In New York’s Meatpacking District, Ronson met up with Jim McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey who was notorious for “never pardon[ing] anyone.” Years ago, McGreevey was a family man and an astute politician who was backed by Bill and Hillary Clinton during his 2001 run for governor. He prided himself on Machiavellian policies, and he enjoyed his new place in New Jersey’s elite. But all the while, McGreevey was hiding a secret—he was gay. On a campaign trip to Israel in the mid-2000s, he began an affair with an Israeli man named Golan, and he brought Golan back to America, giving him a trumped-up job title and an opulent office.
This passage introduces Jim McGreevey—a man who was, for a long time, living with a crushing amount of shame in his everyday life. By relaying McGreevey’s journey through his struggle with shame in a time before social media’s mainstream dominance, Ronson pivots to an exploration of how real-world cycles of shame can define a person’s life.
The media and those close to McGreevey became suspicious of Golan’s role in the administration. So McGreevey began distancing himself from Golan, and within weeks, he received a letter from Golan’s lawyer, threatening to sue McGreevey for sexual assault. McGreevey held a press conference in which he came out, admitted to his affair with Golan, resigned the governorship, and retreated to an Arizona clinic to undergo treatment for PTSD.
Golan publicly shamed McGreevey after McGreevey, it seems, didn’t preserve the terms of their relationship once they were both stateside. The fact that McGreevey had to be treated for a psychological affliction following his public shaming shows, once again, just how powerful a force shame truly is.
McGreevey told Ronson that he was excited to hear that Ronson had interviewed famed psychiatrist and expert on shaming James Gilligan. In the 1970s, Gilligan began working with prisoners and mental patients throughout Massachusetts. There were many suicides, homicides, riots, and other violent incidents taking place in these facilities, and Gilligan initially assumed that the perpetrators were psychopaths. But upon arriving in the prison system and getting to know some of the prisoners, he realized that many of them “felt dead inside” due to traumas they’d experienced earlier in life. They were committing violent acts just to feel something.
Ronson continues exploring the real-world ramifications of shame, honing in on the effects shame can have on a person’s personality and psychology. The numbness and disassociation that shame creates can make it possible for people to do terrible things. It can also inspire them to seek retaliation for earlier shamings or humiliations. Shame, once again, proves to be a powerful force that can completely alter a person’s existence.
These violent criminals, Gilligan found, were united by a common thread: they were all overwhelmed by shame. Every act of violence, Gilligan asserted, was a response to feelings of shame, humiliation, or disrespect. The childhood traumas that many of these men had endured were so shameful to them in adulthood that violence became their only way of replacing shame with self-esteem. Inspiring fear in others earned these men respect. In prison, the respect they’d gained through violent offenses was stripped away, and the officers in charge humiliated them—their renewed feelings of shame, then, inspired new and different violent tendencies. It’s no wonder, Gilligan told Ronson, that “mortification”—a word whose Latin root means “death”—is a word commonly used to express shame.
Gilligan’s research led him to believe that shame can be equivalent to emotional death—so much so that one word for shame, “mortification,” also literally means death. According to Gilligan, shame can completely erase everything a person was and replace their personality and psychology with new, disturbing facets. Once again, Ronson is reminding his readers that shame has the power to completely overturn and corrupt a person’s existence, leading to more cycles of shame and violence.
Thinking about Gilligan’s words, Ronson found himself looking at Jonah Lehrer’s story through new eyes. He recalled Lehrer’s discomfort with displaying emotions, and how that discomfort had led the online mob to label him a “sociopath.” But now, Ronson was imagining the need to “turn off some emotional switch” that Lehrer described in the wake of his shaming.
Ronson recalls having a major realization in the wake of his conversation with Gilligan; he realized that shame can turn pain to numbness. This numb feeling that many shamees experienced explains why Jonah Lehrer and Max Mosley wondered if they might be “sociopaths” in the wake of their respective public shamings. Actually, it seems that their responses were quite normal, and that response is reflective of the tremendous psychological weight of shame.
