Shame is personal and quiet, not loud and attention-getting. If emotions had a gender, shame would be female. Girls and women seem to feel it more acutely -- and more frequently -- than boys and men. Perhaps that's why shame is the least-discussed of the powerful emotions. There are tens of thousands of books on finding love, facing fear, reigniting passion, overcoming sorrow, and moving beyond regret. But there are precious few about shame -- its causes, impact, and legacy -- probably because it's so uncomfortable to confront and so challenging to address. If anger blazes and love embraces, shame is slippery and repels any efforts to grab hold. Yet shame contains a little piece of nearly every emotion that drives us forward and holds us back. Bundled up in our shame is fear of being unloved, sorrow at what we've lost, and passion swamped by regret.
Since shame is so unique to each of us, what's shameful to one woman may not be to another. This fact makes it tough to convey stories of shame and redemption because shame is such an intimate emotion. Telling our shameful secrets isn't as easy as it sounds. The only confessions of shame that can be universally understood are the authentic ones. The others frequently fall flat. But for those individuals who dare to uncover the deep places of pain, empathy and compassion aren't the only reward. When light and air enter a dim space, the darkness dissipates.
Going Public With Shame
And to their credit, Ferris and Dexter are the belles of this particular ball, contributing two of the collection's most poignant, gut-wrenching tales. They spin and weave through their dances with shame with total honesty, revealing vulnerable childhoods and adult lives which continued to reverberate with hidden pain despite their seeming normalcy.
Dexter's "In the Name of the Father" tells the story of a girl so traumatized by her teenage mother's attempt to erase her past and create a new identity that her former last name became an F word provoking fear and anxiety. (She depicts her early years so movingly that after reading her story you'll never hear the name "Fisher" again without recalling the author.)
Ferris's "Bits & Pieces for Five Hundred" takes us inside a dysfunctional marriage as seen through a child's eyes. From her account of the dirty joke she unwittingly told her class for show-and-tell through her mother's barrage of verbal abuses, we feel how Ferris was made small by years of shame and humiliation.
If this sounds too heavy to bear, it's not. Both stories (like all the others) end with their authors coming to terms with their shame and finding power in letting go.
Shame in All Its Forms
"What I Know of Silence," Brooke Elise Axtell's agonizing tale of being raped and forced into pornography by a babysitter when she was a young girl, ends with her on a healing path as she speaks out for sexual assault survivors. Robyn Hatcher's "Stinkin' Shame" blends humor and yearning in a story of a shy girl driven to be the "Super Special Black Girl" thereby proving her worth. In "The Hair Manifesto," Marianne Schnall tells how a common problem -- a girl's struggle to tame her unruly hair -- ballooned into more extreme self-makeovers which included eating disorders and even a name change. Marcia G. Yerman's "The Jump Rope Line" recounts how her extreme anxiety as a child manifested as physical symptoms, and how she battles feelings of alienation to this day.
Even if their situations are remote from your own experiences, the telling brings up emotions we all share -- feelings that none of us are exempt from.
If this collection fails to earn five stars, it's because of a handful of essays penned by women who -- while paying lip service to shame -- failed to embrace its lessons and kept the feeling at arm's length. Their lack of humility and relatively weak narratives, not to mention their "shame" over comparatively minor indiscretions, were off-putting in the early pages of the book and almost made me lay aside Shame Prom. However, these few stories were the exception rather than the rule.
Those who had the courage to approach shame with humility in their voices and candor in their narratives give Shame Prom its jolt of authenticity, and two that illustrate this simple truth are Kristine Van Raden's "Mother of the Year" and her daughter Kate Van Raden's companion piece, "I Love Me, I Love Me Not." Both get to the heart of one of the most compelling themes in the anthology -- a mother's sense of shame at not being able to fix her child's life, and the feelings of inadequacy that arise from that failure. Kristine is unflinching in relating how she might have influenced her daughter's slide into anorexia through various words and deeds. Her desire to find a simple solution in the midst of chaos and helplessness is a wish we know will not come true.
Also noteworthy in its equally unflinching approach is Jenny Rough's "Raising a Cowbird." Her very real reluctance at the idea of adopting a child is a viewpoint few have the courage to express, and it's the kind of story that makes Shame Prom live up to its bold concept. No matter what you believe, Rough offers up an honest voice that resonates deeply with the reader.
"Everyone is Invited to Dance"
Even if you're a confirmed wallflower, get up out of that chair, grab your most shameful memory and hold it close before you kiss it goodbye. Ultimately, that's what this anthology will give you the courage to do. Dancing at the Shame Prom is a long overdue invitation that no woman should turn down.
Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small
Edited by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter
Paperback, 264pp. ISBN: 978-1580054164
Seal Press (September 11, 2012)