In this month’s Plume essay, “A Kind of Sorcery: On Shame, Defiance, and Moral Imagination” Richard Hoffman wrestles profoundly with his personal experience with shame and the deep seated emotional, social, and often invisible repercussions it has on its victims. In his extensive and probative analysis of shame’s wound, Hoffman converses with such literary luminaries as Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Barry Lopez, and Percy Bysshe Shelly, along also with several modern-day politicians, in cold-eyed investigations of shame’s enervating affliction. “Shame is inescapable it seems,” he writes, “insidious, shape-shifting…not merely a feeling or a mental state; it is an entanglement in which each and every attempt to avoid it creates another occasion for it. Its consequence, defiance, is the other side of the same page: the expression of suppressed rage. Defiance feeds on shame.”
In cathartic, lucid prose, Hoffman recounts the provenance of his shame and its lingering, debilitating aftereffects as a courageous strategy for arriving at a transcendent awareness of the moral imagination’s sorcery in effecting a inoculative response to shame’s emotional infection.
A Kind of Sorcery: On Shame, Defiance and Moral Imagination
for Linda McCarriston
A half-century ago, Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five, wrote:
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor,
and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves…. It is in fact a crime for
an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every
other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise
and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and
gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and
glorify their betters.
In the US, the dominant class narrative is the story of the individual rising from humble origins to take his or her place in the halls of power, whether in government, industry, or the academy. Many of us who were leveraged into buying this bill of goods believed we could make our own separate peace with it, that we could learn to cross easily back and forth across the border between our origins in poor and working class families and the middle-class world to which we aspired and became acculturated. It has taken a long time and a good deal of psychic dissonance to learn that there are checkpoints on both sides of that border and that by crossing it we have incurred suspicion if not outright wrath that ensures that we will never be at home in either of the worlds in which we move.
In Half the House, my memoir of growing up in the industrial city of Allentown, Pennsylvania in the fifties and sixties, I wrote this about my mother:
My mother’s voice, her “dutch” accent, is hard to render on the page. The
pitch and lilt of the Pennsylvania Dutch accent is, I think now, beautiful
for its tone of innocent questioning, the voice generally swelling once
about mid-sentence before concluding like a question even when it isn’t.
Not to mention the integrity of its stubbornly German syntax. I didn’t
always think so, however, and thinking of the years I spent as a young
man trying to shed that inflected speech, I am struck by how pervasive
was my mother’s influence on me, not to mention the persistence of her
shame. She was stuck between not wanting to talk “dutchified” and not
wanting to sound “citified” which she was afraid would be construed as
putting on airs.
My mother taught me to devalue her. Even that sentence — let it
stand — blames her for everything, including the shame I feel for having
been ashamed of her. I grew up watching which fork the others were
using, what they were wearing, what they were talking about, what they
seemed to be thinking. They, whoever they happened to be, had the
power to find us wanting. “I’m not going to take you anywhere anymore
unless you learn how to behave.”
So I set out to “learn how to behave,” to acquire what Marx called “cultural capital,” which I now understand means mostly affability and white skin. I was developing the former; the latter I already had. I have come to believe that this aspiration, encapsulated in the phrase “upward mobility” is rooted in shame and, in its undermining of authentic selfhood, creates a raw vulnerability ripe for exploitation by all manner of predators from child molesters to military recruiters to advertisers to political candidates and financial institutions.
I was talking with the memoirist and essayist Joe Mackall not long ago. We were laughing and commiserating about how we had come to be viewed by our blue-collar families and the people with whom we’d grown up. I told Joe about showing up to visit my aunt soon after I’d published my memoir. She opened her door and said, “Oh bless you, you still come to visit your family even after all that money!” Trust me, there was no money. We thought we ought to gather together other writers who found themselves in the same strange, often painful DMZ in the class war and offer it as a panel. At one point I asked Joe how we would figure out who to ask to join us. He said, “Well, if you’re all fucked up about who you are and where the hell you fit in but everybody back home thinks you’re a big success, you qualify.” Sage words.
Some years ago, I agreed to take part in just such a panel discussion about working class academics at a local liberal arts college. Three of us sat facing perhaps twenty or thirty professors who’d brought their lunch trays to the conference room where the discussion was to be held. We kicked it off with a 10 minute introductory statement from each of us. I said I wanted to talk about shame as an integral structural element of the class system, and I read a few pages of something I was working on.
What we thought might easily become too abstract and academic soon became an unburdening for many as professor after professor talked about having working class origins, of being the first in their families to go to college, of feeling they were masquerading among colleagues who, they assumed, were descended from a long line of middle-class professionals. The most unlikely people dropped the charade — granted it was a self-selecting group since attendance was voluntary — and it turned out that the room was filled with people who had been hiding from one another, ashamed, not only camouflaged by their own devices, but also by projecting nearly patrician identities onto onto all the others, and at a college whose payscale rates among the lowest 10% of four-year schools (yet another cause for shame.) There were tears. Clearly people were shaken by even the beginnings of a discussion of class. At one point, one professor, a music historian whose specialty is opera, asked if we didn’t think that these estrangements and feelings of fraudulence and insecurity were not, after all, just part of human nature.
