The Hugo Problem


When Schwyzer was teaching at Pasadena City College, porn actress Jessica Drake spoke on campus. Photogrpah by James Carbone.

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.”

After his Twitter meltdown, Schwyzer moved to a sober living facility in Culver City. Photograph by Frank Ockenfels 3.

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 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.