Shame is a feeling we have about ourselves, the judgement we make of our own worthiness as a person. The expression “I could have died of shame”, captures the deep pain that we work hard to avoid. Shame stimulates us to behave well; it is the opposite of honour, dignity and self-esteem.
Is guilt the same as shame? Guilt is a bad feeling we have about something we did, it relates to our acts, whereas shame relates to ourselves. For the guilty there is some hope of atonement and redemption. But there is little hope of relief from the fundamental belief of the profoundly shame based character:
“I am flawed and defective as a human being. I am a mistake.” (Bradshaw)
Bradshaw makes the distinction between healthy shame and toxic shame, a distinction explored through the two main characters of Honor’s Shadow: Honor experiences healthy shame, and Madalena suffers from toxic shame.
A writer friend once asked me if I use my psychological knowledge to help in the building of fictional characters. Sort of, is the answer. What I don’t do is take a broad psychological principle and create a stereotypical textbook character around that general idea. Instead, I aim to weave some selected aspects of a general psychological principle through the specific details of an imaginary character’s life, taking account of the characters family history, friends, intelligence, circumstances, and personality characteristics. I want to show how that both causes and explains the character’s behaviour and feelings. That’s why my fiction writing is psychological: whilst the drama and characters are imaginary, they faithfully illustrate a psychological construct.
Honor’s healthy shame….
Embarrassment is a paler shade of shame, the first step on the ladder of shame and humiliation. Honor’s healthy shame is shown by her embarrassed blushing, which is the bane of her life. She blushes when she recalls her school days, and her merciless teasing of the Plain Janes. Her years of psychiatric and therapeutic training have helped her to stand back and recognise this feature of her character, to reflect on it, know it and understand it. She traces it back to an incident when she was three and thrilled her sister with stories of a naughty little girl called Madam. Her sister encouraged her to tell one of these stories to their prim babysitter Aunt, who was disgusted and told Honor she would tell her father what a revolting little girl she was.“Honor watched her father nervously for a few days to see any signs of his distaste, and seeing nothing, she pushed the memory deep into her mind, forgotten, until several decades later, when discussing her blushing with her therapist, she remembered the incident. Attempting to diffuse its power over her, she had told her father, and asked him if Auntie had ever told him about it. He had absolutely rocked with laughter at the story, and wiping away tears of mirth said, “No, she never told me. Trust my sister,” leaving Honor fervently wishing that Auntie had told him. I could have been a different person, she thought. No shame, no blushing.”
Honor feels guilty about something she did as a young woman, and is also ashamed of her behaviour, showing how shame and guilt are often entwined: I feel guilty for what I did and ashamed of myself for having done it. Honor knows this long held secret is the badge of her shame. So how is this healthy? Because Honor never wants to feel like that again, so constructs a life for herself in which she tries to always be good: as a wife, as a mother particularly, and as a professional. In one scene, where her husband Eliot is beseeching her to forgive and forget his long ago infidelity, he points out:
“I don’t know how I can convince you. You won’t be sure, Honor, till the day I die… is that how long I have to wait for complete forgiveness?”
“That’s ridiculous, of course, I see that. It must be horrible not to be trusted or believed.”
And it must be really horrible. He was a good man who’d made one mistake, that was all. Surely everyone deserved a second chance. Everyone. That’s what she would want, a second chance, to show that she could be good.
But Honor’s commitment to being good is crumbling, as her suspicions about Madalena and the past crystallise and her desire to do something bad is aroused. Her ability to control herself is slipping…
Madalena’s toxic shame…
Toxic shame, resulting from severe abuse or neglect, manifests itself in many complex and devastating ways, in a combination unique to a particular person and their circumstances. Madalena, an emotionally neglected child, shows several symptoms of toxic shame: her unconscious grief, her inability to make eye contact, her emotional illiteracy, her creation of a false self, and the fantasy bonds she creates with her parents.
As an unwanted fatherless mixed race child of a drunken mother; shame was in the air that she breathed, the base note of her own heartbeat. Deeply unconscious of her shame, even as an adult she cannot stand back and see herself objectively. As a child, her physical needs were minimally attended to, but the extreme emotional neglect left her with no understanding of her own, or others feelings.
Madalena doesn’t want to see, and she doesn’t want to be seen. She stares, unblinking at the world, looking at nobody and nothing; unless she is disturbed or fearful, when she blinks rapidly. And her coldness, emotionally and physically, contrasts with the heat of Honor’s blushing and the hotness of her complex feelings. As an adult, Madalena has only three descriptions for her own emotions: good, terrible or absolutely terrible.
Madalena’s shame could have been mitigated by friendships and other relationships, which presented me with a dilemma: how to make her so much an outsider that she had no friends? This is why I made her a timid mixed race child with dyslexia: different, an outsider, struggling at school.
Unlike Honor, Madalena has no guilt. Paradoxically, her toxic shame makes her behaviour shameless. Blossoming into a beautiful young woman, she takes pleasure in stealing the boyfriends of other women, lacking the moral compass that guides Honor’s behaviour. Newly beautiful, she creates for herself a false self, a face for the world that reveals nothing about her inner life, which remains a mystery both to herself and to those around her.
Madalena survives the failures of parenting that she suffers in two ways. Firstly, she creates a fantasy bond with her unknown father: he would be protective and loving and would consider her the most beautiful woman in the world. In marrying Jack, she found her fantasy father. She also creates a fantasy bond, of sorts, with her mother: she is unable to relinquish the one relationship she had as a child, but she takes opportunities to mildly punish her mother when she can. The depth of this bond is especially shown when Madalena gives up the one possibility she had of achieving something, in order to care for her drunken mother.
The second way that Madalena survives, rather than falling into the mental illness and/or addiction of the toxically shamed, is in her love of gymnastics at school. Her physical fitness assures her of a degree of mental health, and her lifelong commitment to exercise is her saviour.
Driven by the fear and desperation she feels when she receives a threatening anonymous letter, Madalena makes friends with Bud, an American lawyer she meets on a plane. During their conversations and meetings he provokes her to think about herself and her feelings, which is a revelation to her. She resists his challenges to her, but he persists, and this close relationship leads to her growing awareness and understanding of the compromises she has made in order to achieve some safety in a life that began with shame and fear. Under Bud’s guidance, she attempts to find out who could have sent the letter, amazed by Bud’s understanding of the way people might feel in such circumstances. She seeks his guidance about how she can persuade Jack of something, and he asks:“How d’you normally get Jack to agree to things?” “Sweet-talk him, spoil him, think of how I can make him think it was his idea, seduce him in certain ways. But on this matter none of that’s worked. I don’t know what to do.” “OK. Listen. I’m going to suggest a radically different strategy, something you may never have tried before. Have you tried just asking him, straightforwardly, as one grown-up human being to another?” “What? I’ve never thought of it. My strategies with Jack have to be smarter than that you know. You’re very clever and all that, and you’ve helped me a lot, but you just don’t know Jack.” “Be bold. Give it a try. You’ve nothing to lose after all.”
Bud encourages her to be good: she has some information about Honor that would provide great comfort to her; but Madalena resists. She eventually caves in, feeling, for the first time, the glow of committing an act of kindness.
Eventually, her relationship with Bud releases in her the terrible grief at the centre of her existence. Will that be enough to heal her soul sickness?