~ Shame and Disclosure in the Curious Case of Lance Armstrong
A Personal View, by Paul Woodward
The world recently watched with anticipation as the most successful championship cyclist the sport has ever seen perform an extraordinary series of disclosures in his highly publicised interview with Oprah Winfrey. Despite many years of staunch denial, supported by a mercilessly aggressive campaign of defence against almost all detractors, including libel actions upon both friends and colleagues alike, Lance Armstrong finally came clean to the world, and admitted he used performance-enhancing drugs to clinch the once legendary championship victories that had inspired so many.
I don’t know about you, but it was, for me, a uniquely unsettling experience. It wasn’t just due to the squirm factor of watching a publicly disgraced man attempt to seek absolution through trial by TV. Nor was it embarrassment at watching a man making a last ditch attempt to claw back some remnants of a career for himself. It was something else, something deep inside of me that stimulated these acutely uncomfortable feelings.
I think it was the extraordinary sense of disconnection between Armstrong’s body and language and voice that initiated my anxiety as I watched his, on the surface, entirely candid and no holds barred confessional performance. I kept wanting to feel him, to somehow find a way to access why someone as famous and successful as he is would do something that would directly lead to one of this decade’s most extraordinary and spectacular falls from grace.
In being denied this I found myself shouting at the TV screen and berating him. It took a while for me to realize that there was something in his words and behavior that was suggesting an underneath, a terrain of the unspoken. Both his demeanor and his predicament haunted me because he himself seemed to be haunted. I slowly began to understand that my irritation of him stemmed from something surprising to me – a sense of recognition. In my lifetime as a gay HIV positive man I recognized in Lance Armstrong something of my own ghosts, my own autobiographic hauntings, and of my own journey towards their exorcism through disclosure.
I am not going to infer for one second that this article is anything approaching an analysis or spurious exposé of Armstrong’s sexuality, it is merely a personal reflection of how I am coming to terms with my own recognition of some of his actions as a way to understand them.
A life of phases
Like all good ghost stories, we begin with a paradox. Lets face it; Lance Armstrong has always been a bit of a contradiction, hasn’t he? Especially when it comes to his desire to be an incredibly public and exposed persona, and at the same time his opposing drive to avoid any detailed analysis of himself and his life. Indeed on the one hand, he has been quoted as saying, “your past forms you, whether you like it or not”, only to pull the smokescreen down on interrogating this notion with phrases like “athletes don’t have much use for poking around in their childhoods, because, introspection doesn’t get you anywhere in a race.” Like any ghost chase, the game of finding the real Lance Armstrong has proven to be rife with frustration.
There seem to be a number of Armstrongs’ out there, each of them carefully delineated into chapters or phases of his life.
- Phase One: Childhood rejection – of which Armstrong has been rather quiet about in comparison to his later life,
- Phase Two: Wounded Storyteller – Armstrong and his battle against cancer culminating in the writing and worldwide publication of his autobiographical inspirational book It’s Not About The Bike which expanded his job description into the realms of motivational speaking, inspirational thinking, philanthropy, and of course superstar of sport and celebrity.
- Phase Three: The iconic rise of a validation junky – The hard to swallow period of fame and flashy lifestyle came next swiftly conjoined with his extraordinary multiple wins at the Tour de France, a phase which has continued until only recently.
- Phase Four: The Fall from Grace – in which we witness his spectacular decline, and at the mercy of Winfrey’s surprisingly confrontational line of questioning in front of millions.
Phase 1: Childhood Rejection
Compared to his loquaciousness in later life, Armstrong remains significantly taciturn about his early years. The basic facts of his upbringing suggest a genesis of haunting: His mother gave birth to him when she was only 17; his father abandoned them both when Armstrong was two; he refuses to this day to meet his biological father who he refers to as his “sperm donor”; his mother’s second marriage a few years later didn’t last, and Armstrong himself admits that he never bonded with his step-father. These basic facts alone suggest a tempestuous early childhood of failed attachment and emotional trauma. Psychologists suggest that it is common for children to internalize such painful events as shame – and as such characterize this as an inner deformity or sense of ugliness. The child’s belief of the presence of this compels them to deny or cover up their feelings of unbearable shame, and in order to do this effectively a new persona is constructed – a persona that presents an idealized or false self to the world. A defining characteristic of this constructed image is a heightened sensitivity to criticism, as after all, it is in itself a defensive mechanism. The wound of shame must be covered up at all costs lest it be exposed to a world that might be harsh and rejecting of the already sensitive and hurt child. It takes a lot of effort to keep this false protective persona facing the world, and all the while there is half acknowledged awareness that the self the child is presenting to the world is a lie. Fear of exposure can seem like something akin to death itself. It which point I pause to ask my fellow gay men out there: Is any of this sounding familiar yet?
