My Hero Became A Villain

By Sunita Singh Hans, Storyteller for RU Student Life

[Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault]

For the past decade of my life I have idolized a man named Mark Schwahn, the creator of my favourite TV show One Tree Hill. At the tender age of 9 when I was riddled with insecurity and fear and surrounded by bullies, I would come home and watch his commentaries where he assured his audience that “you’re too young to believe it’s not going to be ok” and to “remember to not only see the magic in the world, but the magic in yourself.” I framed a photo of him when I was 13 and hung it in my room, making a promise to myself that I would meet him one day. I drew a picture of us as superheroes because that’s what he was to me and how me made me feel, and I cried tears of joy at 14 when he saw it and tweeted me. In fact, the reason I got Twitter in the first place was so that I could tweet him and my handle was even @MarkSchwahnFan for the majority of my teenage years (yes, I was that extra). He is the reason I fell in love with the television industry because of the impact that his show had on my life during my childhood, and to this very day when anyone asks me what I want to be I’ve always responded with “the next Mark Schwahn.”

This week Mark Schwahn was accused of sexual assault and harassment by over 30 women in the industry.

There are no words to describe the devastation of realizing that your hero is a villain. There are no words to describe the confusion I feel right now, and will continue to feel for a long time. Mark Schwahn gave me the courage to be in this industry. He made sense of my pain, my hardships, my greatest insecurities and the exhausting battles that come along with growing up. So as I heard of the claims directed towards Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck, Kevin Spacey and countless others, I remained courageous and willing to be in the media industry because I knew that there were good ones out there like Mark Schwahn.

So just imagine how shattering it was to realize I was wrong.

When I heard of the accusations I didn’t cry at first. When I saw the first tweet go out by a writer that used to work for him I could tell she was talking about Mark without naming him. But I remained in denial, refusing to believe that this man I looked up to for 13 years had this side to him that I was never aware of. All the hope I had when I was young, all the kind words he said, all of the incredible things he wrote that I built my dreams on — I wasn’t ready for all of that to be ripped away from me. So much of my identity is attached to this person that I thought I knew so well, that I considered to be my greatest idol, a shining glimmer of hope in my darkest moments. Then the tweets from the actresses of One Tree Hill came pouring out along with the hashtag #BurnItDownSis, actresses that had remained silent, angry and fearful for a decade. And then I realized that the dreams were gone, the City of Angels actually operated as a City of Devils, and that my childhood was really and truly dead. Then I allowed myself to cry.

It might sound silly. After all, what right do I have to cry over someone I never knew? I felt so guilty and ashamed for feeling upset because I shouldn’t have been so naive as to trust a stranger who I only knew from the image they were willing to put out into the world. These actresses knew him and had to work with him, so it felt like they had the right to cry and I didn’t. But I cried anyway because even though I never knew him personally it felt like I did. I’m someone that gets attached to things easily - concepts and stories and people and places. I’m someone that feels things to extremes. Whether it’s a book or a movie or a song, I can never just like something. I either love it or hate it; I’m either completely disinterested or absolutely obsessed. I was obsessed with Mark Schwahn, and because of that I’ve cried everyday for the past week and felt absolutely heartbroken and anxious. It feels like a great loss and I’m trying not to be ashamed of those feelings anymore. I think it’s important to grieve this and to process these feelings, and to also feel appreciative that although we’re living in a time that feels discouraging, we’re also living in a time where more and more victims are speaking up and where change is possible. I think it’s normal to feel triggered by the events that have been brought to the surface in the past few weeks, and it’s important to remember that every emotion is valid.

In June 2018 I’ll be graduating from media production and all I can think about is how conflicted I am to be a part of this industry now. Not only am I sickened by the countless stories of sexual harassment, but it now feels like all of my aspirations and dreams were based on a lie. The morning after the news broke I was having an anxiety attack and I couldn’t get out of bed. I had an interview for an internship in an hour, and all I could think about was how I didn’t want to be in the industry anymore. “You have to remember who you were before him,” my sister said. But I was only 9 years old when I started to idolize this man, how could I possibly remember my life before him? He was so much of my childhood, so much of my identity. “You have to remember there is still good in this industry.” But I couldn’t see the good. I could only see a world that had destroyed my one place of comfort. A world filled with sickness and evil, where sexual abuse seemed to dominate countless workplaces and where privileged white men could get away with it all — just look at the current president of the United States.

But if there’s anyone that I’ve listened to for the past decade of my life other than Mark Schwahn, it’s the women in my life. My mother and sister have never been wrong about anything. They have always pushed me to evolve and to be brave and to get over my anxiety when my life feels like it’s turned into a living breathing hellish tornado. I don’t know how they do it, but they manage to get me through anything, even when my hands are shaking and I’m short of breath and close to tears. They manage to make me do crazy things, like get myself to an interview when I’m on the verge of breaking down. So I decided to give this industry one last shot, and I got myself to my interview all cynical and sad and ready to unreasonably yell at any middle aged white man who looked like he was in a position of power. Luckily, I was interviewed by two women. I remember feeling completely at ease meeting them and sitting talking to them for a half hour. I remember the amount of respect they showed each other, and me. I remember how they talked about studying at RTA themselves and their love for the industry. They were so passionate about their work and the company they worked for that it reignited the tiniest glimmer of hope that maybe there is some good left in this industry, and in the world.

I’m writing this for all the fangirls out there like me. The ones that depend on creativity for comfort and that look to fictional characters for understanding when their reality makes no sense. I hope to God that the art they invest their hearts in will not end up devastating them like my hero devastated me, but I also want them to know that I think the art can be separated from the person who made it. Even though Mark Schwahn is a monster, the characters he wrote are not. Those characters were not only brought to life by him — they were brought to life by the brave female writers and actresses that remained dedicated to their roles despite the terrifying working conditions they were exposed to. When I rewatch One Tree Hill (which I will continue to do because I still love the show) I won’t think of the self-proclaimed ‘mastermind’ who wrote those characters. I’ll now think of the women who were bold enough to face a decade in this industry despite being treated like objects. The women that continued to show up. The women that brought strong, independent and fearless characters to life despite the storm surrounding them. And I will think of the other writers who wrote those characters, and the female writer who was brave enough to finally speak out. I will think about the women in this industry, because they have really and truly been the heroes all along.

Mark Schwahn was the reason I started out in this industry. The brave women that spoke this week give me the strength to stay in it.