Posts Tagged ‘shame’

Codependency and authority

June 18, 2014

I find it difficult to look at the domestic violence crisis that precipitated my move to the Pacific Northwest as a productive displacement and a timely disruption. If my mother hadn’t been arrested, I wouldn’t have had access to the same kind of transitional support from my extended family that I needed to get a job and start living independently.

I should be glad her behavior came to a head in an incident that brought the attention of the police to a situation in which I had grown accustomed to feeling disbelieved and ignored whenever I reached out for help. She had been abusive before, but I had had extreme difficulty following through on the simple imperative of making a home somewhere safer. Instead I keep catching myself looking at the crisis as an aberration, something that ruined a perfectly stable living situation and turned my life upside down.

I can tell this is distorted thinking, that I had some sort of attachment disorder, maybe a codependent relationship with my mother. Difficulty distinguishing between stuckness and stick-to-it-ive-ness is probably somewhat normal (i.e., confirmation bias), but there was no way to make that toxic relationship work. It’s bizarre to miss the awful familiarity of it.

Codependency is an awkward way of describing a relationship in which my mother was both the breadwinner and the one abusing painkillers, but it does capture the learned helplessness I’ve become prone to, and the thoughtless way I relied on her for instrumental support while harboring nothing but resentment for the way she treated me. It’s possible she learned codependent relationship habits while living with my father, an alcoholic, and transferred those behaviors to me after he left.

If codependency is relationship addiction, I had withdrawn from other relationships on the perverse logic that only my assailant could “truly understand” what I had been through in the abusive relationship. She was the only witness to most of the abuse, and in that I invested the dignity of having endured years of bullying and death threats, as if it were a private club we belonged to in which the world was harsher and the stakes were higher, a club to which I had paid my dues.

Those I had confided in seemed to have accused me of blowing things out of proportion or of not having done enough to help myself, when my relationship with my mother was so emotionally taxing I didn’t believe I could handle the simultaneous stress of a job. I felt pressured to normalize my home life for appearances’ sake, a pressure so stifling I preferred to avoid social contact altogether.

“Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.” – Thomas Hardy

On some level you nurse the hope that you’re merely being disbelieved, that the truth might finally come out and lead to a reversal of the injustice you’re so accustomed to, but it’s more than that, people are waiting for you to save yourself, and they’re not holding their breath.

Peter Weir directed a wicked psychological thriller about the claustrophobic intensity of being harassed behind closed doors and treated with bemused disinterest by those you turn to for help, in which the villain is a deranged plumber who comes across as a likeable eccentric to everyone but his victim. He said / she said disputes with no witnesses provoke conciliatory reactions from most informal arbitrators, insisting that the distressed party let it go to save everyone else the trouble of an investigation.

Asking for help coping with abuse that takes place behind closed doors means leveling accusations at someone who modifies their behavior when witnesses are present, and it is also special pleading for a favor – two strong reasons for friends to brush off the request as inappropriate, especially if it’s coming from someone who seems flustered or upset. The complaint will bring nothing but trouble, and lacks the dignity of confrontation with an adversity faced voluntarily, so everything about it is socially awkward.

The ego-centric social expectations of self-discipline militate against reaching out for help with relationship violence, and speaking out is often greeted with pressure to smooth things over and conciliate with the abuser.

• pain silencing
• denial of emotions
• concealment of weaknesses

Not making a show of distress is important to avoid alienating people whose social commitments to you are casual or professional, not close and personal. But it’s typical of an abuser to isolate the victim from close friendships, so that only flimsy social ties remain.

The social isolation that results promotes cognitive distortions that are, themselves, isolating and confusing. Daniel Araoz describes “negative self-hypnosis” that produces catastrophizing delusions or excessively disastrous expectations as a process in which negative evaluations are accepted uncritically, revisited habitually, easily visualized as convincing expectations, with the ability to produce havoc in everyday life through effects on “mood, motivation, and behavior, limiting the individual in such a way that s/he cannot break through those hypnotic limits” (1982). He quotes The Reluctant Messiah (Bach 1977), “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they’re yours.”