Phase 2: Wounded storyteller
So stepping in to phase 2, we see an Armstrong battling cancer and doing something extraordinarily courageous, an act for which he was universally lauded. He spoke out about it. He disclosed his health status, as an athlete in the thrall of disease, and in disclosing became a poster boy for those engaged in similar battles with their own body.
In his groundbreaking and influential text The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness & Ethics, Arthur W. Frank suggests that everyone will experience an affliction of the body at some point in their lives, and as such will occupy the positioning of a ‘wounded citizen’. In this situation, the process of healing might well be aided through the creative ritual of storytelling. The crucial act, according to Frank, is to ‘find one’s voice’ which the experience of being ill and its ensuing treatment has conspired to take away.
And it is Armstrong who perfectly illustrates this act of narrative defiance through typifying the wounded storyteller role. This is the point where many readers of his novel started to allow him to speak for them also – others who may have lost their voice in their struggle with illness. Indeed my own first reading of It’s Not About the Bike came at a difficult time of adjustment as my body journeyed towards wellness after taking HAART for the first time. Reading Armstrong’s words of encouragement, as he ventured through the agonies of chemo, and his miraculous recovery process – something strange and unique happened. His journey started to merge with my own experiences as I fought the effects of HIV in my own body. It was a deeply relational experience that helped me through a tough ride. It was in this sense that Lance Armstrong became totemic, not just to my narrative mythology, but also to countless others.
Though lets pause for a second and think about what happens when we merge these two phases of Armstrong together. Imagine a young boy mired in shame and internalized feelings of shame and ugliness. Imagine that same boy as a man who is then inflicted with a discrediting disease, which targets his source of manhood and so compounding feelings of deformity through shame. Imagine the resourcefulness that it took to then turn this shame inside out and speak out against his disease, whilst leaving his real dis-ease of shame hidden from view. Imagine the sense of power that was bestowed upon him by the act of being flooded with adoration and validation from all over the world. Imagine how much that would change a person and their perspective of the world. Imagine the sense of it being like a balm to the soul of a deeply wounded man in full thrall to the internalized belief of his own unworthiness and ugliness. Imagine how driven one might become to sustain that adoration, approval and validation, and the lengths one might go to in order to, ultimately, feel worthy of it.
Armstrong’s legacy to others didn’t stop with mere identification however. His testimony became a call to arms. Arthur Frank suggests that in ‘wounded storytelling’ there is an inevitable intersection with the ethical. Armstrong didn’t just speak out to survive as a cancer survival stratagem; he spoke so that others might be empowered to speak their own stories. Just as I had allowed Armstrong’s compelling narrative disclosures to speak for me, I then in turn, felt compelled to make public my own disclosures. In accepting Armstrong’s clarion call to speak for others who might not at that point have the power to do so – I too felt enabled to follow him in claiming dominion over an illness that was attempting to claim my body, and steal my voice.
In this sense, it’s easy to see just how powerfully Armstrong achieved such an iconic status so quickly in the public eye around the globe. His acts of disclosure inspired countless others to emerge from the closets of their own relationship to dis-ease in their own bodies. It also goes to explain, conversely, why people are so angry with him now. We invested in him. We invested in his stories. His victories were our victories. He was the hero in all of us.
