Read and written by Angela Brussel, production and sound design by Alex Mackenzie.
Who said time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything – except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound, disembodied. – Chris Marker
I do not have trouble admitting at this point that I have done regrettable things. There are versions of myself out there who have taken up residence in the minds of people I have wronged. Some I have long since forgotten, some are for the most part innocuous, but some come back, fiendish and hungry, to haunt me.
For the most part, I can withstand their desires, like an ill-ridden patient upon the operating table, to be cured or at the very least solved. But there is one version of myself who committed an error so grave, who is troubled by something that has become so shapeless and large, it is difficult for me to make sense of her or regard her at all. Nevertheless, her presence remains the most unshakeable – and that which distresses her, the most challenging to touch.
Each time I recount the story, I feel her sulking by the door. She is amused because I am trying to convince myself she doesn’t belong to me. And in a way, she doesn’t. Nearly a decade has lapsed between us. Innumerable countries and miles and homes. But I still feel the heat of her. I feel her shame like an animal snaking with vengeance through the years and into my body, burning a hole in me the breadth of a wound.
Whatever I can offer with regards to recollection is shoddy at best. I was thousands of miles away from home when it happened. I had just moved from California to England for the summer because I had fallen in love. I was just shy of twenty-three years old.
One morning, I woke up to dozens of missed calls from my best friend’s sister. I returned them, but it was not her on the other end of that line. It was something out of this world. Something without shape or determinate size. It was a sound I had never heard before. But I knew what it meant. Someone was gone, forever gone. My knees buckled and I fell to the floor as I heard J’s name being bleated repeatedly.
As I recount this, I am getting closer to the source of my undoing, as though gingerly fingering the still open wound. I can see the sequence of events unfold, but with each remembering I somehow lose the very details I am trying to preserve. There are certain ones, though, that press upon me with quiet fury.
J’s sister, for instance, imploring me to return. Me, telling her that I couldn’t because the ticket was too expensive. My boyfriend at the time looking at me as though there was a traitor in his midst, as though I was not the woman he thought I was. Who, his eyes said, would not go back to their best friend’s funeral? Who could do such a selfish and monstrous thing?
My dogged need to make sense of who I am and what I have done can be traced back to many things, but there is one that figures more prominently than the rest. Board games, for instance. When I was a kid, I loved playing Operation with my father.
“Can you remove the ailments without setting off the buzzer?” asks the boardgame’s maker, referring to the prostrate plastic body of Cavity Sam. “Remove the most parts to win!” it declares, almost nefariously, promising top dollar to those who can avoid the buzzer when performing their surgical duties. Capitalist tendencies aside, the board game of Operation offered its players a sense of skill-dependent control. For a terminally anxious child like myself, especially one who was so preoccupied by the notion of death, this was enticing.
The other board games like Monopoly and Yahtzee and Parcheesi were first and foremost centered around the luck of the draw. They were nominally strategy-oriented, but there wasn’t much opportunity for me to control the outcome of my failure or my success. There wasn’t even the option of reverse engineering the decisions that led to them. Instead, there was an unknown entity steering me toward a nebulous fate, the dice rolling like some tiny shape-shifting gods, and me, ousted with no recourse from the illusory driver’s seat.
Operation was different. Operation required a steady gaze and hand. A pair of tweezers and the body of Cavity Sam. I remember lifting the tiny instrument with fear and relish. The opportunity to rid this man of his ailments, to locate the source of what was plaguing him, was such an alluring promise. And even though it was all so absurd, the frogs in his throat, the butterflies in his stomach, the charley horse and the funny bone, it meant something to me. There were horrors in this world that could be named. Seemingly invisible afflictions and conditions that could be plucked and eviscerated. If I were patient and steadfast enough, I could find them.
I developed many theories regarding what I long considered my transgression. Interrogated myself like a detained suspect writhing under the weight of my madness and scrutiny. Where were you on the morning of June 13th? Were you in love with him? Why were you so unresponsive to his family’s pleas for you to return? I deliver the questions with equal parts curiosity and contempt. What follows every time is a series of unremarkable answers, flimsy words attempting to scaffold a still burning building. And the girl I was: running, headless, trying to catch up with me.
J and I met through his sister who was my best friend, then, of nearly ten years. I spent more time at their house than I did my own and became a token member of that family. J and I kept a wide berth between ourselves at first, but slowly became fonder of one another through repeated exposure and proximity. Thanksgiving dinners with the family, riding longboards and getting stoned, lazing for hours in late night dinners talking about nothing in particular. Disneyland, jazz, and Proust. It was a time of being happy and not knowing it. A time of love and adventure without consequence. And J, it is clear to me now, was the crux of it.
