Confessions are tricky things.
I pondered this after reading a published confession of a celebrity who admitted to a particular crime. Never mind what it was, or who or when. That’s not important for my purposes here.
What I thought about was the various public confessions I’ve read or heard. There have been quite a few. Some are vague, others excessively detailed to the point where I felt myself a voyeur, sickened and implicated in the wrongdoing by witnessing it afterward through the words.
These public confessions tend to be open to interpretation. Do they agree with the facts? Is there an apology attached, indication of true repentance, desire to change, or make amends to the wronged persons? Or are they self-justifying? Is the wrongdoer’s clarification actually a justification for the actions?
The clarification usually lessens the wrong. (“I know what you think I did, but it’s not as bad as what you’re imagining!”) It rarely, if ever, increases the scope of the wrong. (“I know what you think I did, but it’s worse than that. Much, much worse.”)
What about the motivation? When a public figure willingly writes or states his/her wrongdoing, why are they doing it? It goes against our natural tendency to hide our sins; I certainly don’t like telling everyone (or even one other person) I did something wrong. It would be like dancing on a float in the Macy’s thanksgiving day parade naked and filthy.
So when a celebrity or other public figure feels the need to do the moral equivalent of this, what pushes them into this acknowledgment of guilt?
- A need to explain why they are removing themselves from the spotlight?
- A need to bring the attention to self, shifting the spotlight from the victim to the perpetrator?
- Some combination of the above, perhaps.
It’s too easy, also, to congratulate ourselves on our confession:
“See how humble I am? I just confessed my pride!”
“Yes, but have you truly forsaken your pride?”
The other factor is the audience’s response. Several people might hear the confession (or even a direct apology) and interpret it differently. I’m reminded of Dimmesdale’s confession in The Scarlet Letter. The dying minister tells the townspeople that when they look on Hester (his secret lover) and see her scarlet letter A for adultery, they need to see the scarlet letter branded on his chest, put there by God himself as judgment for his sin. (The specific sin is referenced in vague terms.)
“Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold the dreadful witness of it!” (chapter 23)
And with that, he tears away the robe covering his chest, and the townspeople see what is there.
Then comes the interesting part. Most of the spectators see a scarlet letter on his flesh, but there are several explanations for why it is there.
- Dimmesdale put it there after Hester began wearing hers, desiring to do penance and torture himself.
- Hester’s estranged husband, “a potent necromancer,” caused it to appear.
- It is a symbol of Dimmesdale’s remorse at his sin of adultery, caused by God’s judgment.
Most interesting, though, are the spectators who deny that there was any mark or implication of guilt in his words. For these people, Dimmesdale’s words are his expression of “how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness” and how “in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike.” In other words, by identifying himself, the supposedly righteous minister, with Hester, the infamous wicked adulteress, he shows the futility of good works in attaining salvation. It’s a parable of sorts.
An odd parable!
Hawthorne notes that those who hold the last view are “highly respectable” people. They cannot bring themselves to find fault in their revered minister, perhaps because that causes them to question themselves. Could they, too, be guilty of such a grievous sin? And what of the other righteous people around them?
What I take away from these various views of Dimmesdale’s confession is this: people interpret the same words from different perspectives and find different meanings. What the meaning is—and how accurate it is—depends on them. Their perspective. Their background. Their emotions. Not the confessor’s.
I read that public confession of the celebrity from a particular perspective and background. I found remorse, some self-justification, and a legitimate desire to clarify when and how the crimes happened, for the sake of those who knew him during this time.
If I had a different background (say, having been a victim of a similar crime), I would read the confession more harshly. Skeptically, too. Yeah, right, and a zebra might change its stripes but I’m not holding my breath. A law enforcement officer and a sex offender would read it in drastically different ways.
If we’re the confessor, we can’t control our audience’s interpretation. What I can control is my own actions.
First, I seek to repent before God. See that the wrong was wrong. Period. No excuses.
Then confess to the appropriate people. Be plain spoken. (Dimmesdale fails miserably at this point!)
Don’t seek to justify or clarify your actions. Speak the truth and nothing but the truth.
Acknowledge the hurt I caused. Ask for forgiveness. Deal with the consequences.
There are always consequences when we do wrong. But there is always hope, too. As Dimmesdale dies in Hester’s arms, his words are ruminations on the law broken, his afflictions, and whether he and Hester will meet in the thereafter. In the middle of these lies hope:
“God knows, and He is merciful!”
(As a side note, if you’re interested in a modern SF/dystopian twist on The Scarlet Letter, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke is fascinating and provocative.)