What a Shame

I love to post on Facebook, and my favorite all-time Status Update read "Nina Lorez Collins has a lot of things, but she has no shame." This was about three years ago, when I was just coming out of what was probably the darkest period of my life.

Since those difficult days, I've begun to write about my personal life for blogs and magazines. Recently, an essay I wrote on my ambivalence about remarriage after divorce got a lot of comments -- strangers calling me bitter, crazy, a man-hater, and so on. For the most part these criticisms rolled off my back, largely because so many others cheered me on, and that was thrilling. I even got asked out on a date!

But about a week later a slightly older woman I play tennis with, Sally, stopped me after our weekly clinic and said "how could you write such a thing? So personal? Isn't your boyfriend upset?" She explained that she was raised in another era, when "women would never do such a thing," and shared with me her mother's favorite maxim: "Fools' Names and Fools' Faces, Always Found in Public Places." Ouch. We were standing in the tony foyer of our local country club in Brooklyn Heights, and boy did I feel slammed. Was she calling me a fool? Carefully, because this is a woman I like, and I didn't want our future interactions to be strained, I told her that she'd offended me, and she rushed to apologize. "No, no," she said, "I would just be too embarrassed to share like that, way too shy. It's a generational thing."

Then an old friend from childhood, someone I haven't seen in almost twenty years, emailed me about a magazine piece I'd written and accused me of "airing my dirty laundry for $3 a word." She said she didn't associate with people who do such things. I'd actually only been paid $2 a word, and felt like I'd been called a prostitute for doing so. Another sting, another person telling me I should be ashamed of myself.

Last summer, when I finished a first draft of my memoir about my parents' lives and my own, I sent to the manuscript to a number of readers I admire for comments. One of them, Susanne, said right off the bat, that the first thing that struck her as a reader was that I had no shame, and therefore might be an unsympathetic narrator -- a no-no in the publishing industry. She said, "Shame is practically the guiding principle of my life. I feel shame every day. Secrets are a regular part of my life, so it confounds me that you are willing to be so candid about the dark parts."

This really got me thinking: why do we all carry around so much shame? And why are secrets so anathema to me? Why do I feel the need to shed light on all "the dark parts," to make public much that others might see as private? I'm surrounded by female friends with hidden mortifications, women ashamed about what they're going through. One overeats late at night, another has a suicidal teenager, a third serious money problems. A few who desperately want to leave their husband but are intensely afraid of what people will think. Another who just found out her boyfriend gave a guy (!) a hand job last weekend. These things are whispered about, confessions end with "don't you dare tell anyone, I'd die." As if a million women before us haven't overeaten, drunk too much, been cheated on, slapped their children, told a big lie, embezzled! I'm not saying these issues aren't worthy of discretion; they may be, and I believe in confidence when so instructed, but I also believe that shame is corrosive, that lives are wasted hiding what hurts.

People screw up every day, and people suffer; that's the human condition. Sharing our stories, being supportive, offering some ideas for a path out, that's what love and friendship and art are for. No?

Instead of "Fools Names and Fools Faces, Always Found in Public Places," I've raised my kids with the assurance that nothing they can say or do will shock me (ok, there have been a few exceptions already, I'll grant you that), that everything's been done before in one form or another, that life is about making mistakes and how we rebound from them. That the most important thing is to try and understand your actions, take responsibility for them, and move on. Be generous of heart and be honest, as much as you possibly can. That old quote, sometimes attributed to Plato "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" pretty much sums it up for me.

But where did it come from, this distrust I have for abashment, for anything coy?

It might be as simple as this: while I was growing up, from age 11 to 19, when she died, my mother, also a writer, and an outspoken fireball of a woman, had breast cancer. And she never told us. Not until two weeks before she passed away. And not just me and my brother; she kept her illness a secret from virtually everyone she knew -- he mother, her sister, her colleagues, my father (her ex), all her closest friends. I've spent may years trying to understand why she handled it the way she did, and I think there were a few reasons, but I suspect the main one was shame. And she was no shrinking violet, I can tell you that. But her journals from the time reflect a woman who suspected she'd somehow caused her own illness, and she seemed to really believe that if she got healthier psychologically she could cure her physical body. So sad that makes me. What a burden. How we could have all helped, and been together, if she had only been able to share, to let go of the shame.