Content notes: Hugo, suicide, self-harm, racism.
If you didn’t see it on Twitter yesterday, there’s a #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag trending right now, which is fantastic. It was started by Mikki Kendall (@karnythia). Here’s the Storify for background. Mikki also wrote this piece in the Guardian explaining the hashtag.
The hashtag has grown out of serious and challenging critiques about mainstream American feminism, but originates in a story in which I played a part. It involves a once prominent male feminist who has been revealed as an abusive, manipulative fraud who actively did harm to a great many people and to movements for social justice — movements I personally support. That harm was disproportionately borne by women of color and women who have not had a high-level platform from which to tell their stories.
I have struggled with how to address my own role in this without centering myself or making it all about my feelings. It is difficult, awkward, and painful to read some of what has been written about me and others I know and care about. Many of the comments are challenging and important; I am reading them, trying to check my own emotional reactions, and thinking about how best to move forward. I know that there have been many calls for my response to this matter and that my lack of a prompt response can be interpreted as an unwillingness to engage. I have been thinking at great length about this and want to give it the attention it deserves. I also want to clarify an issue that I have seen repeated many times on Twitter and in articles about the hashtag: What sort of platform Feministe has given Hugo. Contrary to what I’ve been reading on Twitter, I was never Hugo’s editor in any capacity and Hugo did not blog for Feministe, nor was he linked and promoted on the site with any regularity. I was not a reader of his personal blog, nor a commenter, nor a friend or colleague. Before 2011, when Hugo-related discussions really blew up, we hadn’t mentioned him on the blog since 2008. We did link him a handful of times, mostly in 2005-6. I’ve seen Feministe listed alongside sites like Jezebel, the Atlantic and The Good Men Project, who all actively employed Hugo, publishing his work in the last couple of years and giving him platforms for his writing. That was not the case here. I add these points of clarity not to sound defensive, but because certain narratives are beginning to take shape and be read as truths, and I think it’s valuable to make sure that falsities aren’t being swept into an important and critical discussion. I also care about this community, I care about feminism as a whole, and I want to be accountable for the role we (and I personally) played in this. To do that, we have to start with the same set of facts. We have to talk about the role that more powerful actors in the feminist community had in allowing Hugo’s career to blossom and what distinct and overlapping roles they played. The feminist blogosphere is part of a larger media ecosystem, with people playing various roles. We may not have given Hugo a platform to publish his work, but we were part of a broader system that allowed him to access high-level mainstream and feminist media outlets. The intricacies of how that functions need to be addressed and assessed in determining how to not let this happen again. We have to talk about whose voices weren’t heard or were simply ignored when they were shouting “This guy is bad news!”
Where we really screwed up was publishing that interview with him in 2011. The guest blogger who conducted and pitched the interview didn’t know about Hugo’s past. I personally greenlighted the interview, also without knowing about the attempted murder / suicide, and without really registering his history of abusive behavior toward women of color. I want to emphasize that the decision to publish the interview was mine, and I am sorry for it. The other Feministe bloggers were not responsible; they also are not responsible for this post, or for what happens on my personal Twitter account. That interview was published in 2011. By then, there was plenty of evidence on the ground of Hugo’s manipulations and abuses. I made a choice to look past that. I wasn’t adequately listening or giving credence to the many people who had for years been shouting about Hugo’s awful behavior toward them. Even after the murder/suicide came to light in the wake of that interview, I was appalled, but I wanted to believe the redemption narrative that Hugo was selling. The question of why I wanted to believe that is one that I’ve been mulling over quite a bit in the past year.
Where I personally screwed up again was in adopting a code of silence around Hugo after the 2011 interview. That was an editorial policy that we agreed on for the Feministe community after lots of feedback from commenters: We wouldn’t link Hugo or even talk about him. That policy made sense to me at the time, since it was obvious that Hugo is a narcissist (and has been diagnosed as such) and trolls the internet looking for mentions of his name. He gets off on any attention, good or bad. The very act of writing about him sustains him, keeps him feeling relevant, encourages him to comment. Talking about him was triggering and upsetting for many of our readers. My view was: Freezing him out is the best path forward.
