View From the Couch: Shame

April 2, 2012 No Comments

I asked several friends and co-workers if they saw Shame over the Holidays. None did. Most said they didn’t want to see a film about sex addiction. The graphic sexual content that is depicted, and the rest that is implied, certainly earned it the NC-17 rating it received. But it is not only about sex addiction. At its heart it is about shame. Although these topics and the NC-17 rating may not add up to a winning combination at the box office, Shame is a tightly wrought and remarkably good film.

The main character, Brandon, lives a life without close relationships, sexual or otherwise. In fact, he has elevated avoidance of relationships into a well choreographed routine. His life is so compulsively structured around his sex addiction that a relationship for him can only be an annoying distraction. But he does engage in plenty of sex. His sex life is populated with prostitutes, public sex with women he picks up at bars, fantasies about strangers on subway trains, and internet porn. Although he is gainfully employed, it would appear he is not meaningfully so since he spends a good deal of his working hours surfing internet porn or masturbating in the men’s room.

The arrival on the scene of his sister, Sissy, is a major disruption in the routine that is Brandon’s life. Her arrival causes him to become more self-conscious about his behaviors. As this self-consciousness causes him to turn his gaze inward, he doesn’t like what he sees. In these moments he experiences shame. Whenever Sissy is around she evokes his anger, contempt and rage which are displacements for his shame.

A quick glance at a dictionary informs us that shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior; a loss of respect or esteem. Inherently we know this, even without such a precise definition. But understanding the definition of shame doesn’t help us cope with the feelings it evokes in us. Shame is infused with the dread of exposure. Like the exposure Brandon experiences when his internet porn is discovered on his hard-drive at work; or when Sissy accidentally catches him masturbating. Shame wants to hide, and we conspire within ourselves to hide it. To feel shame is to know that we have been seen, judged deficient in whole or in part, and rejected. Judgment and shame by others alienates us from them; and in judging ourselves, we alienate ourselves from our self. This alienation, this loss of connection within and without, creates a gap that can only be bridged by atonement and, later, affirmation.

Although we are given no prior family history about Brandon and Sissy, we do not need it to see the strain in their relationship. Sissy is desperate for and unsuccessful in her search for a connection with Brandon. Brandon is desperate in his attempts to avoid any connection with her and the weight he knows it will impose on him. Brandon cannot tolerate the exposure to another that comes with being in a relationship. Mostly he cannot tolerate the feelings of deficiency and alienation (shame) that he becomes conscious of in the presence of connection to another. So Brandon does everything he can to prevent Sissy from reconnecting with him. He ignores her phone messages, exhibits no positive emotions toward her, and exhibits only avoidance at best and, at worst anger, contempt, rage and violence.

Different adaptations to the experience of excessive shame couldn’t be portrayed more starkly or in greater contrast than they are in the characters of Brandon and Sissy. Where Brandon has a more inward and withdrawn (schizoid posture) adaptation in this regard, Sissy’s is more outwardly focused and relationship oriented. Consequently, her self-worth is tied-up more in her relationships, how successful she is at keeping connections, and what others think about her (depressive posture); and it is clear her relationships are not going well. Not her relationship with Brandon, or with the other men in her life. This is Sissy’s source of shame. That this sense of shame has been long-standing, is evident in her history of cutting and, ultimately, her attempted suicide.

Shame is not a topic anyone is drawn to. On the contrary, we shy away from it. We are not comfortable with it in ourselves or in others. It is a hard emotion to bear; and Shame makes us bear it. But if you’re the least bit interested in this subject matter, Shame is worth the effort and the moments of discomfort it imposes. And shame is at the heart of all we experience in this film, which is so aptly titled. It is a very poignant and insightful portrayal of the power and consequences of one of our least well-understood emotions. But don’t look for any definition or clinical explanation of it in the film. They’re not there. Instead, be prepared to experience it, because that’s really the only way it can be understood.

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Dr. Robert MacDonell is a performance improvement leader with the St. Joseph Mercy Health System with 35 years experience in heath care.  He has been a frequent contributor to the Reel Deal.

The Philosopher's POV, View from the Couch

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