So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: A Gift for Patients and a Jewel for Psychiatrists

May 26, 2015

When our patients share their misdeeds with us, real or imagined, we can point them to examples of people who have experienced profound shame and managed to put their lives back together.

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by Jon Ronson; New York: Riverhead Books; 2015 306 pages • $27.95 (hardcover)

If you practice psychiatry, your practice is firmly rooted within the sphere of shame. Some of your patients may come to you having done something they find shameful and that they fear will be brought to light. Others may have been victims of events, one-offs or in series, which they experience as profoundly shameful. Others will describe the experience of seeking out psychiatric help as among the most shameful admissions of the need for help. For these reasons and others, psychiatrists should welcome the publication of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Ronson’s book is the first comprehensive consideration given to the new world of social media and its ability to take momentary lapses in judgment, suspend them in perpetuity, and allow for public flogging to take place by thousands of anonymous posters. While certainly the stories contained within the book serve as cautionary tales, many of the stories can serve as powerful soothing tools for those in the throes of emotional turmoil.

One evening, while sitting in the living room of our apartment, my wife pointed out to me a developing story on the homepage of BuzzFeed: A PR person from IAC tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She then boarded a plane for South Africa; while in the air, thousands of people started tweeting that she’d be fired once she landed. Of course by the time the tweeter, Justine Sacco, had landed, there was no need to imagine what her face would look like as she deplaned. As she touched down in a world vastly different from the one when she boarded at Heathrow, there was a fellow tweeter waiting to photograph her.

Ronson recounts his visit with Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced former author of best-selling pop-psychology books. Ronson describes his uneasy feeling as he holds the text of the apology Lehrer is scheduled to deliver the next day for self-plagiarizing and fabricating quotes in his books. Although Ronson knew the speech was not good, even he could not imagine the disaster it would become. Ronson describes in great detail the scene of Lehrer speaking amidst a large screen projecting live tweets excoriating the lack of sincerity of Lehrer’s apology.

These are just two of many examples of Ronson’s extended tour through the territory of the publicly shamed. And I chose them with a specific purpose in mind. While Justine Sacco and Jonah Lehrer suffered (one because of a poorly thought out and impulsive action and the other because of years of dishonesty), the shame is not the end of their stories. As we learn in the book, following her shaming, Ms Sacco did volunteer work in Africa and she now has a new PR job. After some time in a metaphorical Siberia, Jonah Lehrer returns in May with new books he has been contracted to write. For these two and many others in Ronson’s book, there was true shaming and true suffering-but also true opportunities to go on with life.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is gift for patients and a jewel for psychiatrists. When our patients share their misdeeds with us, real or imagined, we can point them to examples of people who have experienced profound shame and managed to put their lives back together.

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