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Reflecting on shame and identity

Rod Dreher has what is, at least for me, a very thought-provoking essay over at Crunchy Con. Actually, “thought-provoking” is a euphemism. I’ll be blunt — it hits what is, for me, a permanently raw and open nerve. The next 3200+ words will reflect this. Turn back now if you don’t want me to take you there.

Mr. Dreher begins with a discussion about shame, obesity, and race, and how he has personally experienced them function and interrelate as someone who considers the American South home. He takes it someplace else, however, and the key part for here at the conclusion:

A fellow Southern exile once said to me that it’s so easy to love where we’re from when we don’t live there, because we can edit out the stuff that’s hard to live with. That’s very true. And yet, I confess it’s hard for me to feel quite at home anywhere else. When I go back to visit, there’s something about the place and its people I dearly love, and treasure as part of myself. […] [However,] I chose to separate myself from it (and anybody who thinks Dallas is the South is sadly mistaken; it’s the southernmost Western city)… [F]or me, [what motivates my writing is] a sense of cultural rootlessness, and a craving for a sense of belonging to a place. Too much has happened to me over the years to form the kind of man that I am to make me feel at home in my actual homeland. And yet, when I’m away from Louisiana, I think about it a lot, and long for it. True story: I used to walk around Brooklyn romanticizing Louisiana, then go back to Louisiana and after a few days, start pining for my old borough home in Yankee Babylon.

[…] For me, displacement and a resulting craving for authenticity. But the fact that I chose displacement and exile adds a shake of shame about disloyalty into the cocktail too. […] Me, I don’t have anybody to show anything to (this was the greatest gift living and working in New York City gave me). When I sit down to write, almost always I think not about showing myself, but about finding myself.

I’m somewhat circumspect about elements of my personal life in this forum. This is not out of any sense of needing to protect anything, exactly; leastways, it’s not about protecting myself. Anybody who happens upon this blog knows my real name, my wife’s name, and more or less where to find me; this may or may not be wise, but there we are. There are certain things I have not discussed here, like politics, because I don’t want to detract from my main objective — namely, some record of my path as an Orthodox Christian on the way to something vaguely resembling an academic career. It’s also, by far, primarily for my own use, rather than being intended as any kind of a public news service. So, since I find myself heavily burdened talking about politics — feeling in the main that I ultimately can’t pick a side because I’m not at all sure anybody is on my side — I just don’t go there for my own sanity.

Other things I haven’t discussed simply out of respect for the fact that the blog is public, and I have to be mindful of what that can mean. I was stuck in a horrible, horrible, horrible employment situation until April 2008 that I could not (and can’t) discuss here, because if certain parties were to run across my blog, it would only make things quite a bit worse. Even once I was out of that situation, I had to be careful about how I discussed the unexpected ways my grad school opportunities were developing, because out of respect for my new employers, about whom I cared very much, I needed to time how I told them what was happening in a particular fashion.

All that out of the way, Dreher’s essay hits home for me in a number of ways, not the least being shame over the struggle with weight I’ve had as long as I can remember, but even more in how he discusses his sense of displacement. Unlike him, I have no particular pride in any particular place as home — but I’ll talk about that in a bit.

There’s not much to say about my weight that’s, um, earth-shaking — as I’ve said before, my ancestors were swinging battleaxes in northern Europe; I grew up swinging a backpack full of books, there was never anything about sports that was terribly attractive to me growing up, and I have spent much of my adult life behind a desk of some sort. My parents both had weight struggles they didn’t want me to have, which unfortunately meant that my weight as a child was monitored with the unapologetic and militantly nasty use of shame as a motivating tactic. (This is still hashed over yet today from time to time, and the parent who primarily engaged in this practice continues to defend their techniques, saying that they did these things because they wanted me to be healthy, and the only alternative they saw was to simply not care. That what they did didn’t actually work is only evidence to them that they didn’t do it enough for it to truly be the behavioral deterrent it was intended to be.) A growth spurt in junior high made me tall and reasonably thin (not skinny, I guarantee you — my frame does lend itself to skinniness to begin with) for the first time in my life, and I mostly stayed that way strictly by virtue of having a teenager’s metabolism. I put on a lot of weight my sophomore year of college as a result of various stresses (which I will discuss), lost it the next summer from even more stress, gained it all back (and how) once the school year started up again, and then got back down to my freshman year weight (more or less) about ten years ago. It stayed off roughly until my wedding, at which point it crept back on. When I moved to Indiana, a fencing class and a soccer class my first semester here took care of a good chunk of it, but then required courses edged further such intentions off of my schedule, and it came back on. For the last fourteen months, I have diligently made use of a treadmill, which between August and June took about ten pounds off very slowly; walking around Athens for two months got rid of another fifteen, and while much of it came back once I returned to the States, the addition of hand weights and other exercises to my routine has gotten me down to within five pounds of where I bottomed out in Athens. I am down two belt holes from where I was in August of 2008 one way or the other, and while the weight loss is slow, there is some very clear weight redistribution happening, as well as a development of muscle tone that didn’t used to be there. It’s a problem that anybody who has known me for any length of time knows I know about; the irony is that I am not sedentary by any means — I walk everywhere I can, in addition to the intentional exercise I get — but I also still eat the teenager’s portions of an adult diet, so I have to be very intentional about being active. This is more difficult when I’m not happy about large chunks of my life, and that’s been the case for most of the last six years. In the last year that has changed in some big ways, and my hope is that the physical aspect will also change concurrently. So that’s that.