Phase 3: Iconic Rise of a Validation Junky
And so Armstrong became our poster boy for resilience, integrity and pride in the face of adversity. But no sooner had his rise to high esteem in the public eye begun, than the perils of a phase increasingly governed by validation, also became clear. Armstrong frequently exalted the love of his loyal ex-wife Kristin Richard in his book, deeming her many times to be an angel in his life. Yet we then saw how she was unceremoniously dumped just as her now recovered husband’s star was ascending. A newly found rock and roll style lifestyle saw Armstrong dating all kinds of models and other celebrities, most notably the actress Kate Hudson and the singer Sheryl Crow (to whom he got engaged then promptly split from a year later). Again, I pause to ask – Isn’t this kind of desperate seeking of validation familiar to us as we move from the trauma of shame as a young boy to the need to compensate for shame as adult gay men? We often feel we need more and more validation to act as a Band-Aid over the wound those years of invalidation had caused us to suffer, or as Dr Alan Downs puts it:
The man who is driven to avoid shame by hiding his dark truth. Famished for authentic validation and without a reliable sense of self direction, he develops a sophisticated radar for those things and people who will make him feel good about himself (The Velvet Rage- p.16)
We become haunted by our need for validation, like a drug. Similarly, the more validation he received the more Armstrong seemed to crave in the public eye, and his need for validation knew no ends. He eventually got to the point where his own boundaries between ‘lying’ and ‘deceiving’ became totally blurred so suit his own ego and its relentless addiction to the validation and rush of success. Look at his words he uses when Oprah asks him if, at the point of taking drugs he had the thought that he was cheating
I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way.
The ghosts of denial are howling away and at this point even Armstrong doesn’t seem that convinced. His mask is slipping. His protective persona is crumbling.
Phase 4: Fall From Grace
What became clear to me watching Armstrong’s enacting his multiple disclosures was that there was a lack of tangible relief as the truth finally came to the surface. In fact his body seemed to be telling another story altogether. Instead of a gestures and postures denoting an emotional purging of compressed feelings Armstrong performed gestures in a way as to signify mastery over ones body and therefore ones state of mind. Armstrong appeared somehow hunched yet his hand gestures enacted the classic ‘steeple’. And his right leg was tightly placed over his left at right angles and rarely moved from this position throughout the interview. Both gestures are held by body language experts to be calculated body signifiers performed to denote the holding in of power. Such leadership signifiers suggest both an outward confidence whilst being a defensive positioning to protect others from seeing what is really going on inside. Armstrong, in other words, was performing disclosures whilst holding on to the really powerful and much deeper reasons and motivations for his actions. We know a real and heartfelt apology when we see one because we experience or feel it in our own bodies in relation to an others. As viewers second hand to this event we were denied the true power of a disclosure moment because Armstrong’s words were in direct contradiction to his body.
Ghost Rider Vs Velvet Rage
But what is this unresolved toxic shame in Armstrong and where did it come from? In his seminal book The Velvet Rage Dr. Alan Downs draws on his own experiences as a psychologist and researcher of the effects of toxic shame in the lives of gay men. Through a series of case studies and observations Downs describes the struggles most gay men have with unresolved feelings of shame and anger inherited as a result of growing up gay in a heterosexual world.
In the updated 2012 edition, Dr. Downs reflects upon the effects of recent social, cultural and political changes on cycles of avoidance and self-defeating behaviors. He shares a vision of a state of awareness in all cultures, both gay and straight, about the debilitating effects of shame in everyone’s lives:
It is my dream The Velvet Rage will bring a deep change within you and every reader who picks it up, and together we start a movement that frees our world from all the ways in which shame blocks people everywhere from experiencing the joy and contentment that lays just beyond those dark walls that imprison the human spirit (xvi)
It is in the spirit of Downs’ vision then I would like to extend his analysis of the effects of shame on the individual subject to the case of Lance Armstrong as revealed to us by his TV interviews in the hope that some of my nagging doubts about his performance might be resolved.
Armstrong’s childhood traumas of abandonment provide textbook circumstances for a fertile seeding of toxic shame and the construction of a self monitoring false persona whose sole purpose is to hide the ugly and wounded self from the world. This brooding underneath digs in deeper into the psyche protected by the defensive mechanisms of its armor-plated alter ego. Anyone who has grown up having received inherited ideas that same sex desire and feelings are somehow reprehensible, ugly and corrupt can surely chart the development of similar survival strategies, or as Dr. Downs suggests:
This is you and me – a little boy with a terrible secret who hides his curse behind a curtain made of crimson velvet. It may surprise many to learn that his secret is not his sexual appetite for men. No, it is something darker, stinging, and filled with rage. (p.17)
Them moving into phase two we see the compounding of shame with a terminal illness. Maybe it was there, in the processes of his fight with metastatic testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, his lungs and then his brain and his inability to produce reproductive sperm due to intensive chemotherapy, that further feelings of shame resulted as a by product of stigma.
