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.

99 thoughts on “Autobiography is not Confession.”

  1. Very clearly expressed, Elisabeth. I can understand your irritation and am glad for you that you have discovered the reason for it. Perhaps for your questioner there was no difference between confession and autobiography – or maybe she simply didn't realise wht 'confessional' means, particularly to a Catholic, lapsed or not.

  2. You are right, I think, to raise that objection to the currently fashionable use of the word confessional. There is much inappropriate talk, for example, of confessional poetry when all that is meant is poetry with an autobiographical element. I confess (!) I have misused the word in that way at times.

    Your post was particularly interesting to me as back in the days when I studied for my diploma I took as the subject for my dissertation the development of the self-image an d relied a lot on autobiographical materials for my sources.

    I think no that I need to read your post again.

  3. What a horrible,lonely place for a child to go trough alone!! Poor Elisabeth!!You must be traumatised for life? What kind of therapist are you Elisabeth?

  4. Thanks, Elisabelle. It's not a pretty story, and nowhere near as enchanting as your pictures but I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    It does seem to be a word that is bandied around quite a bit these days, Janice, that word, confessional. I'm pleased that you understood some of my frustration. I am going to have to think longer on this one. Thanks, Janice.

    You see how easy it is to conflate the term confessional with autobiographical, Dave. I've been doing it, too. It was only yesterday that the difference dawned on me. Thanks.

  5. hi elisabeth – the most useful autobiographies are those that don't carry the element of shame -on which confession is based – or wave a flag of contrition.
    presentation and analysis, contextualization and unpacking, revealing and explication. those are of more interest and use in my own experience. steven

  6. Thanks, Aleks. I work from a psychoanalytic perspective, an orientation that can have all sorts of complicated connotations for people. Perhaps it's therefore safer to use the term psycho dynamic. I'm interested in helping people to explore what lies underneath.

    In my blog I tend to focus on my writing and writer self. It would get complicated for all sorts of reasons if I were to go into my professional work here and for this reason I try to stick to my work as a writer.

  7. Having been incredibly irritated by the use of the term 'confessional poetry' being applied to the work of Sylvia Plath (what exactly, I wondered, is she supposed to be confessing and to whom?), I finally did some research.

    Like you I thought of confession in terms of the church and sin, or at the very least as disclosing something shameful. Turns out the term was coined by a critic called M. L. Rosenthal whilst reviewing Robert Lowell's collection Life Studies. It applies to poetry that uses the narrative 'I' to refer not to a poetic persona but to the poet him/herself. Rosenthal called it poetry 'with the mask removed.' Poets have been using the narrative 'I' for centuries: Plutarch's sonnets for example, but the poet hides behind a persona. Certain poets of the 1950s and 1960s stopped hiding: Lowell, Plath, Allen Ginsberg for example, and their work struck a chord for integrity and honesty.

    The term 'confessional' has now been extended to cover all creative writing in which the writer refers directly to him/herself, the recent trend for 'Misery Memoir' being the obvious example, so I guess that is what your inquisitor was thinking of when she asked her question.

    It seems that because of the recent spate of memoirs that describe less than dream lives full of sunshine and country walks, all autobiographical work is being questioned and labelled at the moment, so good for you in questioning the question: people should be made to think about what they are asking.

  8. I agree with you, and the clarification is very helpful. We do want to all be understood in so many ways, and there is as much that belongs to us alone. Thank you.

  9. Let's face it though, when reading an autobiography, people always sit up and pay a bit more attention when there is sinning and seediness happening.

    Whether they're uncomforbale or enjoying it, and sin gets people hooked.

    Not that you should share all your sins with the world, some things are best kept between you and your priest.

  10. Confessional is a complex word and clearly one weighted for you with all sorts of difficult memories and implications.

    I couldn't help but wonder, though, if the woman was using the word to question your tendancy to divulge a lot of personal details in public settings.

    It's an intriguing conundrum … that people in general are comfortable with 'appropriate disclosure' but become uncomfortable and resentful of pure divulgence.

    In reading your writings here, I would suggest that that could be the source of your feeling misunderstood – that you are divulging more than people are prepared for or want to receive – as opposed to what is known in the interpersonal relations field as 'appropriate disclosure'.

    While shock value is desirable in many genres of the written word – it may not be viewed as having value from the podium in a therapeutic community setting.

    I hope you receive this in the spirit with which it is written. You write candidly and openly about your experiences and I am assuming this means you are prepared for candid reactions to what you write.

  11. This could be the silliest posting I've ever seen. Autobiographies are confessional (frank) or they're not autobiographies.
    Why would anyone read them?
    I read autobiographies to discover the whole person: their struggles, bad behaviour and so on -truth, in other words. There's plenty of sanitised stuff if you want it: autobiography written for the fan market: superficial, worthless, a sham.

