I Confess_lowres


It was the crime of this particular news cycle.

Voice after voice -- on the Internet, on the network payroll -- was expressing disbelief that a jury had found some eccentric millionaire innocent in the slice-and-dice murder of his elderly neighbor. This, went the outraged commentary, after the accused had confessed to the unneighborly deed.

Maybe these folks just didn't quite understand all the complexities of "confession."

The 19th-century philosopher William James saw one form of admitting guilt as an engine of social comfort. James wrote, "Repentance according to such healthy-minded Christians means getting away from sin, not groaning over its commission. The Catholic practice of confession and absolution is in one of its aspects little more than a systematic method of keeping healthy-mindedness on top."

Well do I remember this practice. In the world of contemporary Catholicism, it now goes by the name of "reconciliation," but then it was simply known by its bare-knuckled title of "confession."

Among my peers the greatest attribute of a good confessor was partial or complete deafness in one or both ears. That facilitated our method of confession, which was of the turducken variety, i.e. tucking a major sin within a sandwich of minor sins. An example would be: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was two weeks ago. I forgot my night prayers four times. I used the name of the Lord in vain 22 times. I stabbed my grandma with a shank knife of high-carbon steel twice. I forgot to say grace before meals three times."

But even if we developed methods of circumventing its consequences, we were unable to displace confession. Why, for instance, did Parson Weems' fictional story about the boy George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree become universally popular? Because it involved confession. No human characteristic is more general than the compulsion to confess.

Historical proof: so many Christians of early Antioch, embracing martyrdom, falsely claimed offenses against the Roman state that the proconsul Antonius asked in amazement whether they had not ropes or precipices sufficient enough to kill themselves.

Of course, those seeking martyrdom are indeed special cases. But the annals of crime are heavy with examples of souls who confess to spectacular crimes which they later are shown to have been innocent of committing.

Then there are the guilty who seem to fall in love with the act of confessing; when they run out of crimes to confess to, they borrow somebody else's. The case comes to mind of a wall-eyed killer of a decade or so ago named Henry Lee something or other. Henry Lee confessed to whacking a stunning number of prostitutes and hitchhikers. Naturally, a large number of police departments, seeing a way to clear up a backlog of unsolved crimes, sought Henry Lee. Soon he was a minor celebrity, smiling for the cameras as he was extradited to Oregon or Texas or California for his next great "confession."

Of course, it must be noted that the human proclivity for confession has often been helped along by institutional aids such as thumbscrews, racks and testicle-tickling electric devices. Yet, even without torture, there are many who swear to the good effects of confession. In jail, Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis, which included this: " A man's very highest moment is, I have no doubt, when he kneels in the dust and beats his breast, and tells all the sins of his life."

Maybe that explains the story of the hunchback in the 1,001 Arabian nights. A drunken couple takes a hunchback home and accidentally kills him. They take the body to a doctor's home; the doctor trips over the body and thinks he has caused the death. He secretly brings the corpse to a steward, and he in turn to a drunk. Each believes himself guilty and on the gallows confesses in turn to the crime to save the innocent accused. Fortunately, when the sultan learns of the fabulous story, he absolves all and everybody. Perhaps it was leniency like this that promoted the practice of confession.

But, as it usually does, language begins to cheapen and the word "confession" began to signify much more than a link to social inclusion and moral responsibility. And so we have devolved to the point that even a cursory look at the catalog of a modest library uncovered "confessions" by the likes of Klaus Barbie, Nat Turner, O, Rousseau, Tolstoy, T.E. Lawrence, an American Scholar, an Irish Rebel, a Muckraker, a China Hand, an Eco-Warrior, a Dirty Ball Player, an Actor, an S.O.B., a Poet, a Southern Lady, a Dangerous Mind, a Lapsed Librarian, an Uncommon Attorney, a Girl Economist and a Concierge.

It doesn't matter if you are a great devotee of confessional literature, this is a little too much admission of guilt, is it not?