Entry from May 17, 2002

At his sentencing to life imprisonment for spying, the former F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen said the following: “I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it. I’ve betrayed the trust of so many. I opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I’ve hurt them deeply. I’ve hurt so many deeply.”

Unless the reporter didn’t hear him correctly, his saying that he was “shamed” is an interesting social datum. Twenty or thirty years ago he might have said that he was ashamed — which was the word used in those days to express one’s response to shame. Shame itself was something that lay in the power of others. You didn’t get to decide if you were shamed or not. At best, your saying that you were shamed would be seen as a mere statement of fact. And, of course, lots of people who were shamed by the things they did didn’t recognize the fact. Such people were called shameless, since the sense of shame that would have made them sensitive to their own shame in the eyes of others and, therefore, ashamed of themselves, seemed to be absent.

But Hanssen seems either not to be quite at home with this old language, which was so familiar to earlier generations, or else his choice of the word “shamed” in preference to “ashamed” was an attempt to control a process that is inherently not subject to control. By announcing his shame himself, he may have thought that he could forestall or mitigate the shame that would otherwise accrue to him from his truly shameful acts. Hence his mention of his wife and children — as if they were the only ones among those whom, he acknowledges, have been “hurt deeply” who were worth mentioning by name — is also a plea for sympathy and an attempt to stem the tide of shame that must inevitably overwhelm a man’s family along with himself.

Alas, shame is without compassion or any sense of fairness whatsoever. Mrs Hanssen and the bairns did nothing, but they will have to suffer anyway. That’s why she was quoted a few days later, on finally breaking her silence about her husband, as saying that “I would just like to disappear.” Who cannot sympathize? She can no more disappear than we can relieve her of her burden of her shame. But is there not some honor to her, too, in her apparent decision to stay married to her husband, and to visit him in prison. So are married couples connected for better or worse in spite of themselves. As Tennyson’s Merlin puts it in describing marriage:

My name, once mine, now thine, is closelier mine,
For fame, could fame be mine, that fame were thine,
And shame, could shame be thine, that shame were mine.
So trust me not at all or all in all.

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