Performance, Power, Penance, & Problem-Solving: The Rhetoric of Confession in Modern Life

by Kasiemobi Udo-okoye, ’15

On November 26th, 2011, these lines were posted anonymously on an Internet blog:

“I feel like less of a dad because I can’t build things for my son.”
“I have no one to believe in anymore.”
“Sometimes, other gay people make me feel like I am not gay enough.”
“If I wasn’t the only bridesmaid, I would have killed myself 3 days before my best friend’s wedding.”
“I would rather be hit than ignored…”
“He’s not my baby brother, like we tell everyone. He is my son…”
“I create distance when I find out my girlfriends are pregnant, because I’m jealous and  feel worthless.”

And there is more. There are archives connected to the site, pages and pages long. This site,, had 491,568,392 visitors on the day of this post alone, according to the recorded visitor count on the page. These are personal confessions, mailed and emailed anonymously by millions of average people who have something that they want to tell the world. The Post Secret project and website began when its founder started what he called the “Reluctant Oracle” art project, the idea for which he claims came to him in a dream in Paris in 2003. He began leaving mysterious bottles in park lakes that were part art pieces, part puzzles, to be discovered by employees and passers-by (Barr). The artist did not divulge his real name, calling himself “Hobby Horse.” In 2004, the mysterious artist released his final card, with an invitation to the public to send him postcards as part of a group art project. His instructions were simple: get a postcard, write an intimate secret on it that has never been told to anyone else, and mail it to the given address. The confession could be a regret, a belief, a betrayal, an embarrassing habit, or a childhood humiliation. The public responded. According to the Post Secret Community website, over 500,000 confessions have been sent in so far. Five books of these anonymous confessions have been published, and an affiliated site, Post Secret France, was launched with the permission of Hobby Horse (who revealed that he was Frank Warren) in 2007. The Post Secret phenomenon has been featured on Good Morning America and been the subject of several news and web articles (Warren).

This phenomenon is not unique. America, and the world at large, is obsessed with confession, or the act of self-disclosure. Confession is a powerful form of rhetoric that merits intense examination for very practical purposes. A web search of the word “confessions” will yield seemingly endless results, ranging from reviews of sensationalized “confessional tell-all” auto-biographies to an advertisement for a smart phone application designed to aid in sacramental confession for Catholics (“Confession: A Roman Catholic App”). In our TV shows, in our courtrooms, in our churches and classrooms, at our press conference podiums, the rhetoric of confession is inescapable. But why is that so? Why do we find confessions so compelling? Over the course of this paper, I intend to find out. I will also argue that there are critical differences between public and private confessions that make the public confession particularly dangerous and problematic in social discourse.

The roles and dynamics of confession have been very widely researched by expert analysts and researchers. They have analyzed private self-disclosure. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­For example, Professor of nursing Gary Rolfe and lecturer Lyn Gardner of the University of Wales have observed that private and semi-private confession and reflection can aid in examining one’s own attitudes and thereby productively evaluating professional practice (Gardner & Rolfe).   Pychological researcher Sharon Hymer has written several widely circulated essays in which she notes that confession in the private context can be greatly beneficial and therapeutic for the individual (Hymer). Analysts have also examined public self-disclosure. Widely-published author and AUT Communications Professor Barry King has noted that public confession plays a critical role in how celebrities shape their image by operating on a carefully codified and controlled system of status hierarchy that is almost always over-looked or ignored by viewers. University of London research associate Christine Fanthome builds upon this theory by pointing out that in a modern culture where a celebrity’s life is a bankable commodity, the public confession has become an important marketing tool for the celebrity. Scholars have found that that the confessional format actually allows a person to shape the way that historical events are remembered and discussed over the course of time (Tell). Researchers such as Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, of the Grady College of journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, have recognized that confessions on talk shows demonstrate the way in which confession reinforces social norms in the confessor’s mind, a phenomenon I plan to explore in the example of Puritan colonial culture. Almost all confessional scholars trace the history of confession in religion, which I will also examine in the course of this paper. However, although these scholars have studied public and private confessional dynamics separately, few of these scholars have explicitly compared the two side by side. Neither have analysts explored the unique and far-reaching societal problems that public confession presents. They have not synthesized all these issues surrounding confession into a “big picture” that the average observer can understand. Few have explicitly answered the question: What is confession worth in today’s society and what attitude should we have toward it? My purpose in this essay is to address that question.

