Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Too Much Information

Why We Confess

From Augustine to Oprah

Elizabeth Bruenig

The Lovers (detail), 1928, by René Magritte; Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA/Bridgeman Images; © 2015 C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The commodification of confession.

Oprah Winfrey wore a charcoal-gray blazer and sensible slacks, with understated pewter jewelry. She looked less a guru and more an attorney, which was fitting, because this segment was a deposition. Sitting opposite James Frey, the author of the best-selling 2003 ersatz biography A Million Little Pieces, Oprah took her guest to task with cool but wounded earnestness.

“I don’t know what’s true,” she said, “and I don’t know what isn’t. So… I wanted to start with this Smoking Gun report titled ‘The Man Who Conned Oprah.’ And, I want to know—were they right?”

Chastened, an ashen Frey replied, “I think most of what they wrote was accurate, absolutely.”

The interview dragged on painfully. Oprah needled Frey with details of his deceit, and he haltingly obliged her probing. A Million Little Pieces, the ostensibly true story of Frey’s life that had earned a place in Oprah’s Book Club, was absolutely brimming with total disclosure, tales of drug abuse, felonies, rehab stints, even a sexual encounter with a Parisian priest. When discussing the details of the book with Oprah, Frey had been nakedly, lip-tremblingly “honest.”

Yet the real confession—the interview wherein Frey admitted to fabricating enormous portions of the text—was harder to stomach. Oprah was angry and defensive, having been had, and Frey was truly, painfully exposed. Tellingly, the interview remains one of Oprah’s most beloved, featured repeatedly on retrospectives as her finest work. Such is the thrill of a genuine confession.

Confession, once rooted in religious practice, has assumed a secular importance that can be difficult to describe. Certainly, confessional literature is everywhere: in drive-by tweets hashtagged #confessanunpopularopinion, therapeutic reality-television settings, tell-all celebrity memoirs, and blogs brimming with lurid detail set to endless scroll. Public confession has become both self-forming and culture-forming: Although in some sense we know less about each other than ever, almost every piece of information we do learn is an act of intentional or performative disclosure.

It’s easy to chalk up this love of confessional literature to the seemingly modern impulse to overshare, but public confession itself has an ancient history. In the fourth-century Christian church, confession was often made publicly, before one’s fellow congregants. Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions set the precedent for all the confessional literature to follow, explained in a sermon in 395 CE that forgiveness of mortal sins requires confessing to another.11xAugustine, A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7.15, 8.16. It is not enough to confess them privately to God; the effect of isolation they visit on the soul can be resolved only by public confession. (Augustine’s description is echoed by Saint Jerome, who describes a soul burdened with sin as being like a man who has been bitten by a snake—another person must draw out the poison.22xJerome, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 10.11.) Where 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.

Yet not all confessions are intended to implicate the confessor. If religious confession performs the necessary work of healing the individual through communion with society, sometimes the confessor tries to perform the work of healing society through communion with herself. The confessor, by holding up her own pathologies, can make herself into a kind of mirror that is meant to show others what they are.

Still, though it is often intended to heal, confession can wreak a particular kind of devastation on both the community and the confessor. A confession creates a particular confidence, a kind of intimacy between speaker and listener that, for all its closeness, is actually a capacious cultural space. It is also a dangerous cultural space. The intimacy established in confession can be equally disorienting and disaffecting: As in most relationships, the closer one comes, the more danger she is in. We desire to be intimate with one another, but can scarcely ever estimate the price.

A Jolt of the Real

In 1821, Thomas De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which he records in luminous detail both the joys and terrors of addiction to laudanum. The book was an instant hit. Although De Quincey seems at pains to depict the harms of opium use at much greater length than its benefits, his elaborate, winning prose evidently caught the public imagination in exactly the wrong way. By 1823, a short anonymous work, Advice to Opium-Eaters, appeared in an effort to deter those persuaded by De Quincey, however inadvertently, to try the drug. In 1824, the authors of The Family Oracle of Health railed that “The use of opium has been recently much increased by a wild, absurd, and romancing production, called the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.”33xQuoted in Robert Morrison, “De Quincey’s Wicked Book,” OUPblog, February 21, 2013; Numerous writers were alleged to have begun using the stuff on the basis of De Quincey’s unintended example, a theme that would later appear in the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Man With the Twisted Lip.”

