate.
Soon after becoming a regular Jezebel contributor, Schwyzer started writing for The Good Men Project, a popular online magazine featuring positive stories about men. By early 2011, he was posting several times a week and serving as the site’s sex and relationships editor. His profile rose higher still when he cowrote a memoir with Carré Otis called Beauty, Disrupted, a horrifying account of her substance addiction and anorexia during her modeling years, and of her spiritual recovery. “We worked very well together,” says Otis, who was once married to Mickey Rourke and now goes by her current husband’s last name, Sutton. “I didn’t delve much into his past. He brought up a couple of things, and I said, ‘That’s not my business, as long as it’s not an issue in life today.’ I adored him, and I adored his family.’’
During one student lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in April 1997, he says he had sex with four coeds, three of them at the same time. This was a period when he was also drinking heavily, abusing cocaine and prescription drugs, and swept up in a stormy relationship with a woman in her twenties.
Throughout these years Schwyzer portrayed himself as a happy husband and father; he and his fourth wife had had a baby and would soon have another. Viewed through this prism of domesticity, his sincerity was hard to question. But in some posts on his blog, like this one in March 2011, he didn’t sound very sorry about his past: “Though it was a different era, the mid 1990s were not eons ago—and I was notorious on this campus as the young, untenured prof who was sleeping with a great many of his students,” he began, adding that “the administration looked the other way—as long as the women involved didn’t complain, I was golden. I slept with students while traveling to conferences on the college dime, and the most the vice-president for human resources could say when [he heard] that story was ‘Hugo, you’re quite the rascal!’ ”
Gail Cooper, a lawyer representing PCC, says she wasn’t employed by the college at the time and can’t confirm Schwyzer’s account: “Allegations of what he may have done in the 1990s is not something that could relate to his current status. As a general matter the situation can only go back a certain amount of time in terms of allegations of misconduct.”
Though Schwyzer acknowledged the harm he’d caused his “student lovers,” he could justify his behavior, too, as he did on his blog: “All of these relationships, however unethical, were consensual and not in violation of college policy—because the college had no policy against profs and students engaging in ‘mutually desired amorous relations.’ ”
In December 2011, he quit The Good Men Project after the site’s founder, Tom Matlack, wrote a post called “Being a Dude Is a Good Thing.” Schwyzer deemed it sexist and dashed off his own piece. When the editors refused to publish it, he took to his personal blog. He wasn’t a perfect feminist, he wrote, but he couldn’t “remain silent while the site with which I am now best associated took an increasingly anti-feminist stance.” Schwyzer’s willingness to call out other men—and distance himself from their apparent sexism—made him look like a hero. Then, in mid-December, he was interviewed by Clarisse Thorn, the sex and relationships editor of Role/Reboot, a Web site about gender roles. Yet again he talked about the students he’d slept with and how those trysts had made him “keenly sensitive to power imbalances in sexual relationships,” adding that he hadn’t bedded any students since he became sober in 1998. Though he implied that he regretted those years, he said he didn’t have “self-loathing” about them, either. There was nothing in the interview that devotees of Schwyzer’s blog didn’t already know, but for many readers his escapades with students were big news. After Feministe reposted the interview, the backlash came swiftly—and not just from women. Young men who viewed Schwyzer as a role model felt betrayed. As one male reader commented, “Why are you giving this animal a platform?”
This feature originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine
Angry Feministe readers began scouring Schwyzer’s blog. They soon dredged up another confession: On January 3, 2011, Schwyzer wrote that during his early years at PCC, he’d lived off and on with a young woman. Both were in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. On June 27, 1998, in a murder-suicide attempt, he tried to asphyxiate her by turning on the gas stove as she lay unconscious in his apartment. In the long and detailed post he described the decision as an effort to end her “pain.” Somehow sheriff’s deputies arrived, dragged them out, and brought them to Northridge Hospital, where he confessed to a psychiatrist and was interviewed by deputies. But he was never arrested, he said, because the young woman’s parents didn’t want to press charges. The facts of the incident were undeniably horrifying, but many readers were as upset by the way Schwyzer told the story. While he didn’t use his former girlfriend’s name, he included salacious details about the young woman’s drug use, her “fragile” appearance, her sex life.
The old post, linked to by commenters on Feministe, went viral, and the blogosphere went nuts. Feminists of color accused white feminists of elevating Schwyzer, in effect giving an abuser a platform. Facebook pages sprang up—FuckHugoSchwyzer and Feminists Against Hugo Schwyzer—along with a Tumblr called Fuck No, Hugo Schwyzer. Although Feministe had never directly published him, on January 17 its editors issued an apology, promising not to “link to or promote Hugo’s work.”