In his essay for Heldref Publications, “Confession and Atonement in Contemporary Fiction”, Elke D’Hoker posits that contemporary fiction “draws on the confessional impulse to question problems of selfhood, truth and deception (33).” Citing examples like Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions and Nabokov’s Lolita, D’Hoker brings a new perspective to our consideration of the purpose and value of confession.  He proposes here that confession is a mechanism to build understanding of the self, to reveal greater human truths that lie beneath and beyond mere facts.  There is an implied similarity here to elements of the religious institution of confession: “… the exact intention of religious confession is that in and through the process of spoken self-revelation confessants gain insight into their baser acts and motives,”  though D’Hoker argues that “secular confession is a poor match to this powerful religious discourse (32).”

What religious discourse is D’Hoker referring to? Before we can examine and draw conclusions about modern confession we must establish its cultural and historical context and how it evolved to become what it is today. Let’s trace the history of confessional discourse to its earliest and most prominent roots as a religious sacrament. Penance is a sacrament of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Eastern churches. Through it the person receiving the sacrament thoroughly examines their conscience. The penitent recounts every sin they have committed since their last confession and, if sincerely contrite and willing to make amends, is absolved of his or her sins by a priest acting as an instrument of God’s forgiving power (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Until the thirteenth century, confession was performed in public and penitents lived their entire lives as a lower class of Christian, performing public acts of penance and abashment, receiving absolution only on the deathbed (King). In 1215 this process was discarded by Church leadership in favor of private confession, in which a priest acted as the vessel for God’s forgiving power (King 117). Upon noting this fact, King makes an important distinction between religious confession and modern secular public confession: absolution required sincere repentance and contrition, not merely recounting sins (117). It was Martin Luther that introduced the new development of the confession as a private discourse not between the confessor and the priest but rather between the confessor and God (118).  Luther also established the concept of confession as an internal act to construct a good life rather than as a social function in which one reinforces social norms and roles. From this point we see a cultural dichotomy that characterizes confession in society today: confession as a private self-improvement and therapeutic action, and confession as a tool for enforcing and internalizing social mores and expectations, often as a component of punishment.

Confession continued to be a part of public social function in early modern society. This was especially true in Puritan colonial culture. In fact, examining the role that public confession played in Puritan society may reveal more about the role that public confession plays in contemporary life and explain why it has continued to be such an enduring feature of today’s society.

In a Puritan settlement, punishment was customarily accompanied by a confession. In such situations the confession was an elaborate, carefully ritualized spectacle calculated to captivate and fascinate (Conquergood). It put the confessor at the center of attention and lent them a power they could not hope to wield in normal life (Conquergood). As the physical sequence of public execution that took place before Puritan spectators was exhaustively ritualized and rehearsed, the real drama of the confessional moment in the Puritan context was a spiritual one much more important than physical life and death. Spellbound Puritan audiences watched to see if the guilty confessor could demonstrate enough sincere repentance to save their immortal soul (Conquergood). Thus, the ritualized confession, conducted according to a rigidly established set of rules and structural controls, became a culturally institutionalized performance designed to make both the confessor and their audience internalize the dictated roles and expectations of their society (preached as sins and virtues in the Puritan religious context, and as “normality” or “morality” in the contemporary, secular context). This characterization of confession is echoed by observers like Foucault, philosopher and social theorist who, as cited in the works of King and Gardner, posited that public confession is a way in which institutions can exert control over individuals by encouraging self-surveillance and, in this case, both verbal and symbolic declamation of any action that contradicts the accepted hierarchy and expectations of the institutions.

