I Refuse to Let My Father's Shame Continue



It was James Baldwin that said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

It’s hard to know where to start with Édouard Louis’s latest book, Who Killed My Father, but I could do worse than to refer to the genius of Baldwin. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I found I was hooked from the moment I turned to the first page and read, “Although they stand close together, neither can reach the other. Sometimes they touch, they come into physical contact, but even in these moments they are apart. The son speaks, and only the son, and this does violence to them both: the father is never allowed to tell his own story, while the son longs for a response that he will never receive.” 

When I was fifteen, my bedroom door opened, and in walked my father. Despite having music on full blast, I was aware that there had been some form of commotion in our kitchen moments earlier. I smiled, as did he; neither of us speaking. He reached for the suitcase that was stored in my wardrobe, and smiled again, before closing the door. Since a heart attack a few months earlier, my (at that time sober) father was struggling with anxiety, which was causing friction in his relationship with my mother and ended with his leaving our home. Faced with a threat to his life - most likely caused by years of drinking, smoking, and neglecting his body – tasks as mundane as leaving the house served only a terrifying reminder of his own mortality, one that he was not eager to indulge. 

Here stood a man, living in fear that he may not live another day, still incapable of articulating himself because he had never equipped himself with the tools to deal with his emotions. My mother, leading with love and patience, desperately wanted to listen. But my father, taking himself off to their bedroom at 6pm every night, refused to talk. The void became too large. My mother, unable to give more of herself to my father. My father, incapable of looking such love in the eye, for the shame that revealing weakness would bring. Weeks later, I was told: “Your Dad is drinking again.” 

"When did you begin to feel ashamed? This is what I would ask my father. Was it when the boys in the playground taunted the boy who cried? Was it when you looked to your own father and found little expression of love?"


At the time, I was so shocked by the events that I was numb to what was happening around me. Now, I look back with sadness, but overwhelmingly, pity. “Is it normal to be ashamed of loving someone?” asks Louis. When did you begin to feel ashamed? This is what I would ask my father. Was it when the boys in the playground taunted the boy who cried? Was it when you looked to your own father and found little expression of love? Was it when you began to understand the silence expected of you in order to belong to the category of ‘man’?

As a child, I remember apologising to my mother for saying “I love you” too many times while she was trying to get on with housework. I remember the cards I used to make her at school, and the excitement to see her face when I gave them to her. I remember how I would run into her arms when I came home from the childminders. 

What is a mother, if not a powerhouse of adoration, care and warmth? I remember that saying “I love you” to my father was uncomfortable, it always lingered in the air, unreciprocated, for a little too long. I don’t remember making many cards for my father, and the ones that I did make I asked my mother to give him for me. I remember that when I came home, he wasn’t there to greet me, and often not there at all. What is a father, then? I do not know, how could I? I know only a man enduring an unspoken battle with feelings of love and all-consuming shame.

Entirely unable to grapple with the reality that relationships with his daughters and his wife required genuine communication and emotional investment, alcohol called his name. For a man that carried so much shame that he could not articulate his love, could therefore not receive it in its raw, vulnerable form. Louis’s experience with his father’s oppressive masculinity comes in the form of his father’s homophobia. Mine comes in the form of alcoholism. 

We live in a world in which a man’s shame can be so overwhelming that they walk away from their children and their families, ashamed to give in to something that may be emotionally rewarding. We live in a world where intoxication can become the only avenue for a man’s expression. We live in a world in which a man’s shame can drive him to refuse emotional support until support can no longer be given. We live in a world in which a man’s shame can cause him to disown his own child, for fear that they do not conform to patriarchal masculinity. Put poignantly as ever by Louis: “Shame was my birth certificate. I was born in shame. I am the son of shame. I was created by shame. As soon as I would talk, my father would lower his eyes, because he was ashamed of the way I would talk. It was not masculine enough for him.” 

"In the past few years, I have given a lot of thought to the uncomfortable hugs my father and I shared, the rare, awkward “I love you” and the absence, both emotional and physical. I have often thought about all the sons who will fall victim to their father’s shame, and how the cycle will go on."


I am now eighteen, and the torment of masculinity follows me still. Months ago, now, my father, in what I can only assume was his darkest moment, started to call me up whilst drunk. Drinking for my father isn’t controlled escapism, it is drinking to oblivion. Drinking to the point that waking up the next morning is no longer guaranteed. In one of the hardest drunk phone calls I received, (forgetting the sobs that had occurred only moments earlier) my dad slurred: "Hey, don't worry. I'm Irish. I was in the fucking army." The sad irony that Louis also notes in his own father, is that most often, men are entirely incapable of conforming to what their shame wants, to the rigid regulations their masculinity requires. Every time my father gave into drink, picked up the phone and cried to me on the other side of it, he gave in to his emotions and let himself feel. In a tragic paradox, whilst killing his body, the alcohol was opening him up and giving him an expressive ability, that whilst sober, shame kept guarded.

Throughout the book, Louis puts a strong emphasis on the political consequence intrinsic to masculinity. In interviews he often refers to his father’s rejection of schooling, because growing up, wanting to conform to the traditional masculine narrative meant not paying attention, and choosing physical work over academia. When I was first introduced to words like “commodity”, “reification” and “objectification”, I understood them as exactly that: words. Yes, I understood their political meaning, but I didn’t understand the literal effect on the physical bodies of the working class. 

Louis’s father was a street sweeper, then a factory worker whose body was so damaged by these occupations, he eventually became forcibly unemployed. “You belong to the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death”, Louis reflects when looking at the state of his father, who hasn’t stopped suffering since the injury he was subjected to at the factory he once worked in. In his most recent example of political violence towards the working class, Louis writes: “The government of Emmanuel Macron withdraws five euros per month from the most vulnerable people in France… It thinks the poor are too rich, and that the rich aren’t rich enough. Macron’s government explains that five euros a month is nothing. They have no idea.” It is with an emotional, passionate eloquence that Louis articulates the fatal mix of masculinity, and the physical oppression that have dictated and tormented his father’s life. Louis’s experience with his father’s masculinity has the same diagnosis, only different symptoms.


"I think of the son I might raise, and the love and the care that I will instil in him. He will grow up to express his pride in everything and everyone he loves. I won’t make the mistakes that generations past have made, over and over."


After putting the book down, I couldn’t help feeling that the question, and the answer to Who Killed My Father will one day be my own reality. When I write about the tragedy and violence of masculinity, I am not writing from a neutral standpoint. I have seen the consequences of a man’s shame. Like Louis, I am the daughter of shame. When I read Who Killed My Father, I understand that it is an epidemic, that my father is not alone, and that I, too, am not alone.  

In the past few years, I have given a lot of thought to the uncomfortable hugs my father and I shared, the rare, awkward “I love you” and the absences, both emotional and physical. I have often thought about all the sons who will fall victim to their father’s shame, and how the cycle will go on. I have thought of the families, like mine, like Édouard Louis’s, which will fall apart, because a man’s shame will become too much to bear. 

I think of the son I might raise, and the love and the care that I will instil in him. He will grow up to express his pride in everything and everyone he loves. I won’t make the mistakes that generations past have made, over and over. I find comfort in the people around me, the young men in my life, writers like Édouard Louis, and their refusal to let shame and silence win. 

I may be the daughter of shame, but I refuse to stand by and let another generation of men pass through life, tormented by the shame of masculinity. Let our generation be the last generation of shame.


Follow Tallulah on Twitter: @BrennanTallulah