The Power of Confession

What is it about the "I" in writing that keeps us so intrigued?
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(Photo: DC_Aperture/Shutterstock)

(Photo: DC_Aperture/Shutterstock)

I belong to a church that isn’t big enough to afford its own building, so we pay rent to another congregation and meet in their sanctuary in the evening. We’re the third group to hold a service in the room that day. The other renters, a group of Ghanian Christians, burn incense during their mid-day devotion. The musk of their worship hangs low in the air when we arrive.

We sing a few songs, then roll down creaky kneelers from the pews in front of us and settle onto them to confess our sins publicly. We don’t stand up and tell everyone we snapped at our spouse or drank too much last weekend or didn’t give money to the homeless man. Instead, we read a more generic written prayer together, then confess our specific sins silently.

I like this. I am on the hook for what I did, but nobody knows exactly what I’m ashamed of thinking or doing since last Sunday. Still, I’m chastened by the words printed on the bulletin I clutch while propped uncomfortably on my kneecaps: I have sinned against God “in thought, word, and deed,” by what I’ve both done and not done. “We are truly sorry,” I say with the others, “and we humbly repent.”

The first-person plural matters there, especially for me, as a writer of personal narrative. Both religion and writing are as much about the community’s soul as the individual's. For people who spill their souls onto paper, that recognition is vital. Memoirists without readers are just fancy diarists.

But no writer wants to own the label “confessional” anymore. It’s an epithet, with the same tenor as “hipster” or “artisanal": something for privileged narcissists who can't see any of their own silliness. A lot of confessional literature is written by women, primed culturally to believe that taking up too much space, being too public, is unseemly. But that’s hardly a female-only concern.

Memoirists without readers are just fancy diarists.

Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, wrote about the stigma against “confessional” literature in the Atlantic in March, noting that everyone is self-revealing all over the Web today, which ups the ante for writers of the form. “How can it escape the gravitational pull of solipsism?” she asks. Similarly, in the latest Hedgehog Review, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about confessional writing's ubiquity: “public confession,” she says, “has become both self-forming and culture-forming.”

And yet, the practice has deeply ancient, religious roots. Bruenig notes that it was designed not just to let the person who is confessing spill his or her guts, but also a sort of collective anecdote. “[W]here intimacy with a community has been destroyed by vice, it can only be restored by the restoration of a lost confidence—that is, through the intimacy created by confession,” she claims.

In writing workshops, students seem to sense this weightier task of confession. They always bring up the same questions first: “Why should anyone care about my story? What gives me the right to write it down for someone else to read?” In the midst of helping them find the answers, I've come to believe the “confession” terminology, borrowed as it is from religious practice, is problematic. What is confession for, really? Why do we read it? Why do we write it? And is there a word that better captures what we’re doing?

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In the 1990s, Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, conducted an often-cited set of controlled experiments in which research subjects were asked to talk into a tape recorder or write for 20 minutes, either about past traumas or mundane daily happenings.

Unsurprisingly, the group that confessed past traumas reported feeling upset during the confession. Some cried, even. They talked about accidents, personal failings, abuse, and other things. But after the initial upset, the participants felt better—their systolic blood pressure levels rose during the confession, but dipped below pre-confession levels later. Some even experienced a reduction in the number of doctor visits in the next six months. And the more they disclosed, the greater the health effect.

“Writing about traumatic experiences produces improvements in immune function and translating experiences into words forces some kind of structure onto the experiences themselves,” Pennebaker wrote.

As the practitioner receives the confession of pain and suffering, they in turn implicate themselves in the story, exploring their own story.

Dr. Aaron Murray-Swank and Dr. Kenneth Pargament, both of whom study mental health, extended Pennebaker’s research on general confession to explore writing as a form of spiritual confession (a letter to God), contrasted with a secular confession (a general letter about regrets). While both groups wrote about similar topics—abortion, relationships, religious struggles—“there was a surprising difference in the groups two weeks later,” Murray-Swank wrote in Spirituality & Health. “Those who wrote letters to God felt much more guilty, whereas those who just wrote about their regrets felt much less guilty.”