What really seemed to bind us though was our mutual adoration of making sense of the world through literature. After his passing, I looked to it for answers.
The book that stood out to me most was one of the last he read. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. It’s a tome about a man who visits his cousin at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps only to end up falling ill himself, turning his initial two-week visit into a titanic seven years. The sanatorium becomes a microcosm of civilization and the book’s deep dive into the fields of anatomy and biology, a blueprint catering to the protagonist’s desire to understand the source of his undoing and becoming.
I have his copy with me now. I rifle through the pages wondering how and when he will peer out at me. The protagonist’s descent into the pits of himself seems to eerily resemble J’s own toward the end of his life. And with each passage, I am gifted a glimpse into the cosmic order of things where everything somehow makes sense and at the same time can never be understood.
One month before his death, as though some twisted portent, he had a seizure. His senses, I remember, became very heightened after that.
There's something off in the weather since you left, he wrote. Maybe it's more to do with me being released from the hospital which, clearly, was an existential wake-up call if there ever was one...but I'm picking up on it in the most ironic of anti-scientific ways.
I visited him at the hospital where we sat underneath a CT scan of his heart. I marveled that there were instruments in this world precise enough to probe into the seemingly invisible source of our suffering. Objects, at the same time, that were intricate enough to obstruct any semblance of our ever coming close to understanding them.
Since his death, I’ve had many conversations with J through the margins of the books we once shared, through occurrences that felt like cosmic interceptions. Sometimes we’re just shooting the shit like we used to. I try in vain to mimic the man I knew. But I long for him more than I remember him. And whatever I claim he would make of my missing his funeral is a smokescreen for what I really want, which is him in the flesh. And penance.
Sometimes when it all comes back to me, I imagine J and I placing the body of the woman that erred in the middle of an operating theater. Just like the boardgame, but with higher stakes. Stripping her of all those guises and embellishments. I feel the sting of the spectators’ eyes behind me. The hushed roar of a packed house making their final assessments. Here, the body says, is a lesson.
I regard her cold yet familiar figure, shifting my gaze to J for guidance and answers. Wondering if I should go for the jugular. But he is mute. And when I look back, I realize that there is nobody behind me. The benches have been empty for years.
The word shame, and what triggers it, has gone through many manifestations over the centuries. Depending on the context, it can veer more toward disgust or dishonor. It has also been speculated that the feeling itself equipped our ancestors with evolutionary advantage. It can safeguard the welfare of a group, for instance, by encouraging benevolence in the individual. In the Bible, though, shame is affiliated with nakedness.
The Book of Genesis 2:25 says, “And they were both naked, man and wife, and they were not ashamed.” Then they ate from the tree of knowledge. “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked: and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”
I remember always being very perplexed by this. They weren’t societally conditioned at that point, so why would they feel shame about what they were naturally endowed with? Their shame, I later understood, was misplaced. It was not their nakedness that spurred it. It was the fact that they broke the commandment of God.
The first few years after his passing, I was exceptionally repentant. There were intermittent bursts of joy, euphoria even, but for the most part I was living in a hell of my own making. If I had gone back to the funeral, I thought, I wouldn’t feel so alone now. I would have been granted access to the comparative paradise of grief in company. Of belonging. As if that would lessen the blow of his absence or reverse it entirely.
Why didn’t you go back, I asked myself, swinging violently between my lifelong fear of death and my antipathy toward the people and the places that housed old and distasteful versions of myself. Why didn’t you go back. It repeated itself incessantly, striking the body as well as the head.
In a stupor, I shook the gates of the kingdom I once belonged to. I begged to be absolved and let in. But it was no longer clear whether it was sorrow or shame that I felt. Nothing was amidst the din of my banging. I was a child convulsing in panic. Solipsistically circling my shame to deflect from the inexorable sorrow. I lost everything, I said repeatedly, and I am the cause of it.
If I could go back, I told his sister, I would have done all of it differently. This was a few months after the incident. Now, I hear myself saying it, and I wince at the startling arrogance of this conviction. As though I were telling both of us what I thought we wanted to hear. But I knew what I did. I must have. And I knew that there was no guaranteed forgiveness.
Whose commandment, then, did I break? At whose expense did I injure and scorn? I’ve cycled through various answers over the years, but none of them are good enough. And my need to repent knows no bounds.
One summer a few years after J’s passing, his sister visited me in New York. We had already started the process of making amends, but I still felt the space between us, and her body bracing itself for me to err again. This could have been a projection, of course. We reminisced about J, but we no longer spoke about how I didn’t return, and I didn’t dare bring it up.
