Few childhood experiences were as torturous to me as going to confession. (What doesn’t a twelve-year-old boy have to confess?) But I was a resourceful child, and before long I had formulated a plan to combat the blushing shame the occasion demanded. By stitching together the most venial sins I could imagine — taking the Lord’s name in vain, being ungrateful, lying (how true!) — and intoning them in a different order each time, the elderly priest who heard my confession remained gainfully employed, and I was spared the embarrassment of revealing all the roiling, bubbling, unsightly things that slithered about in my conscience.
One time, shortly before Easter, as I was reeling out my oh-so-hygienic stories of ingratitude and swearing, I heard the old priest give a little groan. Presuming this to be some form of encouragement, I continued my inventory of minor transgressions. When I had eventually run out of things to say, I waited for the priest to offer me absolution. But there was no response. I ventured a whispered “Father? ” — there was still no reaction. Getting up off my chair I stepped toward the curtain of white gauze that separated us and cautiously pushed my hand through it to tap the priest on his knee. Still no response. I ventured a slightly stronger shake of his leg. As I did so, the priest tilted toward me in his chair and, as I sprung back, toppled to the ground like a broken statue.
I must have been in shock, for as I stood there, looking at the crumpled body on the floor, I was gripped by an overwhelming urge to urinate. Unbuttoning frantically, I freed myself just in time to let loose a stream of urine, directly onto the head of the dead priest. I screeched in horror, and spun my body around, but in doing so only managed to soak the Bible, crucifix, and picture of Pope John Paul II that sat on the priest’s side table. As I sobbingly doused the rest of the holy room, only one thought came to my mind, and with it a strange satisfaction: without doubt, this was going to be my last confession.
Why do we enjoy reading about other people’s misery? In A Philosophical Enquiry (1757), Edmund Burke suggested that such enjoyment was a natural manifestation of sympathy. “The delight we have in such things, hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel, prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer; and all this antecedent to any reasoning, by an instinct that works us to its own purposes, without our concurrence.” Sympathy may well be the foundation of our moral conduct, says Burke, but it is also the cause of our disturbing appetite for spectacles of suffering.
Fortunately for us, this appetite is generously catered to by the school of the confessional memoir. Bookstore tables groan under the weight of such morsels of misery as is offered up in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, with its tales of masochistic alcoholism; J T LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, his account of being a male truck-stop prostitute; and Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors, which sheds light on the technicalities of giving blowjobs to pedophiles. There’s something almost shameful about reading such books, for we do so with a rubbernecking, car-crash concern, warm in our own catharsis over the burning wreck of the authors’ lives. Yet what would happen if, looking closely at the car crash, we saw that the victims were covered in fake blood, that the flames were nothing more than colorful paper — that for all intents and purposes it was a faux-crash?
As luck would have it, a recent epidemic of faked confessional memoirs has allowed for plenty of chances to study this rum conundrum. Within the last year, Frey was charged with fabrication, LeRoy was revealed not to exist, and Burroughs was accused of gross exaggeration. These revelations have been building for some time now. In 2005, the writer Nasdijj, who had written award-winning memoirs of growing up with fetal alcohol syndrome on a Navajo reservation, was revealed to be Timothy Barrus, a (white) writer of gay erotica. Ten years prior to him, Benjamin Wilkomirski’s lauded Holocaust memoir, Fragments: Memories of Wartime Childhood, was similarly denounced as a well-written fiction.
There has been much hypothesizing as to whether these counterfeit tales of misery and woe are peculiar to our prurient, fame-obsessed age. But the seeds for these deceits were planted long ago.
“I was a great sinner for so small a boy,” wrote St Augustine in his Confessions, and with these words the confessional memoir was brought bawling into the world. In Confessions he took great pains to tell of the young Augie’s youthful wicked ways. We read about his adolescent lust (“floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication”), his stealing pears (“if any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor”), his cheating at games with friends (“simply because a vain desire to win had got the better of me”), and his getting up to all sorts of mischief on the mean streets of Carthage during the fourth century AD.
