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Brené Brown’s Empire of Emotion

Brené Brown’s Empire of Emotion

Brown titled her next book “Daring Greatly,” and her fans know all about being in the arena. (A recent “Ted Lasso” joke: “We’re going to hear Brené Brown reading from her new book, ‘Enter the Arena: But Bring a Knife.’ ”) “I’ve never even seen the TED talk,” Brown told me. “Just to be really honest, it’s still painfully hard for me.”

I first talked to Brown in March, via Zoom. She was at home, in Houston, wearing a green patterned blouse, and her smile was cheerful and relaxed. “I’m normally nervous for these things, but last night I was, like, Anyone who loves Ramona has got to be O.K.,” she said. Beverly Cleary had just died, and I’d written an appreciation. Cleary’s writing was fun and “always validating, and it never felt overly schoolmarmy,” Brown said. “Direct advice-giving is tough for me—I didn’t want to escape my family for more of that.”

Early Newspaper

Brown was born in 1965, in San Antonio. Her parents, Charles and Deanne, “both came from the south side of San Antonio and a lot of heartache,” she said. (Brown often uses “south-side San Antonio” as shorthand—as in, the name Brené isn’t French, it’s “south-side San Antonio.”) Deanne’s mother was an alcoholic; Charles, a football-team captain, “was the wild guy right on the edge of trouble all the time,” she said. “But really smart. My mom was top of her class and the head of the brigade.” They met in high school, married at twenty-three, and had Brené shortly thereafter.

Belonging, in Brown’s work, is a cornerstone of the human experience, and she sees her own life in terms of being an outsider. In 1969, the family moved to New Orleans, so that her father could attend law school at Loyola. New Orleans schools were still integrating, and the city, though “wonderful,” she has written, was also “suffocated by racism.” Class lists determined birthday-party invitations, and parents saw her name and assumed that she was Black; she wasn’t invited to many white friends’ parties, and was met with surprise but acceptance at Black friends’ parties. Later, Brown, though Episcopalian, went to Catholic school—more non-belonging—until one day a bishop sent her home with a note that said “Brené is Catholic now.” (In adulthood, she returned to the Episcopal Church.)

Charles became a tax lawyer for Shell, and the family moved to Houston; then to D.C., so he could work as a lobbyist; then back to Houston. To others, her parents were cool and fun, “Mr. and Mrs. B.,” but they fought, and their marriage was slowly unravelling. On top of that, “fears and feelings weren’t really attended to,” Brown told me. “We were raised to be tough.” She described seeing a photograph—she and her younger siblings, as kids, on their gold velvet couch—and remembering sitting there and reading her parents’ cues, looking for tension. She knew when a fight was coming, when to take her siblings upstairs. “Pattern-making ended up being a survival skill for me,” she said.

As an incoming high-school freshman, Brown hoped to find salvation in the drill team, the Bearkadettes, but didn’t make the cut. “My parents didn’t say one single word,” she writes in “Braving the Wilderness” (2017). “That became the day I no longer belonged in my family.” In her senior year, she got into her dream school, U.T. But Charles, who had left Shell and invested in an oil-industry construction company, lost their savings in the oil-glut bust. “We lost everything,” Brown told me. “Like, I.R.S. stickers on our cars. There were several suicides in our subdivision, because everybody worked for oil and gas. The guy next door was a bigwig at one of the oil companies, and he was managing the chicken place on the corner.”

Her parents divorced, college was tabled, and a certain illusion of security, rooted in the comforts of class, had been dispelled. “I always think of that song,” Brown said, and sang a bit of “Little Boxes,” popularized by Pete Seeger, about middle-class conformity. (“ . . . And they all look just the same.”) “When you come from the tiny-box world, where everything is supposed to look a certain way, you spend a lot of nights, if you’re me, smoking cigarettes out the window of your room, contemplating how to get out.” Brown escaped to Europe, where she spent six months working at a hostel in Brussels, bartending, cleaning rooms, and hitchhiking across the continent. “It was completely out of control,” she said. “Self-destructive, terrible. That I’m alive is, like—yeah.”