    What's traumatic to you anyway is nothing to a lot of people.

  12. Elisabeth,
    A though-provoking post – thank you. And what a great set of comments – supportive, informative and challenging – for me that's what successful writing should achieve, whatever the label.

  13. I also associate 'confessional' with Sylvia Plath. But in that I think it is correct. I think she intended to put her readers in the awkward position of judging what we do not have a right to judge. It is all terribly modern of her. I do not think I will ever be able to admire or even respect her work for that reason.

    I have noticed, however, that this is rather often mixed up with regard blogs, when telling stories with friends, and so on. Some jumps in to point the right road to redemption when redemption was never intended.

  14. …understood, appreciated, known, recognized. The words in that quote you closed with are so universal in their appeal. We want some one, some many, to say, "there, there, it's all right. I hear you. You've suffered. You have value, perhaps even more value, for having worked through all your experiences." I think we all universally have a need to confess too. Maybe not in the way you've described, but to have someone hear our mistakes and with the right words, make us feel normal…again.

    I appreciate how you point out the distinction between autobiography and confessional. I admire your honesty and ability to include us in your experience of sorting through this quagmire stuff of life.

  15. I was glad when I read that you were confused by what the woman at the conference was trying to get at as I was too.

    I agree, there is a difference between autobiographical and confessional. Often people like to make mountains out of molehills.

  16. As Dave points out there is some confusion with the term ‘confessional poetry’. I have never been in a confessional. I have, however, confessed things, some of which I know were regarded as sins in some people’s eyes and some of which were not. Love is a thing we’re supposed to confess. Confession is a process that requires two people which requires a response from the hearer, not necessary forgiveness. In Robert Silverberg’s excellent novel, A Time of Changes, the action takes place on an alien planet where they have something called a ‘drainer’ who is, for all intents and purposes, a secular confessor. The euphemism used for making use of one of these men is ‘soul pissing’, an expression I have always thought hits the nail on the head especially considering how urination takes places often in water closets or with heads bowed before urinals each with its own modesty screen of sorts.

    When I write autobiographically, which I do on occasion, I am admitting to the world that I have done something. In some cases what I am admitting some people would regard as a sin. Here’s one: I have had sex with women who weren’t my wife. I have committed adultery and fornication, a crime and a sin. It is impossible for you not to judge me, that goes against human nature, and if I wasn’t willing to be judged I wouldn’t put the words out there but the one thing I don’t grant these readers is the power of forgiveness. I only ask, as with the drainers, that they listen.

    Thank you for listening.

  17. I, too, was a victim (if you will) of Catholicism and the Sacrament of Confession. And even though I left the Church over fifty years ago, it still produces feelings of guilt and shame over some of the choices I have made in my life.

    I agree that it is up to you to decide what to include or not include in your autobiography. You do not have to stand naked before the world and read off a list of your sins.

    On the other hand, I think the telling of the story is this post is important to your book, precisely because it may very well explain decisions and events — the possible rationale — that you have made in your life because of the Church.

    An example. Suppose that you have a dislike or disdain for male authority figures. Could that be a result of "feeling dirty" about yourself because of having to confess to an overly-nosy priest?

    Now I've gone and made your decisions even more difficult.

  18. I agree with your other commentaters that the woman probably wasn't thinking sin when she called you a 'confessional' writer.

    One problem with writing something as personal as your adventure under the bridge is it makes busybodies such as myself want to ask you a thousand questions. What kind of neighborhood was this that some stranger would walk up to a minor and ask her to do that? Did your mother get angry when you told her? (It sounds like she didn't) Why tell your mother in the first place? (kids hide much more minor things from their parents all the time) If the priest hadn't told you it was a sin, would you have done it again? Do you STILL think it's a sin? Another commentater thinks you were traumatized. Were you? (sounds like you weren't) If you were traumatized, was it immediate (sounds like it wasn't) or was it only after you found out it was a "sin"? When you agreed to go under the bridge, did you already know there were men who pay young girls to do such things? Do you regret having done it? (Unless you were truly traumatized, you shouldn't, though, strictly from the standpoint of personal safety, it probably wasn't the smartest thing in the world to do. You might have never emerged from under that bridge.)

    You don't have to answer any of these questions, of course, as the topic of the post was the difference between autobiography and confession. But, you have to admit, it WAS a couple of provacative paragraphs you slipped in there.

  19. Steven, shame is a big one. I sometimes wonder whether the business of confession is all about shaming people.

    I agree with a chap named Phil Mollon who writes that 'shame is a breach in the bond of empathy'.

    Shame happens when our usual expectations are suddenly and savagely disrupted. We are left distraught, helpless, carrying all the horrors of that moment and feeling a need to hide.

