Note this piece discusses suicide, violence against women, and child abuse.
I used to think politics couldn’t be understood in isolation from shame. I still think that. But increasingly, I think shame can’t be understood in isolation from politics either – relations of historical domination, in particular. Shame characteristically results in a desire to sever the lines of sight between oneself and the other. We talk about wanting to hide our face and the characteristic look of shame – the head bowed, the eyes lowered. But that’s not the only way of achieving such a severance. Rather than hide, one can instead do away with the audience.
It’s often said that misogyny is a manifestation of shame, most obviously when perpetrated by individual men, but perhaps even going beyond that. And that could theoretically make for a basis for empathy or solidarity between the perpetrators and the victims. Misogynistic attacks have made me feel ashamed, to the point of wanting to disappear, sometimes. I know a lot of women feel similarly. Even though it ought not be the case, it is. Nor is it irrational: shaming has social meaning.
But the shame that I, we, feel isn’t the shame of the entitled. It’s the ordinary shame of those who didn’t expect not to be made to feel it. I want to discuss the entitled shame that results in destructive, vengeful fury. Its most vivid illustration is provided by family annihilators.
Family annihilators may well have existed for as long as the family itself. But they’ve been identified as such only recently, as distinct from other kinds of mass murderers. They are generally white men. One such was Chris Foster, a British man who invented a kind of safety valve to use in drilling on an oil rig. The valve was the greatest valve. He made a huge amount of money. He bought a fleet of luxury cars and a mansion in Shropshire, in which he installed his wife, Jill, and his daughter, Kirstie. He had affairs with many women – his having a thing for blondes, apparently – but his wife put up with it. He wasn’t a good-looking man. But his money gave him confidence, according to his sister-in-law, quoted in this story by Jon Ronson.
Chris Foster had a large collection of guns and belonged to a clay pigeon shooting club. The men there knew him as a loving husband and affectionate father. He went shooting one last time, at a barbecue, that day. That night, at home, he shot his wife and daughter in the back of their heads, killing them. He set fire to all his possessions, and his mansion, on which he’d poured oil. Then he committed suicide as blazed his last bonfire.
Does it surprise you to learn the reason? No. He went broke, after a series of bad business decisions. He was going to lose everything. The possessions he burned were due to be repossessed the next day by the bailiffs.
Trying to understand his crime, back in 2008, Ronson found it mysterious until the moment he didn’t. Sitting in the well-appointed kitchen of a friend of Chris’s, Ian, outside the beautiful, manicured town of Maesbrook, which Chris and other self-made millionaires had populated, Ronson realizes not only why Chris did it, but why he did it in the way he did:
As I sit in Ian’s kitchen, it suddenly makes sense to me that Chris Foster would choose to shoot Jill and Kirstie in the back of their heads. It was as if he was too ashamed to look at them. Maybe the murders were a type of honour killing, as if Foster simply couldn’t bear the idea of losing their respect and the respect of his friends.
But many of Chris’s friends found his behavior quite intelligible. Ronson:
It’s startling to hear Foster’s friends talk about how they empathise with his actions. I wouldn’t have guessed how on the edge people in this Shropshire enclave can be, and how easy it is – when lives start to go wrong, when their manhood and the trappings of their wealth are threatened – for the whole thing just to unravel.
Less than a month after Foster’s crime, another family annihilator struck in Southampton: he telephoned his estranged partner to tell her that their children had “gone to sleep forever.” Having smothered them, he hanged himself.
As Ronson points out, family annihilators are common in the US as well. A man will kill his family members and then himself once a week, on average.
According to the criminologist David Wilson, quoted in this article, family annihilators are distinctive among murderers in typically being previously unknown to the criminal justice system – or even mental health services. He explains:
For all intents and purposes these were loving husbands and good fathers, often holding down high profile jobs and seen publicly as being very, very successful.
Wilson and other researchers have come to distinguish family annihilators of four main types: self-righteous, anomic, disappointed, and paranoid. The self-righteous type blames others, often their wives or estranged wives, for their downfall. The anomic type feels humiliated by external events like bankruptcy. The disappointed type feels let down by his family, as if the social order is crumbling. The paranoid type feels his kin is under threat from outsiders. So, to stave off the threat, he takes it upon himself to murder them.
