The more time I spend on social media, the more I wish more people understood Brene Brown’s findings on shame and blame. I’ll let her explain.
Lena Dunham is popping up quite a bit on my social media pages. She has apparently been accused of shamelessly describing molesting her sister in her newest book.
She is one of many public figures who are being drawn and quartered in the court of public opinion. If my Facebook and Twitter feeds are to be believed, anyone who does not write Lena off as a predator is “a piece of shit.” In the wake of this whole mess, I decided to read the book and see for myself. Read in context, none of the instances cited fell, objectively speaking, outside the norms of childhood sexual development. In all honesty, I wish that people took all of the energy they’re spending on decrying Lena and directed it towards actually educating themselves about the norms of sexual development and effective child abuse prevention. This Pamphlet from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center is a very good place to start.
Is this something she should have shared to the world? I dunno. It’s certainly not something I would include in my memoir. I also don’t know how her sister feels about that story being published, though many have guessed. Does it make sense to now demonize her for those actions? This is where I refer you to my thoughts on accountability.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the worst case scenario were true; that Lena did, in fact, sexually abuse her sister at various points between the ages of 7 and 12. What then?
I’ve worked with a lot of kids who were highly sexualized, most of whom were abuse victims themselves. I’ve also worked with adults who, as children, acted out sexually in unhealthy/abusive ways. If my clients were treated the way that Lena Dunham is, the consequences would have been horrific. Not only would it scar them for life, but it would also increase the likelihood that they’d shut down in front of grownups while continuing or possibly escalating their behaviors. In my experience, people are very adept at living down to expectations when there is no possibility for redemption.
Because I’m a giant musicals nerd, I can’t help but think of Les Miserables when I hear the amount of vitriol aimed at people like Lena. When Jean Valjean is treated as a criminal, he lives down to expectation. It’s only when he is shown empathy and his humanity is viewed separately from his actions that he takes ownership for his behavior. While Les Miserables is a work of fiction, it speaks to the real world truth that shame and blame are toxic to these very important conversations. When we slip into the seductive pattern of shame and blame, we inadvertently cast ourselves as Javert (who is decidedly not the protagonist, though Neil Patrick Harris’ rendition of him is more than a little awesome)
If Brene Brown’s research is to be believed, this type of shaming and blaming is completely counterproductive when it comes to encouraging accountability. As Brene says, blame is just discharge of discomfort and pain. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, we need to rage at the world. The thing is, we can’t stay there. How can we recast ourselves in these conversations? Where can we, as people, as feminists, as activists of any stripe, find the grit and tenacity we need to hold people accountable? How do we move from self righteous anger to agents of dialogue and change?