Oct 27

Ghost in the Machine

In 2009, a friend of mine tagged me on some kind of facebook thing where you’re supposed to list 25 things no one knows about you, or something like that. I’d forgotten all about doing this until a friend of mine posted a response to it today. I have no idea how he found it, but I’m glad he did.

1. I’ve been to Japan and all over western Europe. But it wasn’t until I traveled in India and cried in the arms of an eighty-year-old woman in a tiny village that I understood what it cost me to live in America.
2. I put on a disposable rubber glove the other day when my husband and I were cleaning out one of our cars. I looked at it on my hand and couldn’t believe he could wear them while working on cars – it was so oddly tight and uncomfortable I couldn’t hold my sponge. Then I realized I had it on backwards.

3. I once had sinusitis, strep throat, bronchitis, and scurvy at the same time. I’ve also had Epstien-Barr and dysentery (at different times). (Or I’d probably be dead.)

4. I read The Chalice and the Blade in my junior year in college because I thought it looked interesting. The idea that history is influenced most by the societal outlook from which it is studied dismantled everything I thought I knew about “objective fact.” Since then, I have been working through the bibliography of that book, and the bibliographies of those books, and so on. There is only one thing that has remained steadfast: every “fact” has more than one context. And the context can change the fact.

Calvin and Hobbes knows all

Calvin and Hobbes knows all

5. I can’t spell worth a danm.

6. I’d never lived longer than 2 1/2 years in any house until I moved to Crockett.

7. My sister was visiting us in Crockett a year ago. We were in the back yard and we kept smelling cat poop. The smell was coming and going and we were looking all over, in the yard, on the chairs, on the kids, over and over, and we couldn’t find it. Finally, mystified, we stood next to each other, our hands on our hips. I looked at her. “Hadley, it’s you.” “Gross! No it’s not!” “It is! Lift your shoe.” She lifted her shoe. There it was. It was a long time before we could draw breath.

8. I am actually quite shy. It’s hard for me to talk to people I don’t know and I sometimes get a stomachache before I go over to people’s houses.

9. I went into my boss’s office in Atlanta, Georgia, to tell her I had some news. She said she had some news, too. I told her to go first. She said she wanted to send me to Greece, with a free apartment and a car, for four years and possibly indefinitely to teach her staff English. My news was that I was moving back to California because I had gotten back together with my boyfriend. I sat in a cafe for a long time before I remembered that, in the movies, they always pick the career, and they’re always wrong.

10. I like to drive fast. Really fast. But I don’t anymore, unless . . . I’m in the right context.


11. I subbed at a high school in a tiny Southern town for a semester. On the first day, in my first class, all my African American students sat on the right, there were two empty rows, and all my white students sat on the left. This happened in the second and third classes as well. In the fourth class, I asked them, “Does anyone see anything weird about how you’re sitting?” They had no idea what I was talking about. They also had an African American prom court and a white prom court. They didn’t see anything weird about that, either. It was then I realized “weird” carries no inherent moral judgment – it means “not what I do.”

12. I toured the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Afterwards, I sat in a small cafe, staring at my lunch. I looked up and realized I was on the same street I had seen in a picture in her house, where a Nazi parade had passed through, filling the street with tanks and infantry. I looked from building to building, seeing where the Nazi flags had fluttered in the breeze. I started crying. The cafe owner came and put his arm around me and gave me my lunch for free.

13. I really love playing jacks.

14. I felt lonely throughout high school. I knew a lot of people but I wasn’t really close to anyone, except a few boyfriends. One of my ex-boyfriends, one I would have expected to understand me the least, wrote in my yearbook – “Courtney, Courtney, Courtney . . . we all call you friend and yet, I feel like none of us ever really knew you.” It blew me away. So much so that, even though I lost that yearbook long ago, I can still remember what he wrote.


15. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Now I am. Tonight I was playing “Sympathy for the Devil” and it felt great.

16. When the sky and earth, gods and mortals, come together, when all the people that should be there are, something else arises, and that is a thing thinging. Heidegger got that right.

17. Socrates’s words “Anyone can be angry. The trick is to be angry at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, for the right reason, and at the right person” are the work of a lifetime. Or more.

18. I still remember where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain had killed himself.


watercolor by michael tompsett

19. On our first date, my husband raced a Camero over the Richmond/San Rafael bridge. When I peeked over his shoulder, the bike’s speedometer was pegged out at 120 miles an hour. Two years later, riding through the desert on our way to Colorado, he did the same thing. A fighter jet, headed in for a landing at Fallon, wagged its wings at us.

