Dreams have provided a source of personal revelation for me since I started recording, and subsequently learning about them, in 1986. The poem “The Shadow of Shame” was based on the dreams of several nights, all bearing a similar theme – my ability (or rather inability) to form relationships. By weaving together the images from those dreams and writing the poem I was able to recognize the underlying culprit.
Shame is insidious, silently spreading its menace, growing like a weed rooted in the soul. It began for me the year I turned nine, when my teenage sister got pregnant. While no one directly spoke to me about what was happening, I knew by the raised voices and frantically whispered arguments that something was dreadfully wrong. A wedding was hastily arranged despite my father’s protests and my sister’s life was changed drastically. That fall, when I started a new school, the shadow was already casting its pall over me – I felt myself on the outside of the circle looking in. None of these kids, I was sure, was already an aunt or uncle.
Then, the summer of my eleventh birthday, my parents sat me down to tell me about my mother’s previous marriage and divorce. Imagine my shock to learn that my sisters were half-sisters, and that two of my male ‘cousins’ were actually brothers. “Divorce is a sin,” my mother told me, “So we don’t talk about it. People would not approve.” Marked by this new secret, I knew my hopes of belonging were shattered.
When we moved, mid semester, in the eighth grade, I was taken out of my gifted classroom and thrust into the mainstream. Where previously being an oddball was celebrated, my new peers scoffed at my quirky abilities further fueling my growing awareness that I was fatally flawed. When a boy I had latched onto and actually crushed on, publicly called me a dog, I learned how deep humiliation can run, as I then became the target of relentless bullying – everyone in our school took to barking at me at school and anywhere else I happened to be.
When we moved from that community, I had already learned the importance of caution around others. I knew that making friends required careful observation and consideration, and demanded that I not reveal my true self. There was little provision for letting one’s guard down, or being carefree.
And then my father dropped his bombshell – revealing to me the duplicity of his life – and any shame I might have felt before was now multiplied a thousand fold. I was certain that others could tell by looking at me that my family was a total wreck, and furthermore, I knew they were justified in their judgments of me. I shrank into myself, seeking dark corners, avoiding eye contact, or skipping school all together. I tried running away, cutting, drinking, but nothing numbed the emotional pain, nor brought me closer to others.
When, at fifteen, I was abducted and raped, my family unwilling and unable to deal with the fact, just didn’t talk about it. Called a whore by my father, I pushed the memory to the back of my consciousness and fixated instead on ways to end my life.
I thought I had put all that behind me. I believed that through therapy, and just as a side effect of maturation, I had eluded the black cloud of my youth – and yet here it is -rearing it’s ugly head again, reminding me that I still struggle with getting close to anyone, certain that they will despise me if the truth comes out.
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Yet, I bet that we are all, in some degree, affected by this plague. Shame builds walls where there are none, creates distorted images of superiority and inferiority, and takes personal blame where there is no fault to be had.
In the final dream, I am befriended by a troubled youth ( something that occurs regularly in my chosen occupation). It is at the moment in which we both realize that we have shameful pasts that we are able to let down our guards and freely be with one another – just two humans being.
Maybe it is the very things that shame us that make us human, and the willingness to share our shadows that brings us connection.
I know that this heart longs to step out of the restrictions of careful interaction to experience carefree intimacy with another.
In the meantime, I will keep dreaming.