I’ve said my goodbyes to the internet for the time being. (And those of you betting on when I’ll be back, it won’t be soon, and those of you betting on my suicide, fuck you.)
But as I go I want to publish something else, something that I think needs to be put out there. The story that originally created such fuss around my career was a 2011 account of trying to kill my ex girlfriend and myself back in 1998. I wrote a sloppy, terrible version and deleted it when the controversy began, but not before the “attempted murderer meme” had become part and parcel of my public life.
I began to write a memoir, to “set the proverbial record straight.” However recent events, including my breakdown, two psychiatric hospitalizations and the revelation of multiple affairs (for the record, none with students, and including more women than Christina) have revealed me to be broken, a fraud.
I am not who I claimed to be, not who I tried to be. I need to work on getting sober again, seeing if my marriage can be repaired, and staying alive for my beautiful precious children. That’s the real truth. I am not well but I will be. I am on heavy meds, including (ironically) Klonopin, the very drug that is mentioned in the story below. I am certainly not fit for a public role.
So here is the opening short chapter of what was to have been the memoir. The story of what happened 15 years ago, dispelling rumors and so forth. It is the final record on that sad story and it is all true. (All names have been changed.)
And now, I’m gone.
The thing about being on a binge is that the clarity comes in waves. Long periods of oblivion, punctuated by brief and intense moments where everything comes into shocking, painful focus.
I had awoken with a start. I was on my back, naked on the thin carpet. Kerith, emaciated and frail, was curled next to me, her breathing shallow. The room smelled of pizza, of alcohol, of sex, of sweat. I felt something in my hand – a Ziploc baggie half-filled with prescription pills. Klonopin, Demerol, Ativan, Percocet; we’d been eating them like jellybeans, washed down with vodka.
I knew exactly where I was, what time it was, whom I was with. For the first time in days, I felt the cigarette burns on my chest and arms, the rawness in my nose from the coke, the awful dry mouth from the pills, the acid in my stomach. And I knew, with a certainty I hadn’t felt in weeks, exactly what I had to do.
It was June 27, 1998, the second anniversary of the day Kerith and I had met..
Exactly two years earlier, I checked into “Starting Over,” a sober living house for addicts just out of treatment. Joanna, (my second wife) and I were separated; if I could finish 90 days clean here, she’d promised to take me back. I clung to that thought, though given the frantic immediacy with which I lived my life, three months might as well have been 30 years.
Joanna seemed a long way away as I carried my two pathetically small suitcases (one filled with clothes, one with books) into my little room in Starting Over. Unpacked on a cool early summer Pasadena afternoon, I was forty-five minutes and five Marlboro Reds in to my stay, reading at the communal kitchen table, when Kerith walked in. My first impression was that she walked like a dancer: slender and petite; she had auburn hair, pale skin, cashmere sweater set, Hillary Clinton headband, a fierce and unsettling smile. After an awkward introduction, she asked softly, certain of the answer: “may I bum one?” I lit her cigarette as gallantly as I could, while her gaze settled on my paperback: Auden’s Collected Poems. Kerith exhaled, looked off into the distance, and recited, softly,
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
She inhaled deeply, looked down at me. “Your turn,” she said.
I gaped at her, my mind momentarily blank. Kerith was, I realized, also disconcertingly beautiful. Her brown eyes bored into mine as she took a second long drag on the cigarette. Think, Hugo, think. And then something came: an extended excerpt from “The Common Life.”
We finished the pack, walked to the grocery store for supplies. At the freezer case our fingers brushed; by the checkout line we were holding hands. We kissed in the parking lot; we undressed each other in the Starting Over storage closet. I’d signed the sober living’s code of conduct – which forbade sex between residents – at noon. I’d broken that rule and my marriage vows by six.
Two nights later, I relapsed on speed and beer, tore my tiny bedroom apart, swallowed dozens of boring pills my shrink prescribed (Anafranil and Wellbutrin), and slashed my wrists with glass from a broken mirror. Another relapse, another hospitalization, another divorce followed in predictable order.
Kerith followed. She drank her way out of Starting Over, and with nowhere else willing to take us, we moved in together into a bleak but furnished one-bedroom apartment in East Pasadena. We spent the next two years together breaking up and getting back together. I worked on my dissertation and taught my classes, used drugs and slept with two dozen students; Kerith worked on her MFA, danced at Pasadena’s sole strip club, and fell deeper into her benzodiazepine addiction. We fought, drank, and – somehow – functioned together.
By June of ’98 Keri and I were both nearing a bottom. She’d moved out after another breakup and was crashing on the couches and in the beds of guy friends who were all too willing to play the white knight for a very obviously damaged damsel. Meanwhile, I was on summer break from teaching, always my most vulnerable time. The rhythms of the academic calendar were what often kept me out of the worst trouble; no matter what, sober or loaded, I found a way to show up and teach and grade.
