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Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them

 

(This was written before The Covid-19 shutdown but it still seems to resonate now, with all of us watching each other on social media and Zoom, and trying to figure out who’s accomplishing the most or being the coolest or the most responsible, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying and why. And most of all, we’re trying to figure out the rules of social engagement during a time of social distance. Let me know what you think.)

In sixth grade bible class, at my Jewish Day School, we learned that embarrassing someone is like killing them. At least theoretically. In the Talmud it says that he who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood, and it would be better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another. We learned tons of other lessons in our mini-law school class that year, but the embarrassment law stuck with me most, because, for me, embarrassment was a daily occurrence. As with most crimes, the commentaries on the bible encouraged a financial recompense for the crime, instead of direct revenge, and I was looking forward to all of that money.

010

“Money for treats?”

Embarrassing me was a common sport among the girls in my class. They’d pull me aside to comment on my bra sticking out, or on my weight, or on my general un-coolness. They’d spent years criticizing me for my hygiene, my clothes, my vocabulary, my intelligence, my height, etc. They even humiliated me in my own home at my sleepover birthday party one year, hurling insults and tissues at me form the attic while the rest of my guests hunkered down with me behind the door to my room. The teachers did nothing. The parents did nothing. This was back when bullying was considered normal and teachers rarely intervened. I’ve been told it’s different now, but I don’t know.

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Ellie’s not sure either.

Being bullied by the girls at school was bad, but my father was the biggest source of embarrassment in my life. The sexual abuse was covert, but his campaign to make me look foolish was out in the open. When I was four years old he told my then six-year old brother to take a picture of me sitting on the toilet – and for this he taught my brother how to use his good camera and how to break the lock on the bathroom door. My brother could barely keep his shoelaces tied at that age, so my father must have worked very hard to teach him such specific skills. He didn’t bother teaching my brother how to develop the picture, though; he made the full-sized print himself, and framed it.

I didn’t know about the anti-embarrassment law back then, but I still felt wrong criticizing my father, even for his obviously abusive behavior, and I was criticized by other adults whenever I did get up the nerve to complain about him. This taught me that I shouldn’t speak up if it might cause my father pain, even if my intention in doing so was to protect myself. Because why should I matter more than he did?

That history has made me very sensitive to my own desire to heap scorn on others. I want to be very careful that I’m being fair in my criticisms, and I don’t want to be mean just because it feels good to be mean. And, after reading more of the small print, I’ve found out that there is more subtlety to the anti-embarrassment law: You’re required to testify in court, even if it could cause someone embarrassment; and, if someone repents and asks forgiveness, you can’t remind them of their past behavior (though it’s unclear how one might know if someone has gone through the full process of repentance, most of which happens in private). So now I’m even more confused. You are directly told to speak up when you see someone doing wrong; but there are all kinds of punishments for having embarrassed someone. How can you know when to speak up and when to remain silent?

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“Why would I ever be silent?”

I started to think about this issue recently when a man I know was following me around. He never threatened to harm me, and he never left scary voice mails on my phone, but he would stand too close to me when I was talking to other people, and follow me to my car, even when his car was on the other side of the parking lot. I did my best to discourage his behavior, by creating physical distance, and not making eye contact or conversation. A normal person would have gotten the hint, but he did not.

He knew about my abuse history, or he’d been told, but it was a further sign of his own psychological and social issues that none of that seemed to register. With my Masters in Social Work in my back pocket, I felt like I should know how to handle his behavior in a compassionate and understanding way, but knowing about his problems only made me feel guiltier for wanting to feel safe.

I tried to tell some of the women around me, thinking they would understand and offer support and advice, but they saw him as harmless. Oh, he likes you, they said, as if I should be flattered. I wondered if I was making a big deal about nothing, except that it was jangling my nerves, and making me scared to go to places where I knew the man might be. Even my therapist pooh poohed it, saying, you’re an adult, just tell him to leave you alone. This, technically, is called minimization and blaming the victim, but she didn’t see it that way.

