Wednesday 6 May 2009

Is Shame Invincible? by Thomas Scheff

Professional reviewers had a hard time with Stephen Daldry's 2008 film The reader, adapted by David Hare from Bernhard Schlink's 1997 novel of the same name. A majority were favorable, but like the minority, they seemed unable to formulate clearly the crux of the film and their own reactions to it. This film depicts complex feelings in its protagonists, and seems to seek to evoke them in the audience. It might help understand the struggle if you assume, as I do, that the emotion at the core of the film was shame. Modern societies have a difficult time with this emotion, to the point that it might be called taboo. We have this emotion as much or more than prior societies, but recognizing it in ourselves and others, let alone discussing it, has become problematic.

The psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis was also a research psychologist. Her study of emotions in psychotherapy sessions (Lewis 1971) reported the results of her systematic search for emotion markers in the transcripts of hundreds of psychotherapy sessions. To her surprise, by far the most frequent emotion was shame/embarrassment, occurring far more often than all the other emotions combined. A further surprise was that its presence was virtually never mentioned, either by therapist or client. She named the unmentioned emotion unacknowledged shame. Relevant to the film reviewed here, she named the form most common in men, bypassed shame, evidenced by expressionless talk.

The film seems to hinge on the power of unacknowledged shame, both for the characters and for the audience. During the trial, Hanna is so ashamed of being illiterate that she accepts a life sentence. Michael is so ashamed of his relationship with her that he doesn’t inform the court that she is illiterate, that she couldn’t have written the document she is charged with. Because of his inaction, he then is overcome with shame for not having helped Hanna.

In modern societies, most people find it difficult to credit shame as a powerful motive. In traditional societies, shame is understood to be the most insistent of all motives. The Japanese dread of shaming the family comes to mind. In this passage several hundred years ago in pre-modern France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau described in his Confessions the feeling that led him falsely to accuse a maid-servant of a theft which he had himself committed.
When she appeared my heart was agonized, but the presence of so many people was more powerful than my compunction. I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame: I dreaded it more than death, more than the crime, more than all the world. I would have buried, hid myself in the center of the earth: invincible shame bore down every other sentiment; shame alone caused all my impudence, and in proportion as I became criminal the fear of discovery rendered me intrepid. I felt no dread but that of being detected, of being publicly and to my face declared a thief, liar, and calumniator.
It is hard for us moderns to credit this kind of statement, because shame has gone underground. Yet it still is controlling, even when hidden. Hanna’s motives in facing the court, and less directly, Michael’s, could be seen as similar to Rousseau’s, since they both seem controlled by “invincible” shame. In modern times, it seems to be doubly invincible because it is usually almost invisible.

Like many of the reviewers, I was put off by Michael’s woodenness after seeing Hanna in court. But the second viewing reminded me of Lewis’s report that expressionlessness, that is, bypassed shame, is the most frequent defense against shame in men.

When Michael visits Hanna in prison, he is virtually paralyzed by his emotions. He is still ashamed of associating with a criminal, and intensely ashamed of his shame. He could be frozen by the looping of shame: shame about shame about shame. These loops have no natural limit, and can end in withdrawal, silence, or paralyzing depression (Scheff 2009).

For much of the film, the filmmaker seems to want the audience to identify first of all with Michael, an innocent who is also guilty and therefore bound in endless cycles of shame. The novel puts more emphasis than the film on Hanna’s growth as a person while in prison. Both book and film show that she learns to read by obtaining the books that match the cassettes that Michael sends her.

In the book, however, she goes on to read about the Holocaust, the crime that she participated in. Both book and film suggest that in court and in prison she is both a perpetrator and a victim. Mainly because Michael didn’t provide evidence that would have shortened her prison term, and didn’t give her the support that might have avoided her suicide. She was also victimized by the other defendants in the trial.

After her death, Michael tries to overcome his shame by flying to New York to visit the surviving daughter of one of Hanna’s victims. He asks her to take Hannah’s money, or at least give advice about how to use it, but the daughter refuses. She harshly rejects the least involvement in Hanna's affairs, much less allowing even a shred of forgiveness.