The Confession in Culture: De-Criminalizing the Guilty

The same dynamic is at work in contemporary confessional formats. The scintillating drama of intimate revelations and shocking stories make confessions compelling so as to capture the audience’s attention and mold their perspectives to suit the pre-accepted, structured reality and implicit agenda of the controlling agent in a given situation. It makes sense: confessions capture our attention and hold our imaginations captive. The person who makes a confession reveals the (presumably) most bizarre, exciting, and hitherto mysterious details of an event, the shocking inside story, like that of the 1959 movie Suddenly, Last Summer, in which beautiful young Catherine Holly, a seemingly unhinged woman institutionalized by her aunt Violent, brings the shadowy story of her cousin’s shocking life and death to a climax with her confession in the final scene of the movie. She wrenchingly recounts a tale of sex, sun, evil, and cannibalism. It is pure, potent entertainment value, and it works. The evidence of that is in the dollars: “Suddenly” made $6.4 million dollars at the box office when it was released and $6,375,000 in U.S. rentals in years since (Capua). If the confessional format makes cinema compelling (and lucrative), it is an outright powerhouse in the television industry, as exemplified by the tabloid confessional talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for twenty-five years and, according to Forbes List, is the highest rated talk show in television history (Rose). In fact, self-disclosure by guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show demonstrates the same dynamics as confession in Puritan society. Lower status confessors are given little to no control over what they confess to and how they confess, with the host Oprah and the carefully-directed crowd dictating the terms of the confession and how the confessor is presented (King 121-124). In this case, the confessor is allowed to operate only as an example that confirms established stereotypes such as “redneck” or “selfish mother” (123). However, high-status guests, like “A-list” celebrities, are given much greater control of their revelations and how they disclose them. Audience reactions to the celebrity’s answers to pre-approved questions are carefully controlled. The form of confession, then, is extremely popular and influential in our mass culture, but we do not understand the power that confessions hold over us, even in trivial modern entertainment, outside the scope of religion and punishment. And we do not recognize that these contemporary confessional dynamics are a result of an extensive cultural heritage of the confession in history (117). By analyzing an episode of a popular American television I will demonstrate that even though, to the casual observer, it seems not to be as culturally and politically critical as the confession in religion or punishment, the confession in entertainment is demonstrative of the power that audience-targeted confessions have to re-frame reality, social hierarchies, and definitions of right and wrong. Popular entertainment is a form of public discourses, and we will see that because of this power, and how easily this power is manipulated, the confession and confessional format presents a unique problem in public discourses.

In episode 14 of the first season of the long running, high-rated show Desperate Housewives, called “Love is in the Air,” a scene opens with long-married couple Bree and Rex Van De Camp, spending a quiet afternoon at home. It is impossible to overlook how strongly the scene evokes peaceful American normality. The décor, like the opening tones of the conversation between Rex and Bree, is muted and elegant. Bree is almost a caricature of domestic femininity in her lavender argyle sweater, neatly flipped hair, white pearls, and pressed trousers. Rex is every inch the dominant male, relaxed in his domain. He reclines comfortably while reading a book. His clothes, like everything else in the room, are beige. When this scene opens, we as viewers immediately know that this couple is normal, respectable, white, affluent, and maybe a little boring. It is the day before Valentine’s Day, of which Bree, meticulously doing needle-work, casually reminds Rex. He replies, equally casually, that he has already bought her gift, the usual roses and English toffee. In previous episodes, Bree and Rex have undergone marriage counseling for their various relationship issues, including Rex’s infidelity, and Bree is convinced that Rex is holding a secret that may be the key to restoring their marriage. She uses the subject of Valentine’s Day as a springboard to confront him. What is interesting is that in previous episodes, Rex’s secret was already revealed to the viewer in scenes between him and his married mistress. Rex is a masochist. He derives sexual pleasure from being tied up, whipped, beaten, and stepped on by women playing “dominatrix” roles. This is similar to the confessional act in Puritan society, in which the content of the confession itself was already known and expected by the audience (Conquergood). With this prior knowledge we know that the apparent normality and tranquility of this scene between Bree and Rex is a façade, and we as viewers already have at least some idea of what lies under that façade. So why is this scene still important to a viewer? I asked myself this question as I sat, captivated, watching this episode for the first time one afternoon.  If I already know what Rex is going to confess to, why am I so excited to see him confess?