    To me autobiography might well be an effort to counter shame, even though the very act of putting out writing that can well offend others who might say as much can induce further shame.

    It's a tricky business. Thanks Steven, for your thoughtful comment

  20. Yes, Ocean Girl. I wish I had more of an opportunity to talk about this issue during discussion time after my talk. Although we enjoyed a far reaching discussion I did not have the presence of mind at the time to make this distinction between confessional and autobiographical.

    I suppose I'm having the discussion now in my blog. I'm fascinated by the responses, so far. I never know when I put something out there what it might mean to people. None of us do, I suppose. It helps to broaden my thinking and for this I'm grateful. Thanks Ocean Girl.

  21. Thanks, Eryl. I enjoy your comments. They are so learned and well considered.

    That derisive term 'misery memoir' rankles with me, but I can see why the term has emerged – a function of our excessive exposure to trauma in other people's lives, I suppose, particularly trauma that might not be so well processed and comes across in writing either as sensationalist prose or as an attempt purely to grab the reader's sympathies.

    It's like turning tragedy into celebrity the sort of thing in which the likes of Oprah Winfrey excel.

    A woman who presented before me at this seminar took up the argument about whether life writing – so called – is necessarily therapeutic. She has not found hers, a pathography – the story of her illness – not to be.

    Included in her research she reported reading somewhere – and off hand I can't remember the source – someone argues that the most clearly therapeutic returns from writing arise from 'quality' writing, that which is recognized by others to be worth reading.

    That's a vexed one, I think. Who decides this when and how? Writer or reader. It's all so subjective.

    I must not get onto another topic now, but all these issues in relation to autobiography fascinate me. Thanks again Eryl for furthering my knowledge.

  22. Thanks, Anthony, for your comment. Mostly, from what you put up on your blog, you paint other people and you comment on the process. Occasionally you include landscapes.

    You interpret these other people – whether models in a studio or real life people from photographs – through your eyes, and you are always honest as far as I can read about how you come to both observe and paint what you see there.

    Your work is both autobiographical in the sense that your art and writing are clearly filtered through you and biographical in that you illustrate other people.

    I mention this to highlight the ubiquity of the autobiographical on line and to reemphasize that much of it is not confessional.

    Thanks again for your recognition of my efforts here, Anthony.

  23. I agree, Scoman that people 'always sit up and pay a bit more attention when there is sinning and seediness happening'. This applies in fiction as well, but it does not necessarily mean that the writer is looking for forgiveness for said seediness or sin.

    Of course we need to be circumspect about what we include in our writing. We usually are, as far as I can see.

    There is so much we leave out, whether we keep it for our priest, whether we keep it to ourselves, repress it, deny it, or bury it, we are selective in our autobiographies.

    That said, one person's version of what is okay to be shared on the page may not be shared by certain others. We can have fierce clashes of opinion in this regard.

    If you're interested, Elizabeth Aquino of 'a moon, worn as if it had been a shell', writes about this issue in a recent posting on bloggin' blunders – see:

    Elizabeth writes of how she had offended a reader over her own written experience.

    It often depends on where you stand. Reader writer, subject object. Things that are close to the reader's bone can hurt more.

    Thanks, Scoman. Your comments are always welcome.

  24. Bonnie, thanks. Your comments always give me cause to think twice about my writing.

    I agree 'confessional' is a complex word, subject to so much subjectivity and historical overlay.

    The woman who raised the question at the seminar might well have thought my writing was too loaded with personal detail, but I suspect not.

    She writes autobiography herself as well as fiction. She is a wonderful writer and some of the stuff she has presented in seminars has been gut wrenching, personal and inspirational.

    I realise retrospectively that her question seems to have arisen from a genuine interest in thinking more about the effect of what she calls all this 'life writing'.

    It is a valid question and one that will have no solid answer as questions like this never do. Besides 'life writing', if, by it we mean autobiography, has been going on since the advent of writing in one shape or another and therefore the question is an ongoing one.

    Whether something is 'pure divulgence' or whether it is 'appropriate disclosure' is again a vexed issue. It is so subjective.

    One person's writing can impress one reader as gratuitous, self serving and thoroughly awful, when that same piece of writing can effect another reader powerfully for the good.

    This is one reason why I urge people to reflect closely on their own responses to someone else's writing, and thereby avoid getting caught up in negative counter-transferential feelings that can blind them to the worth of said writing.

    For instance, have you read Katherine Harrison's 'The Kiss'?

    This autobiography – to me exquisitely written and an important story to have out there in the world – has been criticized fiercely by some as being self seeking and indulgent.

    Harrison writes about an incestuous relationship with her father in her late adolescence, early adulthood conducted over a number of years.

