On Confession

What is the origin of the urge to confess and is it helpful?

Posted Jul 11, 2014

Raskolinkov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is driven to confess his crime. Even the good Levin in Anna Karenina feels it necessary to give his journals to poor Kitty before they marry so that she will know he is not “pure” as she is. When he sees her stricken face and the sorrow she feels, he is overcome with remorse.

In my own life my first husband felt obliged to confess his infidelity. Like George Washington, he could not tell a lie.

The Catholic church of course uses confession in order to absolve people of their sins.

In South Africa at the end of the apartheid period there was a Truth and Reconciliation commission set up where the perpetrators of torture or other crimes could confess and be absolved.

Psychoanalysis, of course, uses this need to share with another what we might want to hide in public or not even be aware of without the process of free association which leads us to reveal what has lain hidden in our unconscious minds.

Many of us as writers perform a sort of act of confession when we write. Though we might write fiction we often use our lives, our fantasies, and the lives of others to try to say something truthful about life.

There are writers who use their lives more directly in memoir, knowing, of course, that intimate revelations are likely to be interesting and perhaps helpful to others. For example, a great writer like Edmund White who has been willing to write so frankly about his sexual life as a gay man has surely given others the permission to speak openly of their fears and desires.

Why do some of us feel obliged to share these intimate parts of our lives with others in writing or just in word? Writers, of course, write for money, fame, to get back at their enemies, and many other narcissistic reasons. They also write out of generosity and a desire to share what they know or what they feel with a community of souls, remembering perhaps how they have been helped by other writers in the lonely moments of their lives.

Still I don’t feel that entirely explains this desire to confess. Do we actually crave the punishment that can be the result of such frankness and the exposure of self? Did Raskolnikov need to be punished after committing murder in order to live with himself? Was my husband asking me to punish him in some way? Is it ultimately out of guilt and remorse that we spread our souls out on the page? Or is it rather our desire to reach out to others and share what we have discovered, what has hurt or delighted us in our lives?

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.