I wanted the behavior to just stop. I didn’t want to have to confront the man in some way that might embarrass him, or me. But I also wanted other people to notice what was happening and protect me, and no one did. So I finally reached out to someone in authority to ask for help, as carefully and discreetly as possible, and help was offered quickly, and with kindness. The situation still isn’t great, but it’s better. Most likely, I should have asked for help sooner, before the situation became so overwhelming. As it is, I still feel anxious when I see the man, even when he’s doing nothing wrong. But I also feel uneasy about writing this, unsure if I’m revealing too much detail that could allow someone to identify him and cause him embarrassment.

And all of that made me wonder, why do I believe that I have to be so much more careful about not embarrassing him than about taking care of myself? Did I learn that from home? From school? From society at large? And why didn’t I also learn about the requirement to speak up when you see wrong-doing? Was that left out of my education, or was it actively discouraged?

Recently, when I heard that some prominent men were criticizing Gayle King for even asking about Kobe Bryant’s well known past misdeeds, after his death. Some people were going so far as to send her death threats. And I wondered if this emphasis on not embarrassing people is exclusively focused on men, rather than on women.

This is the #MeToo movement encapsulated. Women stood up and said, No more, we are going to speak openly about sexual assault so that men will be stopped. And, immediately, the men invoked their version of the anti-embarrassment law. As if the embarrassment and shame caused by the abuser to the victim is not as important as the shame the victim causes by publicly accusing the abuser. Even if the man is never indicted, and he gets to go back to his regular life, he will already have been shamed. So, with statistics showing at most a five percent chance of a false accusation of a man, all women should be disbelieved, or worse, silenced before they can be believed or disbelieved.

When President Trump complains that his critics are mean and disgusting and causing him harm, there’s some validity to that. People are giving accounts of hateful, and disgusting, and embarrassing behavior committed by the president, and they do intend him harm in speaking up about his behavior. So, are they wrong for causing him harm? Is that the kind of embarrassment that is prohibited?

In my house growing up, and in my world growing up, the answer was yes. You are harming him by accusing him, even if he’s guilty, and you have no right to cause him harm. But, is that what the bible intended to teach us? And if it did, do we have to listen?

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“No. The answer is no.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

90 responses »

  1. Really interesting post, thank you. I’m very sorry to hear about the abuse that you were subjected to. No one should ever have to endure that. Thank you for using your writing skills to speak up. I’m interested in checking out your book.

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  2. You are so right, about all of this. The question now is, what do we do about it?

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    • I think we practice speaking up when we see wrongdoing, with the goal of being as clear and compassionate as possible while still being firm. I’m working on this with Cricket; she gives me so many opportunities to practice!

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  3. If people don’t want to be embarrassed when they are called out for bad behavior, then they should behave better.

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  4. I think people are wrong in causing harm when the accusation is untrue. The he-said she-said nightmare. I got caught in that only in my case the accusation was true. I was new to an area, the guy was well-known and liked, especially by other women. He knew I couldn’t win. So I moved on. You are fighting the battle. I’m proud of you.

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  5. I’m so sorry about your family; that’s just horrible.

    As for the rest, it’s so tricky, isn’t it? We believe our friends and family (usually) and stand up for them, whether they are the accusers or the accused. It’s so much more difficult when we’re talking about a public figure. Why do we have to talk so much about public figures?!

    I enjoyed your book very much. ❤️

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  6. It’s important to tell the truth. That can be done with compassion. A person who has displayed the bad behaviour can choose to feel embarrassed, ashamed or sorry.

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  7. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I’m glad you ate finally able to speak up through your writing.
    Lots of love. Stay safe. 🌌💕

    Reply
  8. I often encounter this problem. Silence isn’t necessarily golden. Sometimes it’s necessary to speak up, however difficult it might be.But other times, it’s better to protect the person who is doing wrong.

