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Shame, Honor, And The South

So, I’m just home from the trip. I had a great time in Kenosha and Milwaukee, talking to folks about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. I spoke to a book club this morning, and we ended up having a deep and meaningful discussion about the universal themes in the book. There was a Southern lady in the group, and she sparked what was for me an interesting exchange about the shame/honor culture in the South. It illuminated, I think, my sister Ruthie’s behavior towards me, and the dynamic within my family — a dynamic that was quite familiar to my Southern-born interlocutor. Let me explain.

I am constantly surprised when I hear people in town tell me that Ruthie was proud of me, and used to talk about my writing, and how much it meant to her. I never, ever got any of that from her. Never. Isn’t that strange? Yes, but not necessarily all that strange when you think about it in terms of the shame/honor dynamic that rules the South. The cultural anthropologist Paul G. Hiebert has written:

Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.

That’s so, so true of the South. To the extent that I’ve gotten rid of this within myself, it’s because of Christianity. But I still retain a lot of it, instinctively. I have gotten better at apologizing over the years, but I still struggle with it. To apologize is to humble oneself — and that’s not something that comes easy to people imbued with shame-honor values.

How does it play out in everyday life here? Well, loyalty is hugely important down South. To be disloyal to your people, your place, and your family is a source of shame. To fail to stand by them is shameful. For Ruthie, my moving away, and my not accepting their way of life in every respect, was an act of profound disloyalty on my part. I did not do what was expected of me; therefore, I brought shame upon myself. My refusal to feel shame over that was radically disruptive of the system. For her, maintaining a sharp grudge against me for making different choices was required out of loyalty to the things she loved, and to maintaining the only social order she knew. Moreover, she couldn’t openly affirm those choices without, in her mind, losing face to me. I don’t understand this logically, but I feel it in my bones. That’s how the culture is here. As I said, I’m part of it too; my greatest fear is bringing shame to my family, but in my case not over failing to live up to expectations, but by doing some evil, or failing to do some good (e.g., neglecting to speak out against an injustice). I can expiate the evil through sacramental confession, forgiveness, and repentance, including making restitution if possible. But to redeem shame is a more difficult thing.

This is how my sister could talk to people in town about how proud she was of my work, but not within the family. I think to Ruthie, being loyal to me in front of outsiders was important, and a function of dutiful love. For Ruthie, it seems to me, as someone operating fully within a shame-honor culture, “love” is what you do and how you present yourself, no matter what your inner feelings are. To a great extent, to seem is to be. What were her true views? I don’t think I will ever know — and, to be perfectly honest, she might not have known herself. She was not the sort of person to turn contemplative or self-inquisitive.

Along those lines, somebody in the audience at Carthage last night asked me about why I was so self-critical in the book. The answer is that I believe in examination of conscience. Yes, I was wronged by my sister. But I wronged her too. If the sins are to be repented of, and others can learn from my errors, then I have to be as thorough as I can in examining them and taking responsibility for them. I don’t say that to sound all pious, but to say that moral rigor and understanding requires doing this. That is a big, big lesson I learned from the legacy of my sister’s life and death.

By the way, reviews of Little Way still crop up from time to time. Here’s a nice one out yesterday in the Hutchinson (MN) Leader. Excerpt:

But what makes the book terrific are Dreher’s honest observations. He is unsparing in his criticism of the educated, smart, and more than a little egotistical young Rod Dreher, who understood neither his sister, nor his parents nor the community that shaped all of them. But he also discovers, following Ruthie’s death, that she never really understood her older brother, either. And if Dreher had failed to understand the importance of family and place, it was also true that his father had made a catastrophic mistake of making a “false god of family and place.”

But I don’t want to make “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” sound somber and serious. It is, mostly funny, warm and humorous, and Dreher provides all kinds of wonderful character sketches of friends and family. Among other things, we learn that Ruthie “was probably our town’s only homecoming queen who really did know how to skin a buck and run a trot line.”

A word should be said about the author. Although Dreher is known as a center-right conservative, there is nothing political or ideological about the book. And except for a few scattered references to Dreher’s employers, you would be hard-pressed to identify just exactly what Dreher does for a living.

It can be challenging for book clubs to find books that are popular with all members. It strikes me that “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” is not only a wonderful story about family and community relationships, it is particularly well-suited for book club use. I recommend Ruthie Leming’s story, as told by her brother, to everyone.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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