Autobiography is not Confession.

Recently at a seminar, after I had presented a paper on Straddling Two Worlds, about my difficulties of working both as a therapist and as an auto biographer, an audience member asked about the need to question the impact of autobiographical/confessional writing.

Initially I was flummoxed by her question, and disturbed by her insistence that we should interrogate the value, and the consequences of the impact of confessional writing on others who might also be involved and on readers.

I am hazy about the exact nature of her question and comments, only that they have continued to rankle over the past few days. They rattle around in my head like so many loose bullets about to explode.

And then it came to me. I object to her use of the word ‘confessional’. I object to people using the word ‘confessional’ as if it is synonymous with ‘autobiographical’.

I have made my confession many times in my early life, from the time I was seven years old when I went for my first holy confession, to the time I was nineteen years old when I gave it all away.

‘Bless me father for I have sinned. It is one month since my last confession. I accuse myself of…’ I then manufactured safe sins, sins like telling lies twice, stealing once, and disobedience.

The sin of disobedience sat uncomfortably. I was an obedient child. Other people disobeyed. Not me, not then. But in confession it seemed safer to admit to disobedience than to mention my real sins, my sins of impurity.

I convinced myself that ‘hell fire and damnation’ awaited me at the end because from the time I was twelve years old, from the time I noticed my body changing, from the time I felt the first rush of desire towards my own body and that of another, I was tortured. These were the sins to which I could not admit. If I were to admit such sins to the priest, questions would follow.

How did I know this? How did I know that the priest would ask questions about my impure thoughts and that he would not otherwise bother to inquire into my sins of theft, dishonesty and disobedience?

I learned early, the day I took hold of a man’s penis under the bridge that spanned Canterbury Road, after which the man gave me sixpence because I did as he had asked – I held his penis and watched the cream come out.

I have written long stories about this moment in my life, this moment when I first took hold of a man’s penis. I kept it secret at the time from my sister and my brother who had come along with me on this outing and who had wandered off when the man called me over. The next day I told my mother about it. My mother suggested I take the details to confession. It was then I decided my sin must be serious.

For the uninitiated, confessional boxes are like coffins standing on end, narrow dark closets, in which you are immediately faced with a wooden paneled wall after you walk through the door and there is room only for you to kneel. At eye height once on your knees, there is a grille that the priest slides open when it comes your turn to confess. There is a confessional box on either side of the central chamber in which the priest sits. You speak into the grille hot and breathless and the priest mumbles and murmurs.

The only time a priest ever questioned me about my sins was after I told him about the man whose penis I had held.
What did you do? What did the man do? The priest asked. He wanted all the details.

Usually after I had confessed to my sins, the priest offered easy absolution, a few Hail Mary’s, an Our Father. But this time, he ordered an entire decade of the rosary. I concluded my sin was enormous. And thereafter I shied off telling a priest in confession anything other than my rote learned mandatory sins.

This long digression into my early confessional experience is my attempt to tell you that confession is the place in which you admit to your sins. Autobiography is the place in which you write about your life. The two are not synonymous.

My life as I write it is not simply a list of my sins. I hope I have the courage to bear witness to my mistakes and misdemeanors in my writing if necessary but that is not all that I write. I do not confess my sins in my writing. I am not on the lookout for absolution or redemption. I do not want forgiveness.

If I were confessing my sins here on the page then I would turn my readers into my priest, the one who passes judgment on behalf of God, who can decide whether I am worthy of forgiveness and how I might go about gaining that forgiveness.

As William Michaelian says in a comment on Paul L. Martin’s post, Looking around the Blogosphere, on The Teacher’s View blog,
‘I want what all writers, artists, and human beings want, whether they publicly admit it or not: I want to be understood; I want to be appreciated; I want to be known and recognized in my lifetime…’

I do not want to confess my sins. I want to share my story.

A Good Work Ethic

There are ants in the toilet bowl. In search of water, perhaps. I wonder that they go there. They come by night and by the morning’s first flush they are drowned. They float like so many specks of black fluff on the surface of the water until the day’s toilet use gets rid of them altogether. The following morning the process starts again, and a new batch arrives.

Ants often appear at the turn of seasons, when the rain begins. I imagine their nests have been flooded and they come inside for drier quarters. Why then make their home in the base of a toilet bowl?

I do not understand ant behaviour. I do not understand my own behaviour either.

So often I find myself wishing that something good would happen, as if I need an external jolt to shock me out of my current state. A sort of non-electric ECT.

The other day I tried to talk to my youngest daughter about her state of mind, which she reassured me was fine. She was just having trouble adjusting to the demands of her final years at school. She would learn to adjust, she told me, and then asked why I had been so gloomy of late.

Gloomy was her word and I pondered on this. I have not felt myself to be particularly gloomy. Despite the generally pessimistic tenor of my blog posts, I am a cheerful person; at least this is how I see myself. Optimistic, one who looks on the bright side, nicknamed Pollyanna by my analyst years ago for my tendency to see things in a positive light. How then could I be gloomy?

Maybe, I thought, I have not been making such an effort these days to hide my dissatisfactions. No longer do I pretend not to mind such inevitable frustrations as housework. No longer am I so bright and cheerful about all the things that need fixing, the things my family look for from me. I grumble more. I am less forthcoming. I groan. I grizzle.

A friend had asked my daughter, if she could have her wish come true, what would she want most of all.
‘A good work ethic,’ she said.
Her friend was surprised. ‘Most people want money.’

A good work ethic, my daughter’s wish. I ponder on this. Perhaps that is what I am missing of late. I have not lost it in relation to my professional work, that remains, but I have lost momentum as regards my thesis and my enthusiasm wanes.

My daughter is confident she will develop a good work ethic. I have only to find mine again and all will be well.

‘Autobiographers lead perilous lives’, writes Paul John Eakin. They smash up against the rocks of non-compromise, their own and other people’s interpretations of what they have written. Shipwrecked on the judgments of others, all the autobiographer can salvage from what can sometimes feel like a volley of criticism, is the knowledge that she tried her best to communicate an experience – her experience – and that although others might see things differently, she is not her writing, nor is hers the only perspective. Her writing is but one aspect of her and it changes.

My husband has just walked in with a new wind and waterproof jacket to wear while riding his bike. It is bright canary yellow.
‘Excellent, ‘I say, ‘people will see you coming.’
This slick will keep him safe. It will keep out the wind, keep off the rain and make him such a target that it might keep others on the road out of his way.

If only the autobiographer could clothe herself in such a jacket. If only I could find better protection from the elements. Instead I am like those ants it seems. I keep reaching towards the perilous toilet waters for a drink only to be flushed away next time someone else needs to use the toilet.