Throughout the 1980s, Gilligan devoted his life to running experimental therapeutic communities inside Massachusetts prisons. These communities were all about establishing a space in which prisoners felt safe and respected. Gilligan also helped get some prison guards into treatment—these men had often suffered traumas, as well—and violence in the prisons began to drop. Gilligan tried to pioneer an education program run by Harvard lecturers within the prisons, but the governor, William Weld, decimated the program because he didn’t believe criminals should receive “free college education.”
Gilligan embarked on a mission to try to mitigate prisoners’ shame and humiliation by treating them with dignity, giving them some power over their lives, and helping to bolster their self-esteem. But this passage shows that the state actually doubled down on trying to increase prisoners’ general sense of shame by denying them the rights to education, to rehabilitation, to empathy, and to community.
Ronson visited the Hudson Country Correctional Center in Kearny, New Jersey, whose therapeutic community was quietly run by McGreevey. McGreevey accompanied Ronson on his tour, and as the two of them walked through the halls, McGreevey described how negative time in prison could be, but he said that care and attention could stop prisoners from building walls around themselves or resorting to violent behavior. McGreevey wanted to help people find forgiveness and a way out of their shame.
When people responded to shame or trauma by committing violent or illegal acts—either to regain a sense of control or due to a sense of emotional numbness—the state shamed them further by confining them to prison and taking away their humanity. McGreevey sought to carry on Gilligan’s legacy of treating prisoners humanely in order to counteract the inhumane treatment that had, in many cases, landed them in prison in the first place.
Inside of the therapeutic unit, 40 women were living, working, and taking workshops on sexual abuse, domestic violence, and anger management. The women could check books out of a library and read to their children over video calls. As Ronson joined McGreevey and a number of the women in a circle for a group meeting, he jotted down some notes—he wasn’t allowed to bring a recording device into the room—and noticed that the women in the circle kept making reference to what one inmate, Raquel, had done to land herself in prison.
The unit that McGreevey was running was attempting to restore humanity and agency to the lives of the prisoners within it. By doing so, he hoped, the program could actually end the cycles of shame that many of these prisoners had found themselves entrapped within for years.
When the meeting was over, Raquel herself ran up to Ronson and began telling him her story. He wrote it down as quickly as he could. Raquel was sexually abused as a child. She was constantly told that she was worthless. She got married at just 16, and she and her husband would hang around bars and mug drunk people in order to make money. After her son was born, she tried to turn her life around by moving her family to Florida—but the cycle of abuse continued, and Raquel often hit her son and daughter. Eventually, her son accused her of child abuse, and Raquel was arrested. Raquel had thrown a knife at her son during an argument, and she was being charged with attempted murder in the first degree.
Raquel responded to the shame and abuse she endured as a child by falling, consciously or unconsciously, into repeated patterns of shame and abuse. By abusing her son, she was bringing more shame into her own life—and causing shame within his, too. This illustrates how cycles of shame, trauma, and violence spin out of control from generation to generation.
Six months later, Ronson accompanied Raquel and McGreevey to a meeting at Newark City Hall, where Raquel’s legal team successfully convinced prosecutors that Raquel was the victim of a cycle of abuse. She was told that she’d serve four more months and then be released. The shaming cycles that happen in prisons, McGreevey asserted, don’t rehabilitate or change people—and most people aren’t violent, unrepentant criminals who need to be locked away forever.
By positioning Raquel’s actions in the context of a cycle of abuse—and the shame and violence that accompany abuse—her lawyers were able to help humanize her in the eyes of the court. This passage is significant because it shows that while shame has the power to derail a person’s life, what shamed individuals need is a fresh start—not to become further entrenched in an inescapable cycle of shame and dehumanization.
Raquel’s story convinced Ronson even more deeply that “vengeance and anger” in response to human wrongdoing was the incorrect position to take. Once Raquel was released to a halfway house, she was able to find resources that would help her move past her shame and begin life anew. And Raquel had committed a far more serious offense than Justine Sacco or Lindsay Stone—yet the public still refused Sacco and Stone forgiveness for reasons Ronson could no longer understand.
Raquel had done many shameful things in her life—but she’d finally managed to find a way to stop the cycles of shame and abuse that had defined her existence and begin anew. Ronson found it peculiar—and distressing—that people who’d been publicly shamed on social media for silly online antics couldn’t reach the same point in their journeys through shame.