I like the pantoum “kidding myself in Kuta, Bali” for its depiction of a dream within a dream and the experience of cognitive dissonance or denial in the face of disruption. Denial is a difficult concept to operationalize in metaphor, but I tend to see it as a pervasive force of nature, as intense as social pressure but internalized and more obscure.

“They’ve hired too many actors for the scene
The piles of bodies really are a laugh
The blood however excellently done
With limbs ripped off and bodies cut in half
I am the one in shock who laughs and claps

Confused? Concussed? A little drunk perhaps
At last it dawns, there is no camera crew
A man in white sticks something on my brow
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs

The frantic search for living victims starts
A second man comes close, and shakes his head
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs
I can’t accept I’m very nearly dead

A second man comes close, and shakes his head
I do not want to face my life’s conclusion
It’s just a film: my final self-delusion”

I have a working notion of attentional bias dancing through layers of cognitive dissonance in a non-linear system of veils that move because of those who are concealed and those who seek to be disillusioned, but can frustrate either or both in their own movements somewhat, and are inconsistent in which way they conceal one another and what moves among them that is not a veil.

The Prestige explores this sort of deception intricately, and includes pain silencing as a reason that cognitive dissonance can leave us unwilling to say something.

“One half of me swears … the other half convinced…”
“How can he not know?!?”

Refusal to believe the pain of another is real is what makes the trick bearable for the man who consigns himself to death but is remade as a double without having experienced the deadly last act yet. He refused to believe he could exist in both bodies, that there was no dodge for being the same man before and after the turn, for drowning every single time. This captures the self-destructive delusions of a psychopath to me, someone in denial about the consequences of their own actions.

So what have I been in denial about? Identification with your abuser feels empowering if going out on your own would be a step down in socioeconomic status, and that probably explains what’s bothering me. In a way I felt entitled to the rewards of living with someone as aggressively self-seeking as my mother, for having put up with her for so long, and I feel betrayed now that I’ve lost access to the comforts and conveniences concerned. I also had to rehome two family dogs.

But I think there’s more to it than just that. I also lost access to the vicarious experience of explosive anger so characteristic of life around my mother. I had been reliving childhood beatings and trauma through every tantrum, and crediting myself with having put up a resistance commensurate with the scale of each tantrums, as if I were accumulating points in a zero-sum game. I was addicted to stress.


Michael Ignatieff says of the role of revenge-killings in modern ethnic warfare, “revenge … is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. … Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.”

Paradoxically, he argues “it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat. As in nightmare, each side hurls itself at the locked door of the past, seeking in vain to force it open.”

Repetition and futility characterized the one-sided feud in my mother’s house. She wanted revenge for her own childhood and she wanted it from me, and I stayed as a sort of vendetta for having been treated so badly myself, or to prove I was strong enough to take anything she could throw at me, to prove that she couldn’t win.

After she was arrested, she evicted me, and that settled it.

To really enjoy the greater freedom from abuse that comes from having left, I need a more stoic attitude towards materialism and the virtues of independence. There’s a fertile paradox in Stoicism that applies to my mixed feelings, I think. Stoics prize strength and fortitude to reduce the scope of situations in which they feel forced, yet cultivate fatalism about the limits of freedom and dignity.

Stoicism is like embracing the freedom to choose duty – recognizing constraints on individualism and cultivating the virtues of deferred gratification within those limits on self-aggrandizement.

Walter Bagehot gave this sense of moral conflict a poignant, earnest expression. He called the conscience the source of a religion of superstition that takes shape spontaneously within the mind, and in which “the moral principle … is really and to most men a principle of fear.” He felt little of “the delights of a good conscience … by vivid and actual experience.”

He argued that “a sensation of shame, of reproach, of remorse, of sin … is what the moral principle really and practically thrusts on most men. Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves. … the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe – which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding, that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased; if he do but set forth his own dignity, he will offend ONE who will deprive him of it.”

In feeling constantly embattled at home, I enjoyed a sense of victory over this nameless threat, a self-satisfaction or release from bad conscience that came from always being able to compare myself to my mother, always feeling superior to her, but always enjoying the moral high ground of an innocent victim at the same time. Now my everyday life lacks a scapegoat for the mundane vicissitudes of anger and shame that normal frustrations provoke, and I have to make do without the purging excitement of my mother’s flights of rage.

