“Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture. — Salman Rushdie
I received a letter from a reader of this blog about three weeks ago. I am still processing it and so I am moved to write today about shame. Specifically, I want to write about shame and silence as it relates to prison. I have a good friend whose father has been incarcerated for most of her life. She hardly speaks of him. She says that she doesn’t miss him. I believe her.
“When I look in the mirror, I see his face and I feel debilitating disgust,” she once told me.
She was 10 when he went to prison. She is now 37. He will likely never be released.
It is rare when she will bring her father up with me. Though one day, about five years ago, she mused:
“What does it say about me that this man is my father?”
Lewis Smedes has written that:
“the difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”
My friend is and will always be the daughter of a man sentenced to spend his natural life in prison. This is a fact. This is not the end all and be all of her identity though. Yet I fear that she is ‘doing time’ with her father even though she has no contact with him. She is trapped in her identity as the daughter of a ‘lifer’. Worse she is trapped in her “secret” identity as the daughter of a prisoner. This is something to be whispered and to be shared only with those who are blessed to become part of the inner circle of her life.
My friend has struggled with substance abuse. About five years ago, I asked her mother if I could write a letter to my friend’s father. She was taken aback at first but gave me her blessing. I sent him a letter introducing myself as a friend of his daughter and asked if he would answer the following question in writing: “What was the best day that you ever had?” I asked him to be as descriptive as possible in the letter. About two weeks later, I received a response from him and it was 10 pages long. That letter almost ended my friendship with his daughter. But that is a story for another day.
I had hoped that my friend would read that letter and that perhaps she might begin to see her father beyond his fixed identity as a “prisoner.” If she could move away from seeing him as a one dimensional figure, then perhaps (I thought) she could also begin to embrace other parts of her own self beyond the “daughter of a prisoner” identity. While I thought I was being helpful and loving, my actions were not received as such and I almost lost a very good friend.
But five years later, if you wonder if I would still reach out to her father in the way that I did, the answer is yes. For while there is no happily ever after to this story yet, I have seen small changes in my friend. It took her over 18 months but she eventually did read her father’s letter. Last year, she was in Chicago and over dinner she said: “You know he isn’t a monster. It makes a difference to know that somehow.” What difference does it make? I can’t tell yet. But I know that as she begins to humanize her father, my friend will begin to embrace her own humanity as well.
As I said, there is no happily ever after to this story. And that’s OK.