Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Shame That Bonds

My son Nolan and me in Billings, Montana 
When my friend Amy Ferris asked me to contribute to an anthology about shame, (Dancing at the Shame Prom, Seal Press) I hesitated for a moment and then said “Sure, I’d love to”. Not because I was dying to write about shame… I was NOT! For one thing, I had a 20-year old son who got embarrassed if I said two words to a neighbor in the elevator, how could I write about shame without totally humiliating him?  But I said yes for two reasons. 1) It would be difficult and foolish to say no to Amy because I respect her tremendously and felt so honored that she had asked me, and 2) because I  believe there’s something to be learned in saying yes to something you desperately want to say no to. And I was ashamed of having shame and afraid of having to reveal it which meant there was something to be learned.  And I was right. I learned that writing about shame has the power to free and to bond. It frees the writer from chains and barriers that have kept them hidden and small, and bonds them to other people who share similar shame and may not have the courage or the outlet to talk about it.

After I said yes, the question was what shame to write about. I wasn't at all at a loss for subject matter. There was my shame about not having/making enough money; of living amidst lots of clutter; of hating my body and the list went on. But as I thought about all the stories attached to all my various shame issues, I realized that although my perspective on these issues might be unique, the issues could easily be covered by any number of the other women asked to write for  Shame Prom.  Then one day while I was thinking about the word shame, my grandmother’s ubiquitous comment popped into my head – “That’s a stinkin’ shame.” I called Amy and asked her how many African American writers had been asked to contribute and there weren't many so I knew then that I wanted to write about something that no one else would be able to write about and something that I felt very few people even knew about - the incredible shame that some black people feel about simply being black.  This is a subject that I've always felt needed to be publicly discussed more often. (You can read an excerpt from my essay to see more what I’m talking about and then buy your own copy of Dancing at the Shame Prom to read the rest of the essay and all the other amazing entries.)

It wasn't like it was smooth sailing after I decided on my topic. I struggled with how much to reveal and how other people would react to what I wanted to reveal.  But since this is a topic that I felt needed to be out there, I realized that I had the responsibility of getting it out there.  So I wrote as honestly as I could based on my own experiences and turned it in. I told very few people about my essay – no one in my family besides my husband.  And then the book was published. (Truthfully, I kept thinking I might get the call that said that my essay would not be included. ) But alas, my essay was included. I was excited, proud and torn. Hollye Dexter (the book’s other fabulous editor) and Amy said people really liked it. Then Hollye posted an excerpt of my essay on facebook. That’s when I realized that I needed to come out of my shame closet and tell my family. I had no idea how they would react. I sent two copies to my mother with a post-it on the page with my essay. She called and told me that she was proud and appreciated what I wrote because it was my truth. I gave a copy to my sister for her birthday. She has yet to comment. 

But it was my son who I was most curious and concerned about. I went to visit him one day at Yale, where he is now a senior, and gave him a copy of the book. He was impressed  and proud to see my name in print in such a “nice-looking” book.  He had no idea what the essay was about but he said he wanted to put it in the library at his social club. I suggested he read it first. He said he would. It’s difficult to get him to read anything that he doesn't absolutely have to read so I didn't know when that would be. A few days later I got a text that said “Nice story Mom” I was thrilled. When he came home a few weeks later and I asked him more about what he thought, he said. “It was good. I didn't know all that about you.”And  I could tell he was really glad to know it. Instead of prodding for more, I let it go at that.

For the club that my son belongs to at Yale, he had to create an autobiographical presentation about himself. I sent him tons of baby pictures, high school newspaper articles and other memorabilia. He gave a 5-hour presentation about his life. He told me that at the end of it he read a section of my essay from Dancing at the Shame Prom. I was beyond touched.  So much is written about race but not from the perspective of living in it the way a lot of middle class black people live in it. My son, being bi-racial, has had to deal with issues of race on a regular basis.  I realize that he may have often felt that he had to deal with certain types of racial identity issues all alone. I believe in reading my essay, he realized that I had dealt with similar issues for many years and that I had the courage to own both the shame of it and the greatness of it and share it for all to see. Because I put my feelings about race in writing, my son was able to share it with his peers so that they can better understand who he is and some of the things he has to deal with.  I feel this sharing has given him a certain freedom around the way he thinks about his race and a deeper bond between him and me. I know for sure that by sharing my story, I feel freer and more bonded, not only with my son, but with all people who have shared and who will continue to share their shame stories. This is how sharing our shame both bonds us and frees us. I highly recommend it.


  1. you always amaze me. i love you so.

  2. So proud of you and your essay, Robin. You add such a needed perspective to the book- one that so many of my friends have told me they related to- that it's a taboo subject never breached but so many feel it. Thank you for being brave.

  3. Robyn…I can't thank you enough, for your transparency and willingness. You obviously live the life you teach, and by doing so teach so many what truly matters.

  4. Thank you all so much for reading and for your touching comments! I hope for more people to learn to speak about, like Kristine and Molly say, Matters that Matter.


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