“You went to another woman for sex to give you something I couldn’t. At least have the decency to tell me what that something is,” Bree pleads. Rex, now sitting up, elbows resting on knees, eyes turned upward, hands open, replies simply, “Bree, I can’t.” Bewildered and frustrated she asks why, and he shakes his head quickly and looks away. Bree, with obvious concern in her eyes, pushes, “Rex, please tell me. Let me prove to you how much I love you.” A brief pause as Rex inhales is all the preamble we are given. The expression on Rex’s face as he suddenly pushes the words out is a cross between pain and nausea. He knows that he is about to be judged.  It is at this point that I realized why I’d been waiting for this moment: it wasn’t enough to know the truth about Rex. I wanted to hear it from his mouth.  I was itching to hear him spell out exactly who he was and what he had done, every detail of his sordid sexual desire.  Even more importantly, I wanted to see Bree’s reaction. Would she defy my expectations and stereotypes or confirm them like the “guests” on Oprah do? This scene was drawing me in by promising me an entertaining and intriguing experiment in human nature. By offering implicit promises of interesting details, the creators of the show have succeeded in making me emotionally invested in the confession, and more receptive the argument that will be implied by it. “I like to be dominated,” Rex states. One camera shot of Bree’s face is all the viewer needs to know that Bree will react exactly the way we expect her to. She stares into his face in utter confusion before uttering a comical “…Huh?” “Sexually,” Rex replies. “…Huh?” Bree says again. By now the quaint, all-American parlor scene with which we began has become ridiculous in contrast with this comically awkward and lurid conversation. What is even more surprising is the satisfaction that I discovered I was experiencing, watching this idea of a privileged, normal family get turned on its head.  The scene cuts a few seconds later to a shot of Bree and Rex watching an S&M (sadism and masochism) video on that same beige couch. Bree is squirming with absolute horror on her face, and Rex sits embarrassed. We know as we watch them that their view of each other will never be the same again, and neither will our view of them. In fact, by the end of the episode Bree surprises us by volunteering to try “dominating” Rex, though it is clear that she is doing it in the spirit of wifely self-sacrifice for the sake of saving their marriage. She seems to have completely forgiven Rex’s infidelity and lying. In fact, she is even taking it upon herself to appease Rex, rather than Rex feeling any shame, remorse, or need to do penance to his wife. Suddenly, by way of his confession, this television character has actually shifted the accepted understanding of right and wrong in the show’s (and therefore, at least temporarily, the viewer’s) universe, for even though his sexual preference itself is not necessarily wrong, Rex’s resulting unfaithfulness and lying to his wife is, and by way of this confession that we have seen is calculated to be captivating, that lying and infidelity is quickly explained away. In this context, the probable reason why the show’s writers seek to absolve the character Rex of blame in this way is to emotionally invest the reader in the continuation of Rex’s story in ensuing episodes by getting the viewer to empathize with Rex. Confession achieves this calculated redefinition of moral standards by making a particular event or action seem like a natural and inevitable consequence of environmental and cultural forces rather than individual choices, thus removing individual responsibility and making the newly “naturalized” more acceptable and applicable to the general mass of observers (Tell 173). This also allows individuals and institutions to control the way in which historical events and actions are remembered (Tell 173). Simply put, the confessional format allows the confessor to present an action in a way that makes it seem “okay” and gives the audience the permission to behave the same way. So not only does the public confession allow institutions to impose social hierarchy and social constructs on individuals, but it also allows both individuals and institutions to shift or eliminate due blame and responsibility, and also allows them to distort the way in which history and long-term cultural patterns are remembered and discussed.

That kind of power that a confession has to re-dictate the terms of reality is by no means limited to a movie or television screen, as expert psychoanalyst Peter Wolsen reminds us in his article “The Politics of Confession”, written for the Los Angeles Times: “Perhaps the most shocking function of the political confession is providing sexual material for voyeuristic gratification. The American public eagerly awaited details of [Democratic Representative Gary A.] Condit’s affair with [Chandra] Levy. For many commentators, his refusal to admit the affair, let alone provide salacious gossip, was the most disappointing aspect of his prime-time interview with Connie Chung.” So the public is equally attracted to the spectacle of the political confession as well, and is therefore just as susceptible to manipulation by the political conefssion as by the confession created solely for mass entertainment. But we are supposed to be more critical and skeptical of our political leaders than we are of television characters. Analysts build entire careers on picking apart and analyzing political rhetoric. Yet somehow, even in an American political system marked by skepticism and distrust of politicians and government, politicians are able to use public confessions to absolve themselves of moral and even legal misdeeds.

In 1998, during testimony for a civil lawsuit brought against him by a woman alleging that he had sexually harassed her seven years earlier, sitting President Bill Clinton denied having a sexual affair with one of his interns, Monica Lewinsky, from 1995 to 1996. As the grand jury trial progressed, it became clear that President Clinton had lied (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Shortly after giving his testimony to the grand jury, Clinton made a public statement in which he confessed to the Lewinsky affair and attempted to gain the public’s forgiveness (“Bill Clinton admits to having inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky”). There is clear rhetorical manipulation at work here. In order to put the audience on his side, Clinton immediately opens this televised confession by presenting himself as an upright man who made the effort to tell the truth even when the truth was about something painfully private and sensitive: “This afternoon, in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Independent Counsel and the grand jury. I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life, questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.” Clinton is implying here that his initial lies about his affair with Monica Lewinsky are justifiable, simply because “no American citizen” would ever want to answer such personal questions. Clinton’s tone implies that none of us average American viewers would want to admit to such things. He hints that he is just like us in that regard and should not be expected to act any differently.  It is calculated to make the viewer see Clinton as being “just like us,” and therefore normal, innocent, susceptible to the same unfortunate but forgivable moral and legal failures that we might commit. He seems to be implying that, if anything, telling the truth about such personal matters is so difficult for the average person that he should be given credit for telling the truth at all, whether or not it was because of prolonged political and personal pressure.  Clinton goes on: “Still, I must take complete responsibility for all my actions both public and private. And that is why I’m speaking to you tonight.” What follows is a critical part of Clinton’s speech, and an important feature of most confessions. Clinton admonishes himself. Here is where the greatest gap occurs between what the viewer might believe is happening in a confession and what is actually happening. Clinton states that while his responses to grand jury questioning were “legally accurate,” he did not volunteer the bare truth. He admits that he indeed had a relationship with Lewinsky that was wrong. He criticizes himself even further, calling the affair “a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part, for which I am solely and completely responsible.”

