A history of shame

First aired on Tapestry (23/06/13)

The 17th-century physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal said, "The only shame is to have none." If we didn't feel shame, would we be moved to better ourselves? Would we have empathy? Deborah Cohen is a historian and the author of Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day. What she discovered in the course of her research was that what causes us to feel shame has not always been the same, and how we talk about it has changed dramatically over the decades. She shared some of her insights in a recent interview on Tapestry.

Why write a book about shame? "I was really interested in trying to figure out the role that families, and family members, had played in some of the great transformations of social mores in the last two centuries," Cohen told guest host Karen Gordon. She pointed out that although we have histories of "the coming of gay rights or the destigmatization of illegitimacy," little is known about the role that relatives of the stigmatized played in changing social attitudes. "So I started with an investigation of family secrets that then turned into a study of shame and privacy."


Cohen described shame as "a very thorough-going kind of emotional discrediting of the self" that is very different from guilt, which "you can feel incidentally or you can feel on one occasion but doesn't permeate your entire being." It's also "contagious. So it's felt not just by the person who is gay or illegitimate or mentally disabled, say, but also by their families," Cohen said.

That made families want to hide or repress the source of shame -- but conversely, it also often made families "bastions of tolerance, acceptance." As a result, family members were "some of the most active people in campaigning for various stigmas to be turned into private subjects," Cohen said. She cited the fact that family members were active in the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality.

As an example of how much has changed over time, Cohen cited the social attitude toward divorce in Victorian England and Wales. "Divorce essentially didn't exist for the average person before 1857," she said. "There was an idea which was that English marriages were so happy that the English, unlike, say, the French, didn't need divorce." When the divorce court was set up, in 1857, it was with the notion that it would deal with the "very tiny, tiny number" of marriages of a "sinner" to an "innocent." But in its first two years, the divorce court heard more cases than had been brought forward in the previous 150 years.

These cases were reported on in newspapers, and all the details were made public. The effect was to "demonstrate {marriage's] problems, its depravity, its vice," Cohen said. "In that sense, slowly, not overnight, but slowly, confessing your marital unhappiness went from being a taboo...to being something that was normal."

Divorce court proceedings also became something of a spectator sport. "The divorce court was the only court in England where barriers were required to regulate spectators," Cohen said, adding that viewing galleries were jammed. For the families suffering the glare of publicity, "it was devastating and extraordinarily shameful," and most families tried to keep details secret, even lying to protect their relatives and covering up adulterous affairs.

Cohen also spoke about how attitudes toward mental disability changed. Having a mentally disabled relative was considered shameful in the1920s, but not in Victorian times. Cohen attributed this in part to the growing power of the eugenics movement. Having a mentally disabled person in the family "indicted their entire bloodline," she said.

She also commented that although we think of privacy and secrecy as totally different concepts, for the Victorians, "they were interchangeable terms. Secrecy was really the foundation stone that you needed to actually establish your privacy." Having an illegitimate child or a homosexual son was a matter of public interest, and families tried to keep such matters private by hiding them. "I think part of the great story of the 20th century is the coming apart of privacy and secrecy."

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