That’s when my own tears surprised me; nothing dramatic, but my eyes welled as I blurted, “It is not human nature to be ashamed of your own mother.” Nor, I might have added, to come to your senses only after she was dead and then be ashamed you were ever such a patronizing little twit to have been ashamed of her, and to be ashamed that somehow you’d allowed yourself to be jived into this scam, convinced you were “moving up,” and that it wasn’t a betrayal, only a bettering of your circumstances, exactly what she always wished for you.
The music professor looked stricken, and I worried that I’d been rude to her. But when she spoke again, she talked about being the daughter of a long-haul truck driver. And she wept.
What is the cost of this “passing”? What is the cost of this masquerade to “first generation” college students? Having been one of them, albeit a long time ago, I believe I can now see how I was being erased. How identifying with my own origins left me with only shame or defiance as choices. How choosing shame, not defiance, was prescribed. How shame was what the new life cost. How I paid it.
And I recognized this dynamic as abusive, as the continuing consequence of abuse.
Bear with me, please, while I try to describe and understand the unchanging relationship between the powerful and powerless, and the shame that is both its product and its sustenance. Wherever I look at institutional dynamics, religious organizations, prescribed roles, I see the same pattern repeating like a mandelbrot fractal.
When I was a kid, like a significant cohort of my generation who has at last begun to speak about it, I was exploited for sex by a man who performed the priestly function of “coach.” Sports were the way up and out, and up and out was where we were aimed by our teachers and parents, by television’s promises, by definitions of power, sex, respectability. The alternative was to join the ranks of the uncles working at Mack trucks, or Bethlehem Steel, or Air Products. Why this was such a terrible fate was never clear to me as a child, but it was clearly the “fallback” position, what you settled for if you failed to achieve escape velocity, and for boys from poor families like mine, that escape meant getting an athletic scholarship to college.
College itself was a mythical land of tweeds and muted plaids and leather-bound books, a world of rolling green lawns and trees, and buildings that reeked of knowledge and wisdom, with arcane symbols on coats of arms bearing Latin inscriptions, and thick, green ivy climbing the walls. It was mythical because no one I knew had ever been there. There were a few older guys who went away on football scholarships, but they weren’t part of my circle, and besides, they never returned home except for brief visits with their families. Once in a while we’d catch sight of them and they looked as changed as we expected them to be, in ways that we could not have put words to.
My father told me he’d been scouted, a left-handed pitcher, by the St. Louis Cardinals and had been invited to training camp. He lasted three days before they sent him home, crushed. “I was back home quicker than a cup of coffee!” he always joked. I grew up hearing this story and it always ended with a sigh: “They gave me a shot. I can’t complain. I had my shot.” And I would nod, but what I took away was the sigh.
So when I say that this coach performed a priestly function, I mean that he was a powerful figure in a realm sacred to us as boys, a man with the power to help us plan our escape into the broader world, the one who would help us gain a berth on the high school team, first step to the stardom that would attract the recruiters, the guys with the tuition waivers, the first of many, many gate-keepers who might call us “up” to the Varsity, to the Scholarship, to the Majors, the Pros. “Hey kid, look sharp out there. I heard there was a guy maybe comin’ to look at you tonight.” It was from the larger system of hierarchical gatekeepers that he derived his power over us.
I have written about this period before and at length, in a memoir, and in other essays, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that as a boy who desperately wanted to play in the starting line-up, move to the high school a known prospect, and land a college scholarship (the whole of it laid down clear as the tracks my father laid for Bethlehem Steel, swinging a sledge eight hours a day) my “choices” were to suck the coach’s cock or let him fuck me in the ass.
Shame whispers: I shouldn’t be saying this.
Defiance roars: I have the right to say this!
Moral Imagination insists: No one should have this to say.
In the thirty years since I first wrote about this experience, I have served on task forces, citizens’ advocacy groups, and government commissions on sexual violence and exploitation of children. I have become acquainted with survivors in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand and Afghanistan, and have heard their stories of disempowerment, helplessness, and shame. I have witnessed heroes turning their outrage into defiance and political action on behalf of children — not your children or my children, children.
In the circles in which I moved then, among researchers, social workers, psychologists, and lawmakers, issues of class were seldom raised. It seemed to be taboo, in fact, because the official stance, meant to be inclusive of all children’s vulnerability, is that childhood sexual abuse cuts across every category; well, of course it does, it does; at the same time, I can’t help but think that, just as with other forms of violence, the weight of numbers falls disproportionately on the most defenseless. All children are vulnerable, but the most vulnerable are those already shamed, already compromised by the shame of being poor. Those children are of course the least likely to tell, so they are the ones most often targeted.
This situation appears to be true globally. For example, the UK Parliament not long ago published a report that chronicles widespread sexual exploitation in the global aid community, including organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children, and even the U.N. itself. The number of children exploited and assaulted among the refugee population (currently the largest mass migration in human history) is staggering. Everywhere in the wake of disaster and war, traffickers arrive with the other vermin to profit from the misfortune of the most vulnerable of those displaced — children.
Shame whispers: I shouldn’t be saying this.
Defiance roars: I have the right to say this!
Moral Imagination insists: No one should have this to say.
