Lee Ann Roripaugh

Notes on the Shame Spiral

Fool me once, shame on you / fool me twice, shame on me.

How many centuries did it take birds to learn to avoid eating monarch caterpillars, fat with poisonous milkweed?

How many centuries to recognize the semaphore for danger in the bright stripes and patterned dots?

How many centuries did it take postman butterfly caterpillars to perfect their mimicry of the poisonous monarch caterpillar, so that birds would avoid eating them, too?

Is the thrust and parry of fooling and shaming an evolutionary dance of learned pattern recognition meticulously hardwired and tooled into the slow, deep grooves of instinct? What does it take to forget the lessons of hunger, muscle memory, fight or flight?

Shame spiral:

Define shame:
(a) that you were molested by the boy across the street: what he made you do, what he did to you?
(b) that you didn’t ask to see the gun he pointed at you from inside his windbreaker pocket, which you should have been able to recognize as not being a real gun because, as your parents told you, you are stupid?
(c) that despite having been sworn to secrecy you have, many years later, broken silence?
(d) that you waited so many years to tell?

What is shame:
(a) that you were too drunk to remember giving consent?
(b) that you have no recollection of letting him take out your tampon, put it in a cup?
(c) that because you have no recollection, you didn’t report it as a sexual assault?

Identify the source of shame:
(a) that you slept with the famous married poet while you were his student?
(b) that you should have been old enough to know better?
(c) that you were too naïve to truly understand the inequity of the power dynamic?
(d) that only when you were the same age that he was then, with students of your own, did you finally feel the weight of this exploitation, the weight of his secrets that you carefully protected as if they were your own and in a way they were, and even when you no longer wished to own these secrets you’ve still remained silent, because who wants to admit to having ever been that stupid, to having been that girl?

(You think of how your students trust that you see something remarkable, or beautiful, or deliriously strange in the language they hold inside them, and because you can see this, they sometimes love you for it, and because they love you for it, they sometimes think they love love you for it, because it means you see them, and you can always feel when this happens because there’s a change in the air between you, and they become manifest flesh before you, wild and vulnerable as fawns, and all of this is a kind of joy, this becomingness, but how could you ever think to insert your own desires (your ego, your lust, your emotional neediness) into this becoming, which you have been trusted to witness, but is really in no way about you, nor should it be?)

Confess to the source of deeper shame:
(a) that you became pregnant?
(b) that you couldn’t afford to refill your birth control prescription until the start of the month, and you missed too many pills?
(c) that there were multiple sexual partners, only one of whom you actually loved?
(d) that you had an abortion?
(e) that this wasn’t the first time?
(f) that you had no regrets?

No, go further still, to the area of deepest shame behind the shame:
(a) that the reason you have no regrets is because you survived an abusive household?
(b) that you didn’t trust the tricky helixes of DNA, or the violent nurturing you received, to ever wish to risk passing it on?
(c) the selfishness of wanting other things more: the intricate labyrinthine inner world of art; the soothing pleasures of uninterrupted work; the need to protect your hypervigilant psyche from overstimulation through quiet and solitude; the desire to be able to choose to step out of the lock-step pattern of woman as chain-linked crochet stitch, as conduit, as seed pod; of being unwilling to relinquish a sense of self so hard won, so late blooming?
(d) that you felt survival of that self was somehow all you could ask for?
(e) that you are still, in some ways, damaged?
(f) that you will probably always be, in some ways, damaged?

Shame spiral: Spiral such a beautiful word. The Fibonacci series of mathematically proportionate circuitous galaxy of the nautilus shell, the Guggenheim, the homely escargot. The elaborate curlicue of ornate shell all the way down to Ground Zero. The tender bit of raw flesh that’s alternately too repulsive to bear, or so deliciously vulnerable it’s always in danger of being snatched up and sautéed in a pan with butter and garlic.

Part secreted bean of the silenced self / part preyed-upon seed of meat.

Shell as shame’s decoy.
Shell as the house where shame lives.
Shell as shame’s water-park slide.

How to climb back up after having been unraveled all the way down to Ground Zero, like the clipped yarn of a sweater tugged and pulled down all the way to its originary knot?

What else is there to do, but celebrate that tiny, infinitesimal-in-the-larger-scope-of-things, soon-to-die animal flesh of the body?

To choose escargot: garlic-stung tongue, butter slicking the lips.

To bind the eyes with blindfolds, click the wrists closed with handcuffs and remind the self that restraint can be voluntary and that the cage of the body is finite, that song is only truly song when it is free, that joy can only truly be joy when it is free and how can there be defilement in joy, and o, my contested body, my hard-won miracle, my vessel of self, my flawed and impermanent gift, please sing as you are, and as you choose, because if you refuse abjection and shame, then what else can you be, but joy?


Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004 and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.

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