I remember that I was eager to show her the fruits of my labor. The new life I had tried to build on the ruins of the old. My garden, my kitchen ware, my furniture. I ferried her through the space, proud of my small accomplishments and, also, somehow ashamed I was able to enjoy them. But I felt strongly then that if she approved of it all, she would also approve of me. And I would finally be released and forgiven.
It was as though my examiner had descended the mountaintop to where the wrongful and wicked roamed. That was how I colored her, even though I knew how absurd that was. When she was in front of me, I saw that she was no arbiter of anything. She wasn’t my vengeful god or the decider of my fate. She was my friend. And just like me, she was trying to save whatever remnants of us that were left.
In my room, she began to unpack her bags. Tokens from another world littered like curiosities on my bed. I can’t recall now exactly the sequence of events, whether she announced it before she handed it to me or if it was the other way around, but suddenly he was in my hands, the lightness of his ashen remains belying the gargantuan presence they came from. My body grew very flush, and I turned my back toward her.
I know he would have wanted you to have him.
It was the ultimate gesture of forgiveness. The person who I had ostensibly abandoned handing me back the keys to the kingdom. What more could I ask for after all those years of seeking penance? I held her, the warmth of the years we once shared together coming back to me, but I knew it wasn’t enough.
Maybe my executioner was not who I thought it was: neither my grief-stricken peers nor some vengeful god with an unshakable moral code. Maybe my executioner had always been me.
So much since the incident is a reconfiguration of the same scene. The same dynamics playing themselves out, but with different actors and props and dialogue. My friend’s mother passes, and I rush to her aid, eager to play the role of faithful companion. My best friend dives headfirst into a rock and I scramble to piece him together and save him. I perceive I have committed a wrong; and before the wronged are even able to formulate and deliver a question, I am repenting, beating them to the conclusions about me I know they will draw.
It is likely I would have done all this anyway, but maybe the hunger for rightness wouldn’t be quite so tenacious. The blueprint of the original sin underscored so many incidents and relationships, and with it I was able to build a sturdy home of my suffering, shoring myself, I thought, against the rubble of each new disaster. I reconstructed its beams and hinges and walls each time I saw the space for and the renewed opportunity to seek penance. Maybe I was committed to not rebecoming the perpetrator. But maybe, and I believe this is more likely, I was just trying to save something that was long since dead.
Am I going to be paralyzed?
This is nearly a decade later. My best friend is flat, his skin salted from a lifetime in the sea, shining on the stretcher like a fish.
No, I smile nervously, you’re going to be fine. But my hands are gripping onto his as though he is falling.
Habibi, he says, it’s ok. I’m right here. You don’t have to hold on so tight.
I play the dive on loop in my mind. His body in flight and then crashing, each sequence yielding a new ending. No sooner am I imagining this than I am imagining J mirroring him, his body hurtling through the air just the same, but in this case irrevocably toward death.
After trauma, the world is experienced with an altered state of mind and nervous system. The sky, for instance, is full of sparkling constellations but all you see are warplanes in formation. Your lover turns their back toward you to sleep, and you are convinced that maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but soon they will tire of you, and they will leave. Alarm bells go off in the heart and the head, and there is no amount of mercy you can have on yourself to silence them.
“The emotional brain’s cellular organization and biochemistry are simpler than those of the neocortex, our rational brain, and it assesses incoming information in a more global way,” writes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. in The Body Keeps the Score. “As a result, it jumps to conclusions based on rough similarities, in contrast with the rational brain, which is organized to sort through a complex set of options.”
I am still that child playing Operation. My tweezers poised triumphantly and trepidatiously over the body of my ailing patient. From this vantage point, I can see the breadth of what feels like the whole universe, and it is dizzying.
I consider the anatomy of shame and the vernacular that comes in tow. The limbic system, the cortex, the amygdala, and the frontal lobes. How comforting words can be when everything else deserts you or falls short. How monstrous and menacing they are when they drag you deeper into the trenches of your mind, away from everything and everyone you love.
In my quest to demystify my transgression, to understand the source of what I thought was my ailment, I pursued knowledge relentlessly. Etymology, literature, anatomy, and neurology. No branch was spared, including theology.
The notion of retribution, for instance. I have learned that it has less to do with punishment than it has to do with our present colliding into our past. Originally it was “that which is given in return for past good or evil,” but modern use reduces its meaning to “evil given for evil done.” And the Day of retribution in Christian theology is the day of divine reward or punishment in a future life.