20. On that same trip, we stopped in Green River, Utah, for dinner. We were in black leather and my hair was burgundy. The server came up and asked us what we’d like. He said, “I’d like a beer.” Silence descended on the tables around us. “We don’t serve alcohol,” the server said. He stared at her for a moment, then looked back down at his menu. “Allllllrighty then!” We laughed so hard we cried.

21. Just about everything I thought was true about myself I’ve found to be wrong.

22. I majored in Philosophy at Berkeley because I wanted to learn wisdom. I didn’t find wisdom. I found knowledge. But over time, I’m learning how to turn that knowledge back into wisdom. One of the first steps was understanding the difference between these two things.

note what comes between knowledge and wisdom. i would add "empathy" to understanding.

note what comes between knowledge and wisdom. i would add “empathy” to understanding.

23. I have a small stone carving that is over one thousand five hundred years old. I hold it in my hand and feel it weigh me down.

24. One time, while looking at pictures taken on Mars, I was thinking that it looked like the desert here. I stared at the horizon – at the endless expanse of sand and rock – and I realized I was filling it with human things just out of sight. Over the next hill there was a gas station, a highway, a sage bush. I realized that beyond that hill was another hill, and another one, and another one, and there was never going to be a road, or a gas station, or sage. I saw the miles and miles of nothing and something in me cracked, and for a moment, I touched the infinite existence of a world which does not mark the passage of “time”. I was swallowed by the endless silence in which no voice, human or otherwise, exists. The land in the picture expanded in every direction and everything – every known thing – in my life disappeared.

There is a vastness that exists independent of us and is almost beyond our comprehension to imagine without going insane. Such sacred ferocity is not a thing to be trespassed upon lightly.


25. I am The Stig.

Oct 01

The Hidden Motivation: Shame (Part 1: What Is It and How Does It Manifest?)

Your character’s relationship to shame is the most important psychological relationship to understand. Shame dictates more of our actions than any other emotion—more than rage, more than grief. As Dr. Brené Brown, who’s been researching shame and vulnerability for over a decade, found, “[w]hat makes shame so powerful is its ability to make us feel trapped, powerless and isolated. What makes it so dangerous is its ability to make us feel like we are the only one— different—on the outside of the group. Shame demands that we hide our ‘shamed selves’ from others in order to avoid additional shame.”[1] It explains the inexplicable actions people take every day and, when we understand that and understand the source of it, we can harness that to craft powerful, meaningful characters and explain otherwise inexplicable character growth arcs.

So what is it, and what do we need to understand to wield this powerful tool?

Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt registers when we feel we’ve done something bad—we’ve taken an action and it goes against our moral code, or the code of our community. Shame is the feeling that we are bad—our deepest secret is that we’re unlovable, and if anyone ever really gets to know us, they’ll uncover that awful secret, too. Or, as Dr. Brown puts it, “Guilt says: ‘you’ve done something bad’ or ‘you’ve made a bad choice.’ Shame says: ‘you are bad.’ There is a big difference between ‘you made a mistake’ and ‘you are a mistake.’ Guilt can often inspire us to change a behavior, make amends, apologize or rethink our priorities. When we feel shame, our self-worth is so low that there is little possibility for change.”[2]

When shame is triggered, it influences everything we do, everything we say, the way we move our hands, our heads, the way we smile, what we react to, how we act in crowds or with people we don’t know…you begin to see how it seeps into every single area of our lives.

Shame is a gun used on you every day of your life.

Shame is a gun used on you every day of your life.

The only people who don’t feel shame, says Dr. Brown, is psychopaths.[3] “[M]ost of us, if not all, have built significant parts of our lives around shame.”[4] It can be stronger or weaker in people, but there is almost no one it does not affect.

What does it look like when a character is coming from a shame reaction? “Even now I talk too much and too loud, claiming ground….I sometimes meet women and recognize in them an instinct to run, to be gone before harm can come again, mixed with a ferocious recklessness because nothing else can be taken. I wonder what they could have done to be paying such a price. [Shame] makes me feel wildly vulnerable. I struggle still to claim a permanent space, an immutable relationship to those around me. It negates forever the ability to have a real friend. To speak in a room with confidence. To walk anyplace without believing that I have no right to be there and that I am in danger.” [5] “The moment when you just want to crawl into a hole and never be seen by the world again[.] You might find yourself defensive like a cornered animal. [I]t triggers a familiar wave of self-doubt. You might be overwhelmed by feelings of self-hatred or even self-harm.”[6] These behaviors are characteristic outer manifestations of shame.

But shame also has an inner voice, and this is a powerful storytelling tool. “‘I knew it—you are just a fraud. You don’t deserve to be here. Nobody likes you—they are just pretending.’ Other shame voices might harp on how lazy or slow or stupid you are.  When the shame voice gets going, it can seem awfully loud.”[7] A character’s inner voice reveals to a reader the truth of what a character is dealing with, even, and especially, if the character is lying.

