I wrote this post in the third person, which is absurd and indulgent, but there it is. If you’re interested, however, in reading more — including regular subscriber-only posts — you might consider a subscription for yourself, or for a friend!
Hugo Schwyzer wants a better interview. It’s not that he doesn’t like journalists, though he says not all have treated him fairly. It’s that so much of what he wants known about him is missing from the stories so far.
“Perhaps even if I write this story, there will still be so much missing,” I warned him as we sat down for the first of several long, coffee-and-Diet-Coke fueled chats.
Hugo nodded, conceding my point. “I know. But you’re in a better position to get it right than most.” He adds, with a wry smile, tinged with worry: “As long, that is, as I get final edit on what gets published.”
I grant him that, and we get started. I start by asking him what he hopes to accomplish with the interview.
“Right now, what I most need people to understand is that I’ve never gotten over the end of my teaching career. It haunts me constantly. On a typical day, I’ll have at least two or three flashbacks to the summer of 2013, which was when my academic career was lost. Faces of students from earlier years will pop into my head, and I’ll find myself remembering their names, or where they sat in the classroom. I think constantly about what I threw away, and I’m filled with remorse and self-loathing – and a lot of anger, too.”
That’s a lot to unpack, I tell Hugo, and I make a sympathetic murmur about his continued pain. But – and this is the obvious question – why should the rest of the world care? Not all grief and trauma, however severe, merits media coverage; this is best dealt with in therapists’ offices, surely. Is suffering inherently newsworthy?
“It is newsworthy when it’s swept under the rug. We live in a culture where there’s this fascinating, ongoing reckoning; people whose pain has been ignored for so long are speaking up at last. And at the same time, other people are being told to take a seat, stop centering their own hurt and sadness.”
I feel my spine stiffen. I’m worried Hugo is going to launch into the now-familiar recriminations of privileged white men who are angry that attention has shifted off their own intense self-involvement. Even the most seemingly insightful people can be made myopic by loss; perhaps that’s what’s happening here.
Hugo senses my suspicion, and tries to explain further. “On one hand, there are a lot of folks who insist that the loss of my job was richly deserved and frankly overdue. Any grief and depression I battle now is appropriate; I am reaping the consequences of my actions. Their attitude is that empathy is in short supply, and needs to be directed to the innocent, not the complicit and the predatory.
On the other hand,” he continues, his voice getting more animated, “A lot of my friends think I should have ‘bounced back’ by now. I am in rudely good physical health for my age, I still have my mental faculties, I have a wonderful fiancée – and most importantly, I am active in the lives of my children. Surely, I should appreciate all the glorious things I do have, and make more of an effort to forget the past. They say encouraging things like, ‘Your fall didn’t happen to you; it happened for you.’ These are the folks who want neat and tidy endings to the movies they watch. They want me to live out a modern hero’s journey: bright and talented but reckless man rises up in the world, then hubris and foolishness lay him low. He walks what Robert Bly called ‘the road of ashes, descent, and grief’ and learns a powerful lesson. In the final act, he is a fully actualized man, clearly better for his journey.”
Hugo’s voice gets slightly louder and more emotional as he speaks. He finishes, looks down. “I used to teach this shit,” he says softly.
“Maybe you’re still walking the road of ashes,” I tell him. “Do you feel like it has to have a time limit? Your life isn’t a five-act play or a two-hour movie.”
Hugo nods. “Fair enough,” he says. “It’s just that I feel as if people are so tired of my inability to get over my past; at some point, even the ones who know real life isn’t a movie want closure. Everyone want me to say I’ve moved on, accepted responsibility for my mistakes, and gotten to a place of peace about everything that led up to that terrible summer of 2013.”
I’m not sure how true it is that everyone feels that way, but Hugo seems to believe it. I have other questions, so I ask him to summarize what he’d like readers to know, about how he is coping with his grief over the loss of his teaching career.
For the first time since the interview began, Hugo holds my gaze, and speaks deliberately. “I will never, ever get over what happened. I will spend the rest of my life coping with the trauma both of what I did and what was done to me, and I will never stop sorting out how much of what happened was my fault, and how much was that of others.”
He pauses, then continues, his voice now carrying a clearly-forced calm. “I want people to know I am proud to have rebuilt a life. I am proud to have a partner, to be a good dad, to work as hard as I do at multiple gigs. But I don’t want that pride to be mistaken for contentment, or for peace. I am doing what I must for people who need me, but the satisfaction of showing up is not a cure for what I’ll carry with me all the rest of my days.”
I ask Hugo what he wants people to do with this information. Does he want pity? Solidarity? A campaign to get his job back?
He shakes his head. “No. All I want is an acknowledgement that the pain is real, and that it is okay for me to never get over it. I miss my late father every day, and I will never fully get over his death; I miss my teaching job every day, and I will never get over its loss. I want people to understand that in my universe, those are comparable.”
