What I Need the Children to Know: Part Two of my Self-Interview
I started writing these interviews with myself at the suggestion of my friend Avens O’Brien, whom you should be following on Substack. This is part two of three.
This is part two of my interview with Hugo Schwyzer. Read part one here.
Over the summer, Hugo started a quixotic campaign to get Los Angeles Magazine to remove an old article about him. The piece is as uncharitable as it is dated, and it remains the top result on Google when you search his name.
As Hugo has lamented, his 12- year-old daughter Googled herself earlier this year – and soon fell down an Internet rabbit hole that included reading not only the L.A. Magazine story about her dad, but also articles in the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and several other sites. Hugo’s “micro-infamy” (a term he seems to love) means he is best known for his spectacular implosion in 2013. To his daughter’s horror, she has realized that this is how the world sees her father.
A few months ago, she asked her father if there was “anything nice” about him on the Internet. When he told her there wasn’t, she seemed stunned. Hugo claims that his longing for the old stories to disappear, and for new ones to take their place, is motivated by his desire to give his children (and their friends, if and when they Google) something “nice” to read.
As another reporter pointed out, this seems a fool’s errand. His children will read these stories, and realize that they don’t recognize much of their father in what is written about him. Whether they believe he was the man those articles describe, they know him differently – surely that’s all that matters. Why risk arousing public hostility by trying to get back in the public eye? Isn’t he just using his kids as an excuse to get the attention he has so often admitted he craves?
Hugo admits that may be so. “My ego is never quiet for long. But here’s the thing: Someday I won’t be here. My children will have their memories, of course, and perhaps a few people who can tell them stories about their dad from before they were born. But they will have questions about me, just as I always had questions about my parents. The Internet will tell them so many things, -- and few of them good – I worry that no matter how well they know me or love me, they’ll be troubled and haunted by what lives on in print. And more importantly, I don’t want them to feel like they’re the ones who have to ‘set the record straight’ – I want someone else to do that for them. And since no one except for me has volunteered for that task, here I am.”
He grins, holds my gaze, as if he’s assessing whether I believe him or not. I tell him that’s not the issue. What does he want the kids to know that would come from an online interview that they don’t already know? They know he works hard and loves them; they know the outline of the story about why he lost his job and why the marriage to their mother fell apart. They know – because he made it clear in part one of this interview – that he’s in a great deal of pain. What else do Heloise and David need?
Hugo sighs. “This is where I wish there was someone else who knew me well who would be willing to go on record. But I can’t ask anyone to do that.”
I nod. I’ve reached out to a few people for potential interviews, and they’ve all demurred. Hugo is loved, but isn’t necessarily well-trusted. Going on record in his defense is not something many think is wise.
There’s a long pause. He checks his phone, apologizes. “I promise I’m thinking!” He assures me.
More silence, then something comes to him: “I don’t know that I’ve figured out whether my misdeeds merited the punishment I received. I still can’t decide if I’m more sinning of sinned against. Was it fair that I fall this far as a direct result of sleeping with students and cheating on their my children’s mother? Or is it possible that I did misbehave, but the consequences were excessive? To me, it matters enormously that someone other than myself, someone trustworthy and loving, make that moral calculus. The haters on the Internet say I deserved all this and more; some of my friends think I should never have even been disciplined, much less forced out, for consensual affairs. I can’t help but think the truth is somewhere in the middle, but I need that parsed out for me.”
But who should do the parsing? I challenge Hugo on what he’s implying. “Are you seriously asking your children to settle that question? Even when they’re adults? That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone, much less your own child.”
Hugo looks down, shame or its facsimile written on his face. “I’m not waiting for their absolution. I just want them to know that I’ve never had an answer to this question. Not having an answer has haunted me for years, and that doubt has seeped into every aspect of my life, including my parenting. I just want them to understand that this uncertainty defines their dad, even if they too remain uncertain, and never decide whether their dad was more villain or victim – or just equal amounts of both.”
