Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Troubling Confessions"

I'm teaching Dostoevsky this semester (and next semester as well), and as anyone familiar with his novels knows, confessions play a huge role in shaping characters and their plots--particularly when the characters in question are murderers, pedophiles and other unsavory types.

One of the most interesting books that I've read about confession as a legal and spiritual phenomenon is Peter Brooks' Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (2001).  Brooks melds an analysis of Supreme Court cases and their social and political implications with his own specialty--literary analysis--to offer a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of what "confession" is, how we understand it, what we expect from those who confess, and why we consider it "good for the soul" and essential for the moral and social rehabilitation of guilt.

In particular, Brooks argues that "our social and cultural attitudes toward confession suffer from uncertainties and ambivalences" and that as a result, "confession is a difficult and slippery notion to deal with" (3). 

In short, he argues, "We want confessions, yet we are suspicious of them" (3).

And, as he points out, we should be.  Perhaps one of Brooks' most interesting points of discussion revolves around people who confess to things that, as it turns out, they didn't actually do.  While most of us think, "Who on earth would be so stupid?", the fact is, most of us are entirely unaware of how easy it is to pressure another person into accepting an admission of guilt.

This pressure is exacerbated in contemporary American culture where, as Brooks points out, we "appear ... to live in a generalized demand for transparency that entails a kind of tyranny of the requirement to confess" (4).

We want to hear people "say the words."  Until they do, no amount of proof will satisfy us emotionally--only the confession can seal the psychological deal.

Except that legal history is rife with cases of false confessions or coerced confessions or "insincere" confessions.  So what does that say about this phenomenon upon which we rely so heavily?

Brooks cites several interesting examples.  Consider, for instance, the case of the Boorn brothers, accused of murdering their neighbor in Manchester, VT in 1819.  Although they asserted their innocence throughout their subsequent trial, while awaiting execution, they ultimately confessed to the crime (8).

Turns out, the neighbor wasn't even dead.  He'd simply moved to Schenectady.

Brooks also discusses the Supreme Court case Brewer v. Williams.  At issue was the extent to which police can use questioning and/or psychological "coercion" to obtain a confession.

In this case, the police were escorting a suspect to Des Moines, Iowa.  Williams is an escaped mental patient who is believed to have murdered a nine-year-old girl.  The girl's body has not been found.

The detective on the case has agreed to the stipulation of Williams' lawyer in Des Moines: Williams is not to be questioned on the drive from Davenport to Des Moines. 

What the detective does, however, challenges the definition of police "questioning": instead of interrogating Williams, he offers him food for thought, in the form of the "Christian Burial Speech."  Addressing Williams as a man of faith, he "proceeds to evoke the weather conditions, the forecast of several inches of snow, the likelihood that the young girl's body will be buried and unlocatable" (26).

He urges Williams to consider the fact that he alone can ensure that the girl's parents can give her "a Christian burial."  Williams ultimately leads police to various pieces of evidence, and finally to the girl's body itself.

Is this a legally obtained confession?  Williams committed the murder, so that is not at issue: the question is, whether his confession is invalid because the detective used improper means to obtain it.  Did he conduct what is, ostensibly, a kind of "interrogation," even though he never employed a single interrogative statement?

In the case of Brewer v. Williams, the Supreme Court decides, in a 5-4 split decision, that the confession is invalid (27).  The Court's decision asserts that the detective "deliberately and designedly set out to elicit information from Williams just as surely as--and perhaps more effectively than--if he had formally interrogated him" (27).

The effectiveness of the detective's line of (non-)questioning stems from the fact that, as Brooks acknowledges, confession plays an equally ambiguous role in its relationship to the person who does the confessing itself.  At times, the compulsion to confess one's guilt can become overwhelming--so overwhelming, the case of the Boorn brothers suggest, that it can override (or overwrite) the confessed act itself.

I didn't do "it," perhaps, but I did something, I must have done something, so...

This is the slippery slope of confession.  It is particularly interesting and complicated in the story of the visual artist Alan Bridge, better known, perhaps, as "Mr. Apology."  As Brooks outlines, in 1980, Bridge posted the following flyers around Manhattan:



Bridge's goal was an exhibit at the New Museum in 1981.  The result of the apology hotline, however, was more than simply a conceptual art project.  Bridge amassed over 1000 hours of confessions on his answering machine and continued to maintain the phone line even after the project was completed because people seemed to "need" it.

In the end, this question of who "needs" to confess--not to mention the questions of how, to what and why, exactly--has implications for all of us guilty innocents out there.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."