That spring had been different. I’d fallen for an 18 year-old student who had dumped me in disgust once her starry-eyed infatuation with a charismatic professor had worn off in the face of my neediness, my dishonesty, my compulsivity. Kiley’s transition from crush to disdain had been rapid and unmistakable, and had sent me spiraling rapidly downward. She’d dumped me for good on June 21; I’d spent the last six days since on a binge. When I was sober, I cut myself with razor blades and burned myself with cigarettes. When I was loaded, the days blended into each other with increasing speed.
Just after noon on Saturday the 27th, Kerith called me. We hadn’t spoken in weeks after a huge blowout fight in the street in front of her parents’ home. Her father – a powerful, well-connected local politician had told me to stay away from his daughter, and I’d had no problem complying with his request. And then the phone call came.
Keri sounded very small, very frightened, and very sober. She asked me to come pick her up right away. I asked her where she was, and she told me she wasn’t sure. She was at a payphone, she said, and the way the mountains looked, she thought she might be in Highland Park or El Sereno, two poor communities near Pasadena. I told her to hang up, look for some street signs, and call me back. Five minutes later, she called back with an address. I looked it up in my Thomas Guide, and though I was in no condition to drive, I climbed into my truck and went off to find my battered, beautiful Keri. I snorted the last of my coke first. I loved Keri, but if she was coming over, I didn’t want to share that.
When I found her, she was standing on a corner in the sun, dressed improbably in a crushed velvet burgundy party dress, holding her heels and her purse. I helped her into the cab, breathing in the stale alcohol that came through her pores. Kerith was both more alert and more fragile than I had seen her in months. As I got behind the wheel I glanced at her arms. Kerith had fresh rope burns on her wrists. She’d been at a dealer’s house, that much was obvious. She looked and smelled like she’d been paying a drug debt in a way all too awful and familiar to young female addicts. The numbed sadness I’d been feeling for weeks lifted momentarily; my heart lurched. I loved this woman.
Before I could buckle my seatbelt, Kerith lifted my right arm and draped it around herself, nestling her body against mine, her head on my chest. Take me home, Hugo,” she said softly. “I want a pizza. And I want you.”
Keenly aware that I was surely still above the legal limit, I drove us back to the apartment with elaborate one-handed care. When we got inside, I called Romeo’s and ordered our beloved usual – an extra large pie with pineapple, cilantro and Canadian bacon – for delivery. Keri stumbled into the shower. I poured myself a shot, and began to rummage through her purse, looking for her Ziploc baggie that was usually at least as well stocked as my own. It was there; whatever Kerith had surrendered at her dealer, she’d left with a plentiful salad of pills. I started picking through them, looking for my reliable favorites.
The shower stopped. A moment later, Kerith walked naked into the room, a towel hanging uselessly from one hand, her wet hair dripping onto the rug. Though she was the thinnest I’d ever seen her, almost impossibly frail, she moved with purpose into my arms. “I want you,” she whispered, “it’s been too long.” I lifted her up to carry her to the bedroom, picking up the Smirnoff bottle with one hand. Her legs wrapped around me, Keri deftly took it took from me. She drained most of what remained, and her mouth found mine.
When Kerith and I had sober sex, it was so emotionally intense it often left both of us raw. She would cry; I’d feel so vulnerable that I couldn’t get hard. Like more than a few alcoholics (and very unlike most non-addict men) I had an easier time getting an erection when I was at least lightly buzzed. I was more than high enough, and with a few more pulls from the bottle, Keri was well on her way as well.
The lovemaking was as desperately hot as it was desperately heartbreaking. We were both so thin, so battered, so covered in both fresh and aging scars. “We look so beautiful,” Keri said, catching a glimpse of our bodies in the mirror as she rode me. “So sweet,” she whispered as she came, “so sweet, so sweet.”
The knock at the door came seconds after we finished. I wrapped a towel around myself, paid the pizza delivery boy, and put the box on the kitchen table. We never opened it. Instead, we sat on the floor with a fresh vodka bottle and opened our Ziplocs. We compared, we shared, we swallowed. We’d done it before, but never like this. Normally, when we’d used together, we combined pills with care. Now, we did it with a determined recklessness. This is bad, Hugo, this is bad, I thought to myself. I had no idea what I was taking. I lost track of how much we were drinking.
It was probably around 4:00 in the afternoon when we passed out on the floor. Perhaps five hours later, I came to, instantly and painfully alert. I looked at Kerith, heard her shallow breathing. I sat up, looking at the still-fresh scars on my arm. One of my wounds had opened up again; there was dried blood on my wrists and on my torso and on Keri’s body as well.
I knew what I had to do.