I push him, gently, about cancel culture. He explains that there’s what he calls a “cottage industry” in media on the left, devoted to the idea that cancel culture either doesn’t exist or, if it does, is rarely all that bad. “Any time someone laments that he was cancelled, the smart set on Twitter mock him, saying that all that’s happened is he’s lost a platform and is still staggeringly rich. There’s an absolute refusal to acknowledge that for many people, losing a career and a media platform can have life-altering, devastating, insurmountable psychological and financial consequences. Maybe cancel culture is a good thing – maybe people like me deserve to struggle, go through periods of homelessness, get a taste of real poverty. But the folks who peddle ‘reckonings and accountability’ should be honest that those are the repercussions they’re seeking. Don’t pretend this isn’t what you wanted.”
I’m not buying it. “Are you saying that the people who thought you should resign wanted you to become homeless?”
“I’m saying that they should have foreseen that I would fall very, very far. I think they should have factored that in to what happened to me. My lack of job skills outside of teaching and writing, my mental instability – anyone looking at me knew I was going to be on the margins for the rest of my life, however long or short it was.”
I hear bitterness. “You say you never get angry at others. It sounds like you’re angry with the people who wanted you gone from teaching.”
Strangely, this makes him laugh, his small blue eyes widening. “Hah. Good catch. No, all this anger just circles back on me. The people who wanted me to resign were former friends and supporters – I’m angry at myself that I behaved so badly I lost their support, and turned them against me. I made them so furious and fed-up they forgot my humanity.”
It’s my turn to chuckle. “What’s your favorite word in that last interview you did? Grandiose? That last bit sounds very grandiose.”
Hugo sighs. “Yup. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
I sense we need to change the topic, and I turn to some questions submitted by Hugo’s Facebook friends.
“You describe yourself often as trying hard to be a gentleman. Yet you are defined for the world by some pretty ungentlemanly things – an attempted murder-suicide, sleeping with your students, cheating on your spouses. In your life today, how do you live with your ungentlemanly acts? How does your code of manners help you to be a better person, or does it just help you to cover things up?”
Hugo takes a long sip of Diet Coke, finishing the can. “My evangelical Christian friends say the church isn’t for saints, it’s for sinners. They’re keenly aware that they will always fall short of the mark God sets for them, but they never stop trying. They believe that with some particular combination of faith and effort and grace they can live a life of service. I feel that way about the code of the gentleman. I have fallen short and will continue to fall short; I will not be as charming and charitable as I want to be. But the fact that I fail at living up to the ideal doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.”
He opens a new soda. “One of the defining traits of the gentleman is he doesn’t blame anyone else. Even if he’s been treated badly, and I think at times I have been treated badly, he doesn’t name names or call others out. In the end, he accepts that he is always the architect of his own adversity. I think a gentleman knows that cheerfulness is an obligation, but happiness isn’t. Despite everything that I’ve done in my life, all the pain I’ve caused to myself and others, I still have an obligation to be warm, congenial, civil and solicitous to the best of my ability. My family, my friends, my co-workers – I owe them as much good humor and kindness as I can muster. But the gentleman knows the world gets a claim on your outer behavior; it doesn’t get a claim on your inner life. I don’t owe anyone a particular feeling. A gentleman gets to be in pain, but he doesn’t get to be perpetually morose about it.”
“It sounds, Hugo, like you’re just justifying a double life. Wasn’t leading a double life what got you into trouble?”
Hugo shakes his head. “No. I’m making a distinction between a private life and a secret one. Before, I had a secret life that was very much at odds with what I publicly professed; the dissonance gnawed at me until I couldn’t take it anymore. Now, what I have is a private self, one that does occasionally spill over into my writing. That private self is filled with self-loathing and remorse and a lot of still-unresolved trauma – but it’s not violating any professional ethics or personal commitments.”
We decide to take a break. In the next installment, I’ll ask Hugo more about parenting a child when you have a dark past easily available online – and about whether he’s really asking for a second chance.
While writing this admittedly self-indulgent self-interview, I had one song on repeat. James McMurtry is a country-Americana singer-songwriter for Fort Worth – and yes, he’s the son of the late Larry McMurtry, who wrote Lonesome Dove. McMurtry’s newest album came out last week, and this song is as fitting as could be for black sheep with pretensions of gentlemanliness:
Talking to the wallpaper
Wandering the halls
I burned a lot of bridges and I dropped a lot of balls
It's a wonder I can ever go back to any place I've been
But I wouldn't get down on my knees on a bet
I'm near enough to Jesus as I'd ever want to get
Seeking salvation ain't part of my general plan
Save your prayers for yourself
Raise my glass to your health
I don't mind if you don't look like me
I can share my bread and wine
I come from another time
It don't matter all that much if it don't bleed
If it don't bleed
I learned to answer my calls and open my mail
I paid my taxes and I stayed out of jail
You stay in the game when you're too broke to fail
That's a fact
(Emphasis mine, duh)