I can always tell when I am getting tired or sick – that is when I start to feel gloomy and my past embarrassments or regrets, however minor, bubble to the surface.
It might have been an awkward conversation, an act of thoughtlessness, a mistake at work, or any number of small shames that burst forth into my consciousness as if they had just occurred.
And while these thoughts are unwelcome, literature has taught me I am not the only one who has an unwanted store of thoughts and regrets waiting to catch me in a vulnerable moment when I’m particularly tired or battling a virus or a hangover.
American novelist James Baldwin wrote,
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world but then you read.”
But it is not just the great pain of Anna Karenina or Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved that offers solace to the reader, but also the small and everyday shames and humiliations that are familiar to most, despite all the joy and #gratitude we might see on Facebook or Instagram.
I have been reading Nine Perfect Strangers and have realised that Liane Moriarty is a master of the small humiliations that cause readers to cringe in recognition of everyday shame and awkwardness.
In the bestselling novel, each character harbours small and large shames and regrets of their own. There is Francis, who proudly refuses to be bullied into insecurity about her body, but is humiliated that she fell for an internet romance scam. Carmel is ashamed of her soft body and hides her mortification behind politeness when her husband tells her he is leaving her because he no longer finds her attractive. She readily acquiesces when her ex and his new partner invite her children on a European holiday, only to torture herself with the thought of them enjoying the holiday that had been her dream.
The character of Tony is ashamed that he no longer attracts the adoration that he did when he was an AFL player, while Heather cannot forgive herself for a small failing that she believes had dire consequences for her family. Jessica wishes she could unsay the words she spoke to her husband when she discovered their house had been burgled, revealing her own judgement of his sister.
Moriarty, considered in some quarters to write light ‘chick lit’, expertly explores all the small humiliations and sources of shame with both honesty and sensitivity. And it is comforting and illuminating to read about the everyday embarrassments of her characters, the thoughts that they try to will away and the lies they tell themselves that enable them to live with their mistakes.
The power of shame at its most damaging is explored in Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do, about domestic abuse in Australia. A history of shame is put forward as one reason behind violent and controlling behaviour.
In the award-winning book, Hill writes that an inability to conform can become a source of ongoing shame. At its worst, this failure to overcome or manage shame manifests in a rage at feeling disrespected in any way, whether that disrespect is real or merely perceived. Small humiliations or embarrassments become unendurable.
Although these reactions lie at one end on a spectrum from embarrassment to shame, it is interesting to read about the power and complexity of these emotions.
For me, reading about shame and humiliation offers a kind of pressure valve, taking all the steam out of the small missteps that are easy to inflate. The universal experiences of embarrassment, humiliation and shame are brought out into the open, with writers giving their characters familiar doubts and experiences. Their humiliations can be seen by the reader in proportion, regardless of their seeming immensity to the individual.
Sometimes, the writer exposes the universality of embarrassment, humiliation and shame by revealing that the rich, powerful and successful are just as prone to these emotions. In Ian McEwan’s The Children Act it is a judge who makes an error of judgement that leads to embarrassment and shame, which ultimately could be seen as leading to a fatal error of judgement.
Perhaps if she had not been ashamed of her misdemeanour, her behaviour might have been different and have set the novel on a different and less heartbreaking course.
In City of Girls, Vivian Morris embraces her humiliation and embraces it. She suffers the consequences and doesn’t let her shame define her. I found the novel to be a joyful acceptance of the ability to experience, and then to rise above, shame and embarrassment.
In contrast, Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid captures the way a past mistake can lead to insecurity and doubt long into the future. Despite her seemingly charmed life, one of the main characters, Alix, is haunted by a humiliation she encountered as a schoolgirl and her misguided behaviour as an adult continues to be informed by that experience.
While Alix is hard to like, it is equally hard not to empathise with the way her past, and her resulting insecurities, continue to shape her behaviour.
Humiliation and shame are themes in last year’s blockbuster, Normal People by Sally Rooney. At first, it is Marianne who is humiliated when Connell rejects her and invites a more popular girl to the school social. Later, Connell struggles to overcome his shame at making this choice.
All these stories revolve around the big and small humiliations that are part of life. Somehow, knowing that Marianne overcame her humiliation and Vivian accepted her shame, makes it a little easier to reflect on the inevitable missteps and poor decisions that we have made ourselves without being paralysed by regret.
In a talk at The Wheeler Centre a few years ago, Jonathan Franzen said that part of a writer’s role was to exhume their secret shames for the reader.
I, for one, am grateful that he, and many other writers, are prepared bring their shame out into the light to help readers see that they are not alone. After all, it is not just the deep pain that paralyses humans, but also all those accumulated little shames that can be so lonely, and so much more bearable when shared.