Hugo Schwyzer and the Consumption of Redemption Narratives

We think redemption narratives prove something about the human experience—when really, all they prove is that change is really, really hard, and we should be suspicious when someone claims to be 180 degrees different from whom they used to be.

Hugo Schwyzer, appearing on the Ricki Lake Show in October 2012. The Ricki Lake Show / YouTube

Cross-posted with permission from Faith and Feminism.

When I was starting college, I told my Uncle Bobby (who is a pastor turned professor) that I planned to major in theology/philosophy. As was typical, he asked me what I planned on doing with my degree. I told him I wasn’t sure, but that I felt called to some kind of ministry.

“Well, you know what you gotta do,” he replied, with a slight smile, “Is you’ve gotta take a couple of years off, go get really addicted to heroin, and then come back to the church. You gotta have a good story.”

My uncle was, obviously, joking, but this joke is not without a bit of truth. The church—no, our culture—really, really likes redemption narratives. We really like to hear about a person who was down in the muck and the grime and just a terrible person who had a Damascus Road experience and is suddenly a Whole New Person (TM).

Unfortunately, we also really like for things to be in simple, black and white, easy to digest sound-bites, which often denies the real struggle and humanity that is redemption. When we shortcut that process—as we do in so many cultural narratives—we ignore, to our detriment, the very real messiness that redemption is.

Take “male feminist” Hugo Schwyzer. In a huff this week, Schwyzer decided to quit the Internet. And proceeded to tweet about it, blog about it, and do an interview in New York Magazine about it. (And write again about it—see update below.)

If you’re not familiar with Schwyzer’s story, it’s a classic redemption narrative: man is addicted to booze and drugs and exhibits numerous destructive behaviors like rape, attempted murder, and domestic violence. He gets clean, sobers up, converts to Christianity (and maybe Judaism? It’s unclear), supposedly stops victimizing women, and becomes a megaphone for feminism. It’s a MIRACLE. He’s cured! Here’s someone who used to hate women who now clearly loves them—enough that he advocates for them!

But a lot of feminists noticed chinks in the armor, especially when he began to write about his past. Writing about how terrible you used to be is, of course, part and parcel of the apology circuit for the redemption narrative. But his writing exhibited a lot of red flags. He spoke about the attempted murders in such loving detail that it was disturbing. And then he wrote an article about how he was an “accidental rapist,” essentially admitting to raping an ex-girlfriend, but refusing to call it rape. Feminists started blacklisting him—after all, having a “former” abuser acting as a mouthpiece for a movement supposedly on the side of survivors of abuse? Not exactly a good look.

Then there was his behavior in reaction to the boycott. On Twitter, feminists had to develop pseudonyms when they discussed his work, because otherwise he would search them out and either respond or start tracking their tweets—especially if they were negative. When a woman of color—popular blogger Flavia Dzodan—called him out on his abusive past, he went through back channels to try and get her fired. He crossed boundaries in small, subtle ways—just enough for plausible deniability, but also just enough that the people he was targeting knew he was keeping an eye on them (in one example, he “favorited” a tweet from a friend of mine that was discussing how he triggered her).

So, finally, this week, apparently the pushback became “too much.” He decided to leave the Internet—not before, however, opening up about it to a sympathetic reporter at New York Magazine. And what he had to say in this interview is particularly relevant to the redemption narrative that so many people—including the editors at the Christian pop culture “progressive” magazine Relevant—bought hook, line, and sinker.

He had an affair, he confesses, giving just enough detail about the woman that people curious enough could probably figure out who it was, but does so under the guise of “protecting her.” This affair has been part of a mental breakdown over the past year and a half because of his fear of feminist anger and wrath toward him. He says of the affair that it was “off-brand” for him.

Yes, you read that right. Here’s the exchange in its entirety:

What are you going to do now?
Work on getting mentally healthy. I need to get my meds right. Second, I need to get my marriage right. There’s some bad shit that went down. I had an affair, which is very off-brand for me.

Off-brand … as in out of character?
In that I’m supposed to be reformed. The affair was with someone in the same circles that you and I move in, so I have to protect her. But there’s a lot of gossiping. It may reach you. Don’t be surprised.

“In that I’m supposed to be reformed.”

He seems overly concerned with how an affair (update: multiple affairs) goes against his image, his narrative of redemption. He’d built a consumerist brand, marketed his name and his writing under the guise of being “redeemed,” so to have an affair was to deny that narrative. Notice that he doesn’t seem to be regretting the affair because of the hurt it did to his wife and children, or even because it’s a morally repugnant thing to do. He regrets it because it was “off-brand” and doesn’t fit in with the neat and tidy narrative of redemption he’s staked his reputation on.

This, of course, is par for the course in redemption narratives. We like our redemption all neat and tidy and wrapped up in a bow, and those who distrust the word of those who have been supposedly redeemed are soundly punished for their suspicions. When I raised a fuss last year over Relevant magazine publishing Schwyzer’s work, for example, I was told that I was bitter and mean for being unable to accept his redemption narrative—despite obvious red flags that he was not as reformed as he claimed.

So often, our culture emphasizes the redeemed at the cost of their victims (and it’s worth noting, the redemption of a white man is worth infinitely more than the redemption of anyone else). We have turned redemption narratives into an art and crave and consume them, because we think they prove something about the human experience—when really, all they prove is that change is really, really hard, and we should be suspicious when someone claims to be 180 degrees different from whom they used to be.

Redemption narratives are based within a consumerist culture that laps up story templates while ignoring the person. As such, they depend on a cognitive dissonance in which the “redeemed” person is a completely separate entity from “who they used to be.” But, it takes years and possibly a lifetime of hard work to become someone for whom those old patterns of behavior are not automatic and ingrained. For those who have spent most of their life trafficking in the abuse of power, as Schwyzer has done, change is even harder.

Here’s the radical thing: we should approach redemption narratives with suspicion. It’s not the most radically gracious thing we can do, but it does treat the person involved as a human being and honors their journey. Blindly accepting redeemed persons at their word rewards the narrative only and does not encourage real, authentic change.

This is especially true when a radical ideological shift is a part of this redemption narrative. People who desire to be our allies need to be vetted and held to a higher standard—it is not simply enough that they claim to be redeemed. They must exhibit willingness to hand off the baton and give themselves space and time to become a different person. Rehabilitation doesn’t happen overnight, and we shouldn’t treat it like it does. If anything, the Schwyzer case confirms that suspicion is a good value and a good hermeneutic with which to approach the world.

It is OK to be suspicious of radical, even miraculous change. Indeed, it is a vital survival mechanism we should not readily give up, no matter how neat and compelling the narrative is. Call it cynical, call it nihilistic, call it pessimistic. But true Damascus Road experiences are rare, and belief in redemption doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind.


Update: I wrote the above prior to Hugo publishing a “Goodbye Part 2,” which contains a confession to multiple affairs and a chapter from his would-be memoir, in which he paints a picture of the attempted murder in lurid, pornographic terms, quite obviously reveling in the salacious detail. It’s, in a word, gross. As it is, he is quite clearly a man bent on attention, and the willingness to accept his narrative of his redemption (and his framing of these events as “backsliding” caused by feminist anger) demonstrates further how important it is to be cautious and suspect of supposed “reformed” peoples. Schwyzer is clearly figuring out ways to still cash in on the “reformed” narrative by portraying himself as a struggling martyr driven to relapse by those meanie feminists.