Theology ultimately is founded on myth much like any other branch of epistemology; its narrative and its tendency toward pattern ultimately beguiles me. For this reason, despite my agnosticism, it seemed ironic, fatalistic almost, that the day of my public retribution was around the time that Christ had risen.
At that point, seven years had lapsed. J’s family and I had made enough amends to not only be able to cohabitate but to genuinely enjoy one another’s company again. And while my visit home was brief, it felt like we had made such great strides.
I was told beforehand that she would be there, a friend of J’s mother who also, by proxy, became a friend of mine. A guardian or mentor of sorts. I admired her, but on that day, I also feared her. She was one of the people I had not seen since before the funeral. It felt like something or someone was rising from the beyond and coming for me.
So where have you been living these days?
She was wearing a regal fur coat. Something about the look in her eyes said that she oversaw the killing of the animal it once belonged to. And her hair, it was cropped into a flaming red pixie cut. Beautiful and devilish. I watched the tequila swirling savagely in her glass, somehow already able to intuit from her tone that she couldn’t care less for my answer.
Lebanon, I said, already sensing what was coming, but going through every conceivable formality to divert her. The cheerful and festive decor was an exquisite backdrop for this.
I knew it was one of the L's. London or Lithuania or someplace exotic, she hissed, a dig at my itinerant lifestyle, which she considered inconsiderate traipsing.
At this point, a friend who was standing beside me must have sensed that this was turning into an inquisition because before I had a chance to respond, he intercepted. I listened to him proudly rattle off what I had made of my life since J’s passing, each bit of professional or personal progress recounted was another nail in my coffin.
You know, she said, turning her gaze toward me like a hawk, life still continues in the places you leave behind. There are consequences for what you do.
I sunk deeper and deeper into myself, anticipating the blow.
You should have been there. Where were you.
When I ask my friend now what he can recall from this exchange, he tells me that it looked as though I had an arrow shot through my heart. I do not share his recollection. What I remember more than anything is the heat. How every proclamation delivered, and there were many, felt like another article of clothing being ruthlessly ripped from my small, enfeebled body.
It took me a very long time to understand that my sorrow was the bedfellow of my shame. My life, equal parts a reaction to what I had done and to what I had lost. It took me an even longer time to do away with the tactics that diverted me from seeing myself as I was. Grafted onto my investigation into my reasons for not going to the funeral was something far more maddening and unanswerable. Something that had to do with the twin mysteries of death and life. No amount of flagellating would rightly answer them. And no amount of penance would reunite the living with their dead.
In the space where God and quantum mechanics meet, where the divine crashes into anatomy, is man. He tries, with insufficient tools, to make sense of it all. And sometimes he almost does. Sometimes it is so clear and bright that not even right or wrong can enter it. Man or beast or god.
I remember the small version of myself with those tweezers and that pint-sized operating table. The joy of life reduced to such navigable proportions. The terrors of the world transmogrified into silly plastic ailments. So much has changed since then, the world both a more grotesque and beautiful version of itself, but the urge to pluck and unearth remains.
I hoist my tiny instrument in the air, certain that this time my gaze and my hand are skilled and steady enough to remove what plagues and ails me. To untangle the source of my suffering.
Me, I loved and I lost. I left and then, by will or by fate, I returned.
Shame is ever-present. It is an emotional state that overcomes us in the most intimate moments, but it is also a concept we return to at major historical junctures. In English, it is present in expressions that relate to a heavy weight, to the chest, to a stifling of air. In Arabic, the expressions derive from shyness and modesty, which deal with the eye and the face as sites of individual and collective shame.
This special issue on “Shame” raises questions about how we receive the disapproving gaze of the other. How does our internalization of shame change our self-perception? How do we live shame individually and collectively in the most intimate and historical moments? In what ways do we flaunt the source of our shame in order to confront it? How do we wield shame as a tool for disciplining the self and others? Ahmed Naji, Zeina G. Halabi, Angela Brussel, Omar Mismar, Rima Rantisi, and the Editorial Team at Megaphone, interpret shame in various prose and multimedia approaches. This issue also features unpublished images from Myriam Boulos’s “Sexual Fantasies” project as well as the first Arabic translation of Silvan Tomkins' seminal text, in which he describes shame as "the sickness of the soul."
This special issue was edited by Zeina G. Halabi for Megaphone News and Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal, with the support of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC).
Angela Brussel is an American-Armenian-Lebanese writer and photographer based in Beirut with nonfiction and fiction that have appeared in New Statesman, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and Electric Literature to name a few. She is also the founder of Nour Jan Presents This Diaspora Life, a multi-media project that uses oral histories and archival music to do ethnographic deep dives into diaspora communities around the world.