It would seem, to a casual observer, that Clinton is at least fairly contrite and is taking on due guilt and shame with this admission, but in reality he is simply playing a role for his audience—the responsible penitent willing to take proper blame and make amends, as personally painful as that may be. By indicting himself of deception and immorality, Clinton actually improves his public image by portraying himself as an average, fault-susceptible American who is willing to admit to and pay for his mistakes. Clinton obviously hopes to convince us that he is moral enough to truly see the error of his ways. His word choice and tone here encourage us to admire and pity him for the punishment he’s willing to face by owning up to his flaws. In fact, in the viewer’s mind, this admission of wrongdoing might imply that he can be trusted or admired more now than in the past because we assume now that he can be expected to admit his misdeeds at some point. To mitigate the general scope of his wrongdoing in our minds, Clinton continues by stressing that, even if he himself was legally evasive, at least he at no time explicitly asked anyone to lie or conceal evidence. By saying that he “deeply regrets” his deception of the public and his wife, Clinton has finally offered a (rather shallow) display of penitence.

Clinton then offers justifications for why he previously lied about the affair. One justification, that is, that he had wanted to protect himself from embarrassment, simply reinforces the idea of him as self-effacing and penitent, willing to own up to and repent from his selfish motives. The rest of the justifications actually provide noble-sounding excuses for his lies so that in our minds those lies, as well as the abuses of power that led to them, might actually become acceptable or even right. For example, Clinton claims that in addition to wanting to protect his own reputation, he also lied to protect his family from painful scandal and thwart what he claims were politically-motivated legal attacks. Clinton then highlights once again the image of himself as a noble victim of self-sacrifice by saying that he is telling the truth to end what he characterizes as a specious investigation into his personal life. In Clinton’s words the investigation had “gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.” What is interesting is the conclusion of the confession in which he stresses to the audience that the scandal is a private matter. Though he is willing to do whatever it takes to make amends for his actions, he makes it emphatically clear that he does not accept the public’s role in deciding how he should do it. This is a perfect example of the kind of power that the confession gives the confessor. With this statement, Clinton invests himself with the power and authority of sentencing judge in the public trial of opinion and morality. Here, he is unequivocally telling the public that they are not even allowed to participate in the discourse produced by his scandal: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.” Not only that, but Clinton implies to the audience that he is entitled to remove them from the discourse, because he is being excessively harassed and persecuted by public and private enemies: “It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives.” He concludes by urging the audience to “move on” from his public scandal. He conveniently argues that the attention paid to his scandal is distracting the public from addressing other pressing concerns.

Bill Clinton’s confession here is not completely false. In fact, what is problematic about this confession and most public confessions in general is that many if not all of the essential facts are true, lending the confession and the confessor an aura of authority  and authenticity that the confessional format simply does not have. The confessional format allows the confessor to do what Clinton did: impose the confessor’s own persona and motivation on a situation or set of facts, to the exclusion of all else. The way he presented these facts allowed Clinton to absolve himself of his misdeeds and excuse similar behavior on the part of the public. These misdeeds are not limited to sexual misconduct. Clinton was also charged with abuse of power and obstruction of justice (Columbia). Once again we are presented with a case much like that of the character Rex in Desperate Housewives. Like Rex, Clinton used the act of confession to excuse his own bad behavior. And like the high status of celebrities that appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Clinton’s high status and control of the confessional situation (like having no crowds present to boo him, being able to present an immaculate physical appearance, and having no opponents or analysts present to argue against his logic) allows him to use the confession as an image-crafting tool, bending the truth to his agenda. The only difference here between Clinton’s confession and our other examples is that in this real-world situation, the stakes are higher, and the possible mal-effects of confession are even more profound. Not only does the confession excuse bad behavior, it inhibits discourse and constructive social problem-solving by imposing a single perspective or agenda onto a discourse and de-valuating truth.

