Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Shame-o-Phobia: Why Men Fear Therapy"

"Shame may be the least understood dimension of men's inner experience—by both men themselves and the people who live with them. In Affliction, Russell Banks's classic novel about the tragedy of masculinity, a ne'er-do-well named Wade Whitehouse plans a special Halloween weekend with his 11-year-old daughter, Jill, who lives with her divorced mother, Lillian. Wade's clumsy efforts to make sure Jill has a good time succeed only in making her feel anxious and out of place, and she winds up pleading with him to take her home. But instead of her distress, what stands out for him is his sense of failure: he's shamed by the fact that she's unhappy."

I accidentally stumbled across this article on "Shame-o-Phobia" while searching for a secondary source for my Affliction paper, and then I became fascinated as I read the author's description of how men's experience of shame controls their lives--and the article's description of men who don't understand their own experience of shame seems like an exact description of Wade. In class, someone proposed that Wade doesn't truly love his daugher Jill, and that this is evidenced by the fact that he's more concerned about his failure as a father. However, the article above seems to suggest to me that the fact Wade is shamed so deeply is evidence of his deep love for Jill.

David Wexler, the author of the article, describes how men build self-esteem, "A metaphor from self-psychology, the broken mirror, is particularly helpful in understanding the dynamics of male shame. This sensitivity to shame—to feeling incompetent, not valuable, unloved, unneeded, unimportant—is often governed by the psychological relationships with mirroring-self objects in our lives. It works like this: the response from others serves as a mirror, reflecting an image that governs our sense of well-being. Sensitivity to mirroring-self objects and broken mirrors isn't gender-specific, but men are more vulnerable to experiencing these mirrors as referenda on their performance and personal value. When the mirror image is negative (or is perceived as negative), the reflection can reactivate a man's narcissistic injury and deliver a blow to his feeling of competence."

In particular, Wexler says, men who have experienced "toxid doses of shame early in life will do anything to avoid reexperiencing it...A shamed boy [recall Wade's inability to protect his mother from his father's abuse] becomes a hypersensitive man [Wade's sensitivity is evidenced in his quickness to become angry], his radar always finely tuned to the possiblity of humiliation. His reaction to slight's perceived or real and his ever-vigilant attempts to ward them off can become a kind of phobia. Tragically, the very men who are most desparate for affection and approval are the ones who usually can't ask for it: instead, they project blame and rejection and perceive the worst in others."

The quote is particularly telling because it reveals Wade's phobia: Wade sees his father as the ultimate symobl of shame, and so Wade strives as much as possible to avoid comparisons to his father. Every comparison to his father, whether it comes from an external source or from his own thinking, damages and humiliates Wade. He is desparate to be recognized as a good man, but his wife and daughter's unwillingness to give him that affection leads him to see them as vindictive and cruel, and so he perceives the "worst in others"--which inevitably only further damages his relationships and brings him closer to becoming his father. His masculinity proves to be a vicious cycle. I don't have the page number, but I believe that Jill tells his father that he is a bad man, or at least that he used to to be a bad kid somewhere towards the beginning of the book.

Wexler says that when talking to men in therapy, "The idea is to send out the good-men-behaving-badly message. In this way, the man-and, maybe more important, his partner-hears that the problem isn't that he's a bastard with a cold heart and no soul." This idea fits perfectly with Wade. Wade wants recognition and a second chance, and he needs someone to recognize that he is desperate to be a "good man." The problem is that everyone perceives his bouts of anger as simply symptomatic of an especially violent, cruel personality-rather than explosive, emotional outburst as his inability to overcome his overpowering sense of shame by himself.

The article seems to reconcile Wade's inconsistencies and allows us to understand how his violence, shame, and love work together to lead him towards his various actions. However, the article seemed to bring up another possible, and I think, unrelated gender issue.

Wexler gives a few pointers for how to deal with men in therapy, "Offer homework, ation plans, and the rationale for using them, since men's needs and learning styles favor direct, clearcut explanations and instructions. I've found this vaulable with all the men I see." He also mentions how to prepare men for handling relationships outside of class, "If even 10 minutes is too long for a man who can't tolerate the inherent lack of structure in 'feelings-and-relationship' conversations, teach him some very specific relationship-friendly strategies, like 'active listening.'"

Wexler consistently describes how men need "direct, clearcut explanations and instructions" and avoid the "inherent lack of structure" in "feelings-and relationship" conversations. He seems to suggest that men need a rationale and explanation for everything-a strict order through which to understand the world. Could this account for some of Wade's neuroticism towards the end of the novel? Do women not have this problem? Could this be another aspect of male "affliction," a desire or compulsion to "know?"

1 comment:

  1. Great article Wyatt, and it connects to my next blog post in a lot of ways. Preview: