Nearly ten years after she was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City and raped repeatedly during a nine-month captivity, Elizabeth Smart has recently spoken about her trauma.
Perhaps, like most of those who’d heard about her kidnapping and eventual return, I too had wondered why she hadn’t “run for it” when her captor had brought her out in public. Smart admits now to feeling “so dirty and filthy,” referring to her religious upbringing and a particular schoolteacher who compared sex to chewing gum.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away,” she said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
Though we’ve evolved towards opening conversation and instituting legislation about sexual issues, which had once been considered taboo, the power of shame’s mechanism remains seemingly intransigent.
Generally, shame is differentiated from guilt in that the former is directly about the self, whereas guilt’s focus is on the action or behaviour. For me, however, the most striking difference is shame’s cascade of effects in the body. When I am “mortified” or “cringe” at some embarrassing memory, the commotion within is powerful enough to put me in a state of paralysis. I want to run and hide. I want to disappear from view.
In fact, the word shame has its origins in the Indo-Germanic root kam/ken meaning to “cover.” A definition that brings to mind the woven fig leaves that Adam and Eve put over their bodies, upon recognizing their nakedness.
Their subsequent departure from Paradise feels like a mythic correlative of a child’s first glance in the mirror. When she notices that she has a body separate from the free-flowing Edenic nourishment of her mother’s. Now, it’s as though there are two pairs of eyes, her own and those of the other looking upon her.
Essentially, there is a relationship of real self and the self as imagined/regarded through the eyes of another. Healthy shame that doesn’t debilitate provides an inner compass, a set of natural checks and balances for an individual’s behaviour within a community. It helps maintain a respectful distance from others, while at the same time establishing supportive bonds among them.
However, the separation from Eden can go awry. Sometimes, the self can hide and thus become isolated from the gaze of the other. Or conversely, the self can too readily adapt to the other’s gaze, so that it doesn’t have a connection with the true self. Thus it must compensate with the creation of a false self, a mask, that covers the unformed, vulnerable core.
Shame is most damaging when it is unconscious, which in turn gets passed down from parent to child, and so on, becoming more toxic along the way. Only when we make it conscious can we understand clearly what shame is, its social function, and the difference between a necessary self-regulating brake and its corrupt offshoot, which only serves to arrest the development of a healthy inner core and a positive self-image.