Jill Filipovic, a respected blogger and editor with Feministe, bore the brunt of the anger. More than a year after the controversy, she is still upset with herself for believing Schwyzer. “Turning the gas on your partner is a major violation,” she tells me. “It’s abusive. It’s a red flag of a seriously troubled individual. At the same time I also knew that Hugo had been very up front about his drug addiction and his mental health issues.” Filipovic says she was trying to balance that tension “between the right of women to live free from abuse and the idea that people can radically change.” Still, she believes that people can change. “I think the question is, Does someone who has done something that abusive to a woman need to be a spokesperson for feminism? I think the answer is no.”
Schwyzer was promptly booted from several young women’s organizations, including Healthy Is the New Skinny, a group he’d cofounded, and the Feminist Club at PCC, for which he was faculty adviser. Scarlateen, a sex education group for teens that had featured his work on its site, deleted all of his material, citing “previously unknown information about this writer and his history.”
In January 2012, Schwyzer addressed the firestorm in a post on his blog. He felt terrible about what he’d done, he said. He wasn’t that same man. He’d been sober for 13 years. He was sorry. While many feminists cut him off, scrambling to distance themselves, others forgave him. He continued to write titillating posts for Jezebel, xoJane, and The Atlantic. Days after his apology, Schwyzer wrote a piece for Jezebel headlined “He Wants to Jizz on Your Face, but Not Why You Think.” The piece triggered outrage, but editor-in-chief Jessica Coen tells me she stands by it: “The ‘facial’ is a hallmark of pornography, so to have him break that down and analyze why…guys want to do that was valuable.” Not that she wasn’t angry with Schwyzer for deceiving her. “Here was a writer I defended and got a massive amount of criticism for and whose columns I believed in,” she says. “I found that deeply upsetting.”
Not long after the “facial” episode, in September 2012, Schwyzer wrote a post for xoJane called “Digging Out My Ex Wife’s Tampon” that described how he helped his third wife—well, you get the idea. Meanwhile he was increasingly wreaking havoc at work and at home. Schwyzer had started teaching a new course, “Navigating Pornography.” In February 2013, much to the PCC administration’s chagrin, he brought in porn stars James Deen and Jessica Drake as guest lecturers. They triggered a media circus when they sauntered onto the campus, trailed by cameras. (This came after Schwyzer initially advertised the lecture as a public event but was told by PCC officials to hold it in his classroom. “We only learned about it from Mr. Deen’s publicist,” says Cooper, PCC’s lawyer, of the adult film actor’s appearance. “So Mr. Schwyzer did not divulge this was going to happen. It was listed as a student cultural diversity event.”)
In late June Schwyzer’s wife was using his computer when she came across e-mails that revealed Schwyzer was having an affair with a young editor from a prominent women’s Web site. He’d also been sexting with a 27-year-old porn actress, sending her what is known in Twitter lingo as a “dic pic” and suggesting they do a three-way in front of his class.
In July 2013, Schwyzer had a mental breakdown and briefly checked himself into Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena. Soon after he retreated to his mom’s home in Carmel, where on July 30 he wrote a “goodbye letter” to the Internet. The vitriol of online media and the outrage over his murder-suicide piece, he wrote, had driven him away. And yet he couldn’t stop writing about it. On August 1 he posted what he called a “less sloppy” account of the murder attempt, triggering even more anger. He was still in the game, still at the red-hot center. But it was taking its toll.
On August 9, a little before noon, Schwyzer started the manic 140-tweet spree that led to yet another hospitalization. All those editors at Jezebel and The Good Men Project he’d betrayed? He was so sorry. “I lied and manipulated and cheated so many of you.” He’d dearly wanted, he tweeted, “to belong to your community…I loved my life with you on here. I felt like I belonged. Then I ruined it.” Six days later, on the night of August 15, Schwyzer attempted suicide. Stoned on vodka, Klonopin, and Seroquel, he ran from his mom’s house down to Carmel Point, slashed his arms with a broken bottle, and then swam out to sea. Before he did, though, he took a moment to update his Facebook page, mentioning the Frank Lloyd Wright house, a well-known local landmark. According to Schwyzer, two friends in Carmel saw the post, figured out where he was, and called the police. He dragged himself out of the water when the officers shouted his children’s names and was admitted to the psych ward at Monterey’s Community Hospital, where he was placed on an involuntary hold.
For a while Schwyzer seemed gone for good. Then on September 3 came an anonymous Tumblr post. “Hugo Schwyzer needs to tell the truth,” wrote a 23-year-old former student who called herself “Meagan.” Beginning in May 2011, she explained, she and Schwyzer had had sex for nearly seven months, sometimes in his office with the door locked. She was 20 at the time. He was 44. He was also sleeping with at least one other girl she knew of. She wasn’t angry at Hugo, she wrote; she just didn’t understand why, when he’d come clean about so many other despicable things, he was continuing to lie about sleeping with his students, insisting that he’d stopped in 1998. “Perhaps he is afraid of losing his job,” she wrote.