I should be grateful for a taste of boredom, and for the safety taken for granted in this new normal. There’s potential for creativity in that. Maybe it just takes some getting used to.

The carnival fee for peeping at misery

November 4, 2012

Laughing at extreme violence that is purely fictional is the more innocent side of the attraction of paradox. The less innocent side is promoted as grand and challenging in a novel like The Heart of Darkness. But when the shock is procured on a petty stage, it is called “prurient” and “base” – mere excitability in the presence of blood, which we fear in ourselves and associate with the murderer’s exultation in wickedness.

Hence the conflict in the story of Leontius, told in Plato’s Republic:

“On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‘There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.’”

The human carnival of humiliations is an interesting indulgence, not that different from the more unflattering options in today’s reality TV line-up. It is a trigger we will pay to pull in our hearts, though we may be embarrassed in polite company to admit to the appetite we don’t know how to explain. Yet that very potential to be embarrassed by one’s desire to look is part of the excitement that draws the crowd.

Poster for the 1932 carnival horror film “Freaks”

Perhaps it is exactly that, in fact – an appetite for permissible venues to plunge ourselves in the experience of shame, known to translators of the Greek word aidos as a word of many connotations (including awe, respect, self-respect, sense of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the helpless, compassion, shyness, scandal, and dignity), some of which are pleasures ranging from the delicate (coyness) to the sublime (reverence).

Anne Caron discusses these possibilities in connection with the plays of Euripides, a body of work in which already “the real” is an evasive subject, the unconstructed life of the audience a controversial point of departure for dramatizing their favorite myths. Misery, and a shame that serves no redeeming plot device within the action of the play, is what makes tragedy obvious as a genre, as a transaction between values and audiences.

Here pain is already beginning to look like the great challenge in aesthetics that legitimizes street-wise speakers’ disrespect for ethics held to be conventional, the metaphor for the intransigent real that will not be kept off the stage even if it beggars description.

A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of commonsense fact and tries if he cannot understand other areas in terms of this one.

This original area becomes then his basic analogy or root metaphor.

He describes as best he can the characteristics .. discriminates its structure. A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description.

Thus far the conventional textbook on aesthetic elements by Stephen Pepper. Archetypes are hardly fit to mention among the details of oral tradition and its mundane asides, without being drenched in blood. What do we love about this stuff for images?

Blood rhetoric is as old as story telling conventions come, full of florid literalisms like the Pangs of Ulster and the wine-dark sea under an army of triremes moving on Troy.


When we tire of the iron in suspension, we set all on fire, and the dogged phoenix abducts what we held dear when we wanted only blood. Does recent wresting from the body’s interior implied in colored blood give sexual energy to its description? A trace of an invasion that succeeded in taking down a vivid obstacle, a making of an impression on a living form?

“Beauty is a dreadful and awe-inspiring thing! It is dreadful because it has not been unriddled and never can be unriddled, for God gives us nothing but mysteries …

Beauty! I cannot bear the idea that a man of exalted mind and heart starts with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. Yet even more shocking is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not give up the ideal of the Madonna and his heart may be afire with that ideal, truly afire, just as in his days of childhood and innocence.”

– Dmitry in The Brothers Karamazov

This is not the artist speaking but his subject, a sardonic one. A Russian who reads Schiller and identifies with the sentimental manic depressive episodes of productive melancholy in the writer’s life ironically.

I came across the above passage on a similar mood from Plato in Regarding the Pain of Others, where Susan Sontag reflects on the dark side of the photojournalism mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.” She discusses a desktop photo of death by a thousand cuts in portrait. We are none too pleased with ourselves as social animals when pity gives way to a rather naked enjoyment of the sight of misery or death as spectacle.

We have no rationale for the impulse to look, no excuse for the felt gratification at finding out what we were turning toward.

Sontag also quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest, noting that when Trinculo notices Caliban, he immediately pegs him for an excellent candidate for a carnival exhibition: “not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver … When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Even these duller dimensions of shame may be enjoyable in a sense, when we have sought out the confrontation, mentally prepared to meet the enemy within just so. A little control, a casual way to exit, and we pay to go in. We vibrate with its power over our desires, a complex web of pains through which it binds us to others, selectively but not without sacrifice.