Books on the worlds of public, private shaming
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve been Publicly Shamed show the deep cuts of shame
In one of the more thought-provoking moments in journalist Jon Ronson's often fun and fast-paced tour through the online world of public shaming, there is a profound observation about the connection between childhood abuse and shame.
It is a horrifying echo of the shame-filled world of the protagonist in Hanya Yanagihara's Man Booker prize-nominated novel, A Little Life.
James Gilligan, a renowned psychiatrist, interviewed the most violent inmates back in the '70s, and he tells Ronson in his book, So You've been Publicly Shamed the men all shared one common trait: A deep sense of shame from severe childhood abuse.
"They felt dead inside. They had no capacity for feelings … so some would cut themselves. Or they would mutilate themselves in the most horrible ways. Not because they felt guilty — this wasn't penance for their sins — but because they wanted to see if they had feelings. They found their inner numbness more tormenting than even the physical pain would be."
In Yanagihara's novel, Jude is a successful lawyer with friends who love him, but he cuts himself deeply and regularly as a way to deal with his intense shame from a childhood filled with some of the most stomach-turning abuse you will read in a novel.
This is a book of intense pain that will be hard for many to read and will reduce many to tears. But it is also a book about such intense moments of love and kindness that many readers will cry at the happy moments, too.
Yanagihara takes her time in this 720-page book creating an almost timeless, fairytale world for Jude and his friends.
The four of them meet in college and all go on to wildly successful careers as a lawyer, architect, artist and movie star.
But no matter how happy Jude should be, he cannot let go of his shame. Yanagihara masterfully explores the wounds and scars of profound abuse in a culture that tells us in books, talk shows and Facebook posts that we have the power to heal.
But what happens when the wounds are too deep?
It is fascinating and disturbing to see the disconnect between Jude's well-meaning friends who struggle to do and say the right thing, and what Jude internalizes. We see Jude's world through the filter of someone who has been told since the moment he was born and left in a plastic bag in a garbage bin that he is garbage.
Ronson touches on such deep shame in his non-fiction examination of the rise of public shaming, but most of his book is reserved for those momentary lapses of judgment that destroy lives.
Ronson is the only journalist to talk to people such as Justine Sacco, the woman who was flying to South Africa and tweeted what she says she meant as a joke making fun of white privilege to her 170 followers: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
By the time her plane landed her life was destroyed. Thousands on Twitter were calling for her to be fired, raped and/or murdered.
Ronson talks to people whose lives have been ruined by one stupid moment on social media. Or who had their worst shameful secret exposed online or in the news.
Ronson whips along from the history and psychology of public shaming, to why we have such a need to be outraged, to why some people are destroyed and some people rise above.
The entertaining read has some real insightful gems, including a very disturbing confirmation of how sexist the shaming is online. Men tend to deal with less ugliness, and are publicly forgiven much more quickly.
Ronson also touches on the consequences of the obvious solution: Just be careful what you say online. He examines the "blame the victim" mentality that he worries will result in an online world that is too safe and bland.