All the various reactions I might have had to the coach’s violations, the ways I might have felt about what was happening, were forbidden to me. I was convinced it was wrong to be angry; if I expected to be forgiven on Saturday after confession (the vague: “I committed impure acts” was usually all that was required to say) then I had to find it in my heart to forgive. Besides, “feeling sorry for yourself” was probably the very worst character flaw with which one could be charged, no matter what. You could be bleeding to death, but “feeling sorry for yourself” removed, instantly, any grounds you might have for sympathy, even from yourself. “Dwelling on the past” once it was over — “over” beginning immediately, with the next instant, with a fly being zipped, pants being pulled up — was being a crybaby. No sense crying over spilled cum.
And there was no refusing because there were no grounds for refusal. If I refused, “Why not?” was the response, and I could never formulate an answer. “I don’t want to” was insufficient: “What do you mean you don’t want to? You don’t want to! Who the fuck asked you what you want? Get over here!” The abuse of a child is the elemental instance of might makes right, of the prerogatives of hierarchical privilege.
“I knew,” writes George Orwell in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” his essay about being a scholarship kid at a fancy boys’ school, “that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.” What’s more, you are invited to be sorry for having once been that self, ashamed, and therefore silenced, and to believe you can turn yourself into someone else. I shouldn’t be saying this.
But if one is wrong to be angry, and wrong not to forgive, and wrong to grieve what was lost, then one is forbidden to spit out the foul seed of abusive power by the only reflexes nature gives us.
No wonder people so often choose to zone out, to be fucked from behind as it were, to choose not to see what’s happening. You can try to relax, you can think of something else, maybe watch TV: sports, comedies, soaps, whatever’s your pleasure (another integral property of personhood forever redefined by atrocity: in the aftermath of trauma pleasure becomes a synonym for relief.) You tell yourself: Not so bad. Not as bad. At least. It could be worse. Not bad. Even Thank god.
These are our resigned responses to choices that are always offered in twos, as if we couldn’t handle any broader array of options — It’s the two party system. It’s us or them. It’s take the shitty job or starve. It’s my way or the highway. It’s coercion and exploitation disguised as consent. It’s hatred or forgiveness. It’s all the same: it’s suck or get fucked.
Of that false choice, repeated, rationalized, disguised, denied, is the world of powerlessness established. When the prerogatives of the powerful masquerade as morality, a kind of sorcery happens, it seems, and people fall into shame as if under a spell, into a world in which it makes sense to mock oneself and glorify one’s “betters.” Convinced that a choice between abuses is as good as it gets, the shamed seek favor, time and again, with murderous demagogues. Ultimately this is the world of dictators, armaments, marching armies.
I shouldn’t be saying this. I should come up with another metaphor, one that won’t make readers cringe. I could say that a child exploited for sex is a raindrop mirroring the whole defeated world; that would be a little more lyrical. Or I could say that surely we all see that it is the same fire, following the same laws, that burns down a house and a city. I could argue that just because a thing is metaphorical does not mean it stops being real, or I could argue that everything in a remembered childhood is metaphorical.
Or I could dispense with metaphor and say, simply, that the abuse of a child is the elemental instance of abusive power and therefore reveals its dynamics. Or just say that the whole of the present order of things depends on those dynamics, even to the extent that some people are still permitted to own other people because they are able to command their time, and our lives just happen to be made of that — time.
What aristocratic writers take from nature gratis, the less privileged must
pay for with their youth. Try and write a story about a young man—the
son of a serf, a former grocer, choirboy, schoolboy and university student,
raised on respect for rank, kissing the priests’ hands, worshipping the
ideas of others, and giving thanks for every piece of bread, receiving
frequent whippings, making the rounds as a tutor without galoshes,
brawling, torturing animals, enjoying dinners at the houses of rich
relatives, needlessly hypocritical before God and man merely to
acknowledge his own insignificance — write about how this young man
squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how, on waking up
one fine morning, he finds that the blood coursing through his veins is no
longer the blood of a slave, but that of a real human being.
— Anton Chekhov
I was complaining to a friend about how hard writing is, and one of the hardest parts of making that claim is the shame I feel making it: after all, my grandfather was a coal miner, my father a steel-worker, among other jobs. My dad and uncles used to goof on me: “Look at him,” my father would say, “he sits on his ass for a living!” My uncles, who worked at Mack trucks on the assembly line, would grin and snort. “He might be working right now for all we know,” my father smirked, “What do you say? You working over there?”
It was resentment tempered by admiration of a sort and — understandable in men with back trouble, knee trouble, neck trouble, all the result of hard wear and tear on their bodies — a begrudging envy (That ain’t workin’/That’s the way you do it/ You play your guitar/On the MTV.) The whole thing was complicated and there was nowhere else to take it, nothing else to say, so everyone laughed, including me. Somebody popped another can of beer.
“You’re a good sport, kid,” my uncle Francis said and smacked me across the back of the head. It meant I wasn’t thin-skinned, that no matter how far away I’d gone, I was still a member of the tribe who “mock themselves and glorify their betters.” I can still feel that slap.
