The American Heritage Dictionary says an archaic meaning of stigma is “a mark burned into the skin of a criminal or slave; brand;” the term has evolved to connote attitudes of disgrace or disrespect toward social abnormalities and “inferiors.” However, the plural stigmata carries very different connotations of religious honor and high esteem: “Marks or sores corresponding to and resembling the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, sometimes occurring in religious ecstasy or hysteria.”
St. Francis of
received stigmata, and the church canonized him as well as other bearers of stigmata. Hysteria suggests the disrespect with which our modern culture generally views such phenomena, the beliefs that have surrounded them in the past, and the stigma that has always been and continues to be attached to mental illnesses: “abnormalities” of thinking, feeling, and behaving that “normals” shy away from, ridicule, or punish. One constant in the evolution of the term, is that the bearer of stigmata—criminal, slave, or saint—suffers. Assisi
I was five years old, my first year in a small rural school, when an early memory of feeling stigmatized was formed. It was in the spring of the year before a town meeting, likely part of a Social Studies lesson. I can still see vividly that setting: gray-haired teacher sitting in a chair, half-glasses perched on her nose, children clustered around, most sitting at their desks, a few like me standing close to her, looking at the annual town report from which she read the list of town poor. Our family’s name was first on the list.
I remember nothing else about the occasion except the shame I felt so promptly and profoundly that it must have been conditioned by earlier economically shameful events that I have no conscious memory of. I knew that poverty so great as to get your name listed in a public report was a disgrace.
The mark that left has never left me. Regardless of whatever success or failure or financial security I attain, I suffer, at times, a sense that I am suffocating at the bottom of whatever social heap I find myself, that I am trying to squirm my way up—ambition—into what I imagine is the fresh air at the top, or squirm my way out—isolation—and escape the confines of the heap entirely. Though I often force myself to act on the former rather than the latter urges, I mostly want to do the latter whenever I feel that flush of shame at some seemingly inconsequential slight. Family born into, school, family created, work, community, nation, world— all are social heaps, and the larger the heap I imagine the greater the suffocation feelings, at times.
We carry many stigmata imposed by culture: shames about gender, sexual orientation, and other preferred sexual behaviors; shames about race, ethnicity, religion; shames about a variety of disabilities considered abnormal. Some of my most troubling shames concern events associated with mental illnesses in my family and the stigma that surrounds them. Over the more than three decades since my son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I have worked very hard at refusing to allow social image to govern my feelings and actions with him. Still, I am often too embarrassed to appear in some public places with him when he is most acutely suffering symptoms—poor hygiene, gesturing to his voices, laughing loudly at “jokes God tells.” In allowing my behavior to be controlled by shame, I not only bear stigma, I support it and pass it on. That adds to my shame, and it breaks my heart.
Normalcy is a social construct; it requires early and sustained training. We all mostly grow up and mostly learn to suppress and repress, to manage our image, to pretend we are fine all the time. We do this so successfully that we lose touch with our most basic desires, and the stigmata do not show much in what the world sees. We lose our selves. We become normal and stigmatize the abnormal. This makes all of life tragic. But those afflicted with a chronic and disabling mental illness are, by definition, unable to conform; and they are routinely stigmatized for their poverty as well as for behavior. They squirm their way to the outer edges of the heap where they are ignored, harassed, or abused. They suffer more from stigma than from the economic, mental, or emotional effects of their condition. They isolate, neglect self-care, and retreat more and more into beliefs that are at odds with social norms. Their most important and intimate relationships are wounded by stigma effects in ways that are never fully healed.
The persistent stigmatization of the poor and the mentally ill costs the whole society. It costs money, a lot of money, for life-long care of these disabled many of whom, but for the effects of stigma, could be taxpayers. And it costs in feelings of despair and powerlessness of them, their families, and all who would like to care for them. It costs the world in the dreams of power through violence that it spawns and that some like Jared Lee Laughner act out. When normals will react violently in protest against dehumanizing and disrespectful treatment, is it any wonder that some of the mentally ill will do the same and become the highly visible ones in the media—criminals, chronic drug addicts, sex offenders, serial killers, child or parent killers?