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  9. If you allow yourself to be embarrassed by such people you are giving them a stick to beat you with. Careful that you do not fall into the victim mode. I suspect everyone has suffered some sort of abuse in their time even abusers, maybe especially abusers. Either you fight back or you ignore them and let it go, move on, enjoy life … you are the only person who can control that.

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  10. i’m so sorry you have endured this throughout your life and that no one spoke up for you, believed you, or did anything about it. as an adult, we still carry these things with us, as we try to make sense of them, knowing what we knew then, and what we’ve learned since. i don’t feel that abusers or those who practice inappropriate behavior, need to be protected, if they are not dealt with, they will continue, not only with ourselves, but with others. each person who experiences this much figure out how it is comfortable for them to act in any given situation, but know that you never have to feel guilty about it. the victimizer can choose not to abuse, and then does not have to worry about being embarrassed or called out to answer for it.

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  11. I ponder the “embarrassment” question often, though I frame it as “why am I protecting him (or her)?” Based on my life experiences, I believe that women are valued less than men in our society, and children less than women (although boys are valued more than girls). When abuse of boys becomes public, we hear an outcry about the horror of it. But more girls are abused than boys, and the public basically says, “ho hum.” One of the gifts of aging (for me) is that I care less what people think about my speaking my truth. It may not change anything, but I am tried of protecting people by remaining silent.

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  12. Abusers hide in the silence.
    We had a member in our writers’ group. We were all nice and encouraging. Nobody wanted to come out and say that they didn’t like him. He offered me a lift to the meeting one month, and turned up three hours early! I struggled between being nice and polite and asking him in and my gut feeling that was jumping up and down yelling No!
    My gut won and I asked him to wait outside while I got ready.
    I agonized over what I had done for more than a year. Then one of the members phoned to say she had run into a woman who had come to one meeting, then not again. He had made a crude pass at her. We started comparing notes and found out that every female member had been subjected to crude comments, standing too close, and the rest.
    You did absolutely right to keep speaking up. I guarantee that you are not the only one he is ‘testing the boundaries’ to see how far he can push.
    Not embarassing someone is a rule that requires BOTH parties to behave in a civilized manner.
    If someone grabbed your handbag and ran away with it, you wouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, yes? You are worth infinitely more than a handbag. But we have been trained to think we are not.
    What your father did was despicable.
    Apologies for the long reply.
    Strength and blessings.

    Reply
  13. Thank you for having the courage and strength to share your story. Having endured a terrible forge, you clearly speak now with a wisdom that is eloquent and transcendent. Thank you for your honesty and strength.🙏

    Reply
  14. Thank you for courage and honesty. Your story was both humbling and transcending. The strength of your sharing is staggering. Peace and blessings to you 🙏

    Reply
  15. The struggle between wanting to stand up for oneself and not wanting to cause embarrassment is somewhat common, I think. Perhaps the best way to think of it is to make a distinction between embarrassing someone else (with bullying, and so on) and someone’s own actions being the cause of their shame (because they did something cruel.) You are not bullying or embarrassing someone by standing up for yourself – the responsible party for their embarrassment in that case is only themself.
    I do wish more people understood just how hard it can be to stand up for oneself.

    Reply
  16. I had to sleep on this and I still cannot think of a right thing to say. Either those women know what this man is like or they don’t have a clue. Whatever, I trust them not. And your therapist–I would drop her like a hot potato. I am sure there is a relationship there, Rachel, but her comment to you was so off-the-cuff. She knows you. She should know that it would be difficult for you–for most women–to tell him to just leave you alone. I am glad you spoke with someone in authority. I hope this doesn’t happen again, but getting an authority figure right away sends a message that you mean business. Good luck to you.