I went off to college and soon after to teach at a prestigious boarding school. On my visits home, the stories I brought with me to tell my father and my uncles required carefully landing on the right side of a class divide that would determine whether they felt proud of me or ashamed of themselves, whether they became appreciative or angry. It often involved my mugging and goofing on the rich — pointing out either a foible that would suggest they are foolish and blind to their own nonsense, or that they are just like us, proving by anecdote another of my father’s maxims: “He puts his pants on one leg at a time same as the rest of us.” (This bromide was offered by numerous coaches as well, especially if we were going up against a superior team: “Remember they pull up their jockstraps same as you.”)
Just as that work my dad and uncles did was hard on their bodies, mine is hard on my sense of myself, my consciousness of the world and my place in it. I am continually trying to lay bare assumptions, making complicated and nuanced choices about how to name a thing, whether it be an emotion, an event, an interaction, some change I’ve noticed. I take saying no again and again to received formulations to be the job. It’s like being a TSA worker on red alert: I have to take the wand to nearly every idea to be sure it isn’t smuggling some other suggestion or some unintended, potentially harmful residue of shame. Are these the right words? Are they true?
No doubt all writers, all artists, have this struggle to some degree. But if you are a writer from the working class, if you grew up in a house without books, you are never sure that what you do is work at all, and you are seldom sure that, whatever it might be called, you have any right to do it, nor even any right to have the time to do it. I suspect something like this is true for anyone from a poor or working class background, whether or not they are a writer: there is defiance in making anything — song, poem, birdhouse, quilt, trout flies, model trains — anything that isn’t done for money. In fact, for nearly anyone these days to try to clear a little space in which to think clearly or make something you find beautiful, whatever it might be, requires defiance and an audacity that will be viewed as selfish by some and will trigger envy and malice in others. The class system, along with its resentments, bullying, and ridicule, is replicated within each class. Defiance is necessary. Defiance is your friend.
Until it isn’t. You can try to balance out shame with achievement, but the defiant rage that stokes that kind of ambition burns hotter with every failure, and shame doubles down each time and raises the stakes.
Shame’s cascading implosion of selfhood delivered me to alcohol as if it had been waiting for me: liquid defiance, potable rage, lots of it, and more and more of it as time went on. I used to sit at my desk with a rocks glass of scotch in one hand and my pen in the other, defying the shame I felt by insisting I was my own invention: a writer! Never mind that I wasn’t writing. Never mind that this invention was itself a cliché, a cartoon, right down to the cigarettes and booze it needed and justified; never mind that I produced little, then very little, then nothing. If I could only manage to write a book, I would prove I was not as worthless as I felt!
The whole of my encounter with myself was this oscillating shame and defiance. I saw this most clearly when, after years of daily drinking, I managed to get sober. I’d been abstinent only two or three weeks when I agreed to go with my wife to a party. I don’t remember the occasion, but it was a gathering of people who all knew the host, though few knew one another. I could taste the anxiety in every introduction. I was offered the choice of beer or wine “and there are soft drinks in the kitchen for the children.” I was miserable and trying to be invisible, even disappearing for a while into the bathroom, until another guest knocked. After a while, I looked around the room at people laughing, talking, each with a cocktail or glass of wine in hand, and tried to get my bearings. I wanted desperately to feel something besides the shame I believed everyone could see smeared all over me like shit. I stood in a corner speaking to no one. The inner dialogue then went something like this:
Shame: Why would any of these people want to talk to a loser like me? Even I don’t like me!
Defiance: Nah. Fuck that. Look at these superficial fools, laughing like hyenas, talking about
nothing — why would I want to talk to any of them?
I was a screeching seesaw, a devil’s ping-pong game, my sick sense of self inflating and deflating. The only relief I could imagine was the cartoonish self I’d been imagining at my writing desk: one day I would walk into a party like this and conversations would stop, heads would turn, whispers would be heard: Look! It’s him! I heard he was going to be here!
A pathetic insight, this flash of the truth I got standing alone, isolated and oscillating in that corner: I saw how fearful and small and self-involved I’d become, but somehow this understanding didn’t trip me back into shame this time, but instead suggested it was possible to live — and maybe even write — some other way, that this pathetic psychodrama, now visible for the first time (I almost laughed out loud with relief) was where shame, compounded by alcohol (which had long since stopped helping me,) had me cornered.
I stopped writing. Actually, what I stopped was the shame and defiance cockfight. There followed years of 12-Step meetings, of psychotherapy; years of simply not running away into that old boozy delusion. Once, in conversation, a friend, also a recovering alcoholic writer who’d grown up poor, stunned me with the clarity of her assessment — “Richard,” she said, ‘Great American Writer’ is the face of your disease.” She cautioned me about ever assuming that aspirational identity again, calling it a seat at the bar with my name on it.
In hindsight, the trouble was that I hadn’t been writing to any purpose except to work myself up to believing I was someone I was not. Once off the seesaw, out of the ping-pong game, I began, slowly, to stay in my life, where things had improved a hundredfold without my noticing, a life for which I had considered myself ineligible. I filled notebooks with memories and questions. I wrote a “4th Step Inventory” in which I listed my failings and resolved to make amends, along with a daily “10th Step” journal, reviewing my own behavior that day.