The dynamic at work in public confession, as opposed to private confession, is not that of penitent and guide, or even that of confessor and judge, but of puppet master and puppet. A public confession is a performance, not just to entertain, but to control. An admission gives the teller a chance to shape reality according to his or her terms, and because confessions are (or at least appear to be) intimate, upfront, and authentic, the hearer hears and believes. And why not believe? That question is the one at the root of the problem that confessions also present in world of justice and law. Why not believe? It is a simple confession, and after all, who would admit to something that they did not do or could get away with? What can a person possibly hope to gain from a confession? In fact, confession puts one in a very critical position of power. Suddenly everything there is to be told, every fact, face, and figure, every event, is filtered through the confessor’s perspectives and motives. The confessor can suddenly become a calculated role: abashed penitent, strong surly rebel, upright bastion of damaged but recovering integrity, fun and bold eccentric, or concerned and conscientious whistleblower. The confessor, even when appearing to make a statement as a result of social pressure, wields ultimate choice in the situation. The confessor has the choice to make a statement or not make a statement, to make a statement including one set of facts or another, to present the facts in one particular light or another, or to employ a certain tone or physical gesture versus another. The confessor holds ultimate power and choice to control the truth. This rhetorical format may be more effective than any other form of speech, because the confessor lets the audience, the “judge,” falsely believe that they are in the position of power. The act of “admitting” something, after all, usually implies vulnerability, defeat, or even shame on the part of the confessor. Regardless of whether their disclosure is accurate or even sincere, the confession gives the confessor great power by allowing them to re-frame facts and reality to suit their purposes. That purpose may be to gain sympathy from the confessor’s audience, shift blame for an incident to another party, or reinforce a certain image that the confessor wants to project. In his article Wolson points out that politicians use their “customarily scripted expressions of remorse” to give the public “a believable expression of remorse and guilt and remorse”.  Wolson states that “even though they know these confessions are often well-rehearsed, Americans require the political confession to determine if the politician is capable of caring for his constituency and upholding an appropriate moral standard.” In the aftermath scholars and observers questioned and noted every aspect of the scandal and its effects, from the religious discourse it sparked in Christian churches about sexual and marital issues (Moore), to Hilary Clinton’s possible role in and reaction to the whole affair (Carlson), and even the significance of gender difference in reactions to the scandal (Powell), but they have not undertaken a scholarly examination of the rhetoric of Clinton’s confession itself.

How is it that even when a public confession is obviously a staged performance, it is still an essential mechanism of the operation of the political system and the public’s participation in it? Our dependence on the confession to preserve social cohesion and harmony in our public institutions is a remnant of our cultural heritage. Recall the practice of public punishment and repentance in the Puritan societies of early North America, in which the offender, a member of the community, was publicly tried, sentenced, and made to make a ritualized statement of repentance to reinforce the norms of the community’s social contract (Fitzgerald). In this context, it no longer matters if the actual substance of the confession is true or not. Though Puritan society was often blatantly unfair, confession in this capacity was used as a mechanism of social cohesion in these small, tight-knit communities where survival entailed a sense of unity and cooperation, a need for each member to demonstrate to their peers a sense of investment in and responsibility to the community unit. Truth was not as important as the social attitude reinforced by performance. Confession plays the same role in modern American society. Simply put, the public confession appeases the public enough to make forgiveness possible, whether the confession is true or not (Davis). So now the confession has gradually evolved in our understanding from tawdry entertainment to personal therapy to rhetorical manipulation. We can even connect this idea to the role that confession plays in the United States justice system, by considering false confessions and the huge impact they have on countless human lives… and deaths. We can look to the historical example of Robert Hubert and the Great Fire of London to give some insight into the causes and effects of false confession in the legal system and what this dynamic says about confession’s general impact on society.

The Confession in Law: Criminalizing the Innocent

The fact that the bakery in question didn’t have windows should have saved Robert Hubert’s life. In 1666, a huge fire swept through London, wiping out 430 acres of land and property, nearly eighty percent of the city (Jokinen). Not that the bakery’s windows (or lack thereof) had anything to do with the fire itself. In fact the fire itself had very little to do with Hubert at all. He was not even in the country when it broke out—but that did not stop him from declaring that he had started it. Hubert was French, Protestant and slightly mentally impaired, which made him a perfect scapegoat for a city government seeking to appease a confused and angry public (Robinson). His trial must have struck at least one person in the room as a rather elaborate practical joke, as it is safe to say that Hubert could not have been any less guilty. He claimed that he started the fire by throwing an incendiary device into the window of Thomas Farynor’s bakery, but the bakery did not have any windows. Not only did Hubert arrive in England two days after the fire, he was not even sure of where and when the fire actually started, and changed his confession repeatedly to fit the facts. Hubert seemed determined to be found guilty, and the judge and jury were only too happy to help, though it was obvious to all involved that Hubert had nothing to do with the fire. The public needed a scape-goat, and they were given one. Every joke needs a punch-line: Robert Hubert was a “simple-minded” French watchmaker, and by September 28th 1666, he was dead, hanged at Tyburn for a crime that turned out not to be a crime. According to the Parliamentary committee formed to investigate the fire, the was no reason to believe that the fire was anything more than a tragic accident, and the bulk of the loss caused by the conflagration was property damage, as, according to Anniina Jokinen’s article “The Great Fire of London, 1666,” “the loss of life was minimal (some sources say only sixteen perished).”

