Crawling under the skin of the present age is a reality, an anthropology so old that it infests everything we do. I felt it as I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociology of Tea Party Louisiana in Strangers in the Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. But it’s there in liberal moral puritanism. It’s in the narcissism of Trump and the pretension of a hipster coffee bar. It’s shame, back from the never-dead to be reckoned with once again.
“We need to talk about Addie Mae,” the blues singer Adia Victoria growls in a reference to herself on the song “It’s a Howlin’ Shame.”
“Oh that girl is a ghost
Burnin’ in a hell that don’t nobody know
White flag twistin’ in the wind
And at her best she is witherin’
And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”
The song is a mournful, angry descent into the pain of a young African-American woman growing up in South Carolina. “Being the other in the South meant that I was never afforded a complacency with my history that so many Southern white people live with,” Victoria told an interviewer from i-D. “I understand, and still feel, the reasons why my ancestor’s blood was spilled on the very same land I live on. I am bound to this injustice because it was never made right.”
But, of course, the effect of this is to feel that she was never made right—that there is nothing she could do to be made visible and worthy in an environment she considered “hostile to my very existence.” So she howls:
“A murder of crows
They followed her home
And they didn’t leave much
Just a bed of bones
Get away, away
Away, away, away”
Then the title of the song twists. The descriptive third-person voice sinks into the first person. “I’m a howlin’ shame.”
Shame-based discourse does this. It dehumanizes. It takes behaviors and qualities and totalizes them into causes for disregarding the worth and dignity of a person or group. Trump voters become an undifferentiated gaggle of racists. Democrats are “not even people,” the president’s son says.
At its heart, shame is experienced as a profound lack. When we are in touch with shame, we have a sense of being insufficient, defective, deformed, unlovable, incapable, and generally ‘not enough.’ “At her best she is witherin’/And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”
There is a psychological component to shame. My own time in therapy has convinced me of its awful power in my own life. The thing that can’t be said, even in the safest company, festers and grows. Partly because of the perversity of believing that I still have to seduce my therapist into accepting me and that the saying of the thing would bring the whole enterprise to ruin. Partly because I don’t want to hear myself saying the thing. Mostly because to give voice to it would cause masks to drop, walls to crumble, certainties to tremble, and worlds to change.
The last thing is certainly true. But discovering that truth was one of the great liberations of that time.
Then, of course, there is the next layer down. And the layer after that. As John Donne puts it in puns on his name in one of my favorite of his poems, “A Hymn to God the Father”:
“Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.”
Eventually you know that no matter how deep the confession goes and how many “unforgivable” things you throw out to God/your therapist you will always have more. It gradually becomes clear that there is no ridding yourself of the defects you imagine or cleansing yourself of mistakes. The ones you bring to speech are blessedly defanged but, oh, there is always something else. I have more.
So you come to understand that there is something more essential at stake here. Wherever you go, there you are. You, with your darkness and your pain. You, with your perverse tendencies to seek affirmation in a funhouse mirror of your desire. You, with your suspicions and your fears. You, with your doubts that you could ever make yourself acceptable or be made acceptable. Shame. It’s a howlin’ shame.
The therapist, or pastor, or trusted confessor provides some relief. He or she, by not turning in disgust for the door at your tentative honesty, can give you the gift of being seen. Or as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground put it in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:
“When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
‘Cause I see you
I’ll be your mirror”
Except that inside we are twisted and unkind and we need to see that, too. A good confessor won’t tell us we’re OK. But she will clear the space for us to stand in dignity anyway and point out all the ways we are working, below the surface, against our interest, to erase that space.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, saw shame as elemental and relational. It is the “ineffable recollection of [a person’s] estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.” Like the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden, we are exposed as disunited, lacking something essential.
Bonhoeffer felt that shame had a role to play in the journey to God. Though it leads us to put on masks, “beneath the mask there is the longing for the restoration of the lost unity.” In human relationships, particularly our most intimate ones, we pull down those masks for another and risk being wounded. In the spiritual realm, shame is the sign of a yearning for union with God. “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” to quote Psalm 42:1.
It is unseemly to talk of such longing in our disenchanted world. To speak, without irony, of dreams and hopes, desires and loves is to invite debunking, ridicule, and scorn—shaming, to be blunt. And then it will not just be your words or your beliefs or your political views that will be held up to the klieg lights for interrogation, but your very self. It is who you are that’s problematic.
We need to talk about Addie Mae. She’s the victim of the distorted lens of the world that allows no place in the flesh for redemption and reunion. And her howling is the deep cry of shame seeking some recognition and release.