Shame is a killer. It can turn an abused person into a violent criminal, a tortured neurotic, or both. Shame spins a web of secrecy, to be guarded tenaciously. My father fought shame his entire life, the shame of growing up in “grinding poverty”, the shame of being whipped in the face by his religious mother from the time he could stand. Any other shames thrown in there on top of those were just gravy. He would not, could not, consider opening the door to examine this deep shame, possibly find some relief from it. As a result, he lived as the “Dreaded Unit”, bullying his wife and children, and died with many regrets he only got to confess due to chance.
“I did what I thought I had to do. I wish I’d had the insight to understand how fucked up that was, how much richer my life, and your lives, could have been if I’d only had some fucking insight, some fucking courage,” he concluded tragically on the last night of his life.
Two people subjected to the same shame may have different responses. One response, like my father’s, is never to speak of shame, to angrily attack others whenever they get close to the source of your shame. It is a response that leads to a defensive, sadly circumscribed emotional life. You are constantly wary, blame yourself for being ashamed, which increases the shame.
Another reaction is to understand that what was done to you, the thing that causes you shame, was not your fault. This was portrayed beautifully in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams as the psychiatrist, tells Will, during a breakthrough moment in therapy, that Will’s shame is not Will’s fault. He hammers gently at the tough kid, saying it over and over, “it’s not your fault”, until the boy breaks down in the shrink’s arms. The truth of this kind of moment, Hollywood screenwriting aside, is hard to dismiss.
My father’s shame about being whipped in the face was truly not his fault. He was powerless, at two and three, to do anything but endure it. The shame was his mother’s, not his. He was too terrified to go near the subject, so he tried to act like the toughest man in the world and lost much of the richness that could have been in his life.
Shame is generally imposed by somebody else, it is almost never the result of a conscious act of our own. Shame is deeply scarring, traumatic, it is not the same as regret for a mistake we have made, a misguided action we feel badly about. We may feel ashamed of ourselves, but that is not the same as shame that is imposed on us.
A young woman is swept off her feet by a handsome, charming, athletic older man. He tells her he is separated from his wife. They begin a love affair. It turns out he was possibly not separated, but really, really wished he was. He eventually gets a divorce and they marry. He impresses her with how large he lives, unlike her frugal father, this man will casually leave a $50 tip in a diner if he loves the service.
She notices he is not always truthful. The lies begin to add up. He didn’t lose his job due to a mistake, as he said, he’s been fired from his job for stealing from the company, as the boss, a former friend, calls to inform her. They move to another town. He loses his next job for something similar, announces they are broke.
They move again, to live near their parents. They plan to buy a house, schedule the closing, he borrows ten thousand from his father-in-law towards the downpayment. At dinner two days later he announces that he has declared bankruptcy.
His father dies, he takes the wallet from the bedside table and maxes out all the dead man’s credit cards. He pretends, for over a year, to be going to work and bringing home his pay. He leaves the house at 8:30 every morning, hangs out in strip clubs while his wife is at work and his children are at school. He returns on payday with cash advances drawn from his dead father’s credit cards. One of the three credit card companies eventually catches him, his wife repays a large sum of money.
He gets another job from a friend, embezzles from the friend, is fired. Tells his wife business has been slow and he was let go. A call from the former friend, and a threat to press charges, makes the wife arrange to pay back the thousands her husband has stolen. Then he is immobilized with crippling back pain, can’t get out of bed, suffers on oxycodone for three or four years.
Through this all, the woman keeps everything mostly to herself. She is frequently angry, as anyone would be, but her children must never know the reason, it would cause them all shame. She is ashamed, on one level, to have married a person so lacking in character. How badly does the choice reflect on her? she wonders.
On the other hand, he is a keen student of her psychological weakness, nobody understands her better or is better able to reassure her. He is calm where she is wracked with worry. Their children know they can count on her, but are drawn to their loving, always accepting father. He is playful and affectionate and never blames anyone while, mom, as they all know, can be critical.
I watch this unfold and ask how it is possible to live with a demanding husband (he still yells downstairs to find out what is holding up his dinner) who hasn’t worked for years, with a storied history of lying, criminal activity, road rage and many speeding tickets, “borrowing” money from friends and family he never repays, manipulating, never apologizing, someone who threatened to kill the kids, her parents, and both of them…
“He only did that once,” she protests.
And someone who fucked every willing skank that moved.
“He never did that! If he ever did that I’d leave him in a second!”
Well, as you said once when I asked how he was doing “how would I know?” I say to you– how would you know? He does have a long and impressive history as a manipulator and liar.
The thing about shame is how insidiously it replicates itself. The children grow up watching mom frequently enraged at dad, the most laid back man in the world. Dad throws up the palms of his hands and says “well, you know, mom has a hard time forgiving anyone who isn’t perfect. I may have made a few mistakes, but you know mom…” The kids know this is sometimes true, mom can be a hard-ass.
The sensitive kid wonders about this far too simple explanation, something is intuitively wrong with this glib over-simplification. The mother worries about the daughter’s road rage, occasional bad choices, the son’s dark moods. But shame ensures that the shameful truth must never come to light.
It makes me want to cry.