After a few years, I began writing again: poems, stories, a memoir. I wrote to try to shorten the interval between my experience and my understanding of it, not to be that guy who stopped conversations when I walked into the room. I have not, ever since, wanted to cram myself back into that tiny box of imagined importance, dark and smelly as a confessional.
Shame whispers: Now you’re just trying to elevate your own imposter syndrome to some broader
cultural criticism. You can’t write about class and hierarchy and history with your only bona
fides being that you grew up poor, were raped, and became a drunk!
Shut up, shame.
Are these the right words? Are they true? I write to see if I can find among all the thoughts in my head which ones are mine, which ones are me, thinking. My consciousness is like a jukebox or mail server or cloud domain that contains a staggering amount of utter crap, useless spam, old pop tunes, bad ideas that just go on and on, unpurged. What I hear when I listen, pen paused above the page, refusing, refusing, tuning out the noise, might be what is actually mine to say. The ultimate foolishness would be to try as hard as I do to say what I mean and then not mean what I say. I write to judge the plausibility of explanations I’ve been offered. I write to try to bring the past into the present in hopes of a glimpse of the future. I write to find the words, to come to terms. I write to stop being a good sport.
I have been avoiding writing about what I’ll call my “poverty teeth.” I was nearly seventy by the time I had the money to get my teeth fixed. For people living paycheck to paycheck, poverty teeth can be a powerful source of shame. In movies and television, the simplest and most common signifier of poverty and the ignorance that supposedly accompanies it, the fastest way to prompt ridicule, is missing or rotting teeth, or even just crooked teeth. Usually this goes unremarked as a class signifier, but only because it has become so expected, so ubiquitous.
My parents both had dentures. I still remember the day my father came home from the dentist with his mouth stuffed with bloodied gauze. How old was I? 12 or 13, I think. We had just moved, my parents going deeper into debt than they already were in order to buy my grandfather’s house from my father’s four siblings. Subject to the approval of the Mayor, with whom he had to interview in three weeks time, my father had a shot at an administrative job with the city,
After a period of pain and acute shame that kept him at home, “sick” for a few days, he had a beautiful smile – of removable porcelain teeth. He got a credit card, bought a suit and a sport coat, quit smoking cigarettes, took up a pipe. He got that job, and he gave it thirty years of his life, work he was proud of, but he always remained ashamed of his teeth, worried they might shift or slip, revealing his secret. You could tell because he felt the need to joke about it.
Shame is inescapable it seems, insidious, shape-shifting. Shame is not merely a feeling or a mental state; it is an entanglement in which each and every attempt to avoid it creates another occasion for it. Its consequence, defiance, is the other side of the same page: the expression of suppressed rage. Defiance feeds on shame. It needs it. Mere defiance will never provide the wherewithal to escape, no matter how much alcohol you pour on its flames, no matter how many achievements you are determined to stack like a tower.
There are commercials for orthodontists now, in which people shake their heads and tell the sad story of having been ashamed to smile, stories in which they can’t believe they “waited so long” to get their teeth fixed. This is not one of those stories. I know why I “waited so long.” I was broke.
People who have never been poor think poverty is a lack of money. Of course it is that, but worse: poverty is a lack of standing. Being poor means you don’t count; you are disregarded, robbed of your dignity, dishonored.
I’d been watching kids’ TV with my three year old grandson, probably Curious George, or Shaun the Sheep, and tickling him, when he threw back his head, laughing, and cracked off one of my front teeth. The tooth had broken below the gum line. There was blood. I looked at the tooth in my palm as I reassured my grandson that he had done nothing wrong, that I was fine, but I felt a wave of desperation go over me: I had been invited to a fancy dinner party at a wealthy friend’s home. I was going to look like the poor kid in hand-me-downs I knew I was. I was about to be denied the pretense that I was, or could ever be, anyone else. I had a hole in my face, a grin like a jack-o’-lantern, a vacancy that betokened rot, a signifier of poverty and squalor.
I made an emergency appointment with a dentist known for his problem-solving. He fashioned a tooth, a little sculpture of a tooth really, and affixed it to the edges where my real tooth had broken off. He warned me, as I held the hand mirror he’d given me, that it was precarious and that I needed to be careful what I ate.
My host had invited three others to her table, two of them Pulitzer winners, the other the editor of a major newspaper. She herself had been an ambassador to a European country, a warm, gregarious person whose Christmas parties were legend. The house was a mansion, no other word for it, with a cobbled circular drive, a sculpture garden, and servants, or at least, on this occasion, a private chef. And here, in retrospect, is what I think made it so hard to get myself to write this part: not only is it nearly impossible to write convincingly about feeling shame without feeling it again — the fluttering solar plexus, the hot red ears — I am ashamed, now, to have been so flattered, so craven, such a suck-up.