A somewhat puzzling aspect of this last scene is the obvious splendor of the daughter’s current life. She has a huge apartment, awash with art and style. There is no hint of this in the book. Why did the filmmaker want her to be so rich? Another puzzle is the difference between the dialogue in the book and in the film. The film version makes the daughter more haughty and rejecting than in the book. What is going on?

One guess is that the filmmaker is trying to stir guilt in the audiences. Relative to the poverty of Hanna’s entire life, the members of the audience are rich. Perhaps the filmmaker was trying to turn the sympathy of audience from the daughter, to encourage them to be more forgiving of Hanna than the daughter was.

The ideas in this story may be relevant to our own lives. People are always asking how we put up with the Bush administration for eight years. Perhaps the people slept because they were both innocent and guilty. We were innocent in the sense that we ourselves weren’t corrupt, and did not commit fraud and cause the death of innocents. Yet we were guilty in the sense that we didn’t do anything about bringing down the perpetrators, or at least anything effective.

As with Michael, perhaps we were paralyzed by shame. Again, like Michael, one way toward ending our paralysis would be to learn to forgive others, so that we can begin to forgive ourselves.

Stephen Daldry (Director) The reader (2008). Film.

Helen B. Lewis (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.

Thomas J. Scheff (2009). A social theory of depression and its treatment. Journal of Ethical and Human Psychiatry. Forthcoming.

Bernhard Schlink (1997). The reader. London: Random House.


Bill Benzon said...

Hi Thomas,

Interesting post. I've not seen the film, but I do think about shame from time to time. Specifically, why sexual shame? As far as I know people in every culture have a sense of privacy about sexual matters. Just what that means, of course, depends on the details of living arrangements. If you live in houses with rooms opening on common hallways, but not on one another, privacy can be fairly strong. If the clan lives in a long-house with each nuclear family alloted its own segment, then privacy requires that others actively not-pay-attention from time to time. Regardless of the physical circumstance, there are social norms of privacy. And when those norms are violated we feel embarrased and ashamed.

But we don't get this from our primate ancestors. Bonobos copulate and whatever else in full view of the group. They have no shame, as we say.

But where did shame come from?

thomas scheff said...


Most of the experts see shame as innate, like fear, grief, pride, love, anger, etc.

But there is no agreement on the stimulus. I follow Helen B. Lewis: shame is a signal of threat to the social bond. That is REJECTION.

Similarly, fear is an innate response to physical danger, anger to frustration, and grief to loss.
For brevity, will leave out love, since it is more complex. But like pride, it is also the opposite of shame.

thomas scheff said...

Oops! I didn't manage to answer Bill's question. Although shame is hardwired, the specific stimuli are not.

It seems to be true that sexual privacy occurs in all human cultures, but there is considerable variation in the intensity. In many cultures there is no shame in exposure of women's breasts.In some, no shame on exposure women's and/or men's genitals.

Sexual shame reached its height in modern societies in the Victorian era, but seems to me still strong compared with traditional societies.

AB said...

Once they were conscious about their own nakedness, Adam and Eve, felt ashamed. Feeling ashamed, Adam hid behind the bushes, so that God didn't see him naked.

Yes there is sexual shame, but I don't think that media, ads, woman objectification in general, the private and intimate matters becoming objects of trade and "show" for the public to watch and be entertained, are not contributing to increasing any sense of shame. Quite the opposite.

I'd think we are becoming more and more a shameless society with this view in mind. But, most importantly, shame I think should be regarded in a moral and ethical perspective - being tormented and caught up within "what's right and what's wrong" dilemma! This is the type of shame (stemming from knowing you have done something wrong and unethical) that our society seems to be lacking and the movie does a beautiful work depicting this, while on the other hand, Hanna and "the boy", don't seem to have much sexual (physical) shame (trivial in this case). But they both have sublime and moral shames - and this is one of the fundamental things on the basis of our civilization.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...