Autobiographical Writing and the Gestalt of Shame

Disability, Chronic Illness and Mental Distress in Contemporary Intersectional Life Storying


Date: 24-25 June 2022

Location: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Deadline for submissions: 31 March 2022

Situated at the threshold between introversion and extroversion, autobiographical writing resembles shame as an affective structure and is closely linked with it (Sedgwick; Sedgwick / Frank). Scholars have shown that autobiographical representations of experiences of shame often highlight shame’s peculiarly personal, intimate nature (Probyn, Mitchell) and its connection to narcissistic, exhibitionistic, sensationalist self-exposure. The criticism condemning autobiographical writing as shamelessly (or shamefully) narcissistic and sensationalist is mostly aimed at female-authored texts that are deprecated for failing to achieve the status of universal art or to carve out an empowered position for the female subject (Cooke, Smith / Watson 2005, Munt, Marwick, Maguire). On the other hand, (auto)biographical works by / about members of ostracized and subjugated social groups are praised as creative practices of stigma management that enable the formation of complex identities.

In the field of disability studies, feminist disability autobiography is valued as a de-stigmatizing practice that challenges the medicalization of non-normative bodies (Mintz, Couser, Holtgrave). Furthermore, disability- and mental-distress-related shame is used as a narrative and graphic strategy that enables reader empathy and that exposes and challenges shame-inducing forms of medicalization and ableist / disablist body norms (Rüggemeier; Punzi / Röder; Röder).

Taking a cue from approaches in queer and disability studies that emphasize the centrality of cultural practices of medicalization, sensationalism, staring, flaunting as well as of silencing and taboo crystallizing around (representations of) disability, chronic illness and mental distress, this workshop explores the connection between such practices and narrative / aesthetic strategies of shame / humiliation that are at work in the production and reception of autobiographical storying. It will focus on verbal, visual, graphic, audio-visual and digital representations of intersectional (esp. feminist, queer, non-white) selves and bodies with different degrees of ‘ability’.


The workshop will pursue some of the following questions:

What is the significance / function of shame as a narrative / aesthetic strategy in autobiographical storying?

How does this strategy manifest itself in specific media and with regard to specific intersectional selves / identities?

In how far does autobiographical writing reveal, endorse or challenge authors’ and readers’ complicity with shame-inducing norms?

What is the role / function of the use of sensationalism / voyeurism in autobiographical storying, its marketing and reception?

How do readers / audiences respond to autobiographical texts employing shame / humiliation as aesthetic / narrative strategies?




PD Dr. Katrin Röder



Clare, Eli (2015): Exile and Pride. Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. 1999; Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Cooke, Jennifer (2020): Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: The New Audacity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Couser, Thomas (2009): Signifying Bodies. Disability in Contemporary Life Writing. Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press.

Goffman, Erving (1963): Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identities. New York, London et al.: Simon & Schuster.

Limburg, Joanne (2010): The Woman Who Thought Too Much: A Memoir of Obsession and Compulsion. London: Atlantic Books.

Maguire, Emma (2018): Girls, Autobiography, Media: Gender and Self-Mediation in Digital Economies. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marwick, Alice (2014): ‘Gender, Sexuality and Social Media.’ The Social Media Handbook. Eds. Theresa Senft and Jeremy Hunsinger. New York: Routledge, 59-75.

Mintz, Susannah (2007). Unruly Bodies. Life Writing by Women with Disabilities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Mitchell, Kaye (2020): Writing Shame. Contemporary Literature, Gender and Negative Affect. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP 2020.

Munt, Sally (2008). Queer Attachments. The Cultural Politics of Shame. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Probyn, Elspeth (2010): ‘Writing Shame’, The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 71-90.

Punzi, Elisabeth, and Katrin Röder (2019). ‘Challenging Complicity in the Context of Mentalism: Mental Distress Memoirs and Performance Art.’ Complicity and the Politics of Representation. Eds. Cornelia Wächter and Robert Wirth. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 195-215.

Röder, Katrin (2022): ‘Narrating Shame in Contemporary Mental Distress Memoirs by Female British Authors’, Narratives in Mental Health: Bridging the Cultural and the Individual. Ed. Jarmila Mildorf, Elisabeth Punzi, Christoph Singer (Oxford, Oxford UP, 2022, forthcoming)

Rüggemeier, Anne: ‘Shame and shamelessness in contexts of care and caregiving in Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991) and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles (2012)’, Shame and Shamelessness in Anglophone Literature and Media."> Guest Ed. Katrin Röder und Christine Vogt-William. European Journal of English Studies23.3 (2019): 263-280.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993): ‘Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.1, 1-16.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Adam Frank (ed.) (1995): Shame and Its Sisters. A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Siebers, Tobin (2009): ‘Sex, Shame, and Disability Identity. With Reference to Mark O’Brien’, Gay Shame. Ed. David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub. Chicago & London, U of Chicago Press, 201-216, 201-202.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson (eds., 1992): Decolonizing the Subject: Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson (2005): ‘Mapping Women’s Self-Representation at Visual Textual Interfaces.’ Interfaces. Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance. Eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1-46.

Vogt-William, Christine (2019): ‘“You have done our shame”: Interrogating Shame and Honour in Diaspora in Jasvinder Sanghera’s Shame Trilogy’, Shame and Shamelessness in Anglophone Literature and Media. Guest Ed. Katrin Röder und Christine Vogt-William. European Journal of English Studies 23.3: 340-355.

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