I hadn’t known the reason for the dinner or that I was the guest of honor until it was announced as we were seated at the table, our host holding up my third book of poems and making a toast. I gobbled up their praise like a starving man. Asked to read, I took requests from my host and chose a couple myself. I felt, of course, that I was singing for my supper; that made me feel good, that I’d been invited because of my poems. But it also felt like a kind of audition. I know my host and companions that evening were being generous and sincere in their appreciation. But I was rendered ineligible for enjoyment not only by the worry I would leave a tooth in my dinner roll, but by the social reality: I didn’t belong here and nothing could change that, I was acting a part. It wasn’t simply that I felt like an imposter, it was more that I’d found my way back to raw shame by seeing the evening as a kind of tryout, a test I had to pass. (“I’m not going to take you anywhere anymore unless you learn how to behave.”) I’d been “called up” and didn’t want to be “sent down.” I had to, literally, keep it together: my tongue carefully testing my fake front tooth all evening. It was a kind of alcohol-free relapse.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” For a while we were treated to that sentiment on billboards, on the sides of buses, in the subway. (I think it was an Apple computer “Think Different” ad campaign but I may be misremembering that.) What I want to explore is the other side of that statement which has always smacked of glibness and “noblesse oblige” to me.
Is there not some victim blaming in that remark? From a certain angle, her assertion can mean that if you feel inferior it’s your own fault, you wanted this, you brought this on yourself — charges with which I have been familiar since my childhood encounter with that predatory coach, all statements that grant to people experiencing repeated humiliation an agency they do not have. That perhaps they and their families haven’t had for generations. An agency that perhaps they do not even feel they have a right to.
The fact that this statement was made by Eleanor Roosevelt, by all accounts a kind and courageous woman, someone who would not have intended my interpretation, serves to show, particularly alongside the personal kindness of my host and dinner companions, either that I am just too sensitive (more abuser-speak) or that — as I am arguing here — shame is built into the hierarchical organization of all our social relations. One way or another we are all ensorcelled by this paradigm, trapped in the proliferating binary of haves and have nots, of worth and worthlessness, of the powerful and the powerless, of who owns who. Shame is not only a structural feature of our present society, it’s a load bearing wall.
In his blistering brief memoir, Who Killed My Father, the French novelist Édouard Louis refuses over and over to inhabit his father’s shame; nor is he willing, after his father’s death, to go along with the idea that his working class parents’ psychic wounds were somehow self-inflicted. Instead, he calls out the abusive and exploitative powers and principalities by name: Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and Health Minister Xavier Bertrand removed dozens of medications from reimbursement by the government’s health plan, and Louis, addressing his deceased father says, point-blank: “Jacques Chirac and Xavier Bertrand destroyed your intestines.” His father’s back was quite literally broken by an accident at work which left him unable to do the heavy labor that had been his job, but in 2009, Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his accomplice Martin Hersch, perhaps following after Bill Clinton in the U.S., cancelled the stipend he had been receiving, replacing it with a sort of “workfare.” Sarkozy scapegoated the vulnerable, the chronically ill, the poor, as freeloaders, “les assistés,” winning reelection in the bargain, and Louis doesn’t for a moment forgive him. He writes, “This kind of humiliation by the ruling class broke your back all over again.” Later, noting his father’s late flowering, his love of books and enjoyment of music, he writes, “because of what they’ve done to your body, you’ll never have a chance to uncover the person you’ve become.”
There is hardly any point in enumerating the ways that the ferocious onslaught of twin-party financial capitalism has consumed so much human potential. Over and over it offers only the humiliations of a bogus meritocracy that shames us, while at the same time it invites us to take sole responsibility, and to claim agency, even if only over our own misery. The last thin blanket of dignity is, “It was my own fault.”
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely
and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of many
others… the great instrument of moral good is the imagination.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley 1821
The only question that interests me now, though, is how we might get free, how we might imagine something better and work toward it. How do we move from shame to defiance and then, ultimately, to moral imagination?
And what does it mean, this term “moral imagination?” Is it real? Or only a wish, a hungry child of hope, reaching for a pretty paragraph, settling for a pretty sentence, most of the time having to be content with the phrase itself, holding onto it as a promise, a talisman. I don’t mean hope. No, hope is the wrong word, poisoned by history. But I imagine and believe in a jagged hardness that survives, that we are reduced to when we are “up against it” as we say, that with its friction against despair provides the needed spark to kindle possibility. That’s what I mean by the term.
After all, what is this dispiriting history of greed, brutality, and conquest to the real history of the world, in relation to the innumerable lives lived to bring us all here? How long is this narrative, really, in the immensity of time?
A jot, an iota, a blip.
If there is such a thing as moral imagination, it only becomes possible with the understanding that there is nothing merely personal, nothing in the world that has only happened to you. I learned this in the most emphatic way when the publication of my memoir Half The House led to the arrest and trial of the man who had plunged me so deeply into shame and secrecy and confusion was arrested. When he was discovered to have also violated more than 400 other preadolescent boys, I understood that it was not personal. That understanding was a great relief, but I confess a confusing kind of freefall at the same time. I realized that no matter what I’d been telling myself, some part of me felt like I had participated by virtue of who I was, by how needy I’d been, by my aspirations to be a star. A violation so intimate as childhood rape of course felt personal, though clearly it was not. Abusers always reinforce the perception that it is, and their safety depends upon their victims looking inward for the source of their shame, encouraging anyone not possessed of “power and gold” to “mock themselves and glorify their betters,” as Vonnegut put it. Under such pressure the dignity and integrity of both individuals and populations implode.
