My mother was a fearful person, and mainly what she feared was shame. She was terrified that someone might enter her house when it wasn’t span clean. That one of her children might pick her nose in public. That her slip might be showing when she went into the Liberty Supermarket for canned beets. That she—or someone associated with her—might do something to draw attention.
It sounds funny, but it wasn’t trivial, this fear. It was sheer terror. She lived as if life itself were an embarrassment, and the only way to expunge the shame of being was to merge with the furniture: to become inert and unnoticed.
Me? I write.
I have no idea what made my mother so afraid and so full of shame, and I’ve stopped trying to figure it out. I have enough to do fighting my own battles with fear and shame (which are, of course, the same thing seen from different sides of the mirror). Like all mothers who carry around shame, my mom couldn’t help handing me a big dose of it. “Children carry their parent’s shame,” writes John Bradshaw, probably the world’s leading expert on the subject. He symbolizes it as a soppy black bag and tells his readers to imagine handing it back to their parents with a kind of “thanks, but no thanks” attitude.
So, I write.
My shame-fears are numerous and varied:
That there’s something fundamentally wrong with my personality.
That my husband secretly wishes he'd married someone less high maintenance.
That I’m a crappy teacher.
That my hearing loss gets on people’s nerves.
That my loud voice gets on people’s nerves.
That my very presence in a room gets on people’s nerves.
That my friends think I’m a dork.
That I am a dork.
I write them all. They turn into monsters and magic spells in my fantasy fiction. They appear as themselves in my essays. They have cameo roles on this blog.
That’s the difference between Mom and me. While her shame got neatly pressed, folded, and placed in the linen closet, I bring mine out and hang it on the line for everyone to see, stains and all.
Shame loves the dark, it turns out. Put it in that closet, and it stays fresh forever. Hang it in the open air for a few years, and it fades and frays and one day a big gust of wind comes by and blows the tattered remnants away and birds pick them up and weave them into their nests.
That’s why writers need shame. Because it forces our hand. It sneers at us until we smear its ugly mug across the page. It’s the shot of adrenalin most of us need to get our writing hearts beating.
It’s also why shame needs writers. Because it only has power until you write it down.
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Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...