I’d attempted suicide twice before; Kerith had tried perhaps half-a-dozen times. We’d talked often about ODing together, but by grace our timing was always off. I wanted to die when she wanted to live, and vice versa. Now it’s time to be strong for both of us, I thought. I could finish all of her pain and all of mine, I realized. Perhaps we’d be together in the next life. At least neither of you will die alone.
I stumbled into the kitchen a few feet away. I stood over the ancient stove, blew out the pilot lights on each of the burners and then the one in the oven, leaving the door open. I turned all the dials to maximum, the strong odor of gas filling the room. Pulling the stove away from the wall, I pushed it as far towards where Kerith lay as I could. I took another swig of vodka, swallowed more pills. I then lay down beside her, spooning her.
The recollection ends there.
Our memory is invariably imperfect, especially when filtered through the haze of drugs and alcohol. For all the clarity of those few moments with the stove, what I don’t remember is that I also made several phone calls to friends and family to say goodbye. It was a Saturday night; I reached a lot of answering machines. One friend in San Francisco was home. According to her, I slurred the words “Kerith and I are checking out… goodbye” and then hung up. Pamela knew me well enough to know I wasn’t in the habit of making idle threats. She called her local police and gave them my address; the cops in San Francisco contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to report a double suicide in progress.
It’s hard to know how long they took to arrive. My best guess is that it was perhaps 45 minutes from the time I turned on the gas until the deputies burst into the apartment. The front door was cheap and flimsy; it couldn’t have taken more than one good kick to break it open.
The sound of the door splintering woke me up again. I felt strong arms grabbing me, heard men shouting, then Kerith crying out in confusion. The smell of gas was suffocating, but we were very much alive.
The deputies half-dragged, half-carried us outside. I had on bloodstained boxer shorts but Keri was naked; I remember a female deputy grabbing a blanket from the bed and wrapping her tightly in it. Another handcuffed me, which struck me as odd and utterly unnecessary. I turned to him in bewilderment. “Sir,” I slurred as politely as I could in my state, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
I remember a surprisingly gentle smile beneath an impressive full mustache. “Buddy, it’s not me I’m worried about,” the deputy said. “Why don’t you let me help you sit down?” I passed out again before my butt hit the ground.
The next memory is of vomiting charcoal. While unconscious, Kerith and I had been rushed to the ER; our stomachs had been pumped. I’d been through that unhappy procedure more than once before; this time, I woke up choking on my own puke, throwing up what the nurses had pushed in to absorb all the pills. My arms were bandaged and restrained, which made it impossible to turn over and clear the vomit. I was gagging, unable to breathe. In retrospect, I realized that that might have been the closest I came to death that night. Once the nurses had cleared my airway and cleaned me up, I lost consciousness again.
Some drugs take longer than others to clear the system. Both Kerith and I had taken massive overdoses of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine normally prescribed to combat anxiety. In excess, its effects can linger in the system for days. As a result, the next few days blurred together, and I wasn’t able to say much that was coherent. We were both taken to Northridge Hospital, placed on yet another “5150” – an involuntary 72-hour hold on a locked psychiatric ward.
We weren’t there together for long. Most psych wards don’t allow romantic partners to be hospitalized in the same unit; after a few hours, Kerith was transferred. We were allowed to say goodbye to each other, surrounded by a team of orderlies and police officers. I still had an IV in and was in a hospital gown; they’d put Keri in scrubs for her trip. It was early Monday afternoon, perhaps 48 hours since she’d first called me.
“I love you,” she whispered as she kissed my cheek; “but I don’t understand what happened.”
“I tried to kill us, Keri. I turned on the gas.”
When the orderlies and cops heard that, they began to lead Keri away; others held me in place. Kerith looked back at me, confusion and shock growing in her face. Just before she reached the door, she gave me an encouraging smile. I remember hoping that it was a small signal of forgiveness, but I’m not sure she could yet grasp what I’d said, what I’d done.
We never saw each other again.
Based on what I’d said to Pamela and what they’d found in the apartment, the authorities had had no initial reason to suspect that this was anything other than a double suicide attempt. We had both tried to kill ourselves before; the grim joke among our friends was that we had frequent visitor discounts in all the local emergency rooms and psych wards. My impulsive hallway confession proved almost as astonishing to the staff as it did to Kerith.
Because I was still in a very real sense high from all the drugs in my system, my memories of what happened next are blurry. I know I was questioned first by my psychiatrist, and then by two uniformed sheriff’s deputies who – it seemed – repeated the same queries endlessly as I fought off drowsiness and dry mouth. Their interrogation might have lasted three hours, or 10 minutes. I still had no sense of time.
By Tuesday the 30th, my third day in the hospital, things were clearer. My psychiatrist told me that the deputies had spoken with Kerith and her family, and that while the investigation was “open,” her parents were adamant that they didn’t want to pursue a case. “You could be charged with attempted murder, Hugo” the doctor cautioned, his tone grave. “I need to advise you to speak with your own family about getting a lawyer.”