De Quincey’s attempt to write a cautionary tale failed because he was too good at drawing readers into his experience, and consequently encouraged admiring imitation where he had hoped to engender prudence. His is one of many confessions gone bad, wherein the confessed sins neither brought him into harmony with the community nor improved it. But these failed confessions, and the harm they create, are not simply cautionary tales: Their status as failed or destructive confessions at least reveals that the objective of the attempt at confession is usually to repair.

Sometimes, the intimacy and the harm produced by a confessional work have a far more localized impact. Consider Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, a six-volume personal epic begun in 2009. The New York Times declared it “a movement,”44xLiesl Schillinger, “His Peers’ Views Are in the Details,” New York Times, May 21, 2014; one of complete disclosure: Knausgård, a middle-aged Norwegian author, acutely details the most minor goings-on of his daily life between profound meditations on art, expectation, and accomplishment.

Knausgård has referred to the experience of publishing My Struggle as a kind of “Faustian bargain”—a major artistic triumph achieved through the disclosure of the intimate details of the lives and relationships of those with whom he is closest. His family members, on the other hand, call My Struggle “Judas literature.” Knausgård was confronted by his ex-wife in a radio interview for the infidelity to which he had admitted—an indiscretion she had to learn about along with the rest of the world. There are no major crimes in My Struggle, no murders or soap-opera unveilings, just the minor betrayals that make up the stuff of a life: wandering eyes, resentment, alcoholism, regret.

What My Struggle reveals most of all is a man who feels out of place in his world and at a loss to connect with it. The artistic intimacy Knausgård creates is both a response to this loneliness and a gorgeous sham: It neither reconciles him to his neighbors nor them to him, but it does vindicate him in his isolation. Indeed, after publishing My Struggle and betraying most of his intimates, it will be difficult for Knausgård to be anything but isolated, as many pursuant interviews have documented in melancholy detail reminiscent of the series itself.

The intimacy produced in confessional literature can seem a useful antidote to our modern estrangement from one another, a signal of genuineness and longing for community. We believe that we come to confessional literature for a brush with authenticity, that jolt of the honest and real that is missing in a world of advertising and campaigning. But if confessional authenticity can bring people together, then it is equally adept at tearing them apart. And sometimes, contra James Frey’s bout with Oprah, inauthenticity in confession does no harm.

After all, it seems that almost all confessions fall somewhat short of the truth; between the frailty of memory and the limits of knowledge, no one can reveal every detail of an event. Some confessions deliberately test the boundaries of authenticity. James Hogg’s 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, presented as a set of “found” documents from the eighteenth century, came complete with an “editor’s” commentary on the supposedly discovered text, and left the reader to question how historical truth is discerned and through what sort of lens.

Taking for their speakers “fallen” women with storied histories told in “their own words,” a genre of novels emerged in the eighteenth century that played with themes of credibility and the socially prescribed parameters of reliability.55xSee, e.g., Daniel Defoe’s Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748). These were mock-confessions, the converse, you could say, of a roman à clef or a thinly veiled autobiography. They were societal critiques, disguised as fiction.

Confessions in Form and Function

But even the truest of confessions can hesitate on the path to total revelation. Consider, for instance, the Confessions of Augustine. Revelatory from the outset, the book is often imagined among the steamier of Christian classics, featuring its hero swimming nude as a teenager while contemplating his struggle with lust (among other titillating bits). With that sort of transparency, Augustine doesn’t lead his readers to expect much sleight of hand. Yet for all of the Confessions’ earthiness, Augustine seems to omit even the broadest details of the most damning of his particular sins: “For I dared so far one day within the walls of Your church and during the very celebration of Your mysteries to desire and carry out an act worthy of the fruits of death,”66xAugustine, Confessions 3.4. he admits, without ever bringing up the transgression again. The diction resonates with Romans 7:5, in which it is written that “sinful passions…bear fruit for death.” Does Augustine mean to say he indulged in the sins of the flesh during Mass? Even for a notorious lothario, this would be one hell of an accomplishment.

