Shame Spirals

Molly Burch on the memories that keep her up at night, and how they inspired her new record.

Last night, I was having dinner with my dad and we were talking about shame spirals. Those embarrassing memories of your past self that keep you up at night. Here is one of my shame spirals.

When I was 12 years old, I got invited to my first Bar Mitzvah. I’m half-Jewish, but I wasn’t raised with any religious practices — my family’s only Jewish tradition was dining at Nate ‘n Al’s Delicatessen every Sunday morning. I learned about Passover from the Rugrats Passover episode like most kids who grew up in the ‘90s. So when I received the invitation, I didn’t know what to expect. A year had passed since I graduated from my co-ed elementary school and spent seventh grade at an all-girls middle school. The last time I saw the boys from my old school, we were all pure, unaware of our gender roles and what it meant to be cool. 

Little did I know, come Josh Miller’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-themed Bar Mitzvah, things would be drastically different. The main issue at hand was that I was unaware of the proper dress code. I thought events like these were fancy; black tie, if you will. Surely, the other kids wouldn’t dare dress casual à la Abercrombie and Fitch — this was a Bar Mitzvah after all. I went to the mall with my mom who also wasn’t aware of what was appropriate, since even though my Jewish heritage comes from her, as a child she got banned from Hebrew school for talking too much in class, and that was that. We both loved dipping matzo brei in cinnamon sugar but knew little of the history of our religion. So on we went — two blissfully unaware Jews heading straight towards a store that sold gowns

The time came to get ready and my confidence was skyrocketing. I had the most gorgeous gown for the ball! All of the boys from my old school would be so impressed by my growth, I smiled to myself, with a full mouth of braces and a retainer that my mom had to manually crank with a key every night before bed. I had just finished getting my hair professionally done — a multi braided updo that would wow the crowd. I delicately added a pair of teardrop earrings with a matching necklace as if I were starring in The Princess Diaries, simply missing a tiara. I slipped on my floor-length gown, a deep wine colored satin fabric overlaid with dramatic black lace. The back? Corsetted. My mom pulled and tied the corset ribbons with as much fervor as when she tightened the retainer on the roof of my mouth. And of course, the fit was strapless to accentuate my newly formed breast buds. Wow, I thought, I can’t wait to freak dance in this

The purest of confidence instantly shattered as I walked into the event. Seeing the other kids’ informal mini skirts, t-shirts, and sneakers, I immediately realized I was dressed like a medieval wench. All the kids I had hoped to fit in with just stared at me and laughed, so I darted to the nearest bathroom. I looked in the mirror and felt the truest shame I’d felt thus far in my 12 years of life. 

I’m a grownup now, but this memory fully lives inside of me. I often feel like that girl crying in the bathroom. I wish I could go back in time, hug her and tell her that one day she’ll be asked to write an essay for Talkhouse and she’ll procrastinate until the day it’s due because she’s scared, but it’s all going to be fine. And I would tell her to not pluck her eyebrows violently thin senior year of highschool, because that trend will end and they are hard to grow back. I think it’s a very universal feeling to hold onto those seminal moments of shame. Before I started writing my fourth album, Daydreamer, I found my tween diaries and they broke my heart. Not only because I hated myself and felt embarrassed all of the time, but because I knew that most people feel similarly at that part of life. Judging our looks, what we do and say, so very harshly. I decided to write songs about this feeling and age. I wrote about how I would hide in my bedroom and eat my feelings in Oreos because trying to socialize was too painful. I wrote about how much I loved to sing but told myself I couldn’t pursue it because I didn’t think I was smart or pretty enough. I wrote about how I obsessed about my body and felt constant pressure to lose weight. And I wrote about how even today, as a full grown adult, I still feel so many of those same feelings. 

I believe I am taking steps towards self compassion and that it gets easier with age. I hope that by releasing this album, I can help other people who struggle, and we can collectively find humor in our shame spirals instead of continuing to endure sleepless nights. 

(Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen)

Molly Burch is a Los Angeles-born, Austin, TX-based singer-songwriter. Her latest record, Daydreamer, is out now on Captured Tracks.

(Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen)