Moving forward: an April update

I got a note yesterday that, with the author’s permission, I’m posting in order to answer her questions:

I follow you on Twitter and have bookmarked your blog; additionally, I
have read many of your pieces at various other blogs. In particular, I
loved your piece for Relevant (Beauty vs. Sexuality) and the one you
wrote recently about Jesus coming as a man
being essential to His
being the ultimate role model (I shed a few tears over that one). But,
I’ve also read a lot of backlash over your pieces, particularly from
the Christian community
; at times, I’m ashamed to be a part of that
community but I am in no way ashamed of my Savior Jesus or being a
follower of His. I guess I just wanted to ask you this: where do you
stand, religiously? And how do you feel about your past- particularly
when it gets thrown into your face? How do you reconcile what
happened, the choices you made, with your current profession (speaking
on behalf of women)? Do you think people, particularly these victims
of abuse who claim you have no right to speak without identifying your
past, have a right to ask that? I suppose I would
just love to have some of my own confusion cleared up so I can
understand your platform. Please continue to write- though I may not
agree with everything you say, I do enjoy reading your writings very
much…

(I added the hyperlinks to Kayla’s note.)

I’ll get to Kayla’s specific questions further down.

It’s been a while since I’ve written an update on the huge controversy that erupted in December. I can’t imagine that many regular readers are unfamiliar with what’s gone on, but one of the best (if imperfect) summaries ran in The Atlantic in mid-February. It’s as close to a fair recounting of the situation as exists.

I did a video interview about the blow-up in January 17 with the Feminist Theologian, click here for links to the four-part series.

On January 24, lawyers for my employer, Pasadena City College, enjoined me from speaking or writing further about the two most controversial aspects of my past: my sexual relationships with students when I was an untenured faculty member in the 1990s and the events of June 27, 1998, in which in the midst of a drug binge, I tried to kill both myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas. As it was explained to me by the college’s counsel, the administration appreciates that my behavior as a faculty member has been above board for almost fourteen years. On the other hand, in my past writing I alluded several times to the fact that a previous PCC administration was well aware both of my unethical sexual relationships with students — and of the details of my murder/suicide attempt. I confessed both to several administrators after getting sober. Though none of those administrators are still employed by PCC, the feeling of the current college counsel is that rehashing the story cast the school in a poor light. In other words, why wasn’t I dealt with more harshly? The college wants to make clear that it takes sexual misconduct by faculty very seriously (“consensual” faculty-student relationships are now classified as misconduct thanks to a policy that did not yet exist in 1998), and as a result, would rather not have the regular reminders of their leniency in my case.

For that reason, while I can reiterate what’s already been said, I’m not to add new details, even as questions keep getting raised about my past. It’s been incredibly frustrating not to be able to respond to a great many misrepresentations. A few things I can clarify, however, while still honoring my obligations to the lawyers:

1. The original piece from January 2011 that detailed the murder/suicide attempt was removed on legal advice from several sources.

2. One blog, Are Women Human, raised the legitimate question of how previous accounts of what happened on June 27, 1998 were presented. I’d written about my last episode of drinking and drugging several times over the years, but until 2011, could not bring myself to write in a public place the specific details of that night. Though I’d made amends to everyone involved to the extent that it was possible to do so, I wasn’t emotionally ready to share the full story. So I told a half-story, noting the suicide attempt but not the fact that in my psychotic state, I attempted to take another person with me. That was wrong of me to leave out; in hindsight, I understand I ought to have either told the whole story or none of it.

When I posted the January 2011 complete account, I didn’t do what I ought to have done: go back and make a note on the older incomplete versions. Indeed, it didn’t occur to me to try and reconcile the incomplete originals with the honest new version until this whole controversy broke and someone pointed out the discrepancy in an email. I went back and edited the earlier versions to make them more accurate, and stupidly didn’t note the edits (as is standard Internet protocol.) The end result was that an attempt to be completely truthful looked like a ham-fisted attempt to whitewash the truth. Fearful that any further attempt to clarify would only create more problems, I followed advice to stay silent even when the inconsistencies were pointed out. As a result, I appeared to be callously indifferent to accuracy. That’s my fault, and I accept responsibility.

3. I want to reiterate that the only source for my past transgressions is my own writing. In the past four months, I’ve wondered constantly whether I did the right thing by sharing these details of my past. Never mind that once shared, I should have shared completely and not in “stages,” completing the full picture in a series of posts over a period of years — that was a huge error. The real question is whether, for the sake of my family and for the sake of those whom I hurt with my behavior in my years of addiction and abuse, I ought to have written about sleeping with students or about my last drink/drug episode at all. Honestly, I naively believed in the power of confessional writing to serve as warning, to serve as encouragement, to serve as a document not only of the power to change but of the ways to do so. I’m not sure I believe that anymore.

As for Kayla’s questions:

I was delighted to be asked to write for Relevant. They were fully informed of my past before my piece appeared; I don’t want anyone to be taken by surprise after they’ve published an article by me. Though I haven’t read all of the criticisms of Relevant’s decision to host me as a guest author, I do understand those who are upset to have someone with my past writing for a Christian magazine. I recognize that the real debate is not about the content of that particular piece, but about me – the problem is less with the message than the messenger! That said, I do believe I’ve earned the right to go where I’m invited to go once I’ve fully disclosed my story. The article was not about domestic violence or murder/suicide attempts; the article was pushing back against a particular manifestation of the myth of male weakness. In other words, I framed the piece as a call to greater male accountability — something I do believe I’m qualified to write about based on my past, my present, and my academic work.

On my faith: I am a Christian. I’m working to be a better and more faithful one. (Writing for Relevant was hardly my first sojourn into Christian spaces; from 2000-2007 I helped run the senior high youth program at All Saints Pasadena and in 04-05 I was a regular blogger for Christians for Biblical Equality. I left both gigs on excellent terms.)

I am frustrated that many of my critics misrepresent my work. My column at Good Men Project on consent has been misread as both a confession of rape and a celebration of victim-blaming. My more recent piece at Jezebel defending the use of the word creep was described by one critic as a pro-MRA article, when nothing could be further from the truth. My column on adult men’s disturbing interest in the “barely legal” genre of pornography was misrepresented as a defense of sexualizing teens. It’s not new to be quoted out of context, but some folks don’t bother to quote me at all, preferring instead to accuse me of saying the opposite of what I’m actually saying. I stand by all three of these articles and the others I’ve written for Jezebel and Good Men Project in recent years.

The bottom line is that in the 1990s, I did some terrible things. I was an abusive, destructive person to myself and to others. I have spent nearly 14 years making amends and restoration for what I did. I haven’t gone into detail about those amends because it would be self-serving to list the good I’ve done. In my writing, I focus on the wrongs I did far more than I do on the specifics of my work at restoration. That’s not dishonesty, it’s an attempt (perhaps misguided) at humility. My old Twelve Step sponsor told me to be quick to confess my shortcomings and reluctant to praise my own recovery work. His advice has informed my writing since I started blogging nearly a decade ago. In this case, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but rather of discretion.

I am hugely grateful for the expressions of support I’ve gotten from many people in the last few months, including kind private notes from public figures who are unable to be more publicly encouraging due to fear of backlash. (As several have reminded me, there’s nothing unique about my story; what’s happened to me with this controversy has happened to other writers and will happen again. Take-downs, just or unjust, are part and parcel of internet culture.) I have lost many friends in recent months — and gained many others. It has been a time of winnowing and discernment.

I believe I can continue to do good as a writer, a speaker, a teacher. I will continue to write, speak, and teach — even as much remains to be revealed about where I will be welcome. I will only go where I am welcome, and will only trust the welcome of those who fully understand my story.

Lastly, despite the huge personal and financial cost of this controversy, I am not sorry that it’s happened. It has strengthened my relationships, it has strengthened my faith, and it has forced me to be more fully accountable for how I talk about my past (and my present) in public spaces. These are good things. I am grateful.

I may be laying low, however, in the weeks to come. We’re expecting a little brother or sister for Heloise within the next fortnight. That joy swamps every other concern.

25 thoughts on “Moving forward: an April update

  1. I’m so grateful for this article, my online discussions with misinformed angry people can get so frustrating sometimes. I understand why your lawyers would advise you not to talk about your past anymore, but even so, I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for you not being able to clarify anything. It pisses me off to read pieces stating things like “an abuser who attempted to kill a woman”. I mean, really? Have those people even read the original story? It’s manipulation of facts taken to a whole new level.

  2. I naively believed in the power of confessional writing to serve as warning, to serve as encouragement, to serve as a document not only of the power to change but of the ways to do so. I’m not sure I believe that anymore.

    I can understand why you wouldn’t believe in that anymore. I can only imagine that the fallout from the kind of confessional writing you’ve done has been severe. I still believe in the power of confessional writing to serve in the ways that you describe here — but perhaps it was easier for that to be true in a paradigm in which the writer and readers weren’t in such ready contact. I don’t know.

    In any event: b’sha’ah tovah, may the newest member of your family be born “in a fortunate hour,” in God’s time, and I wish you and your family much joy…and much sleep!