The displacement issue is more complex. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, which is where both of my parents had been born and raised and where the vast majority of their respective families were; when I was four, due to some disagreements over business matters within the family, we moved to Wenatchee, Washington where my dad tried to reinvent himself as a small businessman. Wenatchee wasn’t an active enough town for him, however, so we moved to the Seattle area when I was seven, he bought another small business that he was going to try to grow, and we built a big house with the intent of it being the family homestead. Four years later, a combination of factors, including economic collapse in Alaska and further business disagreements within the family, led to us basically losing everything. Over the next five years, we bounced from rental house to rental house, my mom went back to work, and my dad poured more and more of his soul that he wasn’t going to get back into a business that really couldn’t exist anymore (namely, office supplies) given the initial appearances of big box competitors in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

In 1993, Dad moved back to Alaska, having been offered a job by an old friend. As he likes to say, he was lured back to Anchorage with one word: “Saturday.” It was my senior year of high school, so the plan was for Mom and I to stay in Washington until I graduated, after which she’d move up there with him and I would start my freshman year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

My senior year was a real struggle; not having a father at home, that year of all years, was a nightmare, and it wasn’t easy for any one of the three of us. It wasn’t easy for the two of them getting along with each other, and it wasn’t easy for me getting along with either of them. It was made worse by the fact that I started dating for the first time that year, and I also developed a close relationship with a couple of male teachers as sort of surrogate father figures, all developments my parents had trouble regarding with anything but suspicion and resentment.

The day before I graduated high school (Inglemoor High School, class of ’94), my dad flew into town. The day after I graduated high school, he and my mom flew back to Alaska, leaving me behind to supervise the load-in of their moving truck. I spent the summer going back and forth between Anchorage and Seattle, decidedly not feeling at home in a place of which I had no particular memory, and not being allowed to feel at home in the place that had been home for the previous ten years.

Freshman year at Western was a disaster. I had been to the campus all of once before; we lacked the resources, in terms of time or money, to really launch any kind of a school visitation effort, and the main reasons we picked it were because it wasn’t University of Washington, but it was in-state, close enough to home, and yet far enough away. With my parents’ move, however, none of these really meant anything anymore. I was at a school with no good reason to be there. I had no family left in the place that I had considered home for two-thirds of my life, and had no place to go back to that I could really call home. The place where my family now was, despite being my birthplace, was unfamiliar, and being now at the beginning of adulthood I had no compelling reason otherwise to be where they were. In short, I felt like they had left me. Unfortunately, when it became clear this arrangement wasn’t making any of us happy, the rhetoric that I heard more often than not was that of me having left them.

I no longer belonged where I had grown up, so I was being told, and where I was being told I belonged by virtue of my parents having moved there just as I was starting college was not anyplace that felt like home, and since the end result was that I felt like I had no home, I never really felt comfortable at Western. My two and a half years there were a miserable attempt at trying to eke out an undergraduate existence with no familial or financial support; lacking any particular guidance, I made very poor decisions during that time regarding money, my heart, and school (among other things). I spent the summer after my sophomore year in Anchorage trying to figure out how to put my relationships with my family back together, and found that at that particular point, there simply wasn’t anything to reassemble. My parents couldn’t deal with each other at that stage of the game, let alone me, and that summer was the lowest I had ever been up to that point. I lost weight simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t eating or sleeping for about a month; eventually a psychiatrist put me on both Soma and Serzone, and things evened out enough to be able to survive the rest of the summer. (I took myself off of both as soon as I returned to Bellingham.) After one quarter back, however, it was clear that college was something I just wasn’t in any position to be able to pursue properly, and I dropped out after having thoroughly ticked off virtually everybody in the Department of Music with my inability to cope and what had become a tendency to lash out.

I now had no particular reason to stay in Bellingham, I wasn’t going to move to Alaska, and that left me with no real place to go except back to Seattle. I started job hunting, selling classified ads in Bellingham for the time being to at least have some way to live, and after a year finally had the opportunity to take a contract position (which was fulltime within a year) with a Major Software Company.