Hugo raises both his hands. When he wants to make a point, he gesticulates a lot, and a reporter can see and hear the animated classroom teacher he must have been long ago. He leans forward, and slows down his speech the way he does when he seems worried I – or my tape recorder – won’t get exactly what he’s saying. “I think there’s a difference between asking for understanding and offering an explanation. Bottom line, all of this is more about helping Heloise and David comprehend what happened in their lives than it is about getting them to empathize with me.”
That’s possible, or it may be just what he needs to justify this exercise.
Either way, this leads me to my next question.
Hugo is fond of reminding his readers that he lost his job because of his own unverified confessions. Unlike any other #MeToo figure, Hugo was never accused of sexual misconduct by anyone. No student has ever come forward to say she slept with Hugo while he was her professor. His infamous story about having tried to kill an ex-girlfriend and himself while drugged and drunk in 1998? That too has no corroboration other than his internet confessions. In his Twitter “meltdown” in 2013, he claimed he had actively worked to sabotage the careers of Black and Latina feminist bloggers – but even those women could not provide any evidence to substantiate his claim.
It is not impossible to imagine that Hugo has invented many, if not all, of the accusations against him. There is no denying his very real self-destructiveness; at one point, he rolls up his sleeves to show me the self-inflicted scars that cover his upper arms and shoulders. Over and over, Hugo teases his readers with the possibility that this is all an extraordinary performance of self-involvement and self-loathing. I am not the first writer to make queries to try and confirm even some small aspect of his stories, only to come up with nothing.
When Hugo points out that none of his student lovers have ever come forward to accuse him of anything, he usually seems to imply that they think of him fondly, and have nothing negative to say about him. That could certainly be true. There are two other possibilities that he teases as well, though less often. An alternative explanation is that at least some of his student exes don’t want to relive what has become an unpleasant memory, and have chosen to stay silent out of self-protection.
The third possibility is that none of these students exist, because he’s made them all up.
I tell Hugo that it’s transparently obvious that he finds an odd but compelling degree of power in keeping us all uncertain about the truth of his past. I tell him that, frankly, it’s tiresome.
“If you want to leave a legacy for your children, why always tease the possibility that you’ve made this all up? It’s true we don’t have anyone to accuse you, and it is true – as you love to remind us – that you are unique in having lost so much entirely based on your own unsubstantiated confessions. But won’t this ceaseless coyness just end up upsetting your kids more? What are they supposed to do with the possibility that their dad was so mentally disturbed that he blew up their lives by making himself the subject of a false accusation? I don’t see how this helps anyone – it just pisses people off.”
He smiles, and I realize he can hear the annoyance in my voice, and that it triggers him. There are plenty of men who enjoy being chastised one way or another, and there’s little doubt he’s one of them. He baits me a little further.
“I’ve been thinking about writing a short story along these lines, actually. It’s about a college professor at a small liberal arts school, and the administration announces that the entire faculty has to be vaccinated or they’ll be terminated. In my story, the protagonist secretly gets vaxxed, because he believes in the science – but claims to be unvaxxed, because he wants to make a point about civil liberties.”
“I suppose he ends up losing his job?”
“Oh, yes. It’s a huge deal.”
It’s my turn to bait him. “And I suppose there’s a young woman who suspects the truth, and she’s in love with him? Do they ride off into the sunset together after he’s fired, happy and defiant in their romantic disgrace?”
Hugo laughs out loud, something he seems to do rarely, slapping the table so hard our sodas nearly spill. “You’re good!” He compliments me.
“And you’re predictable,” I tell him, “Though I admit it might be a timely story.”
I circle back. “Once and for all, Hugo, if you want this to be the definitive record, for everyone’s sake, did you or did you not sleep with students who were enrolled in your classes – after you co-authored the policy to ban that practice?”
He nods. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
I ask him how many. He asks if it matters. I tell him he’s teased a lot of different numbers, and it would be helpful if he settled on a figure. For the record, if nothing else.
Three, he tells me. “Three who were enrolled in my classes between 2008-2012.”
