I can think of plenty of things I’ve been ashamed about in my life. Most of the time, the shame was well warranted. I did something stupid. I said something I wish I hadn’t. I made a really dumb mistake in this paper. I treated someone in a way I wish I could take back. If you were the priest and this was a confessional booth, not a column, I could give you a list of things and ask for penitence. I carry those kinds of feelings around.
But shame can sometimes be unearned, too. Sometimes it falls heavily on your head through no fault of your own. Sometimes someone else is entirely guilty and you are completely innocent, though still horribly ashamed.
For instance, I remember how I thought I’d make it to the NBA. I was in third grade. Our neighbor, Mr. Joe, had older children. He moved their old basketball goal from his driveway to our backyard for me. Pretty soon, I had pounded the basketball on the grass so much that a hardpan court formed. The soft, wooden backboard and loose rim meant that many shots that would have missed on other goals fell gently through the hoop. I had delusions of basketball grandeur. I thought I could be a shooting guard at the highest level. I spent hours trying to perfect my free-throw shot. I knew I needed to be in shape, too. NBA players are physically fit. I needed to be as well. So I started jogging around the neighborhood alone each day.
One particular afternoon, I was wearing a burgundy sweat suit and a headband. I was nearly a mile from home. As I passed one house, I saw two guys I recognized from elementary school. Back then, at McKibben Lane in Macon, the elementary school was first through seventh grade. The boys were seventh graders. They were in a driveway shooting baskets. As I passed, they put the ball down and raced toward me. One tackled me. He got on top of me and put his knees in my stomach. The other guy pulled down his pants and bent over and mooned me, nearly touching my face with his rear. They laughed and laughed. It was really funny to them.
I remember getting up and running home as fast as I could, crying. My mom was home. I remember not wanting to tell her what happened. It felt strangely like a confession. When I did, she was outraged. She said she was going to go to the principal and tell him what happened. This was when shame hit me with the force of those knees to my gut. The fact that I was mooned hurt worse than the knees. It was a gross image. “No!” I absolutely didn’t want her to tell anyone. I remember the shame. Just let it go. I didn’t want to remember it. But my mom wanted to punish those kids, just as I would want to punish anyone who did something similar to my children. What parent wouldn’t feel rage and take action?
My mom got what she wanted. Mr. Nolan was 6’9” and an imposing presence at the school. He was a nice man, but an absolute giant. I remember the next year getting to school and seeing a classmate, Amy, crying. She told me Mr. Nolan died the previous night of a heart attack. But when my mom went to him with the story of what happened to me, he brought the two boys in. And he pulled out a large paddle and used it on them. I wasn’t around for that.
Learning about this made me sick. I know my mom got some satisfaction out of it. But the shame for me was intense. Looking back, I recognize it was an issue of control. I had been in the back yard day after day, trying to control my shot. I went running, trying to control and improve my body. I trained for the NBA, at least in my child mind, thinking I was controlling my future. The boys ran at me and took control away. I was not in power. My mom felt her control was taken, too. Getting some form of justice was a way to get back some control, some order — for her, not me. I hated that I told her. I wished I had just stayed silent and eaten the pain of it. Punishment for those kids was just another form of not having control. It was outside of my power. If I could have had my own vengeance on them, maybe I would have felt some satisfaction, but running home to my mom and crying and having the principal do something on my account, it all felt wrong and very shameful. I wondered if I had simply overreacted to a bigger-kid joke. I didn’t like to think of the giant man paddling them on my behalf. I felt like I shouldn’t have been out jogging like that anyway. Of course, I wouldn’t be an NBA player. I remember feeling stupid and thinking that I must have looked terribly silly in that sweat suit and headband. I felt like an idiot. I never jogged like that again in that neighborhood.
In retrospect, I can see that punishment was needed for those boys, not for me necessarily, but to deter them from doing that to another smaller kid. But when the emotions were fresh, all I wanted was for it to go away.
This is not remotely on the level of what sexual-assault victims feel. This was simply a childhood bullying incident. I have no lasting damage from this. I don’t feel victimized. I am fine. I actually think I handled this much better as a child than I would now. If two men did this to me now, I would truly feel wronged. But even then, how could I take legal action on such a thing? It would be my word against theirs, and my credibility would be aggressively challenged by attorneys. Would I be up for that? It’s doubtful.
So when I hear about sexual-assault victims reluctant to report what happened, this incident flashes in my head. I think: yeah, I understand. It can feel preferable to just sit in silence and absorb a wrong than to seek punishment through forces outside of yourself. The silence a victim holds can feel like the closest version of recapturing control. For others to pressure them to talk is like forcing control from their hands again. However, if the environment changes, then maybe speaking out brings a new form of control for them. Hopefully, that’s a societal turn we’re seeing.
The recent media storm about Harvey Weinstein and the sexual misconduct of many others is fresh in our minds. We’re bombarded with such stories. It all feels uncomfortable. It’s terribly unpleasant. But I hope the shame is shifted to a more appropriate place — toward those who use their power, physically or through their status, to hurt others, not on those who bear their abuse.
It’s really a shame if we can’t recognize the need for that.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
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