  3. OMG I didn’t know about the baby!! Did I miss an announcement?? Congratulations!! :) Okay, sorry, I know that’s not what this article was about, but I just wanted to throw that out there. :)

    On the rest of the article, I think you’re doing an amazing job of not becoming bitter and angry and letting that color your perceptions, but I can tell that there is still a danger of that blight overtaking you (re “Honestly, I naively believed in the power of confessional writing to serve as warning, to serve as encouragement, to serve as a document not only of the power to change but of the ways to do so. I’m not sure I believe that anymore.”). Do your best not to let it; I know it’s a huge cliche, but that will end up hurting you and those you love more than any external attack ever will. It might well make those you’ve harmed in the past feel better if you did, too, which is sort of nice for them..? but it would also very much please those who are salivating over you as their chance to finally destroy a target that actually cares about their opinions, so there’s another reason not to do it along with the self-harm and the harm to those you love. (I found out all about that last dynamic in my six-months stint of writing for Glenn Sacks–it turns out you’re not helping anyone, you’re only validating people who have personal problems that go way beyond and past societally-induced gender ones, though they like to hide behind those as a cover.)

    Best of wishes in everything! :)

  4. That controversy really showed certain people at their worst, and although I’ve continued to read their stuff and take it seriously, I’ve formed a lasting memory of what those people are capable of doing if they think they have a victim.

    I see this whole thing as having a link with the Christian ideas of sin and forgiveness of sin. Jesus said we have to forgive the repentant sinner, as God does. But what do we do with someone who’s really hit the bottom, as happened on 6-27-98, if that person admits how badly they acted, and (apparently) manages to lead a reformed life ever afterward? Do we say, that’s fine but I’ll never trust you again? Do we basically bring in the concept of the unforgiveable sin? And if we do those things, are we sinning ourselves, in our determination to keep up a punitive attitude forever? Frankly I think we would be: we’ve got to let a sinner reform and be recognized for it, or we’re saying that punishment is more important than ending sin. I’m disappointed that there were feminists (or Christians, but I don’t care about them as much) who have acted wrongly in this matter. And I’m not much cheered to hear that there are others who have expressed anonymous support. Not exactly profiles in courage there.

  5. I’m proud to count myself amongst those who both support you and call themselves pro-feminist. It continues to be a stretch of understanding for me for anyone to have read your original articles of the events and arrive at the level of hostility and vehemence many did.
    I am still astonished at the lengths to which many feminists went to allow/create a significant split in the community. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that you aren’t worth that. And I mean that in the most respectful terms.
    Congratulations on your new child. May zie be healthy, happy and much loved.

  6. Hugo,
    First off, congratulations on your second child!
    I have been reading your confessional writing for a few years now, and I have been very inspired by your stories. Reading these blogs has shown me the immense capacity humans have to change and live the life that they want. As someone who grew up with many family members and role models who have addictions, I saw the turmoil and chaos in their lives and how my life was and still is affected. Part of me had some hope that things could get better for loved ones who suffer from addiction, even when everything in reality seemed to be going in a different direction. At the same time, as I grew up I began to develop the same problems, but didn’t admit to myself what was actually happening. Being able to witness your stages of transfomation in your writing reinforced the hope I had that things really can change, and I started to see how one goes about doing that. I noticed your levels of honesty and humility over time and decided you were a role model I want to emulate, so I began to try and be more honest and take more responsibility in my life. Once I could admit that I am an alcoholic and addict, what you wrote made even more sense. Who would have thought it? By witnessing the stages of your growth I have been able to witness a process of change, and how it actually works. I have learned in recovery that growth is a process, not an event. You dont just wake up one day with all the ideals you envision the day before all in line for you. It is hard work looking at your own reflection without covering up what you don’t want to see of yourself. This is learning to accept the truth so that you can in turn be more honest with others. What I have noticed is honesty inspires even more growth. I have even re-read some of your peices after long intervals and noticed how much I have changed. It’s like someting just clicks into place for me when that happens. Th definition of emulate that I found is : to match or surpass, typically by immitation. Although I guess it’s not really a competition. I will confess that I have a long way to go. I think your peices are a good check point or landmark. For me, it is similar to when a child marks their hieght on the wall every so often, and can see each time how much has changed in the way you write your name and how straight you draw the line with each and every marking. I also think that your perspective is what could reach someone like me. Feminism was one thing that changed my life drastically in short amount of time, and it continues to aid me in my process. Another thing that has kept me reading is the way you talk about your feelings, because most of the male role models I’ve had growing up just don’t do that often. I hardly do that! The other aspect of your writing that got to me was your views on christainity, and how you relate them to feminism and equal rights. I grew up taught to believe in god, but the way I was taught didn’t make sense to me. I was raised to believe that it wasn’t right to accept any other sexuality but heterosexulaity and it seemed contradictory to me. Being bisexual, believing in this way would mean that I wouldn’t be accepted for who I am, and since I was taught that God created us and Jesus died for us, it didn’t make sense. I felt flawed and rejected by my creator, so I rejected religion altogether. I was introduced to a more accepting version of a faith that never died in me through your writing that I had never fathomed, and probably wouldn’t have read about if it wasn’t for your unique perpective. Since I started going to a church that accepts me – all of me, as I am, I have been so much happier =) and feel loved. And I have met the best most courageous people! I believe that God talks through people, and that he has reached me through you. I am feeling… joyful expressing this! I am very grateful and and blessed that I have been able to follow and witness your process through your writings, and I will respect your decision, but with this whole not believing thing, I disagree!
    Thank you