Life settled into enough of an equilibrium over the next year, and my parents appeared to have put enough of their own lives back together, that there seemed to be some kind of peaceful relationship that could exist with me in Seattle and them in Anchorage. They still nudged and wheedled me to consider moving to Alaska, but the fact remained that beyond the two of them, there just wasn’t any reason for me to be there. I sometimes thought that maybe once they’d retired, they would move back to Seattle; I dreamed that, having made my initial couple million working in the software industry (with subsequent millions to be made as the Great American Hope of lyric tenors, of course), I could buy back the house they built that was supposed to be the Barrett family home and give it to them.

Except that, about the same time that Megan and I started dating, in the early spring of 1999 (she and I having met freshman year at Western, so I guess it wasn’t a total disaster), my parents announced that they were getting a divorce. This was not the first time they had made this announcement, but this time it was final. The one time my wife ever saw us all together, apart from our wedding day (when they studiously avoided each other as much as possible — the family photo has them at opposite ends of the line), was a few days before the divorce was finalized, and they were yelling at each other over a snowblower.

By 2001, we were married, and shortly thereafter my dad left Alaska to spend a couple of years in West Virginia. By 2003, we moved to Indiana so that I could finish my undergraduate degree; part of the idea was that we’d be five hours away from Dad, which would have been the first time in a decade that I had lived within driving distance of a parent. Shortly before I left for Bloomington, however, he headed off to Phoenix, Arizona to be near the older of his two daughters (from his first marriage) and her children. Living near family was simply not to be.

Six years later, we’re still here. We’ve lived in our little rental house for a tick over four years; at 32 (less than a month away from 33), it is the longest I have ever had the same address. Ever.

My dad is still in Phoenix; my mom is in Wasilla, Alaska. Megan’s family is in the Seattle area. There is no one place we can ever live and be reasonably close to everybody.

Jaroslav Pelikan once quoted Robert Frost in saying that “home” is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you, but “home” has come to mean, at least for me, where my wife and I are able to share a life. It has no meaning relative to roots or family, at least not for me; for it to take on that meaning would mean choosing between my parents individually, or choosing between her family and mine. Everybody has an argument for why we should do one thing or the other, but there’s nothing we can do without having to make a painful choice. In some ways, it seems best to live near nobody, thus treating everybody equally.

Like Mr. Dreher, I crave roots and something authentic, but unlike him, I feel at home precisely nowhere. I have never walked around Bloomington pining for Anchorage (or Seattle, for that matter), nor vice versa. My parents both live in houses in which I never lived, in zip codes I never visited until after I was an adult. The place where I grew up has exactly nothing to offer me now. I have lived for years with a lot of shame and pain because I belong nowhere, but not because of a sense of disloyalty — unlike Mr. Dreher, I didn’t choose this displacement. Ironically, my displacement is precisely because I didn’t choose it. Rather, my parents moved away just at the very moment I needed them to stay put. (I will emphasize that I say this descriptively, not to assign blame; they did what they had to do. This has not made it any easier over the years from an experiential standpoint, however.) No, my shame is that I have no roots, no sense of home, to pass on to my own children once I have them. I have nothing to give them but the culture of a stray, a transplant. A stray who married up and who gets to eat pretty well for a stray, but a stray nonetheless.

Like Mr. Dreher, much of the work I have chosen is implicitly a means of trying to “find myself”; unlike Mr. Dreher, I’ve been trying to “show them myself” for years — to show “them” that I’ve risen above the rootlessness, the struggles with finding a path, the forced independence, the displacement, the lack of any visible connection to anything except a woman who loves me with all her heart, the confusion about how to simply be that burdens me from lack of guidance. I’m still trying to “show them,” which I guess means I haven’t actually accomplished rising above any of those things yet.

I don’t know if this pain ever goes away. I managed to get saddled with it at 17, and I keep waiting to feel normal again, keep thinking that understanding of the last several years is right around the corner. I at least feel less stuck than I have in years, like I’m working towards something now, something productive, so maybe it really is right around the corner. I don’t know.

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6 Responses to “Reflecting on shame and identity”


  1. 1 Larry Anderson 24 October 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Thank you for writing this. Rod’s post seems to have struck a nerve in people, including me; I may have to put up a related post of my own soon.

    my shame is that I have no roots, no sense of home, to pass on to my own children once I have them. I have nothing to give them but the culture of a stray, a transplant.

    I must disagree. When you have your children, you will give them a loving home with both a mother and a father. You will baptize and chrismate them into the Orthodox Church, which will give them a spiritual home that will always be with them, one whose roots go back two millenia. Wherever you settle, you will raise them there, and they will grow up thinking of that place as their physical home, because it is the one they have known. You need not have shame; you will have given them tremendous gifts, which will be all the more remarkable because of what you describe as your own lack of roots. It is wonderful to have roots, but sometimes it is even more wonderful to plant the seed from which roots will spring.

  2. 3 jw 26 October 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Thanks, Richard.


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