After she returned, she spent several years in and out of school, in San Antonio. (At various times, she cleaned houses, “played a lot of tennis,” and rose from “surly union steward” to corporate trainer at A.T. & T.) In 1987, at twenty-one, she worked as a lifeguard at a pool, where she befriended another lifeguard, a U.T. student named Steve Alley. “I credit the weather,” she told me.“That summer, it rained for, like, thirty days straight in June. We spent a lot of time in this little lifeguard hut during the thunderstorms, just talking and laughing, or walking up to the convenience store and getting Hot Tamales and Slurpees.” They were both from the tiny-box world, and shared stories about unhappy homes. “Neither one of us had ever had someone that we talked to about the hard things in our lives,” she said. They married in 1994. (Steve is now a pediatrician; their son, Charlie, is in high school, and their daughter, Ellen, is in grad school.)

Recently, Brown drove her mother through the old neighborhood. “Every one of those houses has a story that would bring you to your knees,” she said. “Addiction, suicide, violence. It was never what everyone was making it out to be. You don’t know that as a kid. You know that as a shame researcher, though, you can bet your ass on that.”

Early in Brown’s career, Steve asked her what her dream was, and she said, “I want to start a global conversation about vulnerability and shame.” That vision took a while to become clear. After finding her stride in community college, she enrolled at U.T. (She didn’t get her degree until 1995: “the twelve-year plan,” she told me.) She studied history and waited tables at Pappadeaux, a seafood chain restaurant; there, she befriended another U.T. student, Charles Kiley, who, like her, was a little older than their peers. As waiters, they had different styles, Kiley told me. “I liked high volume, a lot of people in and out”; Brown liked talking with her customers, “getting their life story.”

By then, she was an impassioned student. One day, heading to the history department via the social-work building, she happened upon a workers’-rights protest and was impressed by its energy and diversity. She’d also read her first psychology book, Harriet Lerner’s “The Dance of Anger,” which Deanne, in therapy after the divorce, had given her. (“I remember reading it and thinking, ‘I’m not alone!’ ” Brown has written.) She switched to social work, and eventually enrolled in the M.S.W. and Ph.D. programs at the University of Houston. While working at a residential treatment facility for children, she had encountered a striking idea during a staff meeting. “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors,” a clinical director told the group.

Brown began thinking about shame and behavior. As part of her master’s program, she interviewed Deanne for a family genogram, and realized that “what had been dressed up as hard living” among relatives had been addiction and mental-health issues. She went to A.A., where a sponsor suggested that she stop drinking, smoking, emotional eating, and trying to control her family’s crises. (Awesome, Brown thought.) She’s been sober ever since. Sobriety helped her understand the instinct to “take the edge off” as a desire to numb and control emotions.

The importance of welcoming those emotions, joyful and painful alike, was reinforced by her research. In her graduate program, Brown was rare in being a qualitative researcher—rather than using tests and statistics to measure phenomena, she interviewed a diverse group of people about certain subjects and then coded the data, watching for themes to emerge. (This methodology, grounded theory, was developed in the mid-sixties by the sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss.) Again and again, Brown encountered the destructive power of shame (“I am bad”), which seemed to corrode the self, unlike guilt (“I did something bad”), which held it accountable. She found a supportive mentor in the social-work professor and femicide expert Karen Stout, who told her, “When it comes to women being killed by intimate partners, I wish all we had to do was put numbers in front of people. But we need the stories as well.”

After completing her Ph.D., Brown wrote a book about women and shame, eventually titled “I Thought It Was Just Me.” It was rejected by trade publishers, so she published it herself. She fought her own shame about this: having a “vanity-published book,” as a fellow-academic called it, felt like a failure. She sold copies out of the trunk of her car at events and stored the rest in Charles Kiley’s spare room. Then, at a friend’s party, on what she has called a “magical evening,” she met Harriet Lerner. “I liked Brené from the start,” Lerner told me. She also empathized with her: “The Dance of Anger,” the first of Lerner’s many best-sellers, had been rejected for five years. “And what I learned was that the line between a New York Times best-selling author and someone who never gets published is a very thin line indeed,” Lerner said. She helped connect Brown with an agent; within three months, Brown had a book deal.

Brené Brown’s Empire of Emotion