Reader: Is Shame Invincible?
reviewers had a hard time with this one. A majority were favorable,
but like the minority, seemed unable to clearly formulate the crux of
the film and their own reactions to it. This film depicts complex
feelings in its protagonists, and seems to seek to evoke them in the
audience. It might help understand the struggle if you assume, as I
do, that the emotion at the core of the film was shame.
Modern societies have a difficult time with this emotion, to the
point that it might be called taboo. We have it as much or more than
prior societies, but recognizing it in ourselves and others, let
alone discussing it, has become problematic.
psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis was also a research psychologist. Her
study of emotions in psychotherapy sessions (Lewis 1971) reported the
results of her systematic search for emotion markers in the
transcripts of hundreds of psychotherapy sessions. To her surprise,
by far the most frequent emotion was shame/embarrassment, occurring
far more often than all the other emotions combined. A further
surprise was that its presence was virtually never mentioned, either
by therapist or client. She named the unmentioned emotion
unacknowledged shame. Relevant to the film reviewed here, she named
the form most common in men, bypassed
shame, evidenced by expressionless talk.
film seems to hinge on the power of unacknowledged shame, both for
the characters and for the audience. During the trial, Hanna is so
ashamed of being illiterate that she accepts a life sentence. Michael
is so ashamed of his relationship with her that he doesn’t
inform the court that she is illiterate, that she couldn’t have
written the document she is charged with. Because of his inaction,
he then is overcome with shame for not having helped Hanna.
modern societies, most people find it difficult to credit shame as a
powerful motive. In traditional societies, shame is understood to be
the most insistent of all motives. The Japanese dread of shaming the
family comes to mind. In this passage several hundred years ago in
pre-modern France, Rousseau described the feeling that led him
falsely to accuse a maid-servant of a theft which he had himself
she appeared my heart was agonized, but the presence of so many
people was more powerful than my compunction. I did not fear
punishment, but I dreaded shame: I
dreaded it more than death, more than the crime, more than all the
I would have buried, hid myself in the center of the earth:
invincible shame bore down every other sentiment; shame alone caused
all my impudence, and in proportion as I became criminal the fear of
discovery rendered me intrepid. I felt no dread but that of being
detected, of being publicly and to my face declared a thief, liar,
and calumniator (Confessions).
is hard for us moderns to credit this kind of statement, because
shame has gone underground. Yet it still is controlling, even when
hidden. Hanna’s motives in facing the court, and less directly,
Michael’s, could be seen as similar to Rousseau’s, since
they both seem controlled by “invincible” shame. In
modern times, it seems to be doubly invincible because it is usually
many of the reviewers, I was put off by Michael’s woodenness
after seeing Hanna in court. But the second viewing reminded me of
Lewis’s report that expressionlessness, that is, bypassed
shame, is the most frequent defense against shame in men.
Michael visits Hannah in prison, he is virtually paralyzed by his
emotions. He is still ashamed of associating with a criminal, and
intensely ashamed of his shame. He could be frozen by the looping of
shame: shame about shame about shame. These loops have no natural
limit, and can end in withdrawal, silence, or paralyzing depression
much of the film, the filmmaker seems to want the audience to
identify first of all with Michael, an innocent who is also guilty
and therefore bound in endless cycles of shame. The novel puts more
emphasis than the film on Hannah’s growth as a person while in
prison. Both book and film show that she learns to read by obtaining
the books that match the cassettes that Michael sends her.
the book, however, she goes on to read about the Holocaust, the crime
that she participated in. Both book and film suggest that in court
and in prison she is both a perpetrator and a victim. Mainly because
Michael didn’t provide evidence that would have shortened her
prison term, and didn’t give her the support that might have
avoided her suicide. She was also victimized by the other defendants
in the trial.
her death, Michael tries to overcome his shame by flying to New York
to visit the surviving daughter of one of Hannah’s victims. He
asks her to take Hannah’s money, or at least give advice about
how to use it, but the daughter refuses. She harshly rejects the
least involvement in Hannah’s affairs, much less allowing even
a shred of forgiveness.
somewhat puzzling aspect of this last scene is the obvious splendor
of the daughter’s current life. She has a huge apartment, awash
with art and style. There is no hint of this in the book. Why did the
filmmaker want her to be so rich? Another puzzle is the difference
between the dialogue in the book and in the film. The film version
makes the daughter more haughty and rejecting than in the book. What
is going on?
guess is that the filmmaker is trying to stir guilt in the audiences.
Relative to the poverty of Hannah’s entire life, the members of
the audience are rich. Perhaps the filmmaker was trying to turn the
sympathy of audience from the daughter, to encourage them to be more
forgiving of Hanna than the daughter was.
ideas in this story may be relevant to our own lives. People are
always asking how we put up with the Bush administration for 8 years.
Perhaps the people slept because they were both innocent and guilty.
We were innocent in the sense that we ourselves weren’t
corrupt, commit fraud and cause the death of innocents. Yet we were
guilty in the sense that we didn’t do anything about bringing
down the perpetrators, or at least anything effective.
with Michael, perhaps we were paralyzed by shame. Again, like
Michael, one way toward ending our paralysis would be to learn to
forgive others, so that we can begin to forgive ourselves.
Helen B. 1971. Shame
and Guilt in Neurosis.
New York: International Universities Press.
Thomas J. 2009. A
Social Theory of Depression and Its Treatment. Journal
of Ethical and
11, 1, 37-49.