Shame On Trial

When I was a kid, shame was associated with something you’d done wrong. Or something that had been done to you, or something you should have done, or…
I wasn’t totally clear on shame back then, other than to say: it was not a good thing. Shame was the hot potato of emotion. Thrown away upon arrival. Best never to rub up against it, lest you fall into its fiery pit of damnation. The word—let alone the destination—was associated with bad things and bad people, and it was a very bad place to linger too long.
Fast forward to the 1990’s when I was in my 20s. My desires were seemingly simple. I wanted it all. To be loved and respected. Taken seriously but also adored. It was an idealistic time—the era of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Remember how judgey the collective universe was about the blue dress and Linda Tripp—and how both women were the punch line on SNL skits? I remember, as a girl around Monica’s age, feeling sorry for her privately while publicly nodding as she was rendered a deranged stalker of powerful men.
That was my own shame talking, or not-talking. To show empathy for a woman who’d— gotten herself into all that trouble, shaming her family not to mention the Presidency because, after all, the guy who held the title and all the power, was so brilliant, that we needed to discard anyone and anything that got in his way—felt risky. 
It doesn’t anymore—I’m sorry, Monica. None of that was okay.
Now, fast forward thirty or so years to this week. 
I’m now a middle-aged woman who still wants it all, including walking without pain. Hence, I’m one-month post-foot surgery and in a recliner for 6 weeks. It’s weird and uncomfortable. And while I’m making the most of it, catching up with friends, reading, and writing…there’s been some serious TV watching too. 
Which is how I found myself captive on the first day of the Fulton County hearing in Atlanta to determine if Fani Willis is still eligible to be the District Attorney in charge of the election fraud case in Georgia.
I don’t know what I was expecting—except to say not much. However, when a friend called to check-in at the end of the day, I confessed immediately: “I watched CNN, ALL day!”
Then I struggled to describe why. What had been so interesting? Why had this hearing held my attention and left me on the verge of speechlessness? 
“Fani Willis is amazing,” was all I could think to say. “The timing of her choices stinks but she’s not apologizing and I’m here for it!”
I’d watch a grown, accomplish woman be grilled by a literal line of attorneys smugly asking questions dripping with condescension. All to see if she was worthy of bringing a case against a former President (and others) who attempted to allegedly “find some votes” to overturn an election. Oh—and that same guy has publicly smeared women for decades in broad daylight and owes one woman 83 million dollars for defaming her.
And then there was Fani. Not at all afraid of explaining her choices. Talking about how she defined relationships. How her private life was her business. How her father had been concerned for her safety. How she paid for things and why. Even why her relationship had ended with the person in question. She was grace under fire and unapologetic. Emotional in moments and steel in others. 
Her time on the stand was a masterclass in how to not to accept the shame that others are throwing.
Commentators after the testimony (women!) said things like: “She knew better as a woman of color. That she’d be held to a higher standard,” and on and on it went. 
But Fani wasn’t playing. And wow was it refreshing to watch.
Which led me to an overwhelming sense of hope…and why I’m choosing to write this blog about something other than my usual metaphorical musings.
Is it possible that the face of shame is actually changing?

At this ripe stage of life, I now know that shame is natural, even positive sometimes. Actions have consequences. When actions illicit feelings—in us—that encourage the soul, or heart, or mind to feel the pull toward self-correction, that in my opinion, is a productive kind of shame. The emphatic kind for ourselves and others.

But, when that correction comes from a large unyielding collective of people who don’t know us, value our individual experiences, and who may consciously or unconsciously harbor ill-will because “they’ve seen our type before” or “we should have known better”—that’s judgment.

Judgment is always going to be there. But how and to whom we respond is our choice. And there’s power in watching others make choices that we know from a lifetime of our own experience, are hard and hard-fought.

It’s possible, likely even, that it’s not shame that’s changing—but me. And I guess that should be enough. 

But it’s not. Shame isn’t owned by a political party or gender or decade—it’s everywhere, all the time and we’re all complicit in keeping the game of hot potato going. 

Fani’s not on trial. But we are. 

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