Schwyzer also lied repeatedly to me when I asked him when he’d last had sex with a student, insisting he was a changed man. We’d begun an e-mail correspondence last summer, following his meltdown. A day after Meagan outed him, he sent me a contrite note. “I haven’t been fully honest with you,” he wrote. “Happy to answer any follow-up questions.” Helpfully he included a link to a new blog post he’d written.
This was Schwyzer’s pattern: Tell just enough of the truth to seem forthcoming and trustworthy, and then if caught lying, be polite and profess remorse. I recognized the type—the bad boy who wants to be good, the deceitful boyfriend who always has an excuse that somehow makes you unable to kick him out of your bed.
On September 17 an article Schwyzer wrote about the death of Rav Philip Berg, the controversial founder of the Kabbalah Centre in L.A., appeared online in The Times of Israel. Schwyzer’s wife is a devotee of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, and for a few years Schwyzer had been, too. The content was tame enough. But when some feminists saw he was writing again—and being published!—they were incensed. There he was, they wrote, that “racist misogynist,” sucking up valuable space.
On September 23 Schwyzer returned to Twitter and got into a vicious battle with about a dozen women. “I suggest you assemble the peasants with pitchforks and demand @TimesofIsrael stop running my pieces about rabbis,” Schwyzer tweeted to feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan, one of those protesting his reemergence online. In the midst of this, several bloggers brought up his attempt to murder his girlfriend in 1998. He needed to confess to the police, his critics demanded. Schwyzer countered that he had, on June 28, 1998. Well, then, he needed to do it again, tweeted someone calling herself “Radical Feminist”: “Accompanied by a lawyer even! Police like confessions.”
I had read Schwyzer’s account, of course. But how much of it was true? I called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, but it was no help. I asked Schwyzer for the young woman’s name. He hesitated a moment and then told me. For weeks I agonized over whether to contact the woman’s family and resurrect such a painful event. Then, during his Twitter fight on September 23, Schwyzer tweeted her last name. A blogger alerted me. Almost instantly his followers excoriated him, demanding that he take it down. Schwyzer did so, blaming his drugged state.
But people had seen his victim’s name. There were screenshots of it. It was there in cyberspace. I called her family. I told them about Schwyzer’s post and the tweet. “I appreciate the call very much,” the young woman’s father said, declining to comment.
Hugo Schwyzer is waiting for me, clutching his black iPhone. It’s noon on a Thursday, and he’s standing in the driveway of his mom’s house, a sweet little 1920s two-story cottage with a pitched roof and a gorgeous garden of roses and hydrangeas—like one you’d see in a fairy tale. Cypress and Monterey pines rim the narrow, quiet streets. Three blocks from the ocean, you can smell the tangy sea air.
Schwyzer shows me around the house where he grew up—his mom’s study, her bedroom, the kitchen. The rooms are cozy, painted white, with many windows. Books on philosophy, women’s literature, and poetry are everywhere. A stairway off the living room leads to two more bedrooms upstairs. He’ll be sleeping there tonight. Since his suicide attempt on August 15, he’s been staying in a Days Inn in Monterey. “It’s nice,” he says. “It’s comfortable. But I’m eager to come back here.” His mom, who is 76, didn’t want him home until he was more stable.
He guides me to a green sofa and sets his iPhone on the small table in front of him. It never leaves his sight. As he talks, he picks it up, puts it down. “I’ve been on a self-imposed hiatus from Twitter,” he says with a smile. “The main reason for me to stay off Twitter, really any social media, is I become extraordinarily self-absorbed, especially now.”
It’s weird meeting Schwyzer in person. He’s polite but distant. For someone so famously charismatic, he’s noticeably subdued. He had his first breakdown at 19, he says, when he was at UC Berkeley. He had another one when he was 31. In the mid-’90s, Schwyzer competed in marathons, in part to try to control his mood swings. He also tried religion. For seven years he was a youth leader at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, tending to a teen flock. At 40, he began to feel he was too old; it was a bit “creepy,” so he quit. Soon after he joined the Kabbalah Centre. After his wife discovered his affairs, their spiritual adviser thought it would be good for Schwyzer to get out of the house.
Today he doesn’t look so hot. His hair is a bit messy; his blue eyes, dull. The two-day beard visible in his Web site photo doesn’t seem sexy but rather like gray stubble. He’s wearing Levi’s, a blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt, and green sneakers with orange stripes. The shirt is rumpled, loosely tucked; a candy wrapper pokes out from a pocket in his jeans. He’s on 900 milligrams of lithium daily, he tells me.
