10 thoughts…on mental illness, abuse, and survivors

"Toxic" (London Graffiti)

Image credit: meophamman, CC license.

Content note/Trigger warning: Discussion of racist and misogynist abuse and violence, intimate partner violence, abuse culture in women’s/feminist spaces, mental illness, self-harm/suicidality, sexual predation and violence.

So there’s been a discussion about a certain male feminist supposedly leaving the internet that’s raised questions about how to talk about the mental health or illness of someone who’s perpetrated and is still doing harm. I don’t want to rehash the details, but I have a few thoughts about some of the arguments I’ve seen come up in this discussion and why I think they’re dangerous.

1) I’ve seen a lot of concern expressed that people are making light of mental illness or gleeful over a suicide attempt. This doesn’t match up at *all* with what I’ve seen in the last few days. I’ve seen a lot of conversations about this situation among feminists, and only one – ONE – comment making fun of psychiatric hospitalization and suicidality. This is absolutely ableist, and dangerous. It’s OK to need help; comments like this stigmatize and discourage people in general from seeking whatever mental health support, if any, is available to them.

2) I find it really telling that the narrative has so quickly conflated a tiny, tiny minority of ableist comments with all criticism of this person – the vast majority of which has focused on a years-long pattern of racist, misogynist, abusive, and dangerous behavior as the reason why it’s a good thing that this person will (hopefully) no longer be writing about gender or feminism online.

3) I can’t say it’s a surprise, but it’s nevertheless extremely disturbing to see responses from white feminists that center how sad it is that this person had a severe mental breakdown and don’t seem to be able to spare a word for the women he victimized:

  • the exes and former students whose personal stories he repeatedly and cynically exploited with the complicity of numerous white feminists and women’s spaces;
  • the women of color he attacked in white knight attacks in defense of white feminists, again with their complicity. See his attacks on Blackamazon and other women of color about their critiques of Full Frontal Feminism (comments, and thanks to Blackamazon for pointing me to this thread), his role in the shameful fiasco of the racist cover of Amanda Marcotte’s It’s a Jungle Out There (comments again), his role in massive white feminist fail in 2008 and the racist attacks and appropriation of intellectual property without credit that ultimately drove Latina blogger and activist BrownFemiPower off the internet in the same year.
  • the many women and survivors who repeatedly said they were triggered and felt less safe because of his continued access to women’s/social justice spaces.

What about their mental health?

4) It is also disturbing to see how many of these same people urging compassion and expressing deep concern and sadness over this person’s mental state seemingly can’t bring themselves to use the words “abusive” or “dangerous” in naming his behavior. He’s simply clearly ill.

It’s perfectly possible to both acknowledge that someone is experiencing severe mental illness and also name their behavior as abusive if that is what it is. It is in fact imperative that we name abuse and not talk around it.

5) Many, many people live with mental illness and are not abusive or predatory. Having a mental illness is in fact a serious risk factor for physical, sexual, and emotional violence, especially for girls and women. Abuse – and I mean that to include oppression, which is also abuse – is incredibly detrimental to the mental health of individuals and communities that experience and live with it. Yes, mental illness can contribute to people behaving in abusive ways. But we need to be *very* careful about how we talk about that, especially as outside observers to a situation where we can’t really know what relationship exists between someone’s mental state and their harmful behavior (and where, in this case, this behavior at issue was on display long before the struggles with mental health that the abusive person attributes it to).

Eliding mental illness with abusiveness is dangerous and stigmatizing to those living with mental illness. I was challenged on this point myself about not being careful how I talked about the relationship between diagnoses and behavior the last time this came up, so I’m certainly not exempt.

6) The swiftness with which some white feminists have defended this person, essentially against women who ARE clearly naming his behavior as abusive and dangerous is more broadly symptomatic of how white supremacy is quick to rehabilitate white men of considerable privilege who are predatory, racist, and or violent – the Anthony Weiners, Adam Lanzas, and Charlie Sheens of the world.

7) This willingness to wholly attribute harmful behavior to mental illness or addiction – if not completely conflate these with each other – provides cover for not discussing why white men of certain privileges are far more likely to behave in specific predatory or violent ways, despite mental illness being something that affects people of all races and genders and from all walks of life.

