Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Imitatio project: Revealing your shame

I'm down to the last of the limiting factors for my Don Draper type character "J.A.C.":
He has burned some bridges by admitting publicly that he has a shameful past.*
I have two (related) preliminary points to make here.

The first is, don't do it. Don't reveal your shame. There is a telling moment early in the novel Lord of the Flies, where young Ralph is talking with another boy. The boy asks him if he can use a nickname for Ralph and Rakph says, sure, "Just don't call me what they call me at school." Then the other boy says, "What's that?" Then Ralph, the stupid loser, tells him that they call him "Piggy" at school. Ralph is called "Piggy" from then on.

Don't, don't, don't advertise your weak spots. The other kid only knows that Ralph has a weakness because he tells him. And, just in case this isn't obvious, shame = weakness.

I remember, for example, a staggering number of women whom I met back in university and the years just after who would tell me, for no good reason, that they felt sexually inadequate. Or they would tell me about their previous boyfriend and the reasons that relationship had gone wrong. Not women I was dating, just women I was getting to know. We'd be talking and they'd just blab this stuff out.

I know why people do this. They think that saying something like this is going to make others treat them more kindly. To be honest, I've made the mistake myself more than once. But it doesn't work. In the other person's mind, it puts an asterisk beside your name forever. Even if the guy whom a woman has told of her feelings of sexual inadequacy sticks with her, he will always be looking for failure from her thereafter.

That brings me to the second related point and that is that a lot of good liberal types will actually advise that we air our shame. They believe that only good can come from this. But what happens when you do the thing that all the good liberal nannies tell you you should do and the results are negative?
The grand irony of Dick Whitman’s long exile from the world and feverish need to cover up his true self is that his greatest fear of discovery turns out to be true: people abandon him the minute they find out who he is. Just as Betty walked out once she found out Don wasn’t, in fact, a football star who was angry at his father but instead simply poor white trash, the partners of SC&P forced him out the minute he told them all about his Whershey Whorehouse antics. For a decade and a half, he’s lived in mortal fear of being found out and it turns out all his fears were well-founded, from his perspective. Megan’s the only person who stayed with him after hearing the truth of him but it’s been a struggle from day one for the two of them to stay connected and with last night’s angry monologue after finding out he screwed her over yet again, we find out that Megan isn’t quite as committed to this marriage as she tries to appear.
Tom and Lorenzo, who make the above observation, upon being informed that they have committed heresy against liberal nannyism, immediately attempt some backfill by insisting that this is only the way it appears from Don's perspective as opposed to how it actually is. 

But what other possible explanation is there for the rejection. This is just a desperate attempt to avoid reality. Tell people where your vulnerabilities are and they will exploit them. The reason we know Betty is heartless bitch is that she does reject him instead of admiring him for what he has overcome. (To be clear, Don's serial infidelities would be reason to leave him, but that isn't why she does it. She leaves him because she learns of his secret identity. And don't give me any bullshit about it being because he was "living a lie" because everyone has shameful secrets, including Betty herself, and she knows she does.)

Now, there is an argument that says that Don's weaknesses can become strengths. That is to say that he could turn around and claim that his self-made status as a man who grew up in an under-privileged home and made something of himself. And sure, he could do that but that isn't what happens here. Dick wants to shed his heritage.  You may think that he should have done otherwise but you're not him and it isn't your place to make the decision for him (that's why I call this attitude "liberal nannyism") . He's allowed to do that (as is Bob Benson, by the way, and note that he is far more of an intentional fraud than Don and yet gets nothing like the criticism that Don does.)

 I hear some thinking, "But why should he be ashamed of who he is?" The answer is that he isn't ashamed of who he is. What drives Don is that he doesn't want to go back there. You see that very clearly in Nixon vs Kennedy in season one. Don is running away from his identity not because he is ashamed but because that isn't what he wants to be. As Bert puts it, "a man is whatever room he is standing in". Don doesn't want to be what he used to be.

And this shouldn't shock us. Don's story is only a more dramatic version of what all of us do when we move out of the house and into town. We go to a new environment where the people and things that used to define us are no longer present to limit us.

College-educated white liberals always want to force other people's "authenticity" on them. They want black people to like "black" music and culture. Meanwhile, though, we always allow ourselves the freedom to adopt whatever persona we want. That is what is happening here, a bunch of comfortable white people are rejecting Don when they find out who he really is. Don't kid yourself about this, this is the way the game works.

In any case ...

In any case, the milk is spilt now and J.A.C., like Don, must live with the consequences. The thing is, he doesn't want to be Dick Whitman. Nobody does and only a spoiled child of privilege would be so stupid as to suggest that he go embrace his "authentic" identity.

The most honest account of this in all literature, by the way is in the Lemon Girl's favourite novel Mansfield Park.  It's heroine, Fanny Price, is in a position very much like Dick Whitman's. She comes from a family struggling on the margin and is sent to live with wealthier cousins. She is very much the outsider in her new environs. However, she refuses an offer of marriage that the aunt and uncle she is staying with think she should accept and she is sent home to her poor family in the hopes that she will learn her lesson.

Austen handles this theme with an honesty that no modern writer would. She gives us the full horribleness of a life of poverty. And it's not just a financial poverty but a moral and cultural one too. Fanny sticks by her principles but she does so at a horrible price. This makes Mansfield Park unique among the Austen novels in that it is the only one where we get a full glimpse of just how heavy the price of failure is.

Don Draper, unlike the many people who find it easy to criticize him, knows exactly what this price is. He knows the soul-destroying squalor that comes with "authenticity" and he isn't going there. (At least until Season 6, which is not only the worst but the most morally dishonest season of Mad Men.)

So that is where our hero is. Where does he go next? I'd better think of something by next Monday.

* The complete set of limitations are:
  • JAC didn't have a strong father to provide him with a good example of manliness
  • He grew up in a feminized environment driven by social policing and dubious sexual morals
  • He has a drinking problem.
  • He has a a lot of romantic baggage that he brings along from the past.
  • The replacement he found for his first failed relationship is another weak and ineffectual woman who never grew out of her princess stage. 
  • He has burned some bridges by admitting publicly that he has a shameful past.
I've written about them all in this set, just click "Imitatio project"  below to see all the posts on this project.

1 comment:

  1. That's right, its not a question of being ashamed of who you are or where you came from. This is something so private and personal, and whether its one's family of origin, dirty laundry, or skeletons in closets the need for prudence in to whom and when or if you reveal it trumps any other consideration as I see it. Don's baring his soul at the Hershey presentation was inappropriate because it put all of them in an awkward position. How do you respond to something like that in that setting? You don't, or maybe say would anyone like a drink. It was this error in judgement that caused the partners to put him on a leave of absence, not because they didn't think he was one of their kind.