  7. Hugo,

    Regarding the Relevant article and why some people had an issue with it, I think the major issue was that you DIDN’T disclose your full story. At least not to the readers. You seem concerned that the editors of the magazines not be taken by surprise, but what about the readers? Regardless of how you frame your article, your readers are the ones who may be victims of current or past domestic violence or abusive relationships. And these same people may see an ally in you and begin forming an online relationship with you (e.g., following you on Twitter or subscribing to/commenting on your blog). And then eventually they may find out about your past (as has already happened with a number of the Relevant readers) and this could be triggering. And, believe it or not, some women might not want to comment on your blog or follow you on Twitter given your past. So I believe you owe it to your readers, not to any editors, to disclose your past when writing about feminist issues (and despite how you “frame” it, sexuality and beauty is a feminist issue). To not do so is going to be seen as creepy (“a potential threat; a creep may not be imminently violent, but there’s almost always a sense that he shows consistent disregard for a woman’s physical or psychological space”) by a lot of women. I say this not because I want people to see you as creepy but because if you are going to continue writing in public spaces like Relevant, then you are going to have to reflect on how, to quote you again, this “makes other people feel” and ” fundamentally altering [your] behavior to be more genuinely respectful of women.”

  8. Eric, what wording would you propose? Is this to only be for me, or are we presuming that every other writer for Relevant has a clean slate? Should Relevant ask questions of its writers to discover if anything needs to be disclosed in a disclaimer?

    Should the college put a notice in the course catalog about my past? Should the other parents in my daughter’s school be informed? Should there be a notice on my front lawn? Or perhaps a letter sewn into my clothing?

    What is the calculus we’ll use to decide what sins need a disclaimer and what doesn’t? Who decides?

  9. Seriously, Eric, I’d love to see a suggested disclaimer. I’m genuinely interested in what that would look like.

  10. I agree there is no elegant way to add “attempted to murder my girlfriend” to a bio line. No arguments from me there. But your other questions are just an attempt to ignore my comments about the real victims here. Some women still feel hurt today because of what you’ve done in your past. And when they think they’ve found an ally but then find out about your past, it can be even more hurtful. Honestly, I don’t know what the right course of action is for you, but from my perspective, what you are doing now isn’t working.

  11. Here’s the problem, Eric: there are abuse survivors who feel hurt when they find about my past. There are also — read the comments sections — many who feel encouraged when they read about my story, because they are hopeful about the capacity for change. There is no consensus as to whether I’m more helpful or hurtful — different people with similar experiences in their pasts react differently. Some abuse survivors have told me that they think I should stop writing; others have asked me to continue to write. We can pile up anecdotes of personal stories and marshall different perspectives, but the fact is that my story and my writing provoke a broad continuum of responses. Those who have spoken out against me are entitled to their views, but do they speak for all or even most? And if they only speak for the minority, should their views hold the trump card?

    I believe that I’m doing more good than harm by continuing to write what I write where I write. I’ve been listening to hundreds and hundreds of voices across a wide spectrum, and there is no consensus at all. Some folks love what I write, some folks hate what I write; some folks are inspired by my personal story and others are horrified by it. You’re right — what I’m doing right now isn’t working… for some. It is working for others. How then to proceed?

  12. (I’m splitting this up into two comments, as they are two separate but related points. Also, it was just too long.)

    I’d like to throw another perspective in here.
    There is the message and there is the messenger. We rarely know the messenger. So, does knowing the messenger alter what we get from the message? As we’ve seen in this specific case, for some, yes, for some, no.