That was the wrong view. Having a no-link editorial policy on Feministe is one thing; refusing to mention him even on Twitter or on any platform gave the sense that my silence was neutral, and was more about not wanting to rock the boat than about pushing back against an arrogant abuser. Hugo targeted women of color to trash, in part because he understood that he could get away with it. I was part of a broader feminist blogger community that adopted standards which allowed an abuser to get away with it.
In recognizing my own fault and role in this, I want to be careful not to say that all of the other bloggers, writers and editors who published Hugo or linked him or didn’t say anything were intentionally enabling an abuser. Here is the rub: Abusive narcissists are often very effective manipulators. Hugo’s life is excellent evidence of that. I don’t want to heap blame on the many women who were manipulated by him. Abuse happens on a learning curve. Hugo burned a lot of people a lot of times in a lot of obvious and not-so-obvious ways. He burned friends, lovers, colleagues, wives, children, and strangers on the internet. He’s an abuser — a narcissist — and that’s what they do. They are toxic, and spread that toxicity under layers of charm, intelligence, flattery, and respectability. I don’t want to blame folks because they were behind other folks on the learning curve.
That said, there is a pattern here to who was where on the learning curve. Some of the history is detailed here, here and here. The degree to which I was behind on the learning curve is inexcusable. I should have known better; there were many opportunities for me to know better and I refused to see them. There is a pattern to who Hugo targeted for abuse — who he knew it would be safe to target for abuse. That speaks to major power imbalances in feminist communities. It reveals whose voices matter, whose pain is considered important enough. I do want to find a way to discuss the systematic problems within feminist spaces that allowed an abuser to thrive in our ranks.
This has come to a head (again) because Hugo supposedly “quit” the internet in a series of blog posts, only to show back up to give several bizarre interviews. On Friday he went on a truly terrifying Twitter tirade. I was on the sidelines watching; it was so bizarre that many people (myself included) thought his account had been hacked. It frankly read like a suicide note. I found reading it to be incredibly anxiety-inducing and scary; I really wanted him to stop, because I couldn’t look away even though it was bringing up all kinds of awful feelings. I was angry at him, and exhausted by him, and also scared for him — I have no love lost for Hugo, but I don’t want him to die. I felt that I was watching a very ill person — an ill person who is also a despicable person, and whose illness doesn’t excuse or explain his despicableness, but an ill person nonetheless who was clearly having a breakdown. When he tweeted at me in the context of that manic meltdown to apologize for his actions, I read it as an attempt to make amends in preparation for self-harm. I had a basic human knee-jerk reaction; I tweeted back at him, “Hugo, if this is really you and not a hack, please, close your laptop and call your therapist. Please.”
Understandably, that was taken as my showing concern for Hugo when, for the past year and a half, I had been silent about him even as many women repeatedly expressed their need for feminists to collectively stand up and push back against him. My silence was intended as part of that push-back, to freeze him out and make him irrelevant; but, as they say, intent is not magic, and in fact my silence was read as neutral and even complicit. That isn’t anyone’s fault but my own. People are not mind-readers. More importantly, we need to have each others’ backs actively. Flavia, who wrote this excellent post, was just one person in the Feministe comment section asking me to stand up. I didn’t do it. I chose silence.
I am livid with Hugo. I feel manipulated and stupid. I am angry at myself, for making these same mistakes so many times, and for not seeing or registering what was so obvious.
I am taking and will continue to take time to consider what’s been written and to reflect on it. I am paying particular attention to the many ways in which feminist communities replicate and perpetuate existing power structures and bigotries — white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, transmisogyny.
For my part (and Feministe’s part) in this matter, I am deeply and sincerely sorry.
I also understand that there are many members of the Feministe community who are triggered by discussions of Hugo, suicide, self-harm and abuse. For them, I will open up a subsequent thread to discuss the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag in a space centered on both examining our big-picture history and moving forward, without discussions of Hugo. This thread will be a space for discussions of the hashtag, the broader issues, and Hugo himself. Hopefully that will enable all of our community members to participate.
Similar Posts (automatically generated):
- #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen secondary thread by Jill August 14, 2013
- #solidarityisforwhitewomen tertiary thread: WOC commentors only by Moderator Team August 19, 2013
- On the Hugo Business by Jill January 17, 2012
- More on Gaslighting by Lauren November 16, 2011
- On Change and Accountability by Clarisse Thorn December 23, 2011