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  17. Great post. You nailed; right on target. It’s good as adults that we question lessons learned as children. Especially some of those taught by our faith leaders who, in some cases were so far behind the times or wrapped up in dogma that they couldn’t foresee the potential harm they were causing. I am a man of faith. Faith in the world and faith that there is something greater than I and if one chooses to refer to that as god, that’s fine. But I don’t believe the Bible or any other written account in any religion is divine. It’s man made and written to serve men, not “god”. Raised catholic the Bible is what a I am most familiar with. There are good stories with written with both good and political intentions. How one interprets it is what makes the difference. Unfortunately some interpret it for malicious intent or worse weaponize it. In your example of embarrassing someone, if that person knowingly did wrong they should be embarrassed for their acts and acknowledge it, apologize, and be held to account. If your religion teaches against doing that I respectfully disagree and hope the teaching is modernized for the good of the faithful who follow in the teachings. Your posts are often very thought provoking; I look forward to them. Thank you for opening up as you do; it helps others to self examine which is always good.

    Reply
  18. This is such a helpful study and review. In calling out wrongdoing (I mistakenly first typed wronggoing, though that might fit as well), embarrassment like offense should be risked. Hiding behind these barriers also hides the truth and inhibits justice.

    I don’t like being embarrassed. Who does? And we can keep in mind the converse–raising dignity. Your work is dignified, as it is reasonable. For your losses, inside and out, I’m sorrowful. For your sharing now, I’m thankful.

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  19. I’m glad you spoke up about the man who made you feel uncomfortable, even though it took so long to find someone who took it seriously and offered help. The point isn’t whether or not he was trying to threaten you, the point was that you did feel threatened. And we all get to make our own boundaries and have the right to enforce them in a firm, but non-aggressive way.

    Reply
  20. Good post. Your compassion and consideration for others in these circumstances is amazing Rachel. I agree with Ann about the point being you felt threatened.
    As a child, I embarrassed easily. Other brother capitalized on that and was always teasing, not always in what I would consider now a ‘brotherly’ way. My sister always goaded me into arguments, especially in front of her friends, to make her look good with her put downs. Eventually I refused to rise to the bait and it was she made to look foolish.
    Like you I was ridiculed at school for my weight, chewing my nails, and being useless at sports and languages, but this was by the staff more than my class mates. It affects us. It lowers our self esteem, makes us nervous and self conscious in company, and for years all I wanted to do was blend in with the woodwork.
    I still blush, but laugh instead of worry about it. I am my own person, comfortable in my skin and content with the person I am.

    Reply
  21. “Don’t rock the boat.” “Don’t air the dirty laundry.” “If you don’t have something nice to say then don’t say anything at all.” These are the messages many of us received as children with or without the kind of abuse you describe. It was invariably meant to preserve a status quo that served to protect the family at the expense of the members of the family. Even now, speaking up about past abuses brings the charge of “If it was so bad, why didn’t you say something sooner.” I say, bravo for telling it like it is. If you are uncomfortable and the people around you do not honor that, they are not allies but complicit.

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  22. This made me wish my mom was still alive so I could thank her. When I was a kid, there was a guy at a local store who would rub up against us kids. One day my mom gave us money and said to go get ice cream. None of us moved. She asked why not and we told her the guy was weird. She said, “come on” and off we went to the store. “Wait here,” she told us as she went inside. About 10 minutes later, she came out and told us to get our ice cream. I have no clue what she said, but he never bothered a single kid again. I so wish you’d had someone like her in your life.
    As for the Me Too movement – I have mixed feelings. There were guys were just plain jerks in my life, and guys who were creeps and mostly they were all young and stupid. Do they deserve to be publicly shamed now? I once danced on a table in the middle of a bar, drunk as a skunk – do I deserve to be publicly shamed for that now? (My grandchildren were appalled when I mentioned it one day)

    Reply
    • There’s a big difference between dancing on a table and actively hurting another person, but, interestingly, I think you are right in believing that our society would shame a woman for being “wild” or “loose” as if it is the equivalent of being destructive and abusive. Very interesting! And I love the story about your Mom!