The sociologist Erving Goffman identifies stigma as that which ‘refers to an attribute that is deeply discrediting’ in that it can lead to feelings of being ‘spoilt’ or ‘tainted’, or just plain inferior in the eyes of others. A newly diagnosed cancer patient (or HIV positive person) can feel the force of this stigma in two ways, firstly in an internalized manner, secondly as an externalized ‘tainting’ as they experience the reactions of others post disclosure.
According to Goffman, a distinction can be made between two types of stigmatizable persons. A ‘discredited’ person assumes that a supposed undesirable characteristic is visible and known to others. The person’s task is to somehow manage the tension associated with having this information known. Armstrong managed this aspect brilliantly with his very visible public battle with Cancer His seminal book Its Not About The Bike won over both hearts and minds because of an essential humbling of the ego present in the face of possible death.
Armstrong’s initial disclosures met with remarkable and deeply felt praise from both private and public quarters giving him an extraordinary amount of positive validation. And rightly so, for it
I wanted to live, but whether I would or not was mystery, and in the midst of confronting that fact, even at that moment, I was beginning to sense that to stare into the heart of such a fearful mystery wasn’t a bad thing. To be afraid is a priceless education. (It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. P 99)
But then Goffman posits that in contradiction to the discredited there is the discreditable – a more insidious positioning as it is where the stigmatizing factor is an unseen entity. The persona harboring the discreditable feels that they must prevent it from being apparent in the critical and stigmatizing light of the normalizing world. So just as our hero has been seen to slay the dragon of his illness – how well adjusted was the underside of his mind in recovering from the internalized effect of the battle, and what scars might he have been hiding from the world?
Arthur Frank opined that in modernist thought people are eternally caught between the binary oppositions of ‘well’ and ‘sick’ and that this can be deeply confronting to a person like Armstrong in remission caught between these absolute states:
In the remission society the foreground and background of sickness and health constantly shade into each other (p.10)
In her celebrated meditation Illness As A Metaphor (1978) Susan Sontag suggests a person in remission is a citizen split between two kingdoms – the kingdom of the well and that of the sick. Although we might prefer to use only the good passport of the well citizen, sooner or later each of us are obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as (discreditable) citizens of that other place. Within the discourse of medicine the constancy of ‘check ups’ become ‘check points’ – sign posts of validity in remission society and ones visa (and by proxy ones sense of self) is called into question. It is in this twilight world of inbetweenness that Armstrong found himself caught – a place where boundaries are blurred and ambiguities flourish which can cause major anxieties around how to just be in everyday life.
One way to endure this crisis of identity is to shave off the undesirable aspects of ones discreditable self and in doing so create other more desirable selves to reap the rewards of a dual citizenship in society. In the book The Velvet Rage Dr Alan Downs suggests that this type of splitting can be deeply problematic in that if the person in conflict continues to split off the discreditable parts of themselves (so that they themselves find themselves unacceptable) they can drive themselves to a mental, physical, emotional point of exhaustion in an effort to present an ideal image of themselves to the world.
Whilst you may be thinking that this is plain old dishonesty, it is in reality a much deeper psychological issue. Its about living dishonestly, faking and entire segment of our lives for the benefit of getting along in life. Even more troubling, when we are actively splitting we generally don’t think of ourselves as being dishonest. (p47)
In the case of Armstrong this might well go some way to explaining not only his defensive body language but his seeming inability to differentiate his own manipulative actions from the concepts of lying and cheating. By attempting to inauthentically disclose throughout the course of the TV interview with Winfrey, Armstrong revealed that he genuinely believes himself to be beyond right and wrong to the point where he has completely stripped himself of moral responsibility in his quest to run from his own internalized shame. Not so much a Nietzscheian superman, but more a victim of his own unresolved experiences and long held identity as a discredited person.
Dr Downs goes on to say that whilst splitting often allows us to avoid shame it can simultaneously undermine our relationships. He points out that if we are never what we appear to be, over time, others begin to sense this. A person enacting splitting behaviors is hard to be close to as we may feel constantly marginalized or kept at a safe distance from them. The result is a nagging sense that we never really know who they are because they don’t know who they are. Which pretty much puts the finger on the pulse of my sense of radical unease felt when watching Armstrong being interviewed.