    To use an old example, Woody Allen made a decision in his life that caused many people to swear off his films. Most eventually came back, a few stayed away. Now twenty years have passed and newcomers to his work probably know little about who he’s married to. There is no disclaimer in his films that the writer/director made some choices that you the viewer may find abhorrent. You either enjoy the film or you don’t. If you found out later that he made those decisions, THEN you re-evaluate if you want to continue to see his work or not. Finding out later does not remove all the enjoyment you experienced up until that point.

    There is a reasonable limit to how far one can go to “warn” people of their past just in case it might create harm. It’s reasonable to trust the editors/owners/producers of a magazine/website/symposium, etc., to know their audience. Trying to reach beyond that has too many factors to control.
    When most people read an article by someone they don’t already know, they don’t first do an exhaustive search on the history of the author to see who they are or what their affiliation is.
    Even if there were a disclaimer on each article Hugo wrote with, perhaps, a link to one summary of the entire situation, it doesn’t guarantee that it would be read. Beyond that, a proviso would have to be posted with every article requiring that anyone quoting, reprinting, or using information from that article anywhere else also use the disclaimer, lest an unknown third party be harmed.
    This becomes so cumbersome as to be ridiculous.
    There is certainly enough information available now for anyone who chose to research Hugo to decide if who he is changes what he writes, for them.

  13. (part 2)
    There’s been a lot of talk about avoiding “triggering” people. Two things on that: 1) the word “trigger” is sorely overused and has come to mean someone who gets upset at experiencing something they don’t like, 2) I work with people with PTSD, anxiety disorders with histories of rape/assault/molestation. When they are triggered by an event that causes them to relive some aspect of their trauma, they aren’t upset. They become non-functional. Panic attacks, regressive depression that lasts for days, inability to attend work/school, etc.
    The vast majority of the criticism I’ve read in reaction to Hugo doesn’t come anywhere close to that and the way people throw that word around shows that they don’t really understand what it means to be triggered.

    Part of the work for someone who is triggered is about reducing their reactions to triggers, not avoiding them. They realize that they can’t very well move through life expecting others to clear a path for them of anything that might induce a panic reaction in them. They learn their hotspots and how to avoid those that they are not yet ready to handle.

    There are millions of authors/artists/creators out there that may genuinely trigger someone for the widest range of reasons. To expect a disclaimer on each one is not just an unreasonable task, it’s impossible.

  14. I’m a clinical social worker. I’ve specialized in work with survivors of trauma, especially sexual assault, since the late 70s. I have a personal history with PTSD and panic attacks. (from non-sexual events, lest I give the wrong impression.) I am also a recovering addict with 24 years clean. I haven’t made some of the mistakes Hugo made, but I’m sure he didn’t make some of mine. Nonetheless, I know something about the struggles he has had, before and after sobriety. I know something about the struggles survivors have, as a clinician and a person with similar challenges.

    All of which constitutes my bona fides to say, simply, I see much of Hugo’s work as part of those ongoing, indirect amends so many of us have to make, day after day, because there is never enough we can do to make direct amends to those we harmed.

  15. Hugo,

    I find utilitarian ethics to be completely inadequate in this situation. “It’s okay that I’m hurting some women because I’m making up for it by helping others!”

    • No it doesn’t make sense to split your identity in that way — help others, while hurting others. But what if your “sins” are from the past? What if you’re reformed? What if you’ve done the work and changed your behaviour and your mindset? I suppose the question is whether someone has truly changed, or if he/she is just playing a role. That’s always a question. It’s probably wise not trust blindly anyone, but there’s also a point when caution turns to paranoia.

  16. “Honestly, I naively believed in the power of confessional writing to serve as warning, to serve as encouragement, to serve as a document not only of the power to change but of the ways to do so. I’m not sure I believe that anymore.”

    I found these sentences incredibly sad.

    I would like to feel that the naive belief is correct. But perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

    And, like the Velveteen Rabbi above, I wonder if the internet has made things worse. Not just the contact between readers and writers, but a whole host of social things — the tendency of internet writers to take snippets out of context, for those snippets (and not the original) to be passed around, the worse behavior people tend to show when part of an anonymous posting, the intensity of fads, etc.

    But basically, yes: those sentences made me sad.

    (Personally, I think you should write your memoirs: great conversion story, a classic American (and Christian!) form. And that way you could present the context, in full, for everyone who wants to read it.)

    Oh, and thanks for explaining about the lawyers. It makes sense now.

    Finally, congratulations on having a new baby!! Speaking as the father to a child a month older than Heloise, you’re a brave family to up that to two. We’re still tired enough! (Just remember: one more, and they *outnumber* you…)

  17. Something a friend of mine sent to me when I was going through a rough time:

    “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14 ESV)

    Thank-you for your writing =)

    ~Lauren B.

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