And what of the woman with whom Augustine spent well over fifteen years, the one who bore his only son, Adeodatus? She must have been a low-born woman, likely a Catholic, with whom a marriage would not have been advantageous for a well-to-do young man like Augustine; thus, he retained her for years as a faithful concubine before suddenly dismissing her. She is discussed at length in the Confessions only when Augustine remarks on banishing her to effect an advantageous marriage. But as Peter Brown, in his seminal biography of Augustine, remarks, “A well-bred gentlemen would not mention his concubine.”77xPeter R.L. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 80. First published 1967. True to form, Augustine treats his long-suffering companion in vague terms—we never even learn her name. His relationship with her represents perhaps the gravest offense against another to which he admits. Although he is best remembered for an idle theft of pears as a youth, his treatment of this nameless woman seems much higher on the scale of casual cruelty.

Yet taken together with the whole of the work, these omissions do not much strain the overall effect of the Confessions. Augustine means to offer up his confession to God, and in so doing guide us through the circuitous trails of sin and redemption, so that we might make our own way better. In this he succeeds, and our ability to discern his intent from the outset of his work is probably why we do not think his omissions undercut his purpose.88xOther slightly misleading confessions that remain classics of the genre include A Confession by Tolstoy, which excludes all mention of the Russian writer’s infidelities and other marital turmoil, and Rousseau’s Confessions, which is inaccurate especially in matters of time and date. Augustine may have failed to be entirely truthful, but he has not been deceitful.

Augustine’s Confessions stands in contrast with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s late-eighteenth-century work of the same name, in which Rousseau presents the whole of his ignominy while offering subtle justifications for his misbehavior at every turn. One comes away from Rousseau’s Confessions with a sense that society simply was not prepared to accommodate such an original person, and is—depending on the extent of your sympathy for Jean-Jacques—perhaps the worse for it.

Rousseau, a brief convert to Catholicism, appears to have the form of confessing down, but not quite the function. He really does mean to reveal himself, although not necessarily in any searching penance. His self-accounting is perhaps more exhaustive than Augustine’s, but not really more truthful. His harshest words are not reserved for his nature, but for society. Reflecting on his younger self, who once stole a ribbon and framed a friend for the theft, Rousseau has only this to say:

Never was wickedness further from my thoughts, than in that cruel moment; and when I accused the unhappy girl, it is strange, but strictly true, that my friendship for her was the immediate cause of it.… Had I been left to myself, I should infallibly have declared the truth. Or if M. de la Rogue had taken me aside, and said—“Do not injure this poor girl; if you are guilty own it,”—I am convinced I should instantly have thrown myself at his feet; but they intimidated, instead of encouraging me. I was hardly out of my childhood, or rather, was yet in it. It is also just to make some allowance for my age.99xJean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. W. Conygham Mallory (Auckland, New Zealand: Floating Press, 2012), 104−5.

The incident weighs heavily on Rousseau’s conscience—the act, he claims, eventually led him to write his Confessions—but unlike Augustine, who can wring an extraordinary capacity for evil from his infant tantrums, Rousseau confesses only to absolve himself. He is not a bad sort; he just does, well, bad things. If the world were better, he would be, too.

The Observer Observed

Nonetheless, Rousseau’s self-justification doesn’t jar the reader in the way abject falsehood seems to. It is only when confessional literature turns out to be not only misleading but also intentionally deceptive that we find the path we have taken with our narrator to be different from the one we thought we had struck out on. We had set out believing that we were observing, but we were really the observed.

“A look of glass stops you/And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?” In this line from “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-boat,” the gnomic poet John Ashbery gets at the heart of things: When that which was presumed opaque turns out to be transparent, gazes are reversed, and the looker now must wonder if she was seen. The deceptive confession flips the direction of the intimacy created by the ostensibly true one. While a reader enters into an authentic confession prepared to receive, the inauthentic confession plays on that willingness and manipulates it. The reader learns no truth about the confessor; rather, the deceptive confessor derives and publicly displays some truth about the reader: You want to read this, you like it, you need it.

For while the instinct to confess is not always hard to understand—whether or not the confessor means to justify or condemn himself—the instinct to hear a confession is another thing entirely. And today, when confessional literature is indeed everywhere—when there are whole industries dedicated to the production of it—the type of person confessing is increasingly the same: female, often young but sometimes not, enacting a kind of failure and misery to an audience that demands the performance but often despises the performer.

“Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials” was the title of an 11,000-word essay published last summer by book critic Edward Champion.1010xEdward Champion, “Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials,” Reluctant Habits, June 26, 2014; Ostensibly, Champion was criticizing narcissistic, self-referential writing produced by “white women” who “confuse the act of literary engagement with coquettish pom-pom flogging.” His target, Emily Gould, was an ex−gossip writer who had just published her first novel, Friendship. She had at one time been infamous for oversharing, keeping an online record of her relationship with a colleague on her blog, Heartbreak Soup.1111xJoshua D. Stein, “The Dangers of Blogger Love,” New York Post, May 23, 2008; But Gould, who had long been in the habit of defending her no-holds-barred approach to publishing on her own life and those of others, reflected with a great deal of ambivalence on that practice in a fine introspective piece for the New York Times magazine in 2008.1212xEmily Gould, “Exposed,” New York Times, May 25, 2008; She gave up the oversharing, quit her job as a gossip journalist, and, with a friend, began a small digital bookstore called Emily’s Books.

Gould’s soft retreat from tell-all literature, however, was not enough for Champion, whose essay became a personal attack that revealed him—as much as anything—to have been an obsessive consumer of Gould’s old confessional work. The personal assault begins abruptly after a short preamble on millennial literature, with its author speculating bitterly upon the circumstances of Gould’s birth:

Emily Gould was hatched in Silver Spring, Maryland, on October 13, 1981: the bouncing daughter of a public relations man and a self-employed lawyer and mediator. Had social media and smartphones been around more than three decades ago, it is almost certain that her dewy newborn hands would have stretched out with hollow hunger to replace the default egg avatar on her Twitter account not long after overworked doctors snipped her umbilical cord. It did not take long for Gould to develop a worldview that placed her at the center of the universe.”1313xChampion, “Emily Gould.”

Calumnies pile up quickly: Gould is labeled a “callous sociopath,” “vulturous,” “ignorant,” “boorish,” “a torrid hoyden hopped up on Sprite.” A few months later, Champion went on to threaten another author, and his career has since faltered. But his piece on Gould—in addition to being almost an unintentional confession itself—lives on as an act of revenge not only on Gould’s erstwhile confessional persona, but also for her move away from it. The thought of Gould becoming a novelist, and not just someone for Champion to judge, was clearly too much to bear.

Gould is one of many women whose careers were launched by (or simply consist of) performing the details of their own lives in public. In 2011, newly minted auteur Marie Calloway published “Adrien Brody,” a monotonous (though graphic) account of cavorting with a much older literary micro-celebrity whose real name was replaced with the actor’s for the purposes of the story. Between the clinically rendered sex scenes, Calloway and “Brody” have theoretical conversations:

I brought up an article he had written since the first time we met, about young girls on the internet who were pressured by the internet’s “attention economy” and the way social media is arranged to exploit themselves by using their sexuality to get attention. I asked if he thought I was like that.

He said that talking to me definitely made him think more about female subjectivity, but that he thought that what I did wasn’t like Kiki Kannibal, but that “what you do seems more in line with that video you showed me of that female artist who posed for porn herself because she didn’t want to exploit other women,” he said, referring to a video of Cosey Fanni Tutti I had sent him.

I felt relieved.”1414xMarie Calloway, “Adrien Brody,” published on Muumuu House as fiction, December 29, 2011;

“Marie Calloway” is not the author’s real name. That the fake surname includes callow is likely no accident. Her first name is a reference to Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a voyeuristic, pastel-saturated ode to the prettiest nymphet ever to have lost her head.1515xKat Stoeffel, “Meet Marie Calloway: The New Model for Literary Seductress Is Part Feminist, Part ‘Famewhore,’ and All Pseudonymous,” New York Observer, December 20, 2011; For Marie Calloway, to be a woman in her early twenties is to exist in a state of perpetual display: Men, especially sexually interested ones, look on incessantly at her youth and sexuality, searching for some access. In turn, Calloway adopts a position outside herself, and gazes on as well.

Calloway’s key observation is that the world places certain demands for exposure on young women, yet recoils when the demands are met. If you want intimacy and vulnerability out of Marie Calloway, you can get all you want and then some, but her relentless prose is determined to leave you asking why you desired it in the first place. The nude, humiliating, and sexually explicit photographs Calloway includes in her 2013 book What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life? drive home the peculiarity of the simultaneous desire for and revulsion toward young women’s self-exposure.