Attempted murder. His words – coming as they did in concert with the wearing-off of the benzodiazepine haze – left me gasping and dizzy. For the first time, I understood that there was a name for what I’d tried to do. As self-destructive as Kerith was, she hadn’t wanted to die on that particular Saturday night. I had – and out of a mixture of cowardice and misplaced tenderness, I’d made the unilateral decision to take her with me. As incapacitated by depression and drugs as we’d both so often been in our two years together – and as often as we’d cheated on each other — we’d always practiced a kind of fierce solidarity. “You and me, kid, against a cruel world” had been our motto.
And in what had falsely appeared as a moment of both exquisite clarity and tender kindness, I’d done the cruelest thing imaginable.
13 years later – and clean and sober since the events of that night — I wrote a much shorter version of this story on my own blog. I shared it to explain, as I hope to do in this book, how to come to terms with having done something inexcusable. I wanted to document not only a road to enduring sobriety, but the journey of living out amends for the damage I had done.
The story appeared just as I was beginning to get widespread recognition as a writer and commentator on gender issues. After teaching courses on women’s history, men and masculinity and the history of beauty and body image for many years at Pasadena City College, in 2004 I started blogging about sexuality and relationships. By 2011, I was an editor at the Good Men Project, a columnist for Jezebel, the co-author of a memoir by a celebrated fashion model, and an increasingly in-demand speaker on college campuses as well as radio and television. At 44, after nearly 20 years of full-time teaching, I was developing a second career.
Eight days before Christmas 2011, one of the most celebrated feminist websites in the blogosphere, Feministe, featured an interview with me. The questions were relatively benign, focusing on what it was like to be a straight man that advocated so publicly for feminism, and how I integrated my faith and my gender politics. Minutes after the interview was posted, a commenter linked to my original brief, poorly-written account of the night I tried to kill Kerith and myself, asking pointedly why the site was featuring an attempted murderer of women as a male feminist role model. Other commenters picked up the cry, noting too my confession of sleeping with many students early in my teaching career.
This wasn’t just the usual sniping that is so common across the web. This was shock and outrage, and it quickly spread to other sites across the small but growing feminist blogosphere. A Facebook page – “Feminists Against Hugo Schwyzer” appeared and soon attracted nearly 1000 “likes.” The college administration was besieged with demands for my ouster. A viral campaign started to get me fired from the sites for which I wrote; my editors fielded countless angry phone calls and emails. And on Christmas Eve, I started getting what sounded like death threats. “I hope someone shoots Hugo Schwyzer in the head,” wrote one young woman on her Tumblr; she got more fierce agreement than disapproval in response.
Within two weeks, I resigned from the boards of several organizations, including a non-profit I’d co-founded. Several universities, at which I’d booked speaking gigs, from Harvard to Evergreen State, cancelled in response to the controversy. A prominent former ally, whom I’d once counted as a colleague if not a close friend, wrote on her website that not only did she now consider me a dangerous misogynist, anyone who continued to publish my work or invite me to speak was enabling a culture of violence against women. More death threats soon followed.
At the heart of the controversy were a series of complicated questions: How do we deal with the dark pasts of people whom we admire? Can a man who once tried to kill a woman (even if he was high on drugs at the time) ever be an acceptable feminist leader? What does it mean to make amends not only to those one has directly harmed, but also to a larger audience triggered and troubled by the truth?
Even bigger questions loomed: can people really change? Even if they can, how can we verify it? Are the lessons of transformation duplicable? Thinking about this story, telling this story, I have no definitive answer. I can tell you I am not that man who turned on the gas and tried to take another person’s life as well as my own. I can tell you that I have cried and sweat and prayed and donated and listened and done every damn thing I know how to do to make amends to Kerith, her family, and to all those affected.
I know now there is no comeback from some things. Whatever public career I have, it will not belong as the “poster child” male feminist. I did not ask to be America’s most notorious male feminist, but I understand how this story – every word of which is true save for the changed names – constitutes for many a permanent disqualification for speaking as a “male feminist.” That’s fine — as of July 2013, I’m done writing about feminism. I believe in the cause but have become a piss-poor representative thereof.
I have two messages I will not stop repeating. One, men can change, Two, women have the right to demand change, to expect men to be flexible and malleable and to have a vocabulary for their own inner emotional terrain. Men can learn to show up as partners; they can overcome violence, they can be real friends with women. They can be safe.
This I know.
I also know I am not safe now. I am under care and will be for the foreseeable future. And when I return to writing, it will be very different, with no petulant claims of being misunderstood nor fraudulent claims of a perfection I have not achieved. And I am so very sorry to the editors and readers whom I have misled.