    You can tell simply by the subject matter that it's going to stir people up and stir people up it does.

    Some of what I write has shock value, in the sense that it includes the traumatic. Trauma when shared can induce counter traumatic responses.

    I have thought and written about these things a great deal and as you can see by the comments here, some people are disturbed by my post to the point that either they tell me as much like you or more likely they say nothing. Others might be downright critical. Whereas there are some who see some value in my efforts.

    It is the risk I take. It is the way I write. I couch the autobiographical in with the theoretical.

    In my view the one fuels the other. The theoretical (with a small 't') – in this instance my thoughts about arguments regarding the conflation of the autobiographical with the confessional can be a point on which to focus, or the autobiographical vignette itself in which I describe, albeit in sparse detail but with enough of an image to allow the reader to consider some of the confusion in a child about the nature of sin and confession from a different perspective, can be the focus.

    There's no answer to this. I will upset some people with my writing. I already have. Writers pretty well always upset at least someone through their work.

    I do not write to upset though. I write to share and I prefer to please, but I often fail in that regard.

    Thanks, Bonnie.

  25. Thanks Sharon. I suppose that is one of my hopes – to be thought provoking. To write in a way that provokes thought, to my mind, is also to arouse feelings. The two need to go together, otherwise things can be dull, prosaic, predictable and so on. Hardly thought provoking.

    I'm glad I provoked your thoughts Sharon, and I hope in the process I did not upset you too much. Thanks again.

  26. Hi Elisabeth,

    I've just started to read your blog, so I don't know the history of your posts. I found this one to be interesting for a number of reasons, and I appreciate its main focus is to define the difference between confession and autobiography: "…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." I agree with your distinction, and I also agree, when we write we don't want to be judged, we want to be heard.

    What amazes me about the comments to your post, is that, with the exception of one person, no one has addressed the reality of what you experienced, and the double trauma of the inappropriate response to it: This stranger sexually abused you; and instead of the man being found and charged with a crime- you were made to feel as if you had a committed a crime, something to which you must confess and do penance.

    When a child or young woman is coerced by someone older than they are, or in a position of power over them, it is not a sin, could never be a sin- yet, I have the impression you and some of your responders take that “sin” as a face value fact; one even assuming you included that information in your post only for the shock value of it, to make your point.

    I grew up Catholic, and went to Catholic school from Kindergarten through sixth grade, going to church six days a week, and confession at least once a week, making up my sins, and suffering guilt to this day- even though I left the Church at about the age of sixteen. I wrote a post about it in my own blog. So, I understand confession!

    I read this post, and felt bad for you- that you were blamed for what happened to you; and that the priest victimized you again, asking you questions, not to identify the perpetrator, but to "judge" the degree of "your sin." Also, your mother, instead of being appalled, suggested you had done something that required you to confess. (I also understand it happened to you during a time when sexual abuse of children was less understood, and your mother may have been at a loss, not knowing what else to do, and thinking confession would make everything all right for you again.)

    Sorry for writing a book here. But, your post definitely stimulates readers to respond. Anyway, since no one else is saying it: You did nothing wrong, and I wish someone had been there to protect you from him.

  27. Hi Jesse.

    It's interesting to see how often Sylvia Plath comes up in relation to the word autobiographical. I wonder had she not died young would we think about her writing as we do these days, but that's beside the point.

    I'm not sure that I agree with you that Plath 'intended to put her readers in the awkward position of judging what we do not have a right to judge'. But, Jesse, I can only think of your situation at the moment and Plath is one of those writers I suspect whose writing. life and actions are close to the bone.

    There are certain topics about which people write – they include all the taboos, namely incest, suicide, euthanasia, torture. The list is long.

    When we write about these things we inevitably disturb our readers, who can be both fascinated and repelled. It's a bit like the way we feel when we pass an accident on the side of the road. We are drawn to look and at the same time, desperate to look away.

    Somehow to bring the idea of redemption and forgiveness into this via the notion that autobiographical writing is confessional may be an attempt on the part of some readers to exonerate the writer.

    She only wrote it, such readers might conjecture, in order to be relieved of her burden of sin.

    I'm not sure therefore that the urge to confess is what motivates writers as much as it is how some readers might reflect on some autobiographical writing.

    What do you think?

    Thanks, Jesse.

  28. Thanks, Ronda. It is confusing and I'm not sure that our discussion here in any way clears the matter up for us, but still it's helpful for me to ponder on these things and I'm grateful to have you, among others, quizzing over the possible meanings.

    I agree, too, Ronda, there's a lot of mountain making that goes on when people feel upset and further writing has a way of inducing said mountain making to help people deal with their upset. I hope that makes sense.

    Thanks again, Ronda.

  29. It's interesting the notion of having to confess to our love. To me it's also like having to confess to our vulnerability, our humanness.

