While unconscious shame is by definition invisible, there are a number of highly visible situations where the stamp of shame is so powerful – for those who recognise its clues – as to be unmistakeable. This is in the lives of some celebrities, some criminals – particularly sex criminals – and, unfortunately, in the lives of everyday people where shame has such an overwhelming effect that it leads to tragedy.

Perhaps the most obvious case of celebrity shame is Michael Jackson.

Thriller

Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. At his peak – around 1982’s Thriller album – he quite literally had the world at his feet. Jackson was mercurial, but there was always something not quite right and the wheels came off a once-glittering career. The drugs. The face-lifts. The hermit-like retreat to his Neverland ranch, more of a prison than a personal fiefdom. The claims of sexual abuse that even acquittal by jury failed to dispel. An obsession with adolescent male sexuality casts a pall over him. It seems like some unbending force shaped the trajectory of his life against his will. As Jackson aged he retreated ever deeper into a dysfunctional Peter Pan persona sustained by the drug habit that eventually killed him.

Back to black

What is unconscious shame?

Another musician whose life – and premature death – has all the hallmarks of shame is Amy Winehouse. Described as “the pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation,” Winehouse shot to stardom with the award-winning album Back to Black. But as Winehouse’s successes mounted, so did her problems: violence, manic depression, eating disorders, drugs and the binge drinking that finally killed her. It’s hard to escape the impression that the more popular Winehouse became, the more some internal force worked to destroy her.

Private Shame

Lynndie England - Private Shame

An example that blurs the lines between celebrity and criminality is Private Lynndie England of the United States Army. England became the poster-girl for the rampant physical and sexual abuses committed at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The revelations sparked a global outrage. England was eventually jailed. Yet a sympathetic reading of her backstory reveals a powerful shame that made her vulnerable when she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Blog: Lynndie England – Private Shame

Christmas killer

Deconstructing Vincent Tabac

The disappearance of Joanne Yeates in the run-up to Christmas 2010 gripped the British nation. Tragedy was confirmed on Christmas morning itself, when her body was found with her top pulled up, revealing her bra and part of a breast. Despite Tabak’s claims that the murder was not sexually motivated, a forensic analysis of the copious emotional clues he left behind reveals a man in the grip of profound sexual shame.

Blog: Deconstructing Vincent Tabak

Blindfold sex

The curious case of the blindfold and the strap-on

The next case illustrates how powerful shame can be – and how it can spiral out of control through farce to criminality. In 2015 Gayle Newland was convicted of tricking a female friend into having blindfolded sex using a prosthetic penis. The court case revealed in tragic detail how Newland impersonated a man on Facebook to win her friend’s affection, ultimately leading to the bedroom tryst for which she was convicted. The underlying driver of Newland’s behaviour was her inability to accept her unconventional sexual feelings – by patriarchal standards – which led to this humiliating charade as she desperately tried to express her sexuality.

Blog: The curious case of the blindfold and the strap-on

Common denominator

The common denominator in all these cases is unconscious shame. Its victims typically do not want to express themselves in damaging or criminal ways; they just can’t stop it. The most sensational media stories – those focusing on sex or anxiety – always bear its stamp. Unconscious shame is what drove –

  • The ‘Black Cab Rapist’ John Warboys to sedate and rape over a hundred young women in the back of his London cab.
  • Teacher William Vahey to drug his male students and molest them while asleep. It’s also what later drove three of his victims – and Vahey himself – to commit suicide.
  • Frances Warren to hang herself over anxiety about the colour of her hair.

Indicators

There are various indicators of John Warboys’ unconscious shame. Instead of expressing his sexuality in healthy, consensual relationships, he drugged women with spiked champagne and had sex with them while they were comatose. Warboys found sex so shameful he could not bear to be seen having it. He admitted that he never recovered from the death of his mother when he was 13. It’s a little detail, seemingly insignificant amid the harrowing testimonies of his victims, but actually highly revealing. Warboys was a ‘little boy lost’ who never transitioned into emotionally and sexually mature adulthood.

Like Gayle Newland, William Vahey felt so ashamed of his homosexual urges that the only way he could express them was by molesting drugged students. His victims in turn felt an overwhelming sense of shame at being molested. Had Vahey shaken their hands they wouldn’t have minded a bit, but shaking their penises violated an internal boundary within his victims’ psyches so traumatic that it impelled them to take their own lives.

Prohibitive beliefs

Tabak, Newland, Warboys and Vahey were trapped in a prison of prohibitive sexual beliefs. Under its unbearable pressure Joanne Yeates was murdered, an elaborate sexual deception played out, a hundred women were raped, and unknown numbers of schoolboys were molested, some of whom later killed themselves. The suicides of Vahey’s victims show that these beliefs are not just restricted to perpetrators. They are prevalent to a significant degree in wider society as well; in other words, they are institutionalised.

The case of Frances Warren is less obvious. To most people, the idea of hanging oneself over fears that one’s hair is a particular colour may seem senseless. Yet, for Warren, it was clearly a matter of vital importance. Anxiety is the key element in understanding her behaviour. She was so overwhelmed by painful feelings about her appearance they ultimately drove her to commit suicide. Beneath her anxiety lurked a profound sense of shame about her physical appearance.

“Wrong or foolish”

The imprint of shame does not in any way mitigate the criminal culpability of Vincent Tabak, John Warboys, William Vahey or any others who commit sex crimes. But a non-judgmental analysis of their behaviour – and that of Frances Warren – reveals underlying common denominators based entirely on shame. This sense of shame is both profound and permanent. Yet the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘shame’ as follows:

1 a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour:

  • a loss of respect or esteem; dishonour
  • a person, action or situation that brings a loss of respect or honour

2 a regrettable or unfortunate situation or action

What is notable about this definition is that it ascribes shame to isolated actions or incidents. Only when a person behaves in a “wrong or foolish” manner do they experience feelings of humiliation or dishonour. The word “unfortunate” suggests an element of luck, as if shame occurs by accident, an occasional booby prize in the lottery of life. The general understanding of shame is that we are all free of it except for those irksome moments of “wrong or foolish behaviour.”

The case studies given above show that a permanent destructive force, centered on the emotions, the body, and on sexuality, is at work in many people’s lives. If we are to create a society free of serial rapists like John Warboys, free of the sexual abuse that drove William Vahey and three of his victims to their deaths, and free of the overwhelming anxiety that impelled Frances Warren to end her own life, we need to understand this unconscious shame and the mechanics by which it operates and propagates.