The case of John Hubert’s bogus confession cannot be anything more than a random, strange little story, a speck on the greater landscape of history. He was possibly mentally impaired, definitely tortured, and he is long-dead, a relic of the kind of archaic, blatantly prejudiced and unjust society that enlightened, modern citizens like us no longer have to worry about. Unfortunately, the story is not nearly that simple, nor that short.

In the United States today there are numerous documented cases of false confessions, which means that innocent people all over the country are admitting to crimes that they did not commit. In his work “False Confessions” for the 2010 Albany Law Review, one expert, Saul M. Kassin, a professor of psychology at Williams College and leading researcher of the phenomenon of false confession, observes that false confessions have generally been identified in four ways: when the crime did not occur at all, when it is proven to be physically impossible for the confessor to have committed the crime, when the true perpetrator is found and proven guilty, or when forensic evidence establishes the confessor’s innocence. Kassin also points out that no one knows just how often false confession occurs, and it may be impossible to know because of the sheer lack of concrete data—very often false confession cases are discovered and dealt with quietly by the police or are never discovered at all. However, Kassin stresses that the impact of the false confession in a case is a dramatic one: confessions have been shown to be weighed more heavily by jurors and judges in a case than any other piece of evidence, even when the confession is found to be coerced. Not only that, but in most cases where multiple errors were made in the course of the investigation (mishandling of eye-witness testimony, forensic evidence, etc.), the first error to occur was a false confession. In fact, Kassin cites a case in which, upon discovering that the confessor’s blood type did not match that of the blood found at the crime scene, the forensic scientist working on the case gave four groundless theoretical reasons for the inconsistency so as to protect the confession, and two eye-witnesses whose accounts exonerated the suspect were completely ignored. Sixteen years after his 1988 conviction, the man was exonerated by DNA evidence. We can see now that false confessions are extremely problematic in the justice system. They weigh heavily against potentially innocent defendants in juries’ minds and they distort the meaning and importance of other pieces of evidence in a case. Thus, false confessions undermine the essential purpose of the justice system, which is to be just, by greatly increasing the likelihood that an innocent person might be sent to prison or even executed for a crime that they did not commit, while the guilty party goes free. In this way, the confession as a piece of evidence threatens the integrity of our institutions of justice and law because it is often coerced and because it is often difficult to determine if a confession is coerced.

And there is extensive research that unequivocally establishes not only the fact that coercion of confessions does occur but also how and why they occur. The 2005 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter entitled “Why the Innocent Confess,” presents a critical reason for why false confessions often occur: “Police investigators sometimes say they are not worried about false confessions because they do not interrogate innocent people. What they mean is that before starting an interrogation, they have already been persuaded—by preliminary interviews, witnesses, criminal profiling, or simply a hunch—that the suspect is guilty and lying.” Interrogations, the article goes on to say, are designed not to determine innocence or guilt but to “extract a confession,” a situation in which the innocent are especially vulnerable because they assume that their innocence is self-evident and do not realize that their interrogators have already presumed them guilty. Police employ incredibly harsh interrogation tactics likely to induce false confessions: isolation, intimidation, accusation, raising doubts about the suspect’s ability to remember events of the crime, creating expectations of more lenient terms if the suspect confesses, displays of empathy with the subject, suggesting reasons and excuses for the subject’s alleged crime, and confronting the suspect with fake or nonexistent evidence that “confirms” their guilt. The interrogation process, especially where false confessions are concerned, is designed in such a way to break any person down, even an innocent person: “The average police interrogation takes less than two hours. Interrogations that lead to proven wrongful convictions last an average of sixteen hours.” The article points out that there is a psychological phenomenon at work in the mind of a false confessor known as behavioral confirmation bias, a sort of “self-fulfilling prophecy” where the innocent suspect, in their own mind, actually becomes the guilty perpetrator that their interrogator expects them to be. The article reiterates Kassin’s explanation for why people find confessions so immutably conclusive: it is hard for people to believe that anyone would confess to a crime that they did not commit, and because investigators often give suspects details of the crime that were not released to the public, false confessors often give accounts of the crime that are so detailed and realistic that it seems they must have done it.