“Were these one-time affairs or were they ongoing?”
He tells me one lasted on and off for years, one lasted six months, and one was only a handful of physical encounters, plus a lot of sexting. I ask him if he’s sure about that – this is “for the permanent record,” as we have both said it will be. Any change after this will be greeted with complete derision and disbelief.
He nods. “It happened as I told you.”
I have two more questions on this line. “Hugo, I know you have acknowledged that you hurt your wife by cheating on her – and of course, hurt your children, your family, and many others who looked up to you. I can’t interview these three women, though. No one can. So, it’s all on you: Do you believe you hurt them?”
“Yes,” he says without hesitation, telling me that he had lied to each of the women in turn, telling each that she was the only student he had slept with in recent years – and that each was the only woman with whom he had cheated on his wife.
“What about the fact that they were so much younger and were your students? Would it have been ethical if you weren’t married, and had told each of them the truth about the others?”
Hugo pauses with this answer, then nods, decisively. “Yes. Yes. I will always believe they had agency, and that they wanted these affairs as much as I did – and when they tell me they weren’t harmed and remember at least some aspects of our relationship fondly, I take them at their word. I have to.”
I suppose I have to as well, and we all do, unless someone comes forward after many years to give us another story.
Hugo sums up, using his hands again to drive home his point, his index finger circling in the air: “Given the absence of harm, not to mention the absence of evidence, I should have kept my job. I’ll never stop believing that.”
I don’t challenge him, but I remind him that he has a reputation for changing his views, and he may change it on this subject as well.
I give him my last question on the topic. “Let’s say Heloise is 18, at college, and she gets a crush on one of her professors. She thinks about having an affair with him – or her. Let’s say she confides in her old dad, and asks him for advice. What would you tell her?”
“My answer will depend a lot on what kind of 18-year-old Heloise turns out to be. Eighteen is not eighteen is not eighteen, you know? Not everyone matures at the same rate. But let’s say that she’s in a good place emotionally, and sufficiently confident in her own intellectual abilities that an affair with an older authority figure won’t send her into a prolonged period of self-doubt? And if my daughter has some clarity both about what she wants, and what she thinks the professor in question wants, then I wouldn’t discourage her. At the same time, given who her father is – and given too that she’s named after Héloïse d'Argenteuil, who among other things had a celebrated affair with her teacher, Peter Abelard – it might be a little too… on the nose?”
It’s my turn to laugh. “I don’t know that 18-year-olds are ever worried about whether something is too ‘on the nose.’ But these days, almost every college has policies against consensual relationships between faculty and students. Would you want your daughter to have an affair with someone who might suffer professional consequences as a result? Perhaps as disastrous as the consequences with which her father continues to live?”
“I’d ask her to think about it,” Hugo concedes. He pauses, and then his voice takes on that dogmatic quality that comes when he wants to make sure he’s understood. “At the same time, I don’t blame the students who took me into their beds for what happened to me. Not one iota. Yes, they knew the policy, they knew the risk I was taking, and at least in one instance, I know that that threat turned them on. One of these girls mentioned over and over how enchanted she was that I would jeopardize everything to be with her. But how can you blame a young person for that? It’s such a lovely notion (and for a few, I guess, a really hot notion) to imagine that someone powerful and older is willing to lose everything for you. So, it was my job to set the boundary, and I didn’t. End of story.”
This is all fair enough, I tell Hugo, but we’re not done quite yet.
His readers still have some questions they’ve asked me to ask him – and he still hasn’t explained what kind of “second chance,” if any, he thinks he deserves.
That will wait for Part Three of our interview.
On repeat while I wrote this was the new single from Erin Enderlin. Enderlin, a daughter of Arkansas, began her career writing hits for other people: Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Randy Travis, Luke Bryan, Reba, and so on. A few years ago, she started recording her own stuff, and it’s trad country gold.
Here’s her latest, and if you like heartbreak distilled into three pretty, devastating minutes, you’ll love this.