He calls out to his mom, who comes into the living room and sits in a small upholstered chair. Dressed in a large white button-down shirt, black slacks, and white orthopedic shoes, she’s got short, curly white-and-gray hair, tiny blue eyes, a warm smile. While his mom and I chat, Schwyzer makes us coffee. She’s friendly but wary. She tells me she doesn’t know why her son agreed to do this interview. She wants our conversation off the record. But later she agrees to talk about some things. She’s not happy about Amber.
Amber is the 22-year-old whom Schwyzer met in the psych ward at Monterey’s Community Hospital a few weeks ago, when she admitted herself after a crushing breakup. Like smitten teenagers, they began passing notes in group therapy sessions. The nurses told Schwyzer to stay away from her. He didn’t. Amber thought he was a gentleman. He opened the door for her, paid for her gas, protected her from a lecherous guy on the ward.
This was Schwyzer’s pattern: Tell just enough of the truth to seem forthcoming and trustworthy, and then if caught lying, be polite and profess remorse.
Schwyzer had told me on the phone they were “dating,” “fooling around.” He e-mailed me a photo of her. I shared his mother’s worries that Amber might get hurt. What was the matter with him? Never mind his own rocky mental health, his marriage, his two young kids he wasn’t allowed to see. Amber was recovering from a deep depression.
Earlier that morning I’d met her at the Carmel Mission, where we sat in the sunny courtyard and talked while elderly tourists and schoolkids wandered by. “Oh, Hugo,” Amber said, smiling. “He’s an amazing, amazing man. I hate that people judge him the way they do, because they’re wrong. He knows he did something wrong. He made a mistake, and he gets that now. The good side is fighting to come out.” Dressed in a floral maxi dress, the strawberry-haired young woman had scars on her tattooed arms where she’d cut herself. She had a history of eating disorders. She told me she was studying the Bible and wanted to be a nurse. “I’m just getting into religion because I’m trying to fill that void with something positive.” The next day she would be driving to Folsom to live with her mom and return to community college. “I’m a big mama’s girl,” she said. Although Schwyzer had intimated to me that their relationship was sexual, when I asked her about it, she laughed and said no. He’d wanted to. She wasn’t interested.
But there were other things they did together, Amber said, showing me a circle of burn wounds on her inner wrist—dark red, oozing with pus. They hurt. “I wish I hadn’t done it,” she said. The day before, she and Schwyzer had burned themselves with cigarettes while sitting in her black pickup truck. She’d never done that before, but Schwyzer, who says he burns himself to relieve his suicidal urges, showed her how.
Back at the house, Schwyzer rolls up his sleeves, shows me his burns, too, whispering so his mom won’t hear him from the next room. When I say that Amber regrets it, he doesn’t respond. He goes on talking about self-mutilation: “There’s something about a lit cigarette in my arm that for years and years, going back into my teens, has held a sort of romantic notion.”
Schwyzer paces, sits down, stands up, constantly checks his iPhone. Who is he talking to? his mom asks. Amber is texting him. Amber wants help moving. As I remain on the sofa, Schwyzer rushes over to me, shakes my hand, then dashes out the side door and speeds off with Amber in her truck.
During the past few months, as he moved from rehab to his mom’s house and returned to L.A., Schwyzer kept in touch. When I spoke to him in mid-September, he sounded down. He was still in Carmel, was missing his kids, and—having just passed his eighth wedding anniversary, alone—had begun discussions with his wife about divorce. He was being investigated by PCC officials. He had just published a post saying he had resigned and was going to take disability retirement. This was only partly true. He would actually resign in October.
I asked how he was passing the time. “Going to AA meetings, going to therapy, and doing a lot of walking around Carmel.” He was also reading J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, about a professor who loses everything after seducing a vulnerable female student. “It’s the obvious novel to be reading now.” In December he e-mailed to wish me a happy holiday. Was the story still on? I told him it was. “Great,” he said. He was worried that it had been killed because of his bad behavior.
Now Schwyzer resides in a sober-living facility in Culver City. Twenty hours a week he works as a file clerk for an accountant in Pico-Robertson—what his fellow residents call “a get-well job,” he says. As for Twitter, Schwyzer has been trying to control his urges. But when Dylan Farrow wrote an essay accusing her adoptive father, Woody Allen, of abusing her, Schwyzer couldn’t help himself. “Dylan Farrow’s letter is a devastating rebuke to the principle that the art can be easily separated from the moral character of the artist,” tweeted the man who had vowed never to weigh in on women’s issues again. Twelve minutes later he added this: “#IBelieveDylan. No reason to lie at this point…”
Mona Gable is a Los Angeles writer and the author of Blood Brother, an upcoming memoir to be published by Shebooks.net. Her last piece for Los Angeles was a profile of pediatrician Jay Gordon.
This feature originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.