Édouard Louis and the Limits of Shame

( Photo by Alasdair McLellan)

For years, Eddy Bellegueule arranged the meeting time and place where his childhood bullies attacked him. He wanted to control the conditions of his humiliation. It seems to me that the author, Édouard Louis, has a similar relationship with control. Now a 27 year-old literary phenomenon armed with a respectable pen name and best-seller status, the survivor believes shame can motivate the French ruling class to change. Despite his excoriations, high society has claimed him. At least the Brooklyn bourgeoisie, who paid for his talk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Alexandra Schwartz of The New Yorker, have claimed him. And their decision makes sense. What better proof of one’s enlightenment than reading the tragic, yet uplifting, story of a poor gay boy from the country who climbed to the top of France’s literary scene?

Nervously treading toward his chair in the spotlight, Louis waves and the crowd cheers. Schwartz, a rich white woman who works for a rich white newspaper, walks out a few paces behind him. She asks a series of softball questions about who inspired him and his introduction to theater. Somewhere in his ten-minute uninterrupted monologues, Louis gets comfortable. He removes the navy blue Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie and is now sitting on stage in a transparently white tee. He appears most at ease when discussing the interlocking oppressions of masculinity and poverty.

Sitting in the crowd as one of a handful of non-white faces, I couldn’t help but think, who is Louis writing for? Is it for poor people? Certainly, Brooklyn’s huddled Black and Brown masses weren’t in attendance. Presciently, Louis acknowledges the people missing from the evening’s conversation in the first few minutes. He cautions against the self-congratulatory nature of arts patrons, challenging the narrative that “we’re the good guys because we’re here.” He boldly declares that theater didn’t save his mother or sister’s life. He reminds the audience that while he’s here, back home they are starving. In admirably clear English, he says he writes to shame the dominant class. He wants to them think twice before writing about their privileged milieu in such a time of great peril. He wants his literature to force them to confront the things they’d rather hide and ignore. Everyone applauds.

The talk was primarily about the theatrical adaptations of his two prior novels and his latest work, “Who Killed My Father.” In less than a hundred pages, Louis combines autobiography- childhood memories of his father, with sociopolitical critique of the policies that shaped their lives. He names names- Sarcozy, Macron, and the rest of the French neoliberal political establishment that cut welfare while lowering taxes for the rich. Louis proclaims that Jacques Chirac and Xavier Bertrand destroyed his father’s intestines when they cut dozens of medications from the state healthcare program. Regardless of one’s political views on healthcare, Louis’ anecdotes are designed to evoke an emotional response. In a particularly telling scene of “Who Killed My Father,” childhood Louis leads his peers in a re-enactment of a popular song and dance number as a desperate plea for his father’s attention. All the other children’s parents look in admiration except Louis’ father. Louis describes singing and dancing harder as if to say, “Look! Please dad look.” Eventually his father excuses himself to go smoke. Anecdotes like this problematize Louis’ approach to power and the dominant class. Louis wants the people who ignored his father, and the working poor writ large, to see the destruction they’ve caused. He seems to think their guilt will transform into action, action that can save. But Louis also demonstrates that a defining characteristic of power is the privilege of looking away while imposing the narrative.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a similar strategy to Édouard Louis. The 1963 campaign, Project C (for confrontation) aimed to provoke the Birmingham Police into doing something outrageously violent against Black bodies while being recorded. Viral images of respectable Black people being attacked by dogs and billy clubs preceded the legislative attempts at enshrining equal rights in American law. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” King says, “We had no alternative except to prepare for direction action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.” King and Louis assume that what the powerful need are reflections of their hideousness, of the atrocities committed in their name. They bet on the humanity of their oppressors. While one can debate the efficacy of Project C and the larger movement for Civil Rights; it is impossible to debate the reality that the new laws did not end suffering for poor Black people. In fact, many argue the movement towards integration deteriorated Black American communities irrevocably. Thereby creating new challenges while destroying the communal cohesion that was instrumental in the victories of the 1960s- pyrrhic or not.

After a polite hour of dialogue between Louis and Schwartz, they open up the conversation to questions from the audience. The first hand to go up is white and male. He asks, and I’m paraphrasing here, “if you’re about authenticity, then why did you change your name from Eddy Bellegueule to Édouard Louis? Édouard Louis is a bourgeios name.” I roll my eyes and sigh. Of course this man is asking a question that can be easily answered with a Google search, I think to myself. Louis graciously explains himself and his decision to bury his old name- a common decision amongst writers. It is clear the question was a trap designed to trip up Louis into revealing that he’s actually not as authentically working class as he claims to be. The trap is unsuccessful.

I’d been mulling over my real question for months. I wanted to ask him, do you ever wonder if you’ve been co-opted by the powers that be? Do you ever doubt your resolve to stay honest even as the world ceases to require such? Instead, I opt for propriety and ask a question about something he mentioned in his talk. I ask him what if the bourgeoisie he aims to shame are so accustomed to guilt that they’ve adjusted to it, like the way our bodies adjust to the temperature of a warm bath? He appreciates the question and gives it an honest attempt before throwing it back at me. We are united in our desire for a better answer.

After our exchange, another white man takes up limited time and space to pose a trap disguised as a question. He shamelessly asks Louis why his mother and sister are hungry? It’s clear that either he wasn’t paying attention to the talk or hasn’t read any of his books. Louis patiently indulges him. He talks about how Macron’s recent welfare cuts disproportionately harm women, trapping them in potentially abusive relationships. He undresses his wounds for the voyeurs. We all clap.

I’m curious if shame has ever been enough to spark meaningful change? I’m reminded of the commercials depicting starving children in Haiti that punctuated the after school specials I watched as a child. I recall the melancholy string arrangement and pleas for just $1 per day to save lives. I’m intimately familiar with images of poverty and suffering, but I don’t know what happened to all those pennies I collected for orphans in Port-Au-Prince… Nor the billions in aid that poured in after images of Haitian carcasses were paraded in the media after the Earthquake.

Eddy Bellegueule’s strategy to avoid double humiliation was successful in grade school. Now Édouard Louis controls the narrative and has amassed enough power and prestige that his former bullies can never forget him. But what if power makes you less human? What if privilege isn’t only blinding, but also dehumanizing? What if aside from wearing no pants, the emperor also has no heart? What if our wounds comfort rather than shame? I guess we will have to wait and read.

Haitian-American educator working at the intersection of schools & prisons. I like hip hop, yoga, and politics.