Shame Can’t Appreciate Beauty (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Part 1)

Growing up, I wanted so badly to believe that God loved me, and yet, I could not. I deeply craved God’s love and would do anything for it, which is what kept me trapped in a cult for so long. I was earnest and tried so hard to please God. Even though I was wrong, I loved God the best way that I knew how, the ways that I had been told to, but I always felt like I never measured up.

In the words of Jocelyn Zichterman (2013, p. 8) “If you had asked me at the age of twenty what my childhood was like, I would have said it was wonderful. I would have told you how loving and kind my parents were. I would have said that they were some of the godliest people I knew and that they had endured great heartache and trial. And I would have assured you that that the Lord had seen them through all of it.” One time I had tried to reach out to someone I thought was a friend to try to tell her what was going on at my house, and she told me to stop slandering my parents as they were good Christian people, that they loved me so much and I was so lucky to have a godly family. It was around that time that my allergy to “good Christian people” began.

Vampires in the 20th century were unable to love, according to Nina Auerbach (p. 60) who notes that Dracula was incapable of loving anybody. Dracula, however, was able to suck the life blood out of people. Love and shame cannot co-exist, because love is the opposite of shame. The very first chapter of the Bible says that God not only created me, but that God created me in God’s image. That God declared the creation of humanity to be “very good.”

But cults cannot control members that way. They focus on Eve eating the damn fruit and thus humans were doomed with a sin nature, before they were even born. It was a part of the genetic makeup of human beings. And yet the two creation stories, that appear in Genesis chapter one, and Genesis chapter two, those were deemed to be a literal account of what really happened. The part that they skipped in those first few chapters was the part about being created in God’s image and being described as very good.

Elrena Evans points out that “The vampire achieves immortality by sucking the life out of another (2010, p. 38). The vampire of shame sucked the life out of me for thirty-four years until I was overwhelmed and figuratively dead and then rose to new life believing that God loved me. Having the life sucked out of me was miserable. I did not recognize that my life blood was being sucked out of me until around my thirty-fourth birthday. One thing that I told my therapist just a few short months before was that I was scared to believe the priest who told me that God loved me, because if I believed it, I knew it would forever change my life, and that was scary. I instinctively knew that it would blow my mind and that there would be no going back.

The problem was that I had been through so much trauma in my life, and shame had been the only constant, the only thing I had to cling to when times got bad. I told my therapist that I wanted to go from surviving to thriving but clinging to shame because it was all that I knew would never bring me to a place to where I could thrive. Shame would never heal me, and it would keep sucking the life out of me until I had nothing left.

I lived most of my life in my imagination, where the world was any way that I wanted it to be, and yet the scenarios I lived in my mind were still full of condemnation and shame. I didn’t know anything else, so it was hard to imagine anything else. It just so happened that those years of retreating to the world inside my head was one of the things that saved my life. I might still have been living in shame, but it was shame for what I felt were legitimate things to be ashamed of. Going from real life shame to imaginary shame somehow felt different but shame is shame and that was the reality that I lived both in real life and in my mind.

I began writing in journals when I was fourteen in 1999, a young fundamentalist teenage girl, growing up in North Queensland, which to be honest is one of the most beautiful places on earth, at least to me. I have been to the wonderfully exquisite Cape Tribulation, in which the rainforest literally meets the sea. The Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef combine into a rare beauty. I have hiked in the bush around a lake that is inside an extinct volcano. I have lived in a small town on the rim of a crater, the red volcanic mud permeating everything and the torrential rains coming down so hard on the tin roof that I had to shout to people in the same room for them to hear me. I’ve broken off fresh sugar cane stalks and sucked the sugar right on out of the cane. I have traveled down a mountain range with over 200 bends in 19 kilometers. I’ve seen the most gorgeous of waterfalls. I have ridden down streets lined with jacaranda trees in bloom with their amazing purple flowers.

Although the beauty of North Queensland can be found nowhere else on earth, it’s hard to notice such beauty when you grow up being abused. The beauty surrounded me every single day and I hardly ever saw it. I got to drink milk straight out of the vat, right from the dairy farm of a friend, before it went out to be processed. I got to play in huge piles of cottonseed on that same farm. My family would go possum spotlighting sometimes at night. My sisters and I made entire tiny villages in the volcanic mud and would play there for hours. We would sit in a wheelbarrow full of water just to try to cool off because it was a hundred degrees outside. My father would take us for rides on his motorbike, to which he would hook up a snow sled so that we could all ride at the same time. It wasn’t in any way safe, but it was fun.

