Leslie Jamison on Self-Forgiveness and Shame

The most recent edition of Image features a lovely interview with Leslie Jamison. We can’t […]

Mockingbird / 8.13.19

The most recent edition of Image features a lovely interview with Leslie Jamison. We can’t stop writing about her, especially after her extraordinary talk at our conference this year in New York. In the interview, she discusses a number of other concerns—the fear that our feelings are clichés, that privilege and difference inhibit resonance with others, or that our faith is just a show—with such subtlety and gentleness that I’d recommend reading the whole thing. Here she is, on how we relate to our past wrongs and residual guilt:

Image: One thing I really loved about The Recovering was how—I hope you don’t take this the wrong way—you make the narrative persona pretty unlikable in places, and then in that exact moment, you forgive your former self. I was wondering, from a craft standpoint, how did you manage to walk that line of judgment and forgiveness at once?

LJ: That’s a generative way of framing the question. One thing I’ve thought a lot about as I have tried to turn certain personal experiences into narrative is: I’ve noted my own knee-jerk tendency to lean into the crutch of total self-deprecation as a self-protective gesture. I judge myself very harshly on the page as a way of preempting the judgment of readers. I’m saying, “Every bad thought you could have about me, I’ve already had about myself. So I’m going to inoculate you against having it.”

A really self-ennobling narrative is a bad idea for lots of reasons: it reduces the truth; it’s oversimplified. But I think an unequivocally self-deprecating narrative can be too simplistic in the same way. If you reduce your consciousness to something wholly good, you’re not telling the most complicated version of the story, and if you reduce your consciousness to something wholly dismissed, you’re not telling the most complicated version of the story either. Complexity is what I’m always trying to be in search of, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, whether I’m writing about myself or somebody else. I try to ease up on the impulse to dismiss myself too fully on the page because I want to make room for how consciousness is always a thousand different things at once. You can’t make room for all of them on the page, but you want to make as much room as you can.

As I was writing The Recovering, I thought a lot about trying to create distance between my narrator and my younger self. I wasn’t wholly inhabiting her perspective on her life, but I also wanted to be tender with her. It’s so easy to call our prior selves absurd because we feel ashamed of them; I didn’t want to do that either. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion says, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” I like that idea of granting your former selves enough respect to let them be complicated. Part of twelve-step recovery is the idea of not disowning the former self, but drawing on that self in order to live into the current version of self. I think I was trying to enact some version of that with the former self that I was narrating on the page.

Image: That makes me think about how recovery mediates our relationship to shame. Recovery brings up the question: What good things can we do with shame?

LJ: Shame can be such a toxic emotion. But I also think about shame as a heat signal that can take you somewhere important. If you let it have the final say, or give it too much power, then it can curdle you from the inside. I remember talking once with an artist at a residency in Wyoming. We were walking where there was geothermal activity, little pockets of steam coming up out of the ground, and I remember that felt like a useful visual image for shame. What’s under the ground that’s releasing that steam?

Sometimes I talk about shame with my students. Not that I’m trying to force them to write about things they’re ashamed of, if they’re not ready for that or comfortable with it. But sometimes shame is that little bit of steam coming up off the land, and then you know there’s something with real heat underneath. It can sometimes be a barometer: there’s some experience here that I’m not done reckoning with yet. There’s something to write into here.

Image credit: Literary Hub