It seems to me that the only way out of victimhood is clarity about how hierarchical power behaves, always, in every sphere, in every institution, in every situation. And as a writer it’s not enough for me to know and recognize “the bully who rules the world” as the late Carol Bly termed him, I have to write against that power. I am often at a loss just what to say, though, beyond what I already understood as a ten-year-old boy: the emperor is naked, but not only that, he’s ugly. Here’s a short poem I wrote about that emperor:
Arriving at the podium on the tarmac,
he stands up tall and makes a big fuss
rolling up his sleeves like drawing back
his foreskin, and only amnesiacs
still traumatized and children
do not know what happens next.
I refuse the story of the individual instance of violence. I’m just not satisfied with people expressing horror at the abuse of individual children while they pull into the parking lot at Raytheon or Lockheed-Martin to spend the day assembling missiles that will murder schoolchildren in Yemen, Syria, Gaza — other people’s children.
In his 1963 essay, “The Artist’s Struggle For Integrity” James Baldwin wrote:
“And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what’s important.
Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips
you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of
using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to
do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as
you can use it to connect to other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do
that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it
works the other way around too: insofar as I can tell you what it is to
suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”
It is all one struggle, the struggle to be free from abusive power — not only from its atrocities, but also from its arrangements, its expectations, its premises.
I’m moved to speak with urgency because I’m an old man and running out of time. I’m a grandparent, not a wild-eyed prophet come to town crying “Repent!” I’m not wearing a sandwich board that says the end is near. I can’t be with my grandchildren, on the floor with their toys, at the playground, giving them a bath, making a pizza, and hold that view. If I did have such a sandwich board, it might say, It seems to me that we are inviting disaster if we don’t extricate ourselves from the web of lies designed to keep us strangers to one another and alienated from ourselves. It would be exhausting carrying around a sandwich board like that!
You could edit it down, though, to something like “We must love one another or die,” as W.H. Auden wrote in desperate hope as WWII began. He famously amended that line, even before the war’s end, to the stoical “We must love one another and die.”
Now I read the first, more urgent, less resigned version, to mean that we must find a way out of hatred, political, historical, ancestral, or it will kill all of us. Events since then have shown that when Auden wrote that line, he was prophetic. Maybe to think there can be such a thing as moral imagination or any such way forward is foolishness. I don’t know, but there is nothing left for us to do now but search for it.
For Auden, after the deaths of some 80 million presumably loving and lovable people, the whole of his engagement seems to have collapsed into the abyss between those two choices: he renounced the poem entirely and we only have it because his editor included it, with the first version of the line, in Auden’s Collected Poems.
As the poet Chard deNiord has written, addressing Auden:
You had forgotten why you wrote the law
we loved and need to hear in every age.
It seems that death had turned your mind so purely
literal that you forgot that we can die
alive before we die in bed.
I think I understand Auden’s despair and why he felt he had to change that conjunction — Are these the right words? Are they true? — but I can’t help it: When I read those two lines back to back —
We must love one another or die.
We must love one another and die.
I feel as if I’m watching, in the space between them, a bombed building crumbling in on itself, representing of course a bombed city, one among many bombed cities — and burning ships, atrocities, death camps, twin mushroom clouds, all of that tragic failure. But now, faced once again with renewed tribal hatreds and feeling the gathering whirlwind, I find the first line more compelling. That first version was an inspired and passionate cry of moral imagination, a prophet’s cry: in historical terms, it was a desperate cry, one that went unheeded.
But surely that was not our last chance? That apocalypse in the aftermath of which I have lived my entire life?
“To be a good ancestor is to think beyond two generations, to three, to
four, to five and to ten. And we are very bad at that.”
— Barry Lopez
I am among the hundreds of thousands of Americans, born just after WWII, whose fathers would likely have been slain in an invasion of Japan, were it not for the atomic bomb. I first heard this fact on television, and struggled to understand it, back when I was ten, the same year I was raped by my coach. I have been compromised, weakened and bewildered, by both these mortifying facts, but I am complicit in neither. Orwell’s boyhood insight that sin could be something that happened to you and his lifelong refusal to find that acceptable seems essential to the moral imagination. We are not all guilty just because we have been compromised. We are not all equally responsible for the situation we find ourselves in.
I have friends I cherish who hold the view that we as a species are marauders and despoilers. I understand why, but talking about the human species, like talking about human nature, not only feels wrong to me but smells like the kind of propaganda Gramsci warned us about; it feels like the latest way to normalize the assumptions of an individualist, capitalist, militarist world view. It is a simplistic leveling. A surrender. An excuse: if we are all equally guilty, then none of us are.
We all try to make our separate peace; we must. But it’s not, surely it can’t be, enough to secure only that. I can’t accept that and still believe my love is worth anything when I’m rocking my grandson in my arms, terrified at the world he’s arrived in. I might be able to generate hope from the joy my grandchildren give me but that seems unfair. The wildfires burn, the sea encroaches, pandemic is upon us: earth itself appears to be saying that we don’t have time for broad descriptors like the species, or human nature; not unless they are rooted in the vision of something better than this ashen aftermath of terrible mistakes in which live coals are buried.