Contemporary female soul-searchers like Emily Gould and Marie Calloway can trace their writing back to the work of confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Such writing has been for many women an obvious arena in which to explore not only their inner lives but also the nature of femininity itself, so it is not surprising that today the form seems in many ways dominated by women, both as producers and consumers. But today’s women confessional writers often appear to be at pains to stave off the bracing, grave tone of their poet forebears. Earnest and dire are out; ironic and wry are in.

Yet there is a cost to the calibration of a confession’s tone to the prejudices of its hearers. Namely, one begins to wonder what else has been adjusted. Like Augustine, Plath may not have been telling the whole truth in her work, but one could never doubt that she meant what she said. But the “I” position, coupled with the very personal and very weighty, now demands a particular tone. If intimacy and authenticity are the ultimate goals of confession, these stories are in a sense drained of both.

After all, Calloway, while often conflated with her character, is not explicitly the Marie Calloway that appears on the page. (And Emily Gould is a novelist, but that did not prevent readers from approaching Friendship as if it were nonfiction.) It’s possible that Calloway’s sexual experiences are all translated unaltered from life to page, but it’s also the case that she herself has never committed to her stories being true. Her book is full of photographs that are sexually explicit and raw. Are we glimpsing a personal snapshot? Or a work of art intended to catch us in the act of looking for such a thing? Either way, the confessional form has been turned toward a wholly new purpose.

In “Doll Parts,” Courtney Love, female confessional lyricist par excellence, sings, “I fake it so real I am beyond fake.” Calloway and Gould might say the same. They may or may not be their characters; they may only sometimes be their characters, and their tone may be adjusted to elude the usual points of dismissal predisposed to brush off women’s confessional writing. In the end, their use of the confessional form isn’t so much related to the stories they tell as to what the responses to them reveal: We live in a time of endless desire for women’s exposure, yet also detest and ridicule the exposed. We are obsessed with youthful beauty and sexuality, but our obsession is finicky and mercurial. It loves to look and hates to be seen.

If Augustine’s Confessions was about reconciling a man with his neighbors and to God, and Rousseau’s about healing society, this third, gendered form of confessional literature is accomplishing neither. Instead, it is a kind of commodification of confession, confession as a consumer product. It is enjoyed by its consumers because it affirms them in their normality, whether they are like the confessor or not. While this confession is still capable of creating an intimate space, perhaps even a healing one, it must also reckon with an audience that is not interested in either.

Contemporary confession rarely comes in the theological style of Augustine or the straightforwardly earnest form of De Quincey. As confessors (not in the ecclesial sense), we desire to share, but never so much as to seem narcissistic or melodramatic; we want to reveal but not to be wholly revealed; we need to be understood on our own terms without limiting them deceptively. We perform our many miniature confessions, which are at once more complicated than they seem yet just as mundane.

Confession being fraught as it is with danger for both speaker and listener, the ordinariness of admission is probably the only thing that sustains it. We reveal ourselves in small ways every day, in so many unthinking “I” statements: “I feel your pain”; “I know how that goes”; “I’ve been there, done that.” The thoroughly developed confession is just a robustly manifested example of the same, and it carries the same sense of consolation. Whether or not we come to identify or sympathize with an author, the confessional work tells us that we are not alone, that someone out there has known some element of our own experience, that the things we have been through can be given voice and meaning. It is especially the petty, therefore, that benefits from confession: Grand undertakings often generate their own meaning, but the tiny goings-on of day-to-day life are the first to seem devoid of purpose unless we can relate through them to wider networks of meaning.

In D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake,” the speaker encounters a serpent at a water trough, and despite being enamored of him, frightens him off with a stick out of nothing but thoughtless fear:

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

This is the pettiness to which the speaker must confess, and unreported it may well have remained—petty and unremarkable. Confessed, though, and heard by us—as a burden to be shared, a poison to be drawn out, or a reflection to be acknowledged—it takes on vital human significance. One person’s private pettiness is not much, but an entire race’s corporate meanness is a matter of grand spiritual scale, the sort of thing that is only really suited to confession. Alone we are all adrift, but in confession we find one another at our most human, for better or worse.