More conversational and less comprehensive than an autobiography, the Confessions laid down not only the tone, but also the format for all subsequent memoirs. There was the time spent in misery and/or decadence, the turning point and rejection of the old ways (in Augustine’s case, like so many of his modern successors, this was prompted by the death of a close friend), and the subsequent slow ascent toward redemption.
It is true that there have been some minor changes to the format over the past 1600 years. The quality of misery seems to have been subject to inflationary pressures; the wretchedness now on offer makes the saint’s stolen pears look like very small beans. And there’s been a shift in the memoir’s objectives. While St Augustine attempted to reach a resolution with God, his secular successors seem intent on the more fundamental aim of survival. Nevertheless, the most unfashionable element of the Confessions — the strong didactic flavor — has survived unchanged. If by his revolutionary show of honesty, he hoped to convince his readers that the one true faith is in Christ, today’s confessional memoirs — even books as sensationalistic as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star — claim inspirational qualities as well as titillation.
For this, Jean Jacques Rousseau is as responsible as Augustine. Rousseau reinvented the memoir for a secular age in his own Confessions. In the late eighteenth century, redemption was no longer to be found in the godhead, but in a universal aspiration for liberty. (Similarly the confessional writings of the Romantic poets would see the divine replaced by the merely sublime.) But while some authors used the memoir format to chart their growth of experience and moral improvement, the genre was already being ushered down a less righteous route.
In 1822, Thomas de Quincey wrote a learned and entertaining account of his addiction to opium. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was wrapped in the proviso that “it will prove not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive.” So far, so memoir, but Quincey slyly realized that much of the memoir’s power was not about redemption, or even elucidation, but depredation. He wrote in his introduction, with a certain mock-horror, “Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars.” Those precious “English feelings” did not prevent his book from being a huge public success.
When asked if his poems were confessional, the poet Robert Lowell explained, “They’re not always factually true. There’s a good deal of tinkering with fact. You leave out a lot, and emphasize this and not that. Your actual experience is a complete flux. I’ve invented facts and changed things… yet there’s this thing: if a poem is autobiographical — and this is true of any kind of autobiographical writing and of historical writing — you want the reader to say, This is true.” By differentiating between what is factually true and what the reader thinks is true, Lowell put his finger on the crux of our recent troubled relationship with the memoir, that we have failed to understand that “truth” (as opposed to fact) is nothing more than a literary aesthetic.
When a confessional memoir is revealed to be false, we cry out in disgust because we feel our sympathy has been unfairly traded on. But we don’t acknowledge the pleasure we have taken in the spectacle — the car-crash — itself. In our dismay, we portray ourselves as having been motivated purely by altruism and not by aesthetic satisfaction. At the same time, our insatiable lust for ever-more-depraved stories has prompted an increasing number of falsified confessions. Bearing this in mind, the public reaction in the case of James Frey, the most vilified of all the fake memoirists, is even more disturbing. When sections of A Million Little Pieces were revealed to be less than entirely true, the reading public realized that it could no longer enjoy the spectacle of personal suffering as presented in the memoir. It was then that a crucial transference of attention took place — from the invented suffering of Frey in the memoir, to the indubitably real suffering of Frey’s public humiliation. His big mistake was that he hadn’t counted on the depth of our hunger for the aesthetic of truth. When he fabricated parts of his memoir he wasn’t being immoral as so many critics suggested. He had merely cheated us out of our truth fix.
When the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik coined the phrase “the compulsion to confess, ” he forgot to mention the equally strong urge to hear confession. Thanks to St Augustine’s literary invention, we’re as addicted to truth in the memoir as smokers are addicted to nicotine in the cigarette, and if we’re robbed of that truth by authorial falsehood or too much poetic license, we must replace it with a substitute — usually by pillorying the author himself. Such is the hidden malicious character of sympathy.
Thus if the story that began this article were untrue, if the old priest had never died, if the incontinent desecration of the confessional had never occurred, it really would matter. Even if the story contained (as Frey said of the falsified parts of his memoir) an “essential truth” of my own mortification at the act of confession, the reader’s delight would be diminished in some way. Clearly, I would be foolish to write another word.