Friday, July 24, 2009

For Shame

I've almost finished reading Scott Turow's One L, a memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School in 1975, and I'm struck by how bedeviled he felt by shame. "Me, too! Me, too!" I want to shout. This past year, while studying Vietnamese at Harvard, I struggled mightily. Learning a new language at my age has become a prolonged internal wrestling match with my fear that I'll never be good enough—a good enough mom, a good enough translator of Vietnamese culture for my son, a good enough writer.

Turow's account sounds so familiar. The context is very different—first-year law student in classes of 100-plus litigious brainiacs vs. my small language class—but his observations feel fresh 30 years later. He likens studying the law to studying a foreign language. And as the semester grinds on and he sinks into depression and bombs a mock exam, he makes clear that this kind of intensive learning experience lets loose personal demons (or "my enemy," he calls it) very fast.

Here's just one quote: "Over the weekend I remained in agony and disarray. I had never before failed an exam. That it would have no bearing on my grade did not matter. I had been confirmed in my suspicion that I was a ludicrous, miserable, unworthy failure."

Ah, Shame. You are a great humbler. Perhaps you have the firmest grip on us perfectionistic types. I've begun working with a Vietnamese tutor this summer, and she corrects my pronunciation every other word. I don't love it. It's sort of great. It takes me far outside myself—as being a parent does—into landscapes where I'm constantly checking the map.

Sometimes it's just plain funny, like the time in class when we were answering questions about a Vietnamese folk tale. In it, the River God (Thuỷ tinh) and Mountain God (Sơn tinh) end up locked in battle. As I attempted to say in Vietnamese that the angry River God finally had to withdraw his troops, I managed to mix up the word for troops (quân) with the word for pants (quần). My teacher replied, deadpan: "So Thuỷ tinh is taking off his pants?"

My seven-year-old son still delights in telling this story on his mom, who unlike Mary Poppins, is practically imperfect in every way. Vui lắm!

As for Scott Turow, he's still practicing law and writing terrific mystery novels. From Turow's web site: "Only in the mystery novel are we delivered final and unquestionable solutions. The joke to me is that fiction gives you a truth that reality can't deliver."


  1. I wonder if shame hits women more than men? What does Scott Turow think?

  2. Great blog!

    Stumbling through unfamiliar landscapes, constantly checking the map...what an apt metaphor for living--especially parenting.

    What parent doesn't have at least some doubt about whether they are doing things right? I'm instinctively distrustful of anyone who is sure they have all the answers. I think it was Bill Cosby who said that the only people who think they know exactly the right way to handle kids in every situation are those who don't have any of their own.

    If we're not always sure what the "right" things to do as a parent are, it might help to keep perspective to at least avoid doing "wrong" stuff. You know, the kinds of things that earn certain celebrity types poster-child status as bad parents (digression: see the movie "Away We Go" for some hilarious examples). If you love your child, and do your best in good faith to be a good parent, then hopefully he or she will realize one day that you weren't so bad after all (probably when they have a child of their own).

    As far as writing, I wonder--could nagging thoughts about whether one is good enough actually be directly proportional to a writer's innate level of talent and promise? After all, Shakespeare famously fretted about an unnamed "rival poet" in his sonnets, while the hack banging out a pulp novel every three weeks probably doesn't do much in the way of navel-gazing.

    On the subject of fear: There is a story by aviation writer Richard Bach that I reread every once in a while, called "Loops, Voices, and the Fear of Death," contained in the book "A Gift of Wings." In the story the author recounts a flight in his biplane where he bungles an aerobatic maneuver and ends up in a flat spin from which he may not recover. Essentially he is falling from the sky and try as he might there's a good chance he'll be unable to regain control of his airplane before running out of altitude. In that moment he engages in an internal dialogue, admitting to himself that he is afraid, with the voice that represents the cautious, play-it-safe side of his nature berating him for getting in over his head:

    "The biplane fell down from the sky, wallowing, buffeting. 'What am I doing here,' the voice screamed. It took a second to answer. I'm living. And I bail out if we're not flying by the time we reach two thousand feet...

    "What are we doing here? Overcoming the fear of death, of course...We're practicing, you might say, what it means to be alive."

  3. I love that last line: "We're practicing, you might say, what it means to be alive."

    We can't practice for our kids, I think. I'm starting to wonder how much any of us parents can influence our children except for the absolutely necessary basics: love, safety, shelter.

    Part of what I like about Turow's memoir is how he shows himself eventually calming down and getting the law, doing fine. But it's the earlier chapters of the book, where he describes freaking out, that had me emotionally hooked.

    As for women and men and shame, it's not clear to me what Turow thinks--or thought in 1975. He mentions one amazing first then: that a woman finally headed the Harvard Law Review. He also talks about women students routinely breaking into tears. I guess I believe shame is an equal-opportunity parasite.

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  5. Martha - there you go reading my mind again! Before logging on I was just taking a stroll over lunch and indulging in defeatist self-talk..."How am I ever going to learn to speak Korean if I can't find 30 minutes A WEEK to practice in between my (expensive) lessons? How will I ever help J.Y. to learn Korean well enough to not feel the perpetual outsider in his birthculture?"

    Shame - or a multi-generational cycle of Catholic guilt - is a recuring theme in my life. Funny how even though I long ago decided not to "be Catholic" anymore I haven't shaken that useless habit (no pun intended).

    Why do not I not give equal attention/celebration to the fact that I have managed to teach my 19 month old a few useful Korean words? Maybe I will, and then maybe I should also tell his daycare teachers what he is saying so they don't unintentially undo my good work!

    : ) Allison

  6. Oh, I am with you on this, Allison. It's very difficult to learn another language if you don't practice every day, but it feels almost impossible to squeeze in the practice time--and yet it seems important to do just that for our kids born in other lands with very different traditions and ways of phrasing things.

    For those of us prone to shame and a nagging sense of failure, this is a real set-up.

    Kudos to you for teaching your toddler some Korean words. He'll either take to it or he won't; that's been the hardest thing for me to accept, the fact that all my hard effort may not be heading in the direction my son wants to go. But it's also true that when I've told him I may have to quit taking Vietnamese, he's said, "No! That wouldn't be good for me!"

    I've also come to believe that I can only continue studying Vietnamese as long as I'm fascinated by it, because doing it for someone else--because it's good for him--just doesn't work. As I've delved deeper, the most interesting thing is how language frames cognition--that is, the very way we take in and explain the world. It's kept me hooked so far.

    Meanwhile, I'm packing my VN textbook and notes for a quick trip this weekend, thinking I'll have *loads* of time to study. Ha.

  7. This in from Mei-Ling Hopgood:

    "Hi Martha: I was doing research for an essay touching on cultural keeping (I only recently learned that term), and found your Brain, child article. Very thorough and well done. I'm the author of a memoir called Lucky Girl -- about my reunion and relationship with my birth family in China. Wanted to chat withyou about the response -- it's totally what I'm hearing and seeing while on tour. Also Wondering if you'd be interested in reviewing Lucky Girl?"

    Mei-Ling: In the small-world department, it happens that I have reviewed *Lucky Girl*. The review will appear in the September/October issue of *Women's Review of Books*. I'll put a link up on this site when it's out.

  8. There's an early story by Joyce Carol Oates called "Shame." Stephen King discusses the concept too, in his non-fiction book about writing. He felt great shame writing horror...