So what was my problem? All I could envision were people smirking as they
saw me publicly toting that damn purse, all of my hard-earned Guy Points
accumulated from my half-century of being male suddenly vanishing without a
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.
Eventually, still searching for a way out of the pain, Wade gets into an
ugly brawl with his ex-wife and her new husband, after Jill secretly calls
them to pick her up. As irrationality, belligerence, and
self-destructiveness take over, Wade becomes a good man behaving badly,
blinded by the specter of his own shameful failure.
Men who've experienced toxic doses of shame early in life will do anything
to avoid reexperiencing it as they grow older. It can originate from family
experiences, from peer experiences, or just from the culture at large. A
shamed boy becomes a hypersensitive man, his radar always finely tuned to
the possibility of humiliation. His reaction to slights?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 desperate 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. Sometimes the smallest
signs of withdrawal of affection will trigger old wounds, and they'll
suddenly lash out at those they see as slighting them, even as they're
unaware of the dark feelings stirring inside them. This is a state of mind
that many of us in the field call shame-o-phobia, an endemic condition
throughout Guy World.