    For isn't it our feeling of love towards someone that can make us feel the most vulnerable. At the same time feeling hateful can have a way of making us feel strong, as much as it might also undermine us. And when people are in love they can sometimes feel supreme, at least for a short while in the full heat of first love.

    The idea of a 'drainer' as 'a secular confessor ' is fascinating and in some strange way reminds me of that film, 'The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', wherein people sought to have their memories wiped as opposed to their sins.

    'Soul pissing' might hit the nail on the head for you as a man, Jim – with head bowed in the urinal – but women, as you know, piss differently.

    Still the association with urination and even with defecation is one of those that align the process of bodily digestion to confession.

    The idea is that sins are to be gotten rid of, whereas the things that one writes about autobiographically are not necessarily things that one wants to be rid if. At least I don't want to be rid of them – my memories, my story, my life. They are so much a part of who I am, however sometimes painful, shameful or enraging etc.

    It interests me that in your autobiographical writing you see yourself as admitting to 'having done something', though not necessarily of a sinful nature, something nevertheless that causes you some discomfort? tension? -I'm not sure what word to use here – whereas much of what I reflect on in autobiographical writing generally, not just my own, includes that which is done to people.

    I agree with you about the distinction between judging and listening. I'm with you and the drainers, here.

    I write to be heard, not to be judged, even as I know that I will inevitably be judged more harshly by some than by others, but that's the way it goes.

    And then I wonder again why we do it when harsh judgments can be so so painful.

    Thanks as ever, Jim.

  30. Thanks Charlie. A kindred spirit perhaps?

    I agree with you, the indoctrination I received as a child has coloured my world view, but I think the Catholic church has had less of an influence on me than my family of origin.

    Though, having said that, I wonder whether it's false to try to quantify these things. One colours the other inevitably.

    There are so many things in my life that might constitute sins that I do not see in this way as an adult, though others well might and certainly I as a child saw as sins.

    I prefer to get away from measurements of sin and otherwise, of good and bad, of black and white. I prefer that non-judgmentalism I talk about elsewhere, but it's hard to arrive at a life without judgments and people tend to be judgmental based on their own backgrounds.

    In the end all we can do is keep on trying to communicate as best we can, knowing that we will often not be understood as we had hoped.

    Thanks again, Charlie.

  31. Well Kirk, I'm sure the woman who asked the question in the seminar was not thinking 'sin'. I suspect she was thinking 'self-disclosure', which seems to me to have become a central theme running through many of the comments here – to disclose or not to disclose, and to what extent – I add, my tongue firmly in cheek – does that self disclosure in itself become a sin.

    Conspiracies of silence abound in human societies for good reasons. There's a terrific book, called the Elephant in the Room by Eviatar Zerubavel,
    in which he writes about denial and conspiracies of silence in everyday life and why it is we oftentimes want people not to say or write certain things.

    You write from a a different position here it seems to me. Your comment is not one aimed at silencing, rather it is one that is based on curiosity, a noble impulse I believe. Without curiosity we do not learn. We cannot grow.

    While I was writing this post I was aware of the limitations of the story. I chose it because of its link to confession, but the scene itself has many layers. As I said in my post, I have written about this event in detail elsewhere but I have never been happy with it, with the writing that is.

    I have tried to 'fictionalise' it. I have included it in an essay of the non-fiction variety. The scene is one that niggles me still because of its potency I suppose and because I believe as a small child I may have 'dissociated' from it.

    I use the word dissociated cautiously here. I don't want to pathologise my response. The act itself on the part of the man who asked me to hold his penis is a disturbed act. I'm not sure that my response other than to scream and run could be seen to be anything but that of a helpless, powerless child, bewildered and unable to claw anything back for herself except the sixpence. All this in retrospect and we all know about the frailty of memory.

    It may be the taking of the sixpence that in my mother's mind constituted my sin.

    One day I might get up the courage to ask my mother, now ninety years old, whether she remembers this event.

    Even now as I write to you Kirk, this possibility – of talking to my mother about the exoerience – forms in my mind. I think this is a good idea and that I should do so now before it is too late.

    I have never before thought to talk about the event with my mother, not since that first time, so this to me is quite a revelation and the fact that I have not thought to discuss it with my mother again says so much, too.

    To me this moment is an example of the degree to which writing and being read can be helpful in dealing with life's difficulties, over and above the value of the writing and the reading, which stands in any case.

    We reflect, and write. Others reflect and write back and it helps us move on.

    I do not see this as the same as confessing our sins, rather it is a sharing our of struggles. A load shared is a load halved, as they say.

    Maybe over time I will write a piece in which I can explore this event to my satisfaction and then I will share it with you, Kirk and some of your questions here might find answers.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and questions, Kirk. They have been very helpful.

