Shame Is a Useless Emotion

My high school alma mater
Ramona Convent Main Building in my day. Image source: ramonaconvent.org

To keep me out of a gang or from getting pregnant by age 16, my parents sent me to an all-girls Catholic high school. The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary founded Ramona Convent in 1889.

The road from Ramona led via circuitous paths to where I am now: an author.

shame

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is my debut novel. It opens with a rape. The heroine, Song Anyi, has left her family home in Suzhou for a new life in Shanghai. Soldiers find her in the woods.

The birds wheel away, cawing for help. The man tears my garments, scraping each layer away until I am a fish with no scales, flailing on the chopping board. The boys know what to do. They each take an arm. The man takes my legs.

‘Cover her face,’ he growls and the boys obey. Dead leaves fill my mouth, strangely sweet. (p 8)

The family want to cover up the assault by marrying Anyi off. She protests.

‘What man would want to marry me now that I’ve been raped?’

Auntie Song slaps me across the face, first the right cheek then the left.

‘Never use that word again,’ she hisses. ‘No one must know. No one needs to know. It never happened, you see, because you’re a good girl from a good family. Something like that doesn’t happen to people like us.’ (p 25)

Deprived of an outlet to process her trauma, Anyi turns to self-harm. She starts with cutting and soon graduates to prostituting herself to men who pay to beat her.

cutting

The Mayo Clinic defines self-harm or self injury as:

the act of deliberately harming the surface of your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It’s typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.

The forms of self-harm can vary, though in all cases the harm is inflicted  in a controlled and ritualistic manner. Marina Abramovic, the performance artist, describes why she chose public acts of self-harm as her signature artistic statement:

 I had experienced absolute freedom – I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter; that nothing mattered at all – and it intoxicated me. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. No painting, no object I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling, and it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again.

Cutting can become compulsive behavior. And when a razor blade is no longer enough, the cutter turns to harsher forms of self-harm.

The Road to Hell

Self-harm sits on a spectrum of disorders that afflict teenagers and young adults. More girls self-harm than boys. They may be trying to manage feelings of stress, depression or anxiety. Or, simply to express emotion or try to feel anything other than numbness.

Cutting can also be borne of shame. Maybe a girl doesn’t like the way she looks or feels rejected by her peers. She could be a victim of (cyber) bullying or abuse, psychological or physical. In the mind of the cutter, she is to blame for these attacks. And, because the victim is the one at fault, she must punish herself.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The shame of a victim is a perversion of all that is good. Shame lies at the heart of self-harm.

Rape, revenge and how we watch

Victim as avenger
Isabelle Huppert (with Arthur Mazet) plays a rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.” Credit Guy Ferrandis/Sony Pictures Classics, via Associated Press

This is the original title of a New York Times article discussing a recent rash of movies and TV programs on rape. These shows include Sweet/Vicious, an MTV comedy about campus-rape buddies, sorority girl / deadhead by day and ninja avenger by night.

The show is one of several productions pervading pop culture with tales of rape victims exacting revenge. The plot features in a prestige HBO series (“Westworld”), a French art-house film (“Elle”) and a Marvel adaptation (“Jessica Jones”).

By casting women in the role of victim and avenger, studios may be hoping to position their productions as feminist. To me, these plot lines smack more of fantasy. The fantasy of a woman physically dominating a man (thanks to superpowers or martial arts training). The fantasy of exacting a tearful confession from the rapist plus a promise never to rape again. The happy ending in these programs is not so different from the rape-revenge thrillers of the 70’s. Charles Bronson in a skirt shooting up rapists in Death Wish.

She asked for it

This is not to knock Death Wish.

[T]he rise of the rape-revenge thriller in the 1970s dovetailed with the second-wave feminist movement – which helped establish rape as a serious trauma in the public mind.

That era produced the rape shield law, which bars the use of a rape victim’s sexual past as evidence in the trial of the accused rapist. Why, you may ask, is the victim’s history relevant? Because then as now, it is often the woman who gets put on trial and countless victims never come forward out of fear of the humiliation they may face.

But rape shield laws have no effect in the court of public opinion. Victims believe, or are made to believe, that they are at fault. If only you hadn’t been out that night. If only you hadn’t worn that skirt. You were asking for it. Shame engulfs the victim. And, out of shame, destructive behavior like self-harm can arise.

In my novel, Anyi is haunted by her rapists. They come to remind her of her crime and to exact their punishment.

The soldiers follow me wherever I go. They form a circle on the dance floor that tightens, step by step, until there’s nowhere for me to go but down to the ground where they want me. (p 162)

What was Anyi’s crime?

You should never have been on that road alone. (p 33)

salvation

Dr. Anisha Abrahams is a pediatrician specialized in teen medicine. Her article last week in the South China Morning Post commented on a recent rash of teen suicides in Hong Kong. While the suicide rate among 15 to 24 year olds has only slightly increased over the past 5 years, high school students are reporting:

high levels of depression, attempted suicide [and] cutting.

The root cause in many cases is stress: to meet parental expectations or juggle an overful schedule. Stress can lead to depression, depression to self-harm. Does suicide then become the only way out?

Anisha prescribes openness as the best remedy to break this cycle of despair.

In my experience, asking young people if they are suicidal does not increase the likelihood of them becoming so, but provides an opportunity for them to discuss why they are contemplating it in the first place.

Ramona Convent

Ramona alumna
My student body card

How cool is it then to get an invitation from my high school alma mater to speak about self-harm? And not just to the parents, as I had cautiously proposed, but to the students directly. Ramona teachers are not afraid to open their students’ eyes to the real world. Or to engage in what could be a painful conversation. Ramona rocks!

Adolescents are the most inarticulate, clumsy, aggravating people on the planet. We – as parents, teachers, mentors and friends – need to ask them questions and listen to their answers. And to continue to do so until the answer makes sense, even if it makes us deeply uncomfortable.

For me, writing fiction is a way to address ugly truths. I can fling my story far into the future or plant it deep in the past. Sometimes, by doing so, the telling becomes more palatable. I am not writing about violence against women because it sells books. I’m writing about rape and self-harm because they’re real. To remain silent is to perpetuate a harm that goes far beyond shame.

It’s a lying shame

Poet
Adrienne Rich. Image source: wikipedia.org

In June 1975, the poet Adrienne Rich spoke at the Women Writers’ Workshop at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. She entitled her comments Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying. On the topic of lying, Rich said:

Lying is done with words, and also with silence.

As for truth:

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

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