And that’s the most powerful piece of information for mining this character trait and using it well: when in a shame reaction, characters will do inexplicable things which continue to do them harm. How can we use shame to explain the inexplicable? Here’s Dave Barry: “Your brain cherishes embarrassing memories. It likes to take them out and fondle them. This probably explains a lot of unexplained suicides. A successful man with a nice family and a good career will be out on his patio, cooking hamburgers, seemingly without a care in the world, when his brain, rummaging through its humiliating-incident collection, selects an old favorite, which it replays for a zillionth time, and the man is suddenly so overcome by feelings of shame that he stabs himself in the skull with his barbecue fork.”[8] We, as writers, provide the backstory necessary so if your happy, well-adjusted-seeming character goes for the barbeque fork, the reader nods their head instead of throwing your book across the room and vowing never to read you again. Shame adds weight; it adds depth.

Shame has the power to drag people down like nothing else but depression (which has been described as an offshoot of shame). This phenomenon is so common it has a name: the shame spiral. Here’s one in action: “She messed up a presentation at work; didn’t get an award she was up for; went out and drank too much, ate even more, called her toxic ex and cried on the phone until he agreed that she could come over. The next morning, she woke up sweating, her heart racing. She wanted to throw up, purge herself of the booze and junk food she’d consumed during her nocturnal binge when she was feeling powerless and feral. I keep screwing up, she thought. She wanted to scratch the skin from her body, remove the stench left by her ex, an illogical choice of people to turn to when she was feeling isolated and alone as he had a history of making her feel worse and, right on cue, as they were in the throes of passion, all she kept thinking was: I am such a loser.[9]


Each decision this woman made led to a further destructive decision and that’s the definition of a shame spiral. It makes no logical sense—there’s no logic to losing control of yourself and continuing to do things that make you feel worthless. The Urban Dictionary says a shame spiral “characterizes the loss of self-control over something that makes one feel worthless and pathetic. Due to these feelings of low self-worth and guilt, the action that triggered the shame spiral is repeated and the degradation of one’s self continues. Example triggers for shame spirals could be excesses of junk food, alcohol, meaningless sex, buying unnecessary gifts for oneself and the like.”[10] A shame spiral could incorporate some or all these actions and more.

Other ways a character can act when in a shame spiral: “‘[S]hame [is] highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression,’ which can all serve as masks or so-called armor we don to keep ourselves from dealing with, simply put, the reality of ourselves.”[11] Perfectionism is another way shame spirals can manifest. In a shame spiral, a character will do a destructive behavior, then continue to behave in this way more and more, unable to stop. For instance, if a character is addicted to sweets, he will binge on chocolates, then feel awful and use it as proof he’s a terrible person, then binge on donuts. This will happen again and again, as his mindset spirals down into darker and darker places and his self-talk becomes more and more hateful.

What triggers shame? “There are no universal triggers. There are no events or situations that make all of us feel or experience shame.”[12] So you can use anything in a character’s past about which they’ve been shamed by others to explain their present shame reactions.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll explore how to use shame to chart character growth and regression.

And by the way, this is a tough article. Unlike most writing on our craft, this has the potential for you to recognize much of what I’ve written about in yourself, as well. I know it was hard for me to research and write. Please know that, wherever you are in relation to this subject, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. As Dr. Brown says, if you are able, grab those people you trust the most and “reach out and tell your story. You’ve got to speak your shame.” If you are struggling, please—help is both available and necessary. Take good care of yourself.





[1] Dr. Brené Brown, Motherhood, Shame, and Society, www.mothersmovement.org, August, 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dr. Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability, www.ted.com, March 2012.

[4] Dr. Brené Brown, Motherhood, Shame, and Society, www.mothersmovement.org, August, 2004.

[5] Meredith Hall, “Shunned,” Creative Nonfiction, Issue #20, 2003.

[6] Sarah Beaulieu, “The Shame Spiral: A Primer in Shame Monsters,” www.theenlivenproject.com, April 29, 2013

[7] Sarah Beaulieu, “The Shame Spiral: A Primer in Shame Monsters,” www.theenlivenproject.com, April 29, 2013.

[8] Dave Barry, “The Embarrassing Truth,” Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits: Ballantine, 1988: p.140-141.

[9] Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014.

[10] www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=shame+spiral

[11] Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014. Internal quote from Dr. Brené Brown.

[12] Dr. Brené Brown, Motherhood, Shame, and Society, www.mothersmovement.org, August, 2004.