  32. Kass, I'm out of order here. I don't know how but I think I overlooked responding to your comment on my post here.

    Re-reading your comment I'm intrigued by my failure to do so because your response seems particularly empathic as is Annie's response to which I have yet to respond.

    Thanks Kass.

  33. And thank you, Annie. Your response alerts me yet again to something I have observed over time.

    Often when I write autobiographically I am taken to task for the fact of writing as I have, as if I should never have spoken at all. As Virginia woolf writes, 'A finger seemed laid on one’s lips.'

    This is a theme in my writing to which I return again and again. It started in my childhood. and I allude to it in my response to Kirk's comment – the business of silence and denial in everyday life.

    Sometimes I imagine myself as the little boy in the story of the emperor's new clothes, the one who tells the villagers who are busy admiring the emperor in all his finery, that the emperor is in fact naked.

    I suspect this sort of thing happens often to people who write about things that some find too disturbing.

    I'm grateful to you Annie for recognizing a different side to all of this.

    Why do people get angry with me wen I write about certain aspects of my life?

    Is it that they think I have not yet processed or worked through the event and that I present it here in raw unprocessed form, or is it that it really is too awful to contemplate. Is it so badly written that it annoys the reader?

    I know the story I included here is provocative but again as I said in an earlier response I had hoped to provoke thought and feeling, not judgment. With that I suppose comes empathy.

    Thanks again, Annie. I value responses like yours. They give me courage to go on.

  34. R. H. I sat on your post all night equivocating about whether or not to let it through. In the end in the interests of 'freedom of speech' I decided to include it here.

    My objection to your response lies in your first sentence. To call this post 'the silliest posting' seems to me to be a gratuitous insult, but I figure this may well simply be your style.

    Maybe you too intend to provoke a response but in a different way from most.

    I've seen your comments elsewhere in the blogospehere, particularly on Copperwitch's blog. Jah Teh herself writes fairly acerbic posts, but they're witty and I have not found her to be insulting to her fellow bloggers.

    The rest of your comment bears consideration. I don't agree with you. You take the opposing line to me, namely that 'Autobiographies are confessional (frank) or they're not autobiographies.
    Why would anyone read them?'

    I suppose I've argued to death about why I disagree with you. Yours is a blanket statement and as such it does not leave much room for diversity or thought.

    I suspect there are some confessional autobiographies, but in the main I believe that the autobiographical genre is not confessional per se. There may be aspects of the confessional in it, but there is so much more than that.

    I hesitated to include your response here, not only because of the insulting nature of that first sentence and also because I find I cannot make comments on your blog.

    Your blog title, Markus knowallus, suggests that it your persona writes tongue in cheek, and that may be so, but I think you would do well to be more subtle in your criticisms otherwise people like me who moderate the comments to our blog might decide not to include yours and I imagine, like most of us here you write to be read, unless you are one of those machine generated trolls.

    Somehow I doubt that. Your thoughts do not strike me as machine driven.

    If you can respond further and clarify where you're coming from, I'd be very grateful, as long as you hold off with the insults.

    As far as I'm concerned, it's okay to disagree vehemently but it's not okay to hurtle insults.

    Thanks, R.H., whoever you are.

  35. Hi Elisabeth,
    thanks for stopping by and leaving your lovely comment.
    For me confessing means admitting fault, admitting one made the wrong choice. Writing an autobiograpiy, means recalling events in one's life, whether good or bad but not making an admission of fault.
    I enjoy reading your posts although I do not always leave a comment.

  36. While you are speaking about one subject, memoir/confession, you are eluding very powerfully to the whole issue of sexuality, a parent's role in clarifying what it's about, the Catholic church and hierarchy. That was such a strong message about your mother choosing not to talk with you about sex, not to explain what happened to you. The description of the coffin-like confessional, the images of this priest hidden behind a grill, asking you to give full details (in light of all we've learned about deviant priests in the past few years) which is just the most macabre system imaginable, this vulnerable young girl not understanding about the cream…

    Your entry is, in itself, a story, spun from the woman in the audience asking you a question that stirs your thinking onto the example you used to describe confessional.
    Thank you.

  37. This is one of the most interesting posts I've come across since first stumbling into blogworld.

    Your actual post, Elisabeth, is, to me, reminiscent of an 'incident' that happened in my home town of Croydon back in about 1945/6.

    I was on the top deck of a bus, in the rear seat. I must have been daydreaming or something when all of a sudden I felt a hand fiddling with my private parts! I was still in short trousers and this pervert had slid his hand into my crotch and was, presumably, getting some sort of sexual pleasure from this.

    I remember jumping up and running down the stairs of the bus and out onto the street in London High Road.

