We queers often tout a proud “No Shame!” policy, “Ever!” We’ve been shamed enough for our deviant sexuality and genders; let’s never use shame as a way of asking others to reflect on themselves. And I often agree. But not always. I think we can and should occasionally be ashamed of ourselves. Sometimes we suck. And should apologize. Because we have done something shameful.
For example, if we step all over somebody in a mean way that can be construed as “bullying,” I think it’s OK to be (a)shamed. That fear of peer judgment for being a total jerk might just be OK when we have stepped over the line from thoughtful reflection, verbalization, and action into bitchy, unkind, ignorant, drunken, harsh, ism-loaded bullshit. I think that fear of enlightened peer shame is half of what keeps us searching for the next ism to bust. And good for us. Perhaps the appropriate time to use shame is only ever against those who are being stingy, careless and cruel. But what about when I am weak in other ways that fail to meet Queer standards of living?
Should I be ashamed when I am too lazy to walk this paper wrapper to the recycling bin instead of the trash? Should I be ashamed when I don’t boycott a business with shitty practices? Should I be ashamed that I take advantage of privileges that others don’t have access to? Should I be ashamed of the next utterly sentence?
“He never hit me, so I don’t feel absolutely the worst about staying with him.”
My body tells me that I am ashamed: my stomach drops, my cheeks burn and my mouth gets dry. I feel myself getting ready to explain to you, to reduce my own shame in some small way. To convince you that I am a rabid feminist and Queer despite the fact that I am deeply ashamed of staying in my current relationship. That things are really OK. That I still live up to all of our theories, or that maybe I can’t live up to all of our theories and we should expand them.
He never hit me. There were some rough hair pulls years ago. And yes, he also drunkenly locked me out of the house while the baby was crying for me on the inside. Yeah, OK, he tells me that I am controlling. But he is working on his mental health situation. He is drinking less, and acting less hostile. No, he’s not on top of his meds yet. No, he doesn’t have a stable job yet. Yes, the credit cards still pile up.
There was the time last month when he threatened to take the child. To take him and leave. He said it hesitantly, then hotly, then my dad overheard him. My dad called the sheriff. The sheriff came. When the sheriff arrived, I tried to keep breathing and to shake feeling back into my hands. I told him that Chris had taken it back. I let the sheriff leave.
My armpits are overheating. Does it matter that he never hit me? Does it matter that he is trying? Does it matter that I want the kids to know him; that they wouldn’t thank me for cutting him out? Should I be ashamed for giving him more chances?
I think maybe I should be ashamed. I should either be ashamed of not following my own advice to get out of shitty relationships, or I should be ashamed of previously holding a theory that does not take more complexities than “shitty” into account. But which?
I’m old enough now to know that nobody is perfect. But I don’t seem to be old enough to find the difference between an average human who is deeply flawed and needs my understanding and a human who is so flawed that I should leave at all costs. And there are costs. Big ones.
Leaving and then being gone are not free, cheap, or easy concepts. As a previous holder of the theory that “She should get out of there!” I hadn’t really paused longer than to cast votes in the general direction of funding women’s shelters and cheering for women who pressed charges domestically. I hadn’t really accounted for the nights on a friend’s couch (with two kids and all of our mess) (begin the shame here: for choosing this partner, for breeding with him, for failing to cope or make things right), or the travel and moving expenses to be closer to family, the burden on the family who takes us in, or the bother of paperwork that comes from moving children. Nor the mood and emotional transitions of said children. Do you remember how much divorce costs, or how much of any measly paycheck can go just to rent, utilities, food and childcare, and how you don’t qualify for assistance until divorce filings separate your funds?
There is no way to then create an emotional receipt for the toll of leaving a partner and co-parent who is struggling. Even if she was mean, even if she was stupid, even if she was slightly dangerous …. she was struggling. She was smart, beautiful, funny and struggling. As I wrote gender studies papers, I certainly never paused to think that the hypothetical, douchey partners I ranted against might be trying really, really hard to stop the turmoil between them and their loved ones, to right their ridiculous wrongs.
And so I find myself ashamed. I am ashamed that I couldn’t know these complexities without living them, that I don’t have a theory to contain domestic disputes, love, and progress all at the same time. My face is burning because the sheriff had to come and I told the sheriff to leave, … so that I could return with him, away from my family’s safe haven, just because he is practicing new therapy techniques and because the children love him. I am hanging my head because I love him deeply and also because his earning potential is a privileged that I cling to so that I can be my children’s caregiver. I shake in my boots that I am making the wrong decision or that I am making an acceptable decision and my theory is too small to hold it. Which means that I have up until now been judging others the way that I am judging myself, unrealistically and unfairly. I am worried that if I go too far down either of these shameful roads I won’t find myself deserving of a hand up. How shall I resolve my shame?