Saturday, April 30, 2011

From the Archives - When You Are Engulfed in Shame


Last May, I took a writing class called “Memoir: Art of the Personal.” The instructor encouraged her students not to shy away from troubling material. Her advice was something like “go where the pain is.” This makes sense. Had Dostoyevsky written a novel called Obedience and Praise rather than Crime and Punishment, he might not be so famous.

More recently, I read a parenting book called Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children. It has a chapter titled “Why Kids Lie” that offers some, well, shocking statistics. A four-year old, a cited study attests, “will lie about once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour.” The book goes on to describe how “kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars.”

As a kid, I was no exception: I was not above lying. Plus, I stole. If this seems interesting to you, perhaps you will enjoy this story, which I wrote for my class.

When You Are Engulfed in Shame – May 27, 2010

When I was about ten, I stole money from my family. Not just on one occasion, but repeatedly—daily, in fact—for a couple of weeks. I felt no remorse (at least at first), and had no regard for consequences. I was pilfering change from the bus money jar.

Every day, as soon as we got home from school, my brother Max and I would to get a dime from the jar for our bus fare, and walk about half a mile to the bus stop to catch the slow, meandering #5 bus that would take us all the way across Boulder to the YMCA. It was a boring trip made all the more boring by our taking it five days a week for years. At the Y we had swim practice. I hated swimming—still do—and especially hated being bullied in the locker room afterward. Bigger kids would roll towels into a “rat’s tail,” get the end wet, and snap us with it, leaving red marks on our bare skin. Then, my eyes burning from the chlorine in the pool, I’d wait with my brothers for forty-five minutes for our mom to pick us up around 7. Given the time demands of swimming and school, I had no life.

The money I stole was for Zēmis. A Zēmi was a fancy soft drink, prepared to order by a high-tech vending machine in the Y’s lobby. You’d put in your 25 cents, select your flavor (cherry, lime, whatever), and then watch in awe as a tapered plastic cup— ornate as a crystal goblet —dropped onto a little grille and was half-filled with crushed ice. The Technicolor syrup came next, climbing the ice. Then carbonated water fizzed in, right to the top—such precision! I’d treat my friend John to one, too. (He was a year older and really weird—he used to fly his hand along ahead of him as we walked, making it dip and soar, making cool spaceship noises.) My generosity was half the fun of the Zēmis for me: I loved being Big Mr. Moneybucks.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think the stolen bus money wouldn’t be missed. My family had already gone through a bus money embezzlement scandal. That time, my brother Max—the troublesome middle child—had been blamed, and was harassed for days. It finally come out that our dad had needed change and raided the bus money cache, and hadn’t thought to mention it. Though Max was exonerated, the stigma never really went away. So now, when I was stealing bus money for real, I figured I’d have a readymade scapegoat when the theft was discovered.

When Mom noticed the embezzlement, an ad hoc tribunal was formed. Each of the four brothers was both a prosecutor and a defendant. Max was harassed all over again, even while I continued to steal to support my Zēmi habit. I repeatedly accused Max myself, both to make my innocence more realistic and for the sheer joy of it. My brothers and I thrilled to the intrigue of crime and punishment, basked in the righteous indignation of shaking down a suspected wrongdoer and bringing him to justice.

(That it wouldn’t be actual justice didn’t matter a bit: the satisfaction was the same. Once, years before when I was like five, sitting around the house bored, I decided to scrape my leg with a Lego until a large red welt appeared. Then I went crying to my oldest brother, Bryan, telling him Max did it to me. I watched with great satisfaction as Bryan went over and beat on Max, bawling him out the whole time out for hurting his little brother. It made no difference to me that Max was innocent; the spectacle of richly deserved punishment being meted out was really all I needed.)

Perhaps to prevent us from all getting spanked by our dad, my mom actually offered amnesty. “Okay, this is your chance,” she said. “Whoever stole the money, step forward now, and you won’t be punished. Just admit you did it, and all will be forgiven.” I wasn’t even tempted to do this. Maybe Mom wouldn’t punish me, but I’d have to listen to my brothers castigating me not only for my heinous theft, but for having accused Max the whole time. It would also be tough to witness Max himself attaining new heights in righteous indignation.

And, truth be told, I had finally become ashamed of my actions. Funny how that works: if nobody had noticed the missing money, I’d have blissfully gone right on stealing (just like a pro athlete who blithely dopes and will go on doping until he gets caught and then, sobbing, apologizes to his fans and vows to help clean up the sport). I cursed myself, my friend, and those damn Zēmis. I’d never felt so low. It became more important than ever to hide my guilt.

The truth came out soon enough. My brothers, who had long envied my fancy drinks, now questioned whether it was really my friend John paying for them. I insisted that it was. “Well, I’ll just give a call over there and find out,” Geoff announced. I was almost sure he was bluffing—after all, all four of us were deathly afraid of the phone. (Just calling a business to find out its hours, as our mom sometimes made us do, was almost impossible. Whichever kid made the call would be almost unable to talk—his throat would go dry, his vocal chords would contract, and his strangled voice would come out in a thin, reedy squeak. Naturally, his brothers would mock him for this.)

But I couldn’t bring myself to call Geoff’s bluff. There was just that small chance that he would actually go through with the call, and my friend would unknowingly sell me out, and that was just too much to face. So I spilled my guts before Geoff dialed the first digit. I confessed.

Right away my brothers lit into me, cackling like hyenas, thrilling to my shame like rabid journalists. Max was the most triumphant. Over and over he cried out, “I can understand a liar—but a fieth?” He brandished this indignant cry like a Gatling gun, making sure everybody heard and appreciated it. It became the slogan for my defeat. I felt so low I didn’t even have the heart to correct my brother (“It’s not ‘fieth,’ it’s ‘thief,’ you moron!” I’d have said). I let my brothers have their day in the sun, and felt completely deserving of my humiliation. After all, I’d stolen repeatedly, lied, and—worst of all—sold out my own brother, all for a fizzy drink.

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