But Murray-Swank points out that this sort of “letter to God”—which seems to parallel what we do in church—lacked an important element: a confessor, a person whose role was to hear the confession and, importantly, offer absolution or forgiveness. Such a person seems vital to helping absolve that guilt, acting as an intermediary.

All this is about the effect on the person confessing, but someone has got to be listening. So what happens in the act to the one hearing the confessor—the intermediary? Most research focuses mainly on the person who confesses, with one big exception: the field of narrative medicine, the name Dr. Rita Charon coined to describe “clinical practice fortified by narrative competence—the capacity to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by stories of illness." Charon delves into the effect of these confessions of pain on the patient, as well as the doctor. “By becoming a recognizing vessel,” she writes, “the doctor can ‘receive’ the patient, acting as a container for a flow of great value or, with a different image, registering a transmitted radio signal from far away.”

The practice cannot stop with simply receiving the story, though. “Instead of lamenting the decline of empathy among medical students or the lack of altruism among physicians,” Charon writes, “narrative medicine focuses on our capacity to join one another as we suffer illness, bear the burdens of our clinical powerlessness, or simply, together, bravely contemplate our mortal limits on earth.”

In her research, Charon turns to the literary scholar Maura Spiegel to see how the doctor, who receives the patient’s story, is also affected. "We, the viewers, are mobilized in witnessing others’ suffering," she writes, "not only to comprehend what the suffering might mean to the patient or the subject of the film, but also to witness and comprehend what such suffering might mean or have meant to ourselves." In other words, as the practitioner receives the confession of pain and suffering, they in turn implicate themselves in the story, exploring their own story: “The care of the sick requires the analyst’s creativity in inhabiting without colonizing the lived experience of the one who suffers.”

The listening physician does act as confessor, literally offering the possibility of healing. But there is more to that relationship than just a patient/doctor power dynamic; the doctor, too, develops something new through the experience. In the Hedgehog Review, Bruenig characterizes confessional writing in much the same way. “By holding up her own pathologies,” she points out, the writer “can make herself into a kind of mirror that is meant to show others what they are.”

How this translates to “confessional” writing is not obvious; readers can’t easily offer absolution to writers. But after the publication of her bookwhich contains several inquiries into narrative medicine, refracted through the author’s own deeply personal experiences, including abortion and heart surgery—Jamison wrote in the Guardian about being inundated with letters from readers who wanted to share their own stories with her. That, in turn, led to an almost religious conviction, in this case about her own ironic lack of empathy, and subsequent period of personal growth. “Empathy is all about otherness,” she wrote, “but my relationship to empathy was largely about me ... to [my readers], I say: thank you for making my confession larger than itself.”

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Around 400 A.D., the Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo addressed his landmark Confessions directly to God—not to the reader. But Augustine was only being coy. Late in the book, he acknowledges to God that the reader exists.

When I teach memoir to undergraduates, I start with Augustine, and we think about what possible purpose he could have in talking to God when he clearly expects others to be listening. After all, this is no diary. The Confessions retain their freshness because Augustine, in his ancient pastoral role, knew he was confessing to a bigger audience than just God, who had already absolved him. He was not getting stuff off his chest, so much as making a path for other readers to follow. Contemporary readers are still trodding that now well-worn path.

I once was here, the writer says, pointing to one place—now, though, I'm here. I have lived some life for you.

On my syllabus, I follow Augustine with contemporary poet Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss, which parallels Augustine in many ways. The biographical facts in Wiman's book are dropped even more sparsely than in Augustine's. Augustine has come to belief through desire, and Wiman has, too, but through the only way accessible to a literary modern: through doubt.

