One day some years ago, my brother and I were reading the daily Calvin and Hobbes comic and came across this interlude. Not sure of the exact scenario, but Calvin's mother, aka "evil Mom-lady," is trying to get Calvin to do something he quite obviously doesn't want to do and he protests accordingly.
Mom: Oh yeah?
Calvin: Great Zok! She's fixed her mind-scrambling eyeball ray on me! I'm suddenly filled with the desire to go back upstairs and do her nefarious bidding!
Mom: Glad to hear it.
My brother and I laughed. We had our own "evil Mom-lady" and could quite relate. After that, we coined our mother and her accompanying parental stare, the "Evil Mommy death ray." We knew that stare well. Every mother has it and wields it as her personal tool of compliance. You could see that stare across the room and know that if you didn't stop whatever you were doing, or if you didn't do something you were just asked to do, there'd be hell to pay later. Interestingly, although I have no children of my own yet, I have been told that I have mastered this stare quite well. I had a good teacher.
There was another stare my mother had that would sometimes overlap the "Evil Mommy death ray." Or rather, that would underlie it. There was this undercurrent of shame, this sense that not only was your behavior inappropriate, but it was also disappointing. That feeling of "You should know better." And yes, there are definitely situations in life where my brother and I should've known better. Everyday mischief prevails in the life of a child and you're often caught doing stuff you know you're not supposed to be doing. But somewhere along the way, that feeling of being shamed and that sense that I was supposed to know better became intrinsically linked and showed up in my mother's glance in almost every situation where I disappointed her, whether such disappointment was warranted or not.
In the past, I was told by my teachers that I was a perfectionist. My therapists said so too. But I don't think I want to be perfect. I think I have tried my whole life to get everything right to avoid that feeling of shame. I'm not a perfectionist. I'm a shame avoider. I like to get it right the first time because I don't like someone bringing to my attention that I got it wrong and the accompanying shame I feel as a result. The tape that plays and says, "You're a disappointment. You should have known better", and the accompanying "evil Mommy death ray" burning a hole right through my psyche.
A loyal reader sent along this article to me written by Sara Braasch, who, like myself, was raised in the Jehovah's Witness group. She now works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I bristled against reading it. And ended up skimming the article rather than giving it my full attention. I felt this urge to tiptoe away from it, like a murderer from a crime scene, not wanting to be associated with the ghastly deed in any way. Why? Shame. Sara's story is my story. It's the story of someone who became a zealot for her beliefs and made a heap-load of bad choices as a result. And my stomach turns just thinking of how completely idiotic I was, how completely sanctimonious I behaved and how utterly misguided I had become as a result of my "faith".
I was arrogant and supercilious in my misery. I thought I had a truth that no one else had. Everyone else was a sinner. Everyone else was a reprobate. I even remonstrated against my own parents for their sinful ways. When my father tried to take me, along with my siblings, to see the movie “Splash,” I cried and screamed and refused to go, because Daryl Hannah appeared topless in the film. In fact, I made him turn the car around and take me home.
I did shit like this all the time as a jw. And I feel shame about it. I feel shame around my ignorance. I feel a great colossal finger wagging in my direction shouting, "I'm disappointed in you. You should've known better." But how? How was I supposed to know better? I did what I was told. I lived what I saw modeled for me. I walked in the footsteps of parents and an organization that mirrored fear and distrust and self-loathing. I learned well. Too well.
Now that I'm an adult I've made different choices. And I am still learning each day to make different choices. But it's hard people. Every day it's hard. There are still so many moments where I stop and think "What the fuck am I doing?" And I feel the Evil Mommy death ray pointed squarely between my eyes. And the shame wells up like a million butterflies trying to escape through my chest. And I kick myself for not knowing better, for not knowing what to do next, for not having all the answers, now. And I wonder if it will always be this way. Whether the shame will ever subside. Whether I'll ever be able to stand proudly in the center of my life and shout at the top of my lungs: "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING AND IT'S OKAY." Some people call that surrender. I think I'll like surrender.