The Scarlet Letter is not a ‘How To’ Guide

Presidential candidate and former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, wrote a book in 1995 that included a chapter called, “The Restoration of Shame”. He seems to believe that if we spent more time shaming people, we would have a better society.

“One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame,” he wrote.

As a formerly young woman who gave birth ‘out of wedlock’ 26 years ago, let me just say that Governor Bush’s shaming of me would not have helped my life in any way, or prevented my pregnancy. I did not get pregnant because I wanted to flout societal norms. I didn’t get pregnant because enough people weren’t shaming me. I got pregnant because I had sex. I got pregnant because the abstinence based sex ed I received didn’t give me information that would have been useful to know.

There were people who tried to shame me.

They told me I needed to know Jesus.

I already knew Jesus. We’d been friends for a long time.

They told me my child would be a bastard if I didn’t marry Baby Daddy.

The first person to call my beloved and wonderful child a bastard will be punched in the teeth. He is an amazing gift for whom I am eternally thankful. Nothing bastard-ish about him in any possible way.

They told me they would pray for me, that I might see the error of my ways and repent.

What was I supposed to repent of, exactly–not getting an abortion which would have kept all of the shamers from knowing my business?

Bush’s idea of “restoring shame” is a very bad idea.

Brene Brown says many helpful things about shame.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Brown said, “shame drives two primary tapes: not good enough, and who do you think you are? So to me, it’s a very formidable emotion. Its survival is based on us not talking about it, so it’s done everything it can do to make it unspeakable.”

I’m grateful the dominant voices in my life were not the voices of shame I mentioned above. They didn’t try to silence me. They accepted me as I was and supported me through a difficult year, helping me become stronger. I didn’t encounter shame from my faith community and college friends. I received help, encouragement, and grace.

Shame would have isolated me. Grace restored me.

In the shame chapter in his book, Bush wrote:

“Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots.”

It is entirely possible Bush no longer holds those opinions about shame. The book was published almost 20 years ago. He was asked to comment on it this week and declined to do so. I hope he will change his mind.

I also hope he will re-read the Scarlet Letter. It is not a “how-to” guide for shaming and shunning.

The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merle

The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merle

While the townspeople in the Scarlet Letter try to shame and restrict Hester Prynne by forcing her to wear the red A on her clothing, she refuses to let other people define the meaning of that letter for her. She wears the symbol for the rest of her life and puts it on her tombstone.

In Hawthorne’s book, the scarlet letter is a reminder, but not of Hester’s ‘sin’. It reminds us of the evil we commit against each other when we shame and exclude instead of love and restore. Maybe Gov. Bush can find the time to actually read Hawthorne’s book, consider his own life, and worry less about shaming other people for theirs.

We all live lives that don’t turn out exactly as we script them. Rather than labeling other people with scarlet letters, let’s each acknowledge the ways we have fallen short and claim our own imperfect, painful, and beautiful stories. The world could use more authenticity and less shame and judgment.

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4 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter is not a ‘How To’ Guide

  1. Beautiful. I love these lines about the Scarlet Letter, “In Hawthorne’s book, the scarlet letter is a reminder, but not of Hester’s ‘sin’. It reminds us of the evil we commit against each other when we shame and exclude instead of love and restore.” Yes! That is it. –Wendy

  2. I have not ever read the Scarlet Letter. But I have read “Theology of the Body Explained,” written by Christopher West. An excellent read for everyone!! I sense we could learn volumes from its central message that right from the beginning as John Paul II stated, “the guardian of the reciprocity of the gift and of its true balance,” pp. 204…the man should “receive” femininity as a gift, and he further explains, quote, “The woman has…been entrusted to his eyes, to his consciousness, to his sensibility, to his ‘heart’ he, by contrast must in some way ensure…the reciprocal interpenetration of giving and receiving the gift, which precisely through its reciprocity, creates an authentic communion of persons.” All the man can do is receive femininity as gift, and only when the woman freely gives it.”

    I sense those who walk away are in a denial that there was a gift in the first place. Threefold actually. One, we have the gift of birth, the gift of femininity, and thirdly, a participation and cooperation of the Holy Spirit with the union of these two beautiful people. We should value not only each other but the beautiful graces of parenthood. As well, through the beautiful graces of giving and receiving these gifts, I am grateful for the child’s sake, that more and more good people are realizing the love in their hearts to nurture the children in every conceivable way. When we do indulge in affection we should always embrace the notion we are in fact exchanging a “sincere gift of self.”

    I would welcome dialogue but this is not my blog…although, it is my sincerest hopes man begins to realize he has responsibilities to understand these imperatives for a healthy and loving commitment on behalf of the child and mother. Surely they deserve to be loved and cared for. It really is not that difficult.

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