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Denouncing self-help has become so fashionable, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the movement was ever the juggernaut its attackers claim. In the wake of Wendy Kaminer’s I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, can anyone still admit they’ve read The Courage to Heal?
Yet for all the anti-help hyperbole, there remain some buried feelings on the part of Kaminer and her successors. Their intense revulsion betrays a frustrated—and highly embarrassing—yearning: At some level, even naysayers desperately wish self-help worked. However strong the reek of quackery, it’s hard to resist the promise of (relatively) easy relief for one’s inner agonies. If self-help succeeded only half the time, that would still mean half the world’s troubled souls freed of pain; half as many hours spent talking to therapists; half as many fractured family and sex lives.
It would also mean half as many gays, lesbians, and bisexuals incapacitated by self-loathing, and thus a significant portion of the gay rights movement’s work complete. Shame, depression, and low self-esteem certainly have their effect on everyone’s life, but they’re pivotal in a queer person’s.
This crisis doubtless inspired Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael’s Coming Out of Shame: Transforming Gay and Lesbian Lives. But Kaufman and Raphael take a broader view: All minorities, they suggest, experience shame in similar ways. “An African American man or woman,” the authors write, “struggling to reach a positive identification with other African Americans in a predominantly white racist culture will experience a process that is analogous to that of a gay man or lesbian grappling with identification with other gays or lesbians within a predominantly non-gay, heterosexist, and homophobic culture.”
Yet these two processes can’t be considered “analogous.” The gay community and the African-American community certainly share some feelings of oppression, but Kaufman and Raphael mustn’t discount the differences between sexual orientation and race. Homosexuals are a hidden minority; they have no visible badge of otherness and no inherited culture. In childhood they only gradually learn that they aren’t “just like everyone else” and, more important, that their difference is considered positively revolting by society at large. Gays’ hardships are no more acute than those felt by racial groups, but they are kept secret. Most gay men and lesbians grow up feeling completely atomized and burdened with self-hatred.
Unsurprisingly, then, the problem of personal healing has a significance for this movement that it doesn’t for other political struggles. Therapy provides a means of coping with guilt or anger, of course, and plenty of people go this route. But besides carrying a lingering whiff of homophobia (the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a mental disorder until 1974), therapy is notoriously apolitical. As Alison Bechdel’s cartoon character Lois rants, “Therapy is a self-indulgent, classist, individual solution! I don’t need to pay a shrink to get empowered!”
The extensive list of alternatives to therapy ranges from consciousness-raising groups to direct action. JoAnn Loulan has been packing halls for years with her lesbian sex lectures, and Susie Bright’s career is built on confronting sexual hang-ups. That central gay rite, the pride parade, is designed to build self-esteem through celebration. Even ACT-UP’s in-your-face methods and “Silence=Death” slogan are forms of collective, ferocious anti-shaming.
One would expect Raphael and Kaufman to build on this foundation, but they neither critique their peers nor situate Coming Out of Shame’s methods in relation to other strategies. Instead, they amass their own arsenal of definitions, deconstructions, and self-psychologizing tactics. Nearly half the bibliography consists of works by the authors themselves, Ph.D.s who write and lecture on shame and related issues.
Unfortunately, the words that enthrall seminar participants fall flat here. Coming Out of Shame would make a great discussion-starter for a queer book club, but without the give-and-take of a group discussion, many of Kaufman and Raphael’s theories amount to generalizations. The very term “shame” pops up in so many contexts that its definition becomes hard to pinpoint. Shame is equated with embarrassment, discouragement, guilt, and a reliance on the opinions of others. Meanwhile, the authors suggest that shame isn’t always a bad thing. Though it may “haunt” people—especially lesbians and gays—the authors argue that it’s central to the development of adult emotional characteristics like dignity and conscience. “Humility, long held to be a virtue, is itself an expression of shame,” they write. “….Our capacity for modesty and humility itself entirely depends on our willingness to surrender to shame, to hang our head, for we cannot be truly humble without it.”
Shame evidently comes in good and bad forms and greater or lesser degrees, but Kaufman and Raphael never clarify these distinctions. Their vocabulary doesn’t help, either: Though discussed at length, terms like “affect theory,” “shame binds,” and a “shame-based identity” are never adequately defined. All this theoretical complication leads to truisms rather than solutions. It emerges that “when sex becomes equated with power, this signifies that power/powerlessness scenes have become fused together with sexual scenes.” Further, “if marriage alone makes sex of any kind legitimate, and if only people of different sexes are allowed to marry, then gay and lesbian sexuality is placed irrevocably outside the bounds of the acceptable.” Why not just say that sexuality is often tied to ideas of power, and that gay and lesbian sexuality is socially unacceptable?
The task of criticizing Coming Out of Shame is not a pleasant one. It feels like a betrayal of the cause. Despite recent burgeonings, writing for gays and lesbians remains a risky and largely underfunded venture, and one that needs all the support it can get. But a book like Coming Out of Shame is at best only a small step in the right direction. It would be a far greater stride for the gay community—and everyone else—to acknowledge that some things simply need to be worked through with an experienced professional. Of course, this consensus won’t be reached any time soon. Such a program, after all, would mean abandoning the grail of self-help. CP