Je m'Accuse!

Ellen Goodman

October 12, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — Boston.---THE WAY I learned it, every American is supposed to be innocent until proved guilty. Under our system, you have the right to defend yourself. And if the accusation is serious enough, you have a right to a jury of your peers.

What I have never figured out is why these rules don't apply to the everyday crimes and misdemeanors of which we accuse ourselves. Why is it that we routinely find ourselves guilty? Why does that jury of our peers look suspiciously like a mirror image? Why doesn't anybody read us our Miranda rights?

Guilt is not a recent immigrant to the New World. Once upon a time, it was associated with that other big time word, sin. There were Ten Commandments and if you broke them you were indeed guilty. To feel the weight of sin on your shoulders in Puritan America was no small thing.

But in the intervening years, talk of sin has receded, and confessions of guilt have proliferated. Today people say they feel guilty about the weight of ice cream on their hips.

For one brief moment in the 1970s, I was OK, you were OK and guilt was a trip. In the '90s, however, guilt is a growth market. It's developed by the diet industry, circulated by the health merchandisers, recycled by environmentalists. And in its improved version, targeted to the most reliable of consumers: mothers.

In women's magazines, guilt appears as frequently as Princess Di. Consider the survey that comes in this month's Working Mother. This is one of the magazines sold to the largest class of potential felons in our time: the women for whom the double shift has doubled the possible scenes of the crimes.

The survey in question is entitled ''Guilty or Not Guilty.'' (Innocence is out of the question.) In its attempt to assess guilt, the magazine offers a staggering list of charges from which any self-prosecutor can pick and choose.

Here is a composite list of the possible ways a working mother can blame herself. It is possible to feel guilty for: not spending enough time with your kids, not spending enough time with your husband, not spending enough time at work.

You can feel guilty because: you are flabby, messy, don't cook enough, don't travel enough or travel too much.

You can feel guilty because: you watch too much television, your sexual desire has faded, you can't go to parties or you enjoy your work more than your husband does.

I suppose if you really work at it, you could feel guilty for all of the above. Or you could plea bargain half of them away and still do ''life'' with no time off for good behavior.

I am not a card-carrying member of the feel-good brigade. An internal code of law and order has value. Guilt can be a prod to change as well as a whip for self-flagellation.

But what bothers me is both the way that guilt has been trivialized and the way it has become a catch-all word for a range of emotions that have nothing to do with blame.

''Guilt'' in my dictionary comes after the word ''guillotine'' and describes ''a painful feeling from the belief that one has done something wrong or immoral.'' One word for two mothers, one who fed her kid junk food and one who fed her kid crack?

You want someone who should feel guilty about his kids? I'll give you Joel Steinberg who murdered his daughter, not someone who missed a school play. You want someone who should feel guilty about work? I'll give you Charles Keating at the Lincoln S&L, not someone who took a slide Friday.

When you look at the questions in Working Mother, there is not a serious crime on trial. But, as increasingly happens, the only emotion that gets registered is one that assumes wrongdoing.

Is the woman who misses time with her kids really feeling guilty, or maybe sad? Is the woman who thinks she and her husband don't have time alone really feeling guilty, or maybe lonely?

There are a lot of difficult, conflicted feelings that don't appear on the self-punishing blotters. Anxiety, concern, worry, anger. None of these words assumes that it's our fault.

I am aware that guilt, especially mother-guilt, has returned like the echo of the baby boom. But translating everything into this word is like mandatory sentencing: One emotion fits all.

It doesn't. We are making charges far too casually. Indeed there is one crime being committed routinely with very little notice. It's called making false accusations. And for that misdemeanor, there's enough guilt to spread around.

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