In fact, human memory itself is so susceptible to fading and degradation, according to analyst Laura Beil, that “memory is not so much a record of the past as a rough sketch that can be modified even by the simple act of telling the story.” Laura also points out that scientific research has found that human memory has significant difficulty retaining specific details and is quite malleable, because it is often overloaded with immediate details of a situation and can easily be distracted from important facts and events. During police interrogation and preparation for a case, subjects tend to embellish certain facts and downplay others according to initial patterns of questions and initial statements that they are asked to make (Beil).  From this it is clear that a confession distorts the truth of a case because in a situation where the truth depends on memory recall, which is itself malleable, the truth also becomes easily manipulated, subject to implicit and explicit suggestions made by questioners, the pre-assumptions of the subject being questioned, and the human tendency to infer and invent what cannot be clearly recalled.

There is a diverse range of valid ideas circulating among researchers of the false confession phenomenon about what kind of person is likely to be a false confessor, from the possibility that females may be more vulnerable than most to interrogative coercion (Jones), to indications that adolescents are more likely to falsely confess (Drizin). There are still others that suggest that a compliant personality (Klaver) or mental disability/disease (Drizin) make one more suggestible and more likely to confess to a crime they did not commit. Yet another study suggests that those who have experienced personal adversity or have adult romantic attachment anxiety tend to be more psychologically resilient and less likely to give false confessions (Drake). The general conclusion that we can draw from this plethora of theories is that there is no established method or institutional system for identifying false confessors. It is not possible to purify the confession as an element of the justice system by “weeding out” all false confessors, and thus, any confession introduced into a case could potentially be false and lead to the punishment of an innocent person.

Let’s make the final connection. Legal confessions are so often coerced and manipulated that it is no wonder that they are often ruled in-admissible by judges. But, though it may be for slightly different reasons, confessions in the civic and cultural spheres are “inadmissible” as well. The effect of confession in both cases is the same—it distorts the truth. The act of confession plays a powerful part in the individual psyche and human culture as a whole for centuries, and it is foolish to assume that it has lost any of that power and importance in modern society. False confessions are allowed to be rampant and destructive in the justice system, even though they hold no value as a social tool. The act of public confession is an incredibly important and incredibly dangerous one in all aspects of our society because we do not recognize just how pervasive and influential a part of our social systems it really is, as well as how ingrained it is in our modern cultural heritage. If we allow ourselves to overlook what a powerful (and easily manipulated) form the confession is, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the kind of gullibility and error that has cost innocent people their lives. Confession is not only confusing but also dangerous. It is well worth our time and effort to find a way to de-emphasize confession in our public discourses. Confession is fit for private discourses and may even be beneficial in such circumstances, but it is too dangerous and confusing to be applied to public institutions and forums, simply because it is too difficult to consistently determine the truth of a confession. To the untrained observer, confessions would seem to be characterized by authenticity and deeper truth, but in reality the confession is a powerful tool of deception and manipulation that distorts truth and fact. It is a medium fraught with institutional coercion and dishonesty. In our modern discourses the confession has just become an excuse and a pretext for behaving badly. A public confession can “naturalize” an event (Tell), giving an audience, identifying with the seemingly intimate and authentic discourse that is actually anything but, permission to behave in the same way. Looking back to the very beginning of this examination and the bizarre phenomenon of the Post Secret website, which initially seemed harmless, we can now see an insidious danger presented by the un-earned, non-contrite self-absolution of the person who
anonymously confessed to feeding bleach to her cat, or the person who posted this card on the site on December 3rd, 2011: “I am HIV positive and he doesn’t know.”

Kasiemobi Udo-okoye is a Nigerian-American Stanford University freshman who was born and raised in Oklahoma before spending her junior high and high school years in Oakland. She writes stories, essays, plays, and poems, as well as publishing her visual art in print and online. Kasie also enjoys surprise hugs, telenovelas, pranks, Nutella, funk guitars, rock operas, and feather boas (not necessarily in that order). 


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One thought on “Performance, Power, Penance, & Problem-Solving: The Rhetoric of Confession in Modern Life

  1. PocketPair says:

    Helpful info. Lucky me I discovered your website by chance,
    and I’m surprised why this accident did not took place earlier! I bookmarked it.

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