More Than Their Worst Act

Tomorrow will be my 49th birthday. Closer to 50 than I like to think about. Midlife musings: Do I have enough hair to be worth dyeing, or should I emulate Quentin Crisp and accentuate a youthful face with gray hair? Are 71 button-down shirts really enough? Are some life paths foreclosed to me because I transitioned late, or because compromise is just the human condition? Everyone is embedded in relationships and situations that their younger self set in motion. Coming out, at any age, doesn’t reset the clock.

When I’m in this frame of mind, the opening lines of Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” keep coming back to me:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

And then I inevitably think of disgraced male feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, on whose website I discovered that poem, over a decade ago. Close to my age and already on his fourth marriage, Hugo wrote poignantly (and perhaps sincerely, at the time) about turning away from sex and love addiction, toward commitment and acceptance of limitations. The feminism I’d encountered in school in the 1980s-90s had all been gender-binary and bio-essentialist. His writing was my first indication that there was space in the movement for someone as male-identified as myself. And then it all went to shit in 2013: revelations of affairs with female students and sex workers, his own confession of a failed murder-suicide attempt with his ex-girlfriend in 1998, harassment of Black feminists online, and drug and alcohol relapses.

Yes, Hugo is as cancelled as cancelled gets. I don’t fault anyone for refusing to engage with his work, or the work of any prominent figure whose legacy includes both abusive behavior and work that’s transformed people’s lives: John Howard Yoder, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Vanier, etc., etc. In a society where competition for attention is fierce, many feel that morally compromised figures don’t deserve one more minute of it. Damnatio memoriae was reportedly a punishment in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world, where a disgraced person’s name and work were erased from official accounts. It seems like poetic justice today, when we imagine the unknown scholars and artists whose contributions were forestalled by a predatory authority figure in their field.

But…

I also think of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that “we are more than the worst act we commit”.

Nobody has to forgive these wrongdoers. Nobody is obligated to offer them redemption or look for the silver lining. Let me be clear about that. But if any of us, despite ourselves, still take heart from something they said, or continue to be inspired by one small flower blooming in the big shitpile–I’d like to think that we’re giving them an opportunity to be more than their worst act, too.

This feeling doesn’t make us better or worse than someone who has to slam the book closed forever. It isn’t a “Go thou and do likewise”. Just a way to make peace with being grateful to a really fucked-up person. I’m never going back to that room, but I’m here because I was once there.

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