The wonder is that, statistically, people with mental illness are not more violent than the “normal” population. However, the statistics only consider criminal violence. If socially sanctioned violence is considered—war; abusive treatment in asylums, jails, and prisons including capital punishment; institutionally hidden and thus socially sanctioned sexual assault; political assassination—socially normal people with power to exercise are far more dangerous than the stigmatized mentally ill.
Surely these costs are known to all who think seriously about this issue, and yet stigma is still the primal glue of social cohesion. Paradoxically, it affects behavior in ways that keep the glue cracking. Slaves, ethnic and religious minorities, women, homosexuals, the jobless—all publicly revolt against cultural norms at great personal and social costs. History provides a record of social infrastructures continuously coming unglued by such revolts.
Families feud and break up. Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies show the disastrous effects: Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear are all ashamed and enraged by suspected betrayal of family-loyalty expectations. Churches splinter, and nations war and fracture. Fundamentalists of all faiths often torture nonconformists. Wars all over the
Middle East and the West continue an ancient family feud among the descendents of Abraham—Jews, Christians, Muslims—about revolting from approved ways. Hitler and his Nazi followers, ashamed and enraged at suspected impurities, exterminated them as fast as they could. That war divided nations all over Europe and the Middle East. The painful hangovers continue with revolutionary protests now occurring all over the Middle East.
But surely we are making progress as a species with these social ills, aren’t we? Women, homosexuals, blacks, and other racial and ethnic minorities, for instance, in this country are no longer routinely stigmatized institutionally by our laws. At least not as much and not as overtly? We have a black president. And consciousness raising has turned the tables by stigmatizing insulting and disrespectful behavior and language directed at certain classes so that at least some groups of people enjoy some respite from the most overt ridicule and abuse that was normal practice only 60 years ago. Things are slowly getting better, aren’t they? Shouldn’t we be patient with the slow pace of social evolution?
We ought to rest uneasily on any progress laurels, for there are compelling reasons to retain moral vigilance. The numbers in the largest and costliest classes of people—the destitute poor, the mentally disabled, the criminal population—are not declining; they are increasing. Who constitutes the largest numbers among the poor? Women, children, racial and ethnic minorities, the mentally ill. Who constitutes the largest numbers among the criminal population? Men, minorities, the mentally ill. That covers a lot of human territory.
I seem to be on a tirade here, cursing the darkness of human suffering. I hoped, as I always do, that this post would light at least one candle of understanding that could illuminate a direction at least, if not a genuine path, toward change in the way we socialize our children, and in the way we treat our unsocialized. Perhaps the next post, or the next book, or . . .
Here, a very early memory, among my earliest: A consequence of being poor and on welfare is that the state nurse visited us regularly when I was very small. She pronounced my outie navel a rupture and taped a coin or button on it every time she came. As soon as I could get away, I ripped it off. If it was a whole quarter, I rushed to the village store and bought a Peppermint Patty and Orange Crush—ecstasy. I never wore that cure. My navel remained abnormal until I gave birth the first time whereupon it became normal on its own. It has remained so to this day, except for later months of other pregnancies at which time it is normal to have an outie. I enjoy this memory. I see it as a time when I acted naturally instead of normally, when I simply tore away the patch on my abnormality and let it protrude.
The suffering of stigma comes from the terrible tensions between social requirements and natural impulses as Sigmund Freud so eloquently explains in Civilization and its Discontents. I yearn to put myself and my world in harmony with nature by doing something as simple as tearing away the patchwork. Simple but not easy. What is difficult is the willingness to change ourselves, to tear away our own prejudices without waiting for applause from the crowd, and then to pass on our experience whenever and wherever we can. Thus we might, one by one, become a crowd and transform the world.