As beautiful as all that was, I never truly appreciated it until I left. I was merely struggling to survive and some days I didn’t care if I didn’t, which is probably why when I got to be an adult, the therapists would write things like “Katy-Anne engages in risky, impulsive behaviors.” Whether I lived or whether I died didn’t matter because both were as miserable and as scary as hell.

References:

Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. 1995: The University of Chicago Press.

Evans, Elrena “There’s Power in the Blood.” Christianity Today. February 2010.

Zichterman, Jocelyn R. I Fired God: My Life Inside – and Escape from – the Secret World of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult. 2013: St. Martin’s Press.

Brutal Force, Will, and Desire (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Introduction)

I couldn’t decide between committing suicide to end the pain now, or to spend an eternity in hell, so when I did make a suicide attempt after over five years of obsessively thinking about it, I only got so far because it turned out that my fear of hell overrode my desire to not live a life of shame. It’s a shame but I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I never planned to live that long. I wanted out so badly, and I’ve always tried to run away from my problems, and it has never once worked out for me. I was in a no-win situation, but at least I was just miserable without burning forever in conscious torment by a “God of love.”

People never know how to respond to me when I tell them that I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist cult in Australia. They think of Australia as such a beautiful country with the reefs and the rainforests, and it’s gorgeous, but that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from its fair share of religious extremists. While Australia is a very beautiful country, growing up in the context of a cult made me not really notice the beauty as I struggled to survive in that fundamentalist society.

I do not remember a time where I did not live with shame. It was ingrained into me before I could speak the word. In this cult it was acceptable to spank babies when they showed their willfulness and their little sin natures. Many, many years later a therapist would tell me that I had low self-esteem, but the fundamentalists did not believe in self-esteem. They said I did not need to proudly elevate myself to think that I was a good person, because I was not. I was told that I needed “God-esteem” instead. Self-esteem was a psychological term and we shunned psychology. I was supposed to live by and believe in a literal interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible and apparently if I did so, my life would be great.

In talking about Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (I love these stories), Lloyd Worley reminds us that the vampire Lestat points out that to make someone a vampire “there need only be brutal force and a vampire’s will and desire,” (86) which totally sums up being raised in a life-destroying Christian fundamentalist cult. We were brainwashed sometimes by brutal force and the cult leader’s will and desire, and it was all carried out in the name of God. This soul sucking cult has destroyed many lives, some are able to leave and rebuild and others are not.

In Hollywood Gothic, David J. Skal says that a Bishop’s wife once described the story of Dracula as “an allegory of sin” (2004, 65) which is one possible interpretation although I go further and use it as a metaphor for shame. Skal goes on to say that “if nothing else, Dracula is a quintessential story of power and control” (2004, 66). Shame coupled with power and control is exactly what I am talking about in this series.

In the cult, they give lip service to the idea of a loving God, but only to where the whole Christian life sounds like a horror movie. I was terrified of frying for eternity in a blazing inferno where not only did you suffer being burnt forever, but worms would also eat my burnt flesh. The book of Revelation in the Bible was used to scare me many times. It didn’t matter if I had “accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for me and asked Jesus into my heart” (which I did with great regularity out of sheer terror), if I did things that went against the beliefs of the cult, I was told that I wasn’t “saved,” because a Christian was a person who was so grateful for not going to hell that they obeyed God, which really meant obeying the pastor.

As Hillary D. Raining says in her book Joy in Confession, guilt and shame are two different things, and I actually never understood that until I read her words as I was preparing to make a sacramental confession one day. She describes guilt as something that you feel when you’ve made a mistake, but that shame makes you feel like you are a mistake. Basically, instead of saying “I’m sorry, I messed up,” which would be guilt, shame says “I’m messed up.”

Shame sucked the life right on out of me, almost consumed me completely as I never intended to live to adulthood but instead had dreams of ending my own life many times because the vampire of shame kept making its appearance.

References:

Raining, Hillary D. Joy in Confession: Reclaiming Sacramental Reconciliation. 2017: Forward Movement.

Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, revised edition, 2004: Faber and Faber.

Worley, Lloyd. “Anne Rice’s Protestant Vampires.” The Blood is the Life: Vampires in Literature. 1999: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.