One suspects that these profiles are not mutually exclusive. And each evinces a different aspect of the kind of masculinity which is aptly called toxic, in being prone to lash out in violence when threatened or humiliated. Wilson:
It’s clear that it is men that usually resort to this type of violence, and these four characteristics are closely related to a man’s ideas about gender roles and his place within the family. There are a variety of ways for men to be men, but what really is happening with family annihilation is that these are usually men who will reach a tipping point about various things within the particular category of family annihilator that we identify. To see it simply [as being] about women having a greater role [in modern society] might be trying to imply the woman is responsible, whereas in fact it’s always about the man.
Most family annihilators (over 80 per cent of them) attempt suicide after having committed their murders. But this doesn’t seem likely to be the same kind of suicidality that can result from ordinary but chronic shame. The underlying motive can’t be to hide from the other, because their eyes are already closed – permanently.
Another possibility suggests itself: maybe annihilators kill themselves because they now lack an audience. His achievement of freedom from shame leaves him free, but lonely. His murders remove the problem, and the point, of his being. He is no longer humiliated; but he has lost the others whose admiration felt like an existential necessity. It was an existential necessity, when it came down to it. He made it so.
That, at any rate, seems an intelligible motive.
How does all this bear on our current situation? Family annihilators are on the most extreme end of a spectrum of toxic masculinity which Donald Trump is on too. This is borne out by his increasingly unhinged behavior, now that the polls indicate he is losing – an art he has yet to master, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Bishop. But the metaphor’s main point is the picture of entitled shame it offers us. Witness Trump’s fomenting of an entitled desire for freedom from the shaming gaze of the other, e.g., Mexicans and Muslims, who would be walled out and screened off, respectively, in Trump’s envisaged America. One no longer has to feel ashamed of turning away those in need – a boon for those suffering from what is somewhat euphemistically called ‘sympathy fatigue.’ There is equally a yen to stave off the shaming gaze of the elite liberal insider, who espouses anti-racism, feminism, and other forms of that most hated of credos, political correctness. (Lock her up. Contain her. Sever the sightlines.)
So-called political correctness – I was immediately inclined to say. And so, for that very reason, you can see something of what may be incensing Trump’s supporters. Our acts are acts of political correction. They often commit us, whether we like it or not, to taking the moral high ground, however uncomfortably. We can talk about loving the sinner and hating the sin. But how do we love those who hate us so badly?
It’s hard to know what to say to the Trump supporter at the moment – the people Clinton held were either to be pitied or lumped into the “basket of deplorables,” their being “irredeemable” – an impolitic moment, even by her standards (and, later, admission). The implication being that she looked down on all of them. That seemed to me clearly the wrong stance. But what would be the right one?
Whatever the case, those whose racism and misogyny we take it upon ourselves to denounce can hardly be counted on to thank us for a moral epiphany that never arrives. And they will often become defensive, resentful, and more entrenched in their attitudes – and wind up feeling caught between being shame-faced and silent. Of course, as I’ve just shown, there are some escape valves.
I’ve heard the same theory now from several different journalists: the moment they think Trump decided to run for president. It was when President Obama humiliated him at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011, by responding to Trump’s laughably transparent as well as offensive demand that Obama produce his birth certificate. (Where are you from, really? The racist’s perennial question.) Obama magnanimously said in his speech he’d go one better: he’d release his birth video. He rolled a clip from the Lion King. The guests erupted in laughter.
Except one guest, apparently. He jutted out his chin, pursed his lips, and turned a deeper shade of orange – as audience members looked gleefully in Trump’s direction, then away again. When I heard that description by the New Yorker’s David Remnick, I wondered, is that really the face of shame? I tried to conjure to mind Paul Ekman’s iconic black and white photos of universal emotion expressions from my old psychology textbook.
But now I realize that Trump’s was certainly a face of shame, which may be more or less specific to white Western masculinity. It was the shame of one who feels entitled to, and in need of, the admiring gaze of others positioned beneath him, looking upward. It was the shame of a narcissist plotting his vengeance. So what now, one wonders, is going to happen? What would be the political analogue of the annihilator’s impulse?