      Reply
  23. To me, the distinction between the anti-embarrassment law and the speaking up law is when the embarrassment is an end in itself. The girls from school were not speaking up to stop you from creating a harm. It was an end in itself. Your father’s behavior was not seeking justice. It was an end in itself entirely to benefit his own harmful desires.

    And, yes, I think our society and culture had a big part in making you reluctant to speak up–and most women. I have heard that the book “The Gift of Fear” talks about this, but I have not read it myself. And, yes, it is a patriarchal society.

    I am sorry for the girls and for your father and for all the ways we fail each other in this life. But, I am so relieved that when you spoke to someone in authority about your follwer, you were believed and that it was handled better than some of your other situations.

    If we could just teach our children that caring for each other and being kind is the greatest and most noble thing we can do and be . . .

    Many hugs to you.

    Reply
  24. Hi Rachel. I was genuinely sad to hear of the pain you suffered as a child and even as an adult. You mentioned a couple of situations which in my opinion do not provide enough detail about the situation and why those involved reacted as they did. Regarding Gayle, the gentleman that called her out and called her names as reacting as a black who felt that once again black men were being attacked. Gayle was pushing negativity about Kobe over something that had happened many years ago and had been debated thoroughly. It seemed inappropriate for her to bring this up again in light of his death. She was trying to embarrass Kobe in death.

    Regarding the president, I am not sure the media is trying to harm him rather they are calling out his behavior which some feel is harmful and inappropriate. Unfortunately, some feel that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. So… when the president criticizes the world the media criticizes him. Neither is productive.

    You stay safe and if you do not feel comfortable speaking up for yourself look to trusted people to do it for you. Do not wait. You should not suffer or worry about hurting others when you are feeling hurt. Prayers for you and those you love. Stay safe.

    Reply
  25. Thank you for writing this, Rachel.

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  26. You are very brave Rachel.

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  27. Macrine Jangu

    Great piece. Opening up about it is a really good step towards recovery
    Great piece

    Reply
  28. Very well written! I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this struggle, and I understand it all too well. I remember being in 3rd grade and being called to the principle’s office because of a story I had written for English describing some of the abuse I was dealing with. The principle questioned me long and hard about whether or not I was the child in the story and wanting to know if I was in danger. I was too scared to admit the truth. Terrified would be a better word. I’m not sure there are any “good” or “right” answers to your questions though. I’ve been taught that the way to tell if repentance is real and complete is that the behavior stops – COMPLETELY. Being human, we all make mistakes, but, the abuse cycle is all too real.

    Reply
    • Most children don’t tell when confronted like that; that’s why writing stories or drawing pictures or playing it out with toys and dolls are the preferred ways to deal with children. A fierce adult asking direct questions is the surest way to get a denial.

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      • One of the lessons I had to learn in dealing with being a victim of abuse was that abuse hurts the abuser as much, if not more, than it hurts the victim – but on a very different level.

        His spiritual progress is blocked, dammed if you will, by the abusive behavior.

        Recognizing that fact (finally!) meant that since my pleas fell on deaf ears when it came to my husband, that meant that for his spiritual and emotional well being, it was incumbent upon me, the victim, to speak privately to those in authority so he would have a better chance of repenting and truly changing.

        In my case, it didn’t help and we later ended up in court, which ended up with him in prison. Sadly, even that didn’t help him as he blamed me for the fact that he was in prison. I no longer have contact with him so have no clue if he ever truly came to grips with his behavior and repented or not, but I sincerely hope and pray that he did.

      • This is giving me some insight into another aspect of the rebuke law in Judaism: there’s a clause that if you think your criticism will fall on deaf ears, or that the person you are rebuking will turn on you in anger, you’re not supposed to confront them. And I was confused by that clause; I mean, why should his unwillingness to change stop me from speaking up? But I wonder if the idea is, one, don’t put your life in danger by focusing a dangerous person’s anger on you, and two, don’t take on responsibility for the other person’s willingness to change. I’ve often felt that if I were just more brace or more convincing then I could change more lives, but maybe the lesson is that, past a certain point it’s just not about you. It’s their resistance to change and their responsibility.