    Until now I've never mentioned this to anybody. But it's something of which I then felt ashamed! Not my fault at all that this event occurred, so why should I have felt ashamed?

    In your case I guess it could be argued that you were, in a way, to blame for what you did. You were offerred sixpence to do what you did. Obviously, (I imagine), you knew virtually nothing about such perverse men – otherwise you would have run for your life!

    I'll wrap up now, and repeat that this post and the subsequent comments (including your responses) make for engrossing reading.

    Many thanks, Phil H.

  38. After reading your post and the ensuing Comment Conversation here, my first instinct was to google definitions of the word "confess." Clear distinctions are made between the religious implications of the word and the lay usage of the word! I'm sure you know these distinctions, but just being able to read simple one or two word explanations/condensations was helpful to me. Obviously the word Confess and its derivatives is loaded with different meanings for each reader!

  39. Thanks. It's early, but I have to beat the Americans.

    I hope you didn't sit on my post literally, it might have hatched something (joke).

    I'm sure you found my final sentence insulting also. Yes, well neither is gratuitous: I'm not here for fun; I mean business. You say you don't want to confess your sins, you want to share your story. I'll say that without confessing your sins you don't have a story.

    Why do you want an autobiography anyway, it's not clear. What's the complaint about, your father? Or the whole world?

    I know your area well, nothing worth less than a million. You're a Camberwell Girl: braced teeth and private school. Maybe I flogged stolen goods to you at Camberwell flea market: Trident knives, secateurs. Anyway, they're all good looking, Camberwell girls. And beautifully spoken.

    I had a stall there from the late eighties. Lasted about ten years, before the venerable Rotary Club booted me out. But I was awfully impressed, even with that. The truth is they're lovely people, Camberwellians. And crazy for a bargain, like anyone else.

    As for bloggers, the latest person to ban me (PhD, if you please) is half insane, gone mad through flattery.

    I call it blogging disease. It's common; failure to say how wonderful some are gets you ignored. Contradicting them gets you deleted. Or banned. “It's MY blog,” they declare. “I can say what I like.”

    Good heavens: Ex Cathedra, just like the Pope. Well if I didn't fear getting that way myself I might run a blog.

    Biography deals with the outer life of a person I guess, unless they make admissions. Autobiographies are quite different, the best reveal inner life: secret thoughts. And deeds too, some of them shameful. You have to tell someone, really.

    I've commited lots of crimes and I'm just sorry I had to do it, that's all. My heart was never in it. But shameful, yes, and not just to me, but to the society that raised me -and I mean the total society: Australian society, every bit of it. I'll confess about myself as a toddler doing sadistic acts on my smaller brother, giving him regular "needles" with a rusted nail. No one has heard about that. I've kept it quiet. But it's also true that at the same time I was witnessing strangers having sex with my mentally retarded mother. Taking advantage of her. If I just gripe about that and not mention my brother am I being honest? Or would it be honest to complain about the cops fitting me up with two burglaries they knew I didn't do without admitting to you I'd done forty they couldn't pin on me? No. You have to include everything: reasons you're not a saint. I'd write an autobio to confess, get it out, that's first, I wouldn't just complain about rotten drunks and rotten fathers and rotten cops and how it all became a war, I'd include my dirty response as well, hoping it's all useful.

    Here it is, that's what I'd say. The ridiculous truth, that's all. And oh boy am I glad I don't care anymore.

    Read it and explode, that's what I'd say: cops, politicians, patriots, everyone. Bugger them. They can't do anything to me now anyway, go to hell.

  40. Elisabeth, I'm usually pretty good with technology but I've frustrated myself today. I wrote a comment that was too long and Blogger wouldn't accept it. So I tried to cut and paste it in an e-mail to you. For some reason, Blogger won't transmit an e-mail to you. I've misplaced your e-mail address because I recently opened a new e-mail account. Will you send me a "hello" to please? Then I'll paste my comment into a return e-mail. Who isn't resourceful? If I can't get to my destination in a logical way, I know how to reinvent the wheel!

  41. Why not just ask this 'woman', rather than treasuring it up as some kind of insult? You have easy access to her.

  42. I completely agree. Confession has a negative taste to it. It is like an apology and you have nothing to apologise for and should never have been made to feel like that.
    A priest a man in authority shouldn't have the right to deal with this that way, which is quite perverted anyway
    Luckily when I was young in Holland they already abolished confessions.
    What I like about the dutch is that they can be open and direct about these things.(except in the past) You keep on doing that

  43. Phew! You've let some of genie out some well-corked bottle, Elizabeth.

    I can see why you observe certain parallels between autobiographical writing and self-portraiture. At least in terms of reader response (though the medium of painting has greater difficulty being received as 'confessional', i suspect).