Dostoyevsky would recognize the place I have come to, where the abuse of a child is at the center of one’s understanding of evil, and where moral imagination insists that a real ethical system must be rooted, first and last, in that knowledge. Even if others dismiss it as naïveté:
I have seen the truth; I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful
and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and
cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just
this faith of mine that they laugh at.
— The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
Moral imagination is not utopian; it is capable of calculus, but before it shrinks from the cost of change, it asks what we are already paying. What is the price of a dimmed life? Of an inhabited delusion mistaken for destiny? We are continually shown the cost if we can bear to look.
Growing up after WWII, my friends and I were always playing war, trying to master a future we imagined from our parents’ pasts. We made periscopes from a milk carton and two small cosmetic mirrors so we could see around corners. I think the directions were in the Cub Scout Handbook. We’d glue each mirror at a 45° angle in the top and bottom of the carton, taking care to position them correctly, to get the sightlines right. It was exciting to be able to see around a corner, especially when we were playing some kind of militarized tag, making the sounds of gunfire, pretending to be at war, using our imaginations defensively, adrenalized by a real and abiding terror.
Will I ever look back and not see that milk box jutting out, surveilling me from around a corner in childhood? I doubt it. I can’t imagine myself without that boy’s fear, his dread and his prayerful hope. Will my frightened grandchildren ever see safety beyond the present? Will they be able, as evidently we cannot, to turn that corner?
Not long ago, my son and daughter got together and bought their parents a “spit kit” from Ancestry.com, a DNA test that confirmed my Northern European genome. I’d wanted a surprise, maybe some forbears less fractious and dour, but the real disappointment was how meaningless and empty the whole inquiry felt afterward.
After all, ancestors are only so useful. There are layers under layers under layers of dead beneath our feet to the very center of the earth, and not one of them can help us. We have only their detritus and their examples, benign and malign, by which to take our bearings. And even then, the examples are mostly speculation, drawn from a militarist history and augmented by fictions — saints and prophets and heroes in whose names, over and over, we make war.
When I went to Europe, it felt familiar. Having been an altar boy, I knew and loved its iconography, its stories, the lore I’d been taught to hold dear. In cathedrals and museums, painting after painting celebrates centuries of bloody conquest, while opposite, the Virgin holds her baby as The Madonna, and also her innocent manchild, despoiled, as The Piéta. Rightly or wrongly, I take the over-arching lesson to be that human life is a binary of war and grief, as if it’s the best we can do, the best we can have — a bipolar world that continues making martyrs of any who refuse to submit. Might a future with fewer martyrs be possible?
The first people of that future are already here.
With my grandchildren I laugh for no good reason, laughter that comes in waves, that starts below my feet and passes through me, grounding me. Even at their most exasperating they connect me to life in a way that nothing else can. They teach me what time it is, and who I truly am, lagging behind them out of breath here in our shared present. One day not too far from now they will be my only connection to life.
A few days ago, cleaning up my infant grandson’s spilled milk, I thought about the ways he would be cleaning up after me, after my whole generation, long after we’re gone. In his diary Dostoyevsky wrote, “The soul is healed by being with children.” Yes, but the separate peace of a healed soul is not by itself enough. What is our bequest to these innocent people? I try to post myself where I might know but sometimes it is like standing by a cataract where a stream has been diverted, where it is hard to think above the roar, and hard not to lose heart.
Consider that recently, while I was driving him from basketball practice, my 14-year-old grandson asked me, out of the blue and into the dark silence of the ride home, “if there’s a WWIII, I’d do pretty good, right? I think I’d do pretty good. I’m quick and strong. I’m pretty agile, that’s what my coach says. If there’s a WWIII, I could fight pretty good, don’t you think?”
I remembered that the week before, they’d been studying WWI in History class. He was excited that he got a 95 on the quiz. So this week they must have been on to WWII.
Consider that our ancestors dreamed of a thousand years of peace while, here in America, we have never gone a single generation without a war. As I write this, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has begun and the news is filled with urgent voices, towering billows of smoke, sirens, rolling tanks, corpses in the streets, and fleeing people.
Consider that victory in WWIII— a war which already exists as a fearful knot tied in my grandson’s imagination — would likely mean living a few days longer than your enemy.
Without an understanding of our bequests, both hopeful and horrifying, I don’t see how we can be “good ancestors” of any description. So while I agree with Lopez that we need to be thinking beyond two generations, I would argue also that it is only in those first two generations that we are able to act, change, provide examples. We have no other time in which to oppose a world where a child’s purpose is to take part in a mercantile system that creates a market and calls it culture, that places turnstiles in the wilderness, and with that money makes more propaganda for its genocidal and ecocidal arrangements.
Failing to imagine “intensely and comprehensively” is to settle for Not so bad. Not as bad. At least. It could be worse. Not bad. Even, idolatrously, Thank god. It means to see ourselves as passive victims, our imaginations constrained by a kind of sorcery, consoling ourselves with “Twas ever thus.” But when shame robs us of agency and darkens to dread, we “die/ alive before we die in bed.”
We must love one another, period. And with knowledge of — but no loyalty to — past failures to do so. We owe that to our descendants.