We can parallel Lynn and Beatrice’s interaction with feminist encounters that rub us the wrong way. When we meet or approach another feminist, or person in general, and the first impression is anything but pleasant. On the surface, at the physical, material, and objective levels, there seems to be no apparent reason for tension or conflict; at least not immediately.
Countless scholars and activists have thematized some of the relational and problematic dynamics unfolding between Lynn and Beatrice that are tied to subject formation, social structures, and socialization linked to socio-political and cultural processes. As Lynn addresses about DGD variations, “Not everyone was affected equally. They didn’t all commit suicide, but they all mutilated themselves to some degree if they could” (406).
In this regard, there are more tangible and obvious points of contention at play here: unequal flows in power and privilege; generational age differences and ageism; colourism and ethnicity; class differences; employment and education; ableism and sanism; internalized misogynoir; health care bias; unconscious bias; prejudice, and what Dr. Laurie Santos calls, the G.I. Joe Fallacy, the neurological lag associated with not doing better when we know better.
Things are also happening and unfolding that cannot be seen clearly nor articulated as real, such as trauma and emotions intertwined with these other more material processes stated above.
In Dr. Beatrice Alcantara’s sitting room, she explains to Lynn and Alan some of the variables at stake in bearing double DGD children. It is during this discussion that Lynn learns that something invisible was operating in her negative encounter with Beatrice. It turns out that counter-productive collisions are typical for double DGD women, resulting in them having a difficult time getting along with one another. “It’s a pheromone. A scent. And it’s sex-linked” (414).
Dr. Beatrice begins, “Men who inherit the disease from their fathers have no trace of the scent. They also tend to have an easier time with the disease. […] Men who inherit from their mothers have as much of the scent as men get. […] The same for women who inherit from their mothers but not their fathers” (414), she continues. “It’s only whe two irresponsible DGDs get together and produce girl children like me or Lynn that you get someone who can really do some good in a place like this” (414), she says.
Beatrice goes on to explain that while the scent causes a disruption between her and Lynn, for non-double DGDs, their scent brings a sense of comfort and ease, positively influencing others from across psychic fields.
In future examinations, I want to read the negative interaction between Lynn and Beatrice as shame and fear, two of the more difficult emotions to navigate. And in a similar way as Octavia Butler does, as a scent and pheromone emitted by and between the two that circulates in the environment, resulting in a perceived sense of threat of and by one another which influences a change in their behaviour, leaving the two separated and divided.
These invisible variables are important to how we live feminist lives. They shape who we show up for in solidarity. They impact how we show up for some, but not for others. How much shame we are in is in direct correlation with our level of engagement. Shame limits our mobility and hinders our capacity. It can slow us down. It will burn bridges and build walls when we do not pay attention to its accumulation.
As Sara Ahmed’s (2008) work examines, “Emotions shape what we do, how we do things, what we do things with, and where we go. Emotions affect how bodies take shape in social space and how spaces cohere around bodies” (12). In tracing shames’ lines, we are better able to map out just how emotions get in the way of solidarity, as well as when, where, and why.
Shame gets in the way of inter and intra-personal relations, making solidarity messy and difficult to navigate. At our most affected we risk being moved into problematic territory that runs contrary to feminism. How we affect and are affected can result in visceral responses that are not always pleasant or productive. For these reasons, we have to consider the role of shame in feminist solidarity.
What is evident, even without tangible evidence for Lynn, is that something subtle is at play that communicates non-consciously, intuitively, an embodied knowing that Beatrice is to be feared. We read this fear as dislike, incompatibility, or even mistrust. But there are also forces beyond our control (and reach) at play.
Sara Ahmed (2015) and Brian Massumi (2015) both address this through the analogy of a child that encounters a bear in person for the first time and knows instantly to fear it. The child had never encountered a bear before, and had no prior recollection or knowledge of bears as dangerous. Nothing was ever communicated to the child to suggest that bears were to be feared. And yet, the child knew to be fearful of the bear, just as Lynn and Beatrice knew to be fearful of each other.
Ahmed (2015) writes, “When we encounter the bear, we already have an impression of the risks of the encounter, as an impression that is felt on the surface of the skin. So, fear is not in the child, let alone in the bear, but it is a matter of how child and bear come into contact” (7). With both child and bear, Lynn and Beatrice, fear triggers or presents knowledge that can be said to precede and proceed with the registering of fear itself.
Scientists and neurologists may attribute this encounter to the brain and neurology or even the nervous system. For psychologists William James and Carl Lange of the James-Lange theory, first the child perceives the event or external stimuli (the bear), then receives feedback from her body reacting to seeing the bear (for example, she trembles or cries), and only then is she moved to feel the emotion of fear.
Walter Cannon and Philip Bard objected to this theory. According to the Cannon-Bard Theory, seeing the bear is what provokes fear as an emotional stimulus, one that arouses the brain, which the thalamus then sends a message to both the cerebral cortex and the autonomic nervous system that a threat has been perceived. It is this message to the cortex that produces the experience of emotion (fear). Others who espouse Indigenous, African, or Eastern cosmology, those that are into “New-Age” spirituality or located in the social sciences, arts, and humanities may read this differently: as an intuitive knowing-feeling. For Octavia Butler’s Lynn and Beatrice, the interference getting in the way was an invisible scent.
Clearly, the many possible articulations of shame lead to more questions than answers. Further research on my part is required to make sense of shame in scientifically sophisticated ways. How does shame translate for those in STEM and the hard sciences? This signals a multi and inter-disciplinary approach (i.e. chemistry, physics, mathematics, neurology, philosophy).
Admittedly, these areas are not my strong suit, nor an area of study, although of interest for the future.
Until then, I will stick to theorizing and making sense of shame in such a way that allows me to share what I know about it in more tangible terms. I situate my analysis of shame as a chemical substance like pheromones located in subjective psychic fields, able to influence behaviour. These conditions will necessarily divide and separate us.
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Until next time, in solidarity.