- Ruth Schocken Katz
Through the Coaching Lens -Time (BBC)
Shame is a universal human experience, yet most of us haven’t been taught how to integrate it and process it when it bubbles up inside us. Unsurprisingly, shame, in its different manifestations, is a recurring thread in my coaching practice. The three-part series, Time, is an immersive experience that reveals some of the underlying machinations of shame, as well as the many representations of men’s attempts at processing it. As such, it can offer us a removed, yet profound way to study shame and its impact on various people, including ourselves.
Time is a bleak and hard-hitting prison drama, which focuses on the story of Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) who enters the prison for 4 years after a drunken hit-and-run accident, which cost a man his life. Opposite him is the tale of his prison officer, Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) who has been working at the prison for 22 years. His impeccable record begins to go sour, when his son, serving a short sentence in another prison, is subjected to harassment by a network of prisoners, which only Eric can suppress by illegally smuggling drugs into his own prison.
The thread that weaves throughout all three episodes is that of shame, which is ever present, and is the instigator of all that happens both in and out of prison. It becomes evident that crime often occurs when men are dealing with shame they cannot contain. Interestingly, the series beautifully highlights how the judicial system punishes them, by inflicting, and at times weaponising shame. Challenging prison politics, humiliations, and hierarchies all are manifestations of it, and impact all participants in the penal system.
Inflicting shame on one another becomes a manifestation of ‘power over’, as opposed to ’power with’, as describes by Brene Brown. Power over is established cruelly, by instilling fear and subjugation, as opposed to power with, which is shared, and is established through empathy, support, and vulnerability, and ultimately results in empowerment. In this series, the various characters are dealing with the repercussions of ‘power over’, where their honour is threatened, and the shame that is felt and experienced as a result.
Mark’s cell-mate, Daniel, ended up in prison for murdering another young man at the pub, in a confusion over whose beer glass he was drinking from. This seemingly minor mistake, would have exposed Daniel as having only £1.20 left on a Saturday night. Daniel explicitly says that the shame of being caught so embarrassingly short of cash, made him transfer the argument outside, which then snowballed into a flight and then the murder of his opponent.
Similarly, another prisoner who murdered his best friend at the age of 13, has already served 20 years of his sentence, but still refuses to reveal what was said between them which made his best friend not want to be his friend anymore. He doesn’t say it to the parole board, and he doesn’t say it to the bereaved family. He simply cannot utter it. When he finally does, we are told that he confessed to his best friend, at 13, that he loved him. Seemingly not reciprocated, the shame of this exposure led him to kill his very best friend. The shame around confessing this, means that he has been withholding it from his parole board, even at the cost of his continued prison term.
Throughout the three episodes, officer McNally is pressured to break the law and commit a crime, by the prisoners under his command. He gradually turns from jailor to prisoner. Smuggling drugs into the prison is the only way he can protect his son, serving a sentence and being harassed, in another jail. Officer McNally is thus humiliated by being subjugated to the prisoners, losing his moral superiority and status. His own fatherhood is tested this way, and he sacrifices his freedom to maintain his self-respect as the protector of his family. His inability to hug his son also conveys shame in displays of affection and vulnerability.
Shame is everywhere in this drama: in prison and outside of it. From the inability to express emotions, to violence between inmates, stolen lunches, disrupted phone calls to name just a few examples. All seem to attempt to rearrange the hierarchies and power, assert honour and therefore inflict - or indeed, hide - shame. The prison system is a system that enforces power over, using shame as a weapon. One inflicts power which is humiliating to others, and when they fail to concede, they are punished again by having their faces smashed to pieces, their shame is evident for all to see. Outside of prison, shame takes the form of alcoholism for example, both as a way to numb the discomfort, and a notorious cause of shame. Family members are ashamed of each other, and of themselves.
Six years ago, I participated in a court case as a jury member. It was a manslaughter case which again, occurred during a drunken fight ignited by some disrespectful behaviour from one group to the other. The idea of having to protect one’s honour, or the shame that follows if one fails to do that, was powerful enough to lead to such devastating consequences. This experience made me reflect on the role of shame in instigating other types of crime, from corruption and theft, to fraud, and other violent, and abusive, crimes.
The phenomenon of "Honour Killings", in which male family members kill a female family member for ‘tarnishing’ the family honour, should probably be named shame killing. Shame and honour are intertwined, as when we experience shame, we feel the loss of honour, and when we don’t care about our honour, we can be shameless. Of course cultural differences may affect what is considered shameful or honourable. But as they are so closely related to each other, it can be argued that shame and honour are the two sides of the same coin.
The issue, which is plain to see in this series, is that something dramatic has to shift in how we define and respond to shame, how we talk about it, how we process it, and how we live with it. We all experience shame at various points in our lives, but it is the inability to deal with the vulnerability felt as a result, that makes shame so disastrous. Similarly, shaming others becomes a crushing tool which is soul destroying. Our coping mechanisms with shame are so immature and inhibited. It makes me wonder how shameless incarceration might promote actual rehabilitation, in which people could leave the system more emotionally literate and resilient, and able to imagine a different future for themselves and their place in the world.
In my practice I often encounter the vulnerability and shame experienced by my clients. I encourage them to try to navigate the stories and narratives they feel they should live up to, but feel they are failing. In other words, recognising a story that hasn’t served us or caused us a degree of shame, that may have been around for a long time, requires hard work and courage to change. The ability to let go of it, and imagine a new narrative is terrifying, especially as we have put so much into trying to make it happen. Additionally, clients often look for tools that would help them share their emotions more clearly, communicate better, and stop the constant judgemental voice when they feel something they think is “negative”. Letting go, accepting ourselves and our shame, is ultimately the only way to find presence and a new direction if we are looking for one.
In Time, Mark eventually regains his freedom from prison after two years. His real freedom however, comes from the fact that he accepts living the rest of his life with his shame. He goes to speak to the wife of the man he accidentally killed, and shares how he will never hide his drunkenness - his weakness, which led him to kill. He says he owes that to his son, to himself, to her, and especially to the man he killed. Owning up and sharing his vulnerability, is the only way which he can let others learn from his terrible mistake and prevent something like this happening to someone else. In fact, owning up and sharing his vulnerability takes him from ‘power over’ to ‘power with’. He becomes empowered, to share his story, to learn from it, and teach others, and to realign his actions with his values. In not being ashamed about his shame, he uses verbalising it as a means to reduce its power over him. Also, in reframing shame as a value, Mark brings it into the light of acceptance. As such, it becomes his path to redemption.