Guilt and the acknowledgment of wrongdoing constitute one’s feeling of shame. It arises when someone recognizes their culpability in an event or events and feel regret and sadness at their part in the action. On a recent episode of This American Life, Mohamadou Slahi, a man incarcerated at Guantanamo for years before his release, speaks with some of the individuals who interrogated and tortured him while at Guantanamo. When Mister X, a man who haunts Slahi’s dreams, spoke with him, Mister X expressed remorse and sadness for what he did; however, he still presented Slahi with caveats, namely that he did not torture Slahi and he believes Slahi is guilty. For all of the shame that Mister X feels, he still expresses that shame in relation to himself, focusing on himself, not outwards to Slahi. This exchange betwee Mister X and Slahi reminds me of George Takei’s and Toufic El Rasi’s examination of shame in their graphic memoirs.
One of the most powerful pages in Takei’s They Called Us Enemy is when Takei talks about the trauma he, his family, and other endured as a result of years of xenophobia and incarceration during World War II. The top panel shows Takei looking over his shoulder, with nothing in the background. The background has dark shadows creeping down the panel, and as Takei looks backwards at the reader, he narrates, “Years later, the trauma of those experiences continued to haunt me. Most Japanese Americans from my parents’ generation didn’t like to talk about the internment with their children.”
Takei points out the that they suppressed the trauma, burying it deep inside their psyches, hoping it would pass away and disappear over time. This lack of discussion, though, caused generational rifts, much like the rifts between individuals who survived the Holocaust and future generations. The victims carried the shame, the guilt, the trauma of the experience while those who enacted the violence moved onward, carrying on with their lives as if nothing happened, even forgetting it and refusing to teach their children about the atrocities they or their ancestors enacted upon others.
Harmony Becker’s second panel on the page depicts four older Japanese or Japanese Americans looking towards the right side of the panel. We see their heads, in profile, as Takei narrates, “As with many traumatic experiences, they were anguished by their memories and haunted by shame for something that wasn’t their fault. Shame is a cruel thing. It should rest on the perpetrators, but they don’t carry it the way the victims do.” The trauma causes them to feel shame, to feel as if they did something wrong that led to their incarceration. However, they did nothing wrong. Rather, the United States government incarcerated them, but that shame and guilt does not rest there. Instead, it rests on the shoulders of those who endured the trauma and their offspring.
That isn’t to say that the perpetrators did not feel shame. Earl Warren, a strident supporter of Executive Order 9066, was Attorney General of California in 1941, and he planned to run for governor. Becker presents two panels early on with Warren. In One, we see him in front of reporters as he says, “The Japanese situation as it exists in this state today may well be the achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort. Unless something is done it may bring about a repetition of Pearl Harbor.” Warren stoked the vitriol against Nissei and Issei, and he knew it. The next panel shows him in a car, looking out of the window, as a crowd chants, “Lock them up!” Takei’s narration reads, “He wanted to run for governor and would do anything to get that office. He saw the division his rhetoric caused.” Warren became governor of California in 1943 and held that position till his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1953 where, in 1954, he wrote the unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
In his memoirs, Warren talked about his role in Japanese incarceration, saying he had “since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating for it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.” He continued, “Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings, I was consciencestricken.” Warren expresses remorse here; however, he does not spend a lot of time of his role in the incarceration of thousands in his memoir. He talks about his conscience, which he should, but he does not talk about the real-life effects of his actions and rhetoric on individuals. He does not talk about individuals such as Takei and his family, the hurt, the pain, the trauma they endured.
Warren’s comments, both in 1941/42 and in his memoirs calls to mind another panel in Takei’s graphic memoir. Becker illustrates Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s December 8, 1941 speech before Congress where he declared war on Japan. We see Roosevelt’s famous words as he stands before the congressmen. In this panel, we see the legislatures in the crowd, but we do not see their faces. They are all blank, white faces. They are anonymous individuals, in this panel, holding the lives of thousands in their hands. They sit their not thinking about the human repercussions of their actions, and the violence and anti-Japanese sentiment that has festered for decades comes up in the next two panels while Roosevelt’s words play over them.
We see two white men vandalizing a car with a bat and paint as Roosevelt says, “The facts of yesterday speak for themselves.” The next panel shows the Japanese family looking at their car in the morning as Roosevelt says, “The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understood the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.” Those men, if they feel shame later, do not show any thought about the hurt and trauma they cause. We see the fear in the couple who comes out in the morning. We know they feel shame, feeling as if they did something wrong to deserve this treatment. They did not do anything though.
This is the unbalanced shame that Takei highlights, and it’s something that El Rassi’s highlights in Arab in America. In the next post, I’ll look at El Rassi and his discussions of shame. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.