Facing the Shame that Lingers: A. Denise Starkey and Michelle Obama Lead the Way

March 24, 2017

In March of 2011, at a symposium on trauma, healing, and spirituality in Belfast, Ireland, I spoke about shame in the context of war, addressing the experiences of women survivors of rape during the Rwandan genocide, US soldiers returning from war with PTSD symptoms, and cultures, such as those in Belfast and Bosnia, steeped in war and violence. While discussing how theology has a responsibility to examine how the church talks about shame, guilt, and sin to help survivors of war trauma heal, I recognized A. Denise Starkey in the audience, a woman whose work was instrumental in the crafting of my own. Her book, The Shame that Lingers: A Survivor-Centered Critique of Catholic Sin Talk, published two years prior, provided a critical backdrop for my presentation, and would be foundational to my dissertation and subsequent book: Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation.

Five years later, Starkey and I had a chance to meet and exchange stories about what inspired our writing about shame. I acknowledged her influence on my own work, and we discussed our current personal and professional commitments to continuing critical conversations we raise in our texts.

Starkey’s courage to face shame in order to resist patriarchal paradigms and “to address one the of the key harms that linger in the aftermath of trauma” (5) represents a steadfast scholarly source of my impetus to do the same. Subject to this energy, I undertook a new reading of Starkey’s text, keeping in mind where the issues that she raises continue to materialize, presently effecting the lives of women. How do we understand what it means to refute debilitating shame, which “more often than not,” Starkey writes, appears as an “elephant [residing] in the living room of humanity” (45)?

On a fundamental level, this shame inhibits women’s ability to participate as fully embodied beings in society – a fact, according to Starkey, further effected by shame mixed-up with rhetoric about sin. The interweaving of sin-talk and shame further diminishes women. But what does this actually look like? Starkey helps us see. Referring to the Cambridge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, and focusing on the essay by Rae Langton “Feminism in Epistemology,” Starkey presents two harms of shame that follow different types of injury against women: women’s failure to be known and the failure to be knowers.

Reflection on this phenomenon – where the failure to be known and the failure to be treated as knower parallels the experience of shame – led me to the late December farewell interview Oprah Winfrey conducted with Michelle Obama. In this interview, the first lady reflects on the last eight years, highlighting her future plans and her thoughts on the current election. While Obama never mentions the word shame, she does give women a way of imagining how shame makes an impact both in her life and in the experiences of women in general; evidence of this arises at minute 6:00 where she directly addresses the reprehensibility of a candidate for President who sexually harasses women.

Obama mentions the failure to be known (minute 21:40) by a journalist. She does not respond in shame, although she implicitly recognizes that shame can function to make us retract. Instead, she promotes a posture that contradicts shame, which she articulates as “living out loud” (minute 22:45). This concept of living out loud constitutes our being ourselves as women who refuse to capitulate to the misinterpretation of who we are and which provokes shame. “Living out loud” also disrupts the structures of shame that Starkey recognizes as “profound anguish, the desire to hide or disappear, and less emphasized but equally important, the need to blame someone in order to redirect attention away from being exposed” (43). Perhaps we can even interpret Obama’s now famous phrase in relation to the 2016 election and Trump’s misogynistic and racist shaming, “When they go low, we go high,” as an example of refusing to turn to blame in the face of shame, and instead refusing shame that seeks to diminish ourselves, our souls, and our ability to know.

In a shorter clip from the interview (cut from the larger whole), Obama challenges women to claim themselves as knowers (minute 7:20). To be knowers and to recognize the unique contributions that we bring into the world counters the experience of shame which takes place under the eyes of another – whether that other is real or imagined. Shame affectively prompts us to escape from view to fail to be known, and it undermines our claim as knowers. To challenge this, to claim ourselves as knowers, then counters shame.

The end of Starkey’s text shifts to the concept of flourishing, a condition resistant to the shame that leads us to deny our capacity as knowers. For Starkey, flourishing is a fundamental justice criterion of feminist theology – supported in the works of Rosemary Radford Reuther and Grace Jantzen. Flourishing promotes the “full humanity of women” as “authentic reflections of the divine” (175).  This sense of flourishing is rooted, according to Starkey, in love. Obama reveals a similar concern in her desire for the country as it moves into the new administration. She compels us to “find a place in our hearts to love each other.” “It’s really simple,” she states, “just [open up] our hearts to others” (minute 39:58). Both Starkey, from a theological perspective, and Obama, from a political one, emphasize in their profession of love, solidarity among women. For Starkey, this is a genuine solidarity that that mediates grace in lieu of shame. For Obama, this includes her interpretation of herself as a model of a strong woman, and particularly a strong black woman (minute 29:00).

Ultimately, flourishing represents an interdependent principle inherent in solidarity, effective in facing shame. As a knower, I honor Starkey’s work, highlighting the indisputable ways that, as a scholar, I do not work in isolation but am bolstered by the work of those who precede me. I am grateful for her work which has, without doubt, contributed to my own flourishing.

By Stephanie Arel