The ghost in the room that seemed to be haunting him was the spectre of compounded shame. It was this that had been driving him to such extremes that even he could not fully articulate within his horizon of understanding.
My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance.
The spectre of not quite fitting in, of being invalidated through illness and of course the ultimate humiliation of being made impotent through illness drove a wedge of shame into Armstrong’s psyche and stayed there manifesting havoc in his life.
The overwhelming drive to combat his own feelings of being a discreditable personality, defined by stigma, spilled out into his professional life. Cheating death became akin to cheating in sport. Cycling as fast as he could from the effects of compounded shame, Armstrong strove to create his own ego identity of hero in a world in which he felt universally invalidated. This, in turn, manifested itself into a destructive and obsessive drive to not just compete, but to win at all costs. A drive even he himself doesn’t fully understand. Armstrong was right about one thing: It’s not about the bike precisely because there was only ever a part of him riding on that bike, not a whole person – and as such, in his split and wounded and deeply hurt self, Lance Armstrong became a ghost rider.
Compounded shame and the associated rage is a toxic quagmire that can keep a [gay[ man stuck in this uncomfortable, out-of-touch emotional stage for most of his life, until he comes to understand how shame is operating on him, feeding on him, controlling him, and keeping him from a more authentic life (Downs p.53)
Now Armstrong finds himself, along with his lies, exposed and alone, to face the humiliation of his empire falling, and the anger and disappointment of his once adoring public. His continued insistence that he is telling the truth in the face of the mountain of evidence against him suggests that his inauthentic persona is crumbling and is clutching at straws to protect itself. What remains to be seen is whether or not Armstrong can move into a new recovery mode where, in facing his shame, he might find a more authentic self. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the pain of his internalized shame must be unbearable right now. And I think that it was precisely this that I was feeling as I watching him struggle under the studio light glare and withering looks of Winfrey. I was watching a man in pain. Great pain.
His secret he can not reveal, not even to himself, for fear that it will consume him completely. Deep down inside, far from the light of awareness, the secret lives. Go down beneath the layers of public façade, personal myth, and fantasy. Peel away the well-crafted layers, for only then can you see the secret clearly for what it is: his own self hatred (Downs p.17)
And at the end of the day, can we not all identify with this? And are we not all in the process of a journey towards authenticity as a way to combat the internalized toxic shame of our childhoods? Are we not also learning how to tell our stories as best we can as a way of licking our wounds? The trick is to find the wounds that are really hurting of course, for maybe they are not the surface ones as we so often think. We have to go deeper, to really exorcise ourselves of the ghosts that haunt our waking and sleeping lives. More than this, just as Armstrong destroyed his career and hurt those around him we must recognize where we may have acted in ways that has resulted in pain for ourselves and for others.
At the end of his preface to the 2012 edition of his book, Dr. Downs lays down a challenge for those brave men who have faced their own ghosts of shame and emerged to lead more authentic lives:
As gay men, we are uniquely qualified to bring the message of compassion, forgiveness, and self acceptance – for we have been there and know how important it is to be proud of who we are. The destructive influences of shame are everywhere in our world, and it is my sincere hope that this book will start a movement that takes us beyond this current age of gay self-indulgence and overcompensation and instead pushes us on the world stage as the leaders of self acceptance and awareness. (xv)
And in the spirit of Downs’ words I would suggest that we look upon examples of men and women like Armstrong caught up in the ravages of toxic shame and extend that compassion to them as we have done to ourselves.
I sincerely hope think there will be yet another phase in Armstrong’s life and one in which he will once again inhabit the mantel of a wounded storyteller. This time he will lick the right wound. The deeper one of toxic shame long held in his body and in that moment of disclosure he will mean it. And we will feel it this time. He will give up his ghosts and ride out into a cleaner future. And he will be a real hero once more.
Paul Woodward 2013 ©
- Armstrong, L. (2000) Its Not About The Bike. Random House. London. New York.
- Downs, A. ( 2012) The Velvet Rage: Overcoming The Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. Da Capo Press. Philadelphia.
- Frank, A. (1995). The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. London
- Sontag, S. (1978) Illness As Metaphor. Vintage. London. New York.
- Goffman, E. ( 1990) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Penguin Books. London. New York