Why Can't You See You're Not Blake Bailey?
About a decade ago, some folks in the psychology community recommended changing the name of the illness that has shaped my entire adult life. Borderline Personality Disorder was too vague a term, they said; let’s rename it Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder.
It may be more apt, but I’m not a fan. First diagnosed with BPD in April 1987, when I was 19, I’ve spent a third of a century joking that I’ve got the only mental illness named after a Madonna song. (It’s a tired joke, but I’m grimly fond of it – and of the song.) Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder seems at the same time both excessively and insufficiently descriptive. This is the illness that has left my body covered in scars and made my Google results a horror; cost me four marriages and countless abandoned friendships. It cost me the career I loved.
It has shaped my children’s lives as well, in ways they do not yet fully understand.
Calling it Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder undersells the terrifying power of this illness. It’s like calling a Category 5 hurricane a late-summer squall. Do shut the windows, my love, that breeze is starting to kick up. I do try to remember that WASPs of my variety are supposed to be fond of understatement, though, so maybe the term EUPD is elegant restraint? It’s better than the label my cousin gave it decades ago, the label that became the title of the magazine article that defines me to the world: The Hugo Problem.
“People with Borderline Personality Disorder tend to have trouble seeing their identity clearly,” says Wikipedia. I like the verb here. Tend gloriously minimizes: Donald Trump tends towards occasionally excessive self-regard. I suppose it’s preferable to “People with BPD often have no bloody clue who they are, and with an unhappy mix of desperation, shame and the occasional frisson of bitter resentment, they rely on other people to establish their identity for them.”
The only thing I’ve read by Blake Bailey is his biography of John Cheever, my favorite 20th century American male writer. Cheever, the great observer of WASP manners, liked to play with understatement too, to devastating effect. Cheever also struggled with identity, famously remarking “It was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously." One relates. I have taken my disguises so seriously that they are welded on, not just to my face but onto my marrow.
To continue the theme of minimizing, Blake Bailey is in a spot of trouble these days, just weeks after his authorized biography of (the very not-WASPy) Philip Roth hit the bestseller list. Bailey has been accused of rape, of grooming and then seducing (or outright assaulting) his former students. He was a popular and beloved middle school teacher who wrote encouraging, affectionate notes in his students’ journals, and kept in touch with many of his former pupils for years after they left his classroom.
Borderlines do not have a clear sense of self. Borderlines live on the threshold between self-loathing and grandiosity. I read about Bailey, and I panic – that’s me! I also wrote loving notes in student journals! I was a charismatic teacher! I slept with students and lost everything! Bailey’s fall from grace is a reenactment of my own! I know exactly how he’s feeling, the desperation, the suicidal ideation, the raging defensiveness, the longing to explain the inexplicable, the relief that it’s all out at last, the sense of falling to one’s death in slow motion, somersaulting through the air.
And a second later: no, no, no, no. No one ever accused me of rape. No one ever accused me of anything, actually, all my indictments are entirely self-presented, without damning corroboration. I never slept with, or tried to, any of the kids whom I first taught or mentored when they were in high school. That was always a bright and clear line!
Except nothing is bright and clear to a Borderline.
On my Instagram on Friday, I posted the image that captions this letter. It was manipulative and despairing – a plea for those who knew me best to help remind me I’m not Blake Bailey. Several former students who follow me on Insta sent me messages. You were NOT and ARE not like that, wrote one. Another was both comforting and frustrated: You are not Blake Bailey in anything but the most superficial way. But it’s exhausting how often you compare yourself to men like this. How can you not see that you’re different? Why do you always need other people to reassure you?
Her questions trigger my own: Why do you not have a stable identity, Hugo? Why can you not accept that the past is the past, that the loss of your career and your fourth marriage is now nearly a decade old? Why can’t you see that sleeping with consenting adult students wasn’t the same as rape? Why can’t you just be here, in the now, with the people who love you?
Why can’t you write thoughtful little Substack posts about history? Why must you always center yourself and your worst impulses?
Before writing this letter, I spent an hour trying to write something about Joe Biden’s masculinities, plural intended. The cursor blinked, and I kept returning to Blake Bailey, looking up new articles with fresh allegations against this wretch-of-the-week whom my illness anoints as my alter ego. My self-loathing grows. You’ll lose all your subscribers, Hugo. Like your former student on Instagram, people find your reactions to #MeToo to be repetitive and exhausting. Move on, for Christ’s sake.
I can’t. Or maybe I won’t. Borderlines often decide they aren’t sick at all – so many of us are so temporarily high-functioning that it seems to us, as it does to our tired loved ones, that our illness is just an unhelpful label we put on poor choices. Maybe if I wanted to, I could write that Joe Biden article right now, and shrug my shoulders at the wicked Blake Bailey who is of course nothing like me, and go off to stock groceries without letting myself remember why I am arranging apples instead of giving final exams. It’s all a choice! I can discipline my mind through meditation or EMDR or DBT feedback or a new medication or a return to Lord Jesus; that none of those things ever work for long is a tribute to my lack of effort, not to an underlying organic mental illness that I claim bears me back ceaselessly into the past.
No, it’s can’t, not won’t. It does no good to lie to myself and pretend I have a control I do not possess.
If you are still reading this, thank you. I know I am not Blake Bailey, but my mind is obsessed with him and his plummet from grace, a defenestration that returns me instantly to the ever-present memory of my own fall and my own shame. There will be so many more Blake Baileys in the months to years to come; the Great Reckoning has not come for every public man with a secret life. Others are on the list, surely some whom you admire. Each time it happens, until it stops happening, I will fall with them, fuse what I know of myself with what I know of them, compare what is written about me to the exposés of their tawdriness, and, if self-control is especially absent, beg my friends on Instagram yet again to tell me I’m not quite as bad as all that.
That’s a choice, the world insists. You could choose differently.
Isn’t it pretty to think so.
(The song I had on repeat while writing this piece is the new single from Billie Eilish.
“She was sleepin' in your clothes / But now she's got to get to class.”
It’s a good song, and the aural equivalent of an X-acto knife.)
I understand the fixation on comparison and villainization of oneself. I do wonder if writing about it temporarily excises it from you, if putting it to paper allows you to, for a time, remove these feelings from yourself. Or, if writing solidifies these ideas of similarity. Perhaps it's more complicated than a simple binary like the one I present here? I understand your need to publish, to have your words viewed, and so I'll try never to suggest to you that private journaling is the answer. <3 I don't claim to know what the answer is, I just know that isn't on the list. ;-)