Wiman is writing with a modern audience in mind, so he doesn't talk to God; he talks to the reader. And yet the effect is similar to Augustine's. In both cases, the writer is musing aloud about the order of life events and how they have set him along the path to faith (in Augustine's case) or around it (in Wiman's).

Not all memoirs end in faith, certainly. But all memoirs have something in common: they are tales of pilgrimage. I once was here, the writer says, pointing to one place—now, though, I'm here. I was in a hard place, but now I'm in a better one. I was naive and happy, and now I'm less happy, but also more wise. I have lived some life for you.

So perhaps it's not just that “confessional” has taken on a bad timbre; maybe it was never the right metaphor to draw from religion at all. We sometimes receive absolution from our personal writing, but we are doing more than that. When I think about what I'm doing when I write personal narrative, I find myself clinging to another church experience, this time from my youth.

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In the church I grew up attending, every six months we baptized about a dozen teenagers and adults who wished to declare in public—to a room that sat 800 strangers, and was frequently packed out for two services—that they had decided, in the words of the old gospel song, “to follow Jesus.” The main requirement (one which I participated in when I was 13) was to write and deliver your testimony from the pulpit. The advice we received in crafting our testimony was not all that different from what I learned decades later, studying creative non-fiction: Look at the facts of your life; try to discern the story; locate the arc; discover what you have to say that is unique.

The purpose of giving such a testimony in front of a crowd of mostly strangers is twofold. First, it is good for the speaker. Introspection and self-reflection lend shape to a life, even when you are 13. And given that most writers of testimony and memoir are alive when delivering or publishing the story, there's the implicit suggestion that this is not the end—that there is more to come, and this is merely part of the tale. There is an open-endedness to the form that fiction lacks.

But the second purpose of testimony is for the listener, and that's important. There is something implicit in testimony that, in author Leslie Jamison's words, “rather than baring their psychic flesh for the sake of exposure and intimacy ... they are excavating complexities inside their experiences.”

In the great testimonies, the details may not obviously apply to the listener's: I was a cocaine addict; I was a successful financier; I am a cradle believer with no sordid history at all. But baptism day was everyone's favorite Sunday, and it can't just have been because we dunked people in a tank of water to participate in an admittedly esoteric religious practice.

Here is my life, the testimony-giver says. Please find in it your own path toward assurance.

I think now that the stories, when crafted well, were ways of opening up space for the less-than-convinced listener in the pew, or maybe the more established listener who needed a kick in the pants. It seems significant that in two decades of attending the same church, I probably heard several hundred testimonies, but a number of them still stick with me. Their importance was in exactly how the details of the story didn't matter: it was the shape, the purpose. They were meant to let me in on someone's raw experience, quite different from my own, but to also chart out a path for me. I could see that I was meant to journey, even become a pilgrim, along this path.

The beautiful thing about testimonies at their best is they're not meant to establish the speaker in a power relationship with the listener. Rather, they're an act of humility. Here is my life, the testimony-giver says. Please find in it your own path toward assurance. And please know that after today, I will go on living; this is not the end of the story.

Writers of personal narrative do the same thing. As I tell my skeptical students, you're here to write down what happened to you in a way that helps your reader put some words to their lives. Otherwise, you're just focusing their attention on you and—let's face it—few of us merit that sort of undivided focus from total strangers.

In a testimony, the sordid details aren't the point. The clearest way to spot a narcissist in church is to find the one who subtly suggests that it's right that they're in the spotlight, they're the center of attention. You give your testimony to gladden the hearts of the listener, to encourage them that times will get better—and if they don’t, they’ll be glad on the other side of hardship for the wisdom they’ve gained.

That still matters, outside of a religious context. In a self-aggrandizing world, it gives space and lends legitimacy to those once considered the confessing and the confessor. It puts the author and reader on a level playing field: the author is not so much talking about him or herself as giving up a part of their being to make a path for the reader and their own journey. Anyone writing about their own life knows how hard that work is, but shifting the language might just bring back the beauty of the act.

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