8) This rush to defend white men behaving badly (and white women, cf Paula Deen or Amanda Bynes), to frame them as some how innocent (literally, not knowing what they are doing) and entitled to our compassion and concern, has to be understood as a corollary to white supremacist framing of people of color, and in the U.S. Black people especially, as inherently guilty, threatening, tainted, and disposable.

It goes hand in hand with white feminists shaming Beyoncé as hypersexual, shaming Rihanna for being a survivor of abuse, and being indifferent to Black women victims of white individual and state racist violence like Rekia Boyd, CeCe MacDonald, and Marissa Alexander (see Jamila Aisha Brown on if Trayvon Martin had been a woman). It goes hand in hand with Black women who call out racism being framed as angry, threatening, and unhinged – and having their livelihoods attacked (see what’s happening to Prof. Anthea Butler).

It goes hand in hand with a white feminist basically calling Questlove a predator for merely exchanging words with a white woman in an elevator (while white feminists can’t bring themselves to say the word “predator” about a man who preyed sexually and emotionally on women for years, while building a career out of casting himself as reformed; or about a man who sent unsolicited pictures of his genitals to unconsenting women). It goes hand in hand with Trayvon Martin and so many other Black boys and youth being put on trial for their mere existence in a society so ready to perpetrate and excuse violence against them. It goes hand in hand with Black girls being blamed for inviting harassment and sexual violence against themselves by being “fast.”

9) It goes hand in hand with people of color being tainted forever by their crimes, while we make white men who supposedly reform into heroes and eagerly consume narratives of their redemption.

Black people are presumed guilty and must demonstrate and prove our innocence, while we must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, preferably with charts and graphs, that white people whose offenses are known and public could really help themselves or really meant to do so much harm.

10) It sure would be nice to see even as much (rightly, far, far more) concern for the victims of this and other abusive white men as there is about what tragic and pitiable figures they are.


  1. Thanks for taking the time and effort to put all this together… and so eloquently. I appreciate your work.

  2. Yeah speaking as someone certifiably crazy, being mentally ill doesn’t force you to behave like an abusive asshole. You can’t help your feelings, but you CAN help your behavior, and that goes just as much for us crazy people as it does for the sane.

    Giving people a pass for mental illness is patronizing and demeaning to us, and damaging to the victims of predatory assholes like Hugo.

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  4. Thank you so, so much for this. I actually have the same disorder Schwyzer has mentioned having (bpd), and I felt sick to my stomach that some people seem ready and willing to dismiss or excuse his behavior on that basis.

    I’m not sure how to express that making ableist statements about his illness is totally not okay, while at the same time insisting that he must be held accountable for his actions. There are people who deal with mental illness and other challenges all the time who, nevertheless, manage to not act like predators.

    In some ways his use of this diagnosis as an excuse feels exploitative to me, as someone else living with the same thing. Thanks for adding to the stigma around bpd, Schwyzer. As if it weren’t already bad enough.

  5. To point one, the snarky Hairpin article was way, way over the top, considering, and I found it despicable.

    I’m not finding much else to argue with.

  6. Atdonosquat says:

    Its sad to see someones intended purpose unfold in a destructive manner. Especially when it falls upon other peoples well-intended purposes.

  7. Grace, I’ll echo Brigid Keely’s thanks here, and (until I read this post) did *not* know about the reactions to Anthea Butler’s article on RD – those attacks on her are sickening. (I love her writing and – whether agreeing with her or not – think her commentary is extremely good and very important.)

    As for people defense of this man *and* the eliding of abuse and mental illness, well… words fail. He is very, very messed up and needs to step WAY back from any kind of public commentary. (At the very least.)

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  9. Sadly I have seen quite a few disabilist comments and even more people defending said comments because apparently making disabilist comments is okay if the people making them were hurt by him.

    Problem is, any time anyone tries to explain to some able bodied person who is making disabilist comments in general, they get accused of defending that abusive asshole, apparently “Hugo’s behaviour is abusive and inexcusable but please don’t deny anyone is mentally ill, it sets up a standard for believing people which is harmful, a report of mental illness should always be believed” somehow translates into “poor poor widdle Hugo”. So those of us who’ve asked some people basically not to trigger and harm us are getting lumped in with the assholes who are all “but Hugo’s sick, he isn’t responsible”.

    On top of that I’ve seen at least one person involved in decrying the white feminists defending Hugo because of his mental illness who also has a rather awful history of doing just what the white feminists are doing.

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