      • Exactly. Each of us is responsible for becoming the best person we can be. Beyond raising children and teaching them correct principles and giving them examples in how you live your own life, none of us have responsibility for another person desire/willingness to change.

        I now (thankfully) have a wonderful husband, but no matter how good he is, there are still occasionally things that are an irritation/annoyance/challenge for me. But that’s the key. They are problems for ME and it’s my responsibility to change my attitude, not try to change him.

  29. Thank you for sharing this. I was a shy, sensitive, quirky kid (still am!) who had more than her fair share of bullying too. I felt alone then but it helps to realize you’re not alone, even after the fact.

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  30. The above article is nice and interesting, thank you willing to share! Greetings success of admin Aqur Printing wish you deign to visit my website, thank you 🙂

    Reply
  31. Today, I decided to read your latest post. Why? Because you have been this stranger who always liked my posts. I was not sure why you did it, but it sure provided me strength, that someone somewhere finds my stuff of value. I am sorry about what happened to you, the bullying, the sexual abuse, the ongoing dangerous situations. I went through the same.
    Please take care and thank you for your support.

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  32. So sorry Rachel about your terrible memories. May you go from strength to strength.

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  33. Rachel,

    I sincerely hope your writing has the healing power for you that it has for your readers.
    This piece is conversational and engaging, It is clear that it is born of pain as well as a true search for the understanding of why and how this beautiful gift of life can get so confounding. You do a great service in the sharing. Thank you!

    Blessings!

    sarah

    Reply
  34. You should not have to be so much more careful about not embarrassing him than about taking care of yourself. #MeToo is important because truth is important.

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  35. This was a great piece. I can relate because I’ve been abused as a child, and bullied in school too. I wrote a book about my experiences as well and it was incredibly rewarding. I’ve also done some speaking engagements too, which inspired others.

    I truly think that when people are mean and belittle others, they should be called out for it. I always say, “To belittle is to BE LITTLE.” It’s true, it’s something that small-minded people do.

    When they behave that way, it’s because they are hurting. It’s tragic that people feel it’s easier to be nasty because to be nice would mean to be vulnerable. They have such a fear inside them they can’t up their game, they can’t grow, and they can’t be nice. They are stunted in their growth. I avoid people like that because they will continuously try to hurt you unless they go to therapy or work HARD on themselves. For the most part, most people don’t change though.

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  36. I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through and I’m glad you were able to find help in dealing with this current man. I hope you are in a safer place now. I’d be changing therapist if I were you but I’m glad you are independent and intelligent enough to have seen their “advice” as completely useless. I have downloaded your book, review to follow when I get finished xx

    Reply
  37. I think that men tend to think they are somehow entitled to tell women and girls when they are doing something they don’t like. They do this because they can. If they did it to a man they would get punched. They know they are unlikely to get battered by the woman. Women do it to other women but tend to gossip to other women instead of being direct. Part of the ugly side of human nature.

    Reply
  38. I wish you great success with your book. Hi there. I am going around the neighborhood introducing myself. My name is Marc. My blog contains excerpts from my book The Driveway Rules. It contains memoirs about growing up with undiagnosed autism. I hope you stop by.

    Reply
  39. I really empathize with you…your Dad was a real pickle, wasn’t he? Very sadistic. Unfortunately some use religion like a weapon to wield over the innocent, like a spider setting it’s web…I am so glad you endured and are who you are today!

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  40. It saddens me to know how you were treated as a child and girl growing up. I don’t do any religion anymore because of its abuse by emotionally disturbed, power hungry people; and now Iam closer to Spirit than ever. Hugs Rachel. You are very much loved.

    Reply
  41. The reader wants to scream at the intentionality of the embarrass and that the victim is expected to live with it, amicably. One who embarrasses another, embarrasses himself, but that never helps the victim. Thank you for the writing.

    Reply

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