[Edited per Esteleth's suggestion to put this para up top:
[notice]Please note that I am not talking here about people who are honestly worried about their own thoughts of self-destruction, and who want to ask someone close to them for help but end up doing so sidelong. None of us say or do things perfectly when we’re in crisis. There is a pretty significant gray area between people who really are in crisis and people who know that saying they’re in crisis will get them what they want. [/notice]
I have been reluctant over the last couple years to write about Hugo Schwyzer, mainly because I’ve realized since the last iteration of the perennial shitstorm that he wears like a second hat that it was all the same to him, positive attention or abuse: any attention feeds his ego.
But there was this passage in the slowly-going-viral interview with Schwyzer at New York Magazine’s site, which NYMag dangled out to Schwyzer after he announced he’s stepping offline the way a desperate dealer would offer one last rock to a recently reformed crackhead, that roused me to sufficient anger that I have to say something.
Here it is:
One reason you became a punching bag is that there just are not many men writing feminist columns online. Why is that?
Look at me. I mean, who would want to be me? If you look at the men who are writing about feminism, they toe the line very carefully. It’s almost like they take their cues from the women around them. Men are afraid of women’s anger. It’s very hard for men to stand up to women’s anger. I did for a long time until finally my mental health had to be a priority. I just got out of the hospital. I’m not shy about that. I’m sober, but I checked myself into a psych ward for a week, when I became a danger to myself.
Others have ably dissected the line about men needing to stand up to women’s anger in order to write about feminism. Here’s one good example by Noah Berlatsky. A couple others representative of the trend:
“Men are afraid of women’s anger.” Really? Awesome. About time. http://t.co/5Rrn9a6S1L
— Avram Grumer (@avram) July 31, 2013
“Men are afraid of women’s anger.” http://t.co/Kh5aLJz6HM Is that so? Women are afraid men will hurt them, esp attempted murderers like him.
— Katje (@silentkpants) July 31, 2013
But it’s the last sentences of Schwyzer’s statement I want to pay attention to here. Again:
I did [stand up to women's anger] for a long time until finally my mental health had to be a priority. I just got out of the hospital. I’m not shy about that. I’m sober, but I checked myself into a psych ward for a week, when I became a danger to myself.
Those nasty feminist women criticizing Schwyzer drove him to the brink of suicide, in other words.
I have a long history with Hugo, including a real-life meeting, and though I decided two years ago that he was too toxic a person to interact with I still hope he can get well. (Or maybe because I decided that he was too toxic a person to interact with.) I honestly think Hugo’s stepping away from the Internet is one of the smartest things he’s ever done, and I sincerely hope he finds some help so that he can stop hurting people. Including himself. And that’s the last I’ll say about him directly in this post.
But I want to talk about the use of the “they upset me so much I nearly killed myself” trope, because it seems to have slipped past many people’s notice by coming in the wake of the egregious “beleaguered feminist men” thing.
Far too often, people threaten harm to someone as a way of getting attention. They do so to coerce other people into doing things. As we’ve seen in the recent example of every woman who says something on the internet ever, people make threats of violence in attempts to shut people up. They make threats, sometimes, just to get people to listen.
We see these threats for what they are, most of the time: violent abuse. But when the person being threatened is the person doing the threatening, our vision gets clouded. Our sympathy gets played. None of us want to see people hurt themselves. We tone down our criticism. We shelve our disagreements. We put what we were doing on hold to stroke the avowedly self-destructive person’s hair and coo at them.
It works. It gives the threatener what he or she wants. That’s why one of the most common situations in which suicide threats are used is in the context of abusive relationships. That goes for direct statements, as well as passive-aggressive references to suicide like the one quoted above. Abusers use threats of self-harm to keep their victims in relationships, because it works.
And as a consequence, anyone who’s been subject to that kind of emotional abuse is likely to find new examples of rhetorical suicide threats like the one above supremely triggering, even if they’re made in, say, overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” blog posts or what have you.
Please note that I am not talking here about people who are honestly worried about their own thoughts of self-destruction, and who want to ask someone close to them for help but end up doing so sidelong. None of us say or do things perfectly when we’re in crisis. There is a pretty significant gray area between people who really are in crisis and people who know that saying they’re in crisis will get them what they want. A very long time ago, during a difficult discussion in a group of trusted friends, I referred to my own self-destructive thoughts and I’m still not sure which side of that gray area I was on.
But if the statements are made where more than one or two people can see them, in a NYMag article or on Facebook or Tumblr or LiveJournal, the safe bet is on “abusive manipulation.”
Public suicide threats, whether direct or oblique, should be presumed at first glance to be forms of emotional abuse. If they’re direct threatening statements, the best helpful response, if you can use it safely, is “do you need a ride to the hospital?” If the person’s really suffering — and again, I have personal experience with both sides of this interaction — it may either get them the help they need or put things in perspective.
But if the person is using the threat as a rhetorical strategy, it serves as a reminder that there can be consequences for committing acts of emotional abuse on people you claim to care about.
It’s time for people to start calling rhetorical suicide references out as the abusive crap they are.
And if you’re thinking of killing yourself, trust me: whining about it on Facebook won’t help. This will. That link leads you to a list of suicide hotlines around the world. Call them. Get some help.