    In either case, perhaps the intent of the writing or of the painting is germane. Is it's purpose to have an emotional bog by dumping one's trauma on others? Or is it quarrying the store of personal experience to arrive at some more universalistic understanding of the human condition?

    The first smacks of a solipsistic parading of private neurosis. The second we are more inclined to label 'art'. In either case there is an implicit contract between author and reader, or painter and viewer.

    When the latter party feels that contract to be breeched, be it by a tame beating about the bush when candour was promised, or by ambush with shock disclosure when a safe stroll between the lines was all that was anticipated, then private indignation, on surge of righteous anger, soon gives rise to public outrage.

    Maybe this seasonal fruit is the reason why the arts are now classed as part of the 'entertainment industry'?

  44. Well put, Elisabeth.

    Your confessional re the man under the bridge is, years afterwards and in the cold light of 2010, awful in every sense. How dreadful that 'confession' was the only solution given to you and then you had to pay the penance?

  45. You do well in telling your stories. Don't sweat what others think, or say.

    There are many reasons for writing, and unfortunately, of the ways that people write, they think certain genres are meant specifically for something not really intended. Too often, my poetry group suffered through newbies who thought poetry was meant to be catharsis. In my book, there's stuff you tell a therapist, and then there's poetry. Writing is the same, there's stuff intended for a diary and a therapist, and then there's writing.

    If my sins show up in my autobiography, it's always because I write about what I know. Don't worry about your stories. You're not looking for absolution. You're just simply telling reality.

  46. Thanks for commenting this time, Sylvia.

    Until I wrote this post I thought the same way as you suggest that 'confessing means admitting fault, admitting one made the wrong choice. Writing an autobiography, means recalling events in one's life, whether good or bad but not making an admission of fault' but now I'm not so sure.

    Given other people's comments here about the definition of the term confession, its origins etc, I may need to rethink my original argument, but the spirit of it stands, and as other people here also suggest, not all autobiography involves admitting to wrong doing.

  47. I'm glad you can see what I'm on about here, Melissa.

    I don't just want an academic argument about the nexus of autobiography and confession. I want to practice autobiography and in so doing elucidate some level of the conflicts involved.

    I usually come to these things by accident. That they stir up conflict is disturbing, but on the other hand that's what often happens.

    Autobiography has a way of standing on people's toes, that fiction does not share because we all have lives and experience and our own versions of these do not always coincide with other people's written versions.

    Thanks again, Melissa. I hope you're well.

  48. Hi Philip, with one 'l', that's the 'protestant – non Catholic – spelling, I understand.

    I have a brother in law who spells his name Phillip, with two. By chance this same brother in law also hails from Croydon, but not your Croydon. This Croydon is in Melbourne, Australia

    Thank you for including this incident from your own childhood.

    I suspect these sorts of things happen in our lives more often than we perhaps like to admit to. Mind you they can also be the experiences that children are most likely to repress for all sorts of obvious reasons.

    It's good to meet you here. Thanks again, Philip.

  49. You've followed the same path as me Jane, the one that leads me to check out the distinctions between the religious and the secular meaning of the word confessional.

    My Catholic origins had led me to imagine it was all based on religion. I now know otherwise.

    Thanks so much for your comment here, Jane. Definitions are important.

  50. Thanks for coming back R.H.

    I didn't find your final sentence insulting, only your first, but that doesn't seem to matter so much now.

    It seems we are coming from different positions vis a vis the business of autobiographical writing, but that's okay.

    To begin it's simplistic to judge a person by the suburb in which you imagine they live.

    My teeth are crooked. I never wore braces and I did not attend a private school, unless you consider Catholic schools to be private. I don't. Most Catholic schools are heavily subsidised by the state and the church.

    That said, I agree with you about some of what you call 'flattery' in the blogosphere, but it depends on your aim.

    I would be disappointed if the only things that people wrote here were positive and full of praise. I want discussion not only about the ideas I explore, but also about the content of my writing and to some extent some idea of whether or not people resonate.

    Idle praise is boring. Much better to have robust conversation.

    It's hard to respond to what you write here, because you seem to fluctuate between telling us something about the difficulties of your life – it sounds as though you've had it tough and that's an understatement – and your rage at the injustices of life.

    I'd agree with you on that – life is unjust.

    So why not set up your own blog? Have your say and let people respond to you.

    You might be surprised. You write well and clearly have much to say.

    If you join us in this exercise rather than sitting on the sidelines heckling, it might give you a better experience.

    You might feel less the outsider. You may not want that, but it's worth considering. I might even become your first follower.

  51. Thanks, Rachael. I will take this up with the woman who asked the question in the fullness of time.

    I felt annoyed initially but not any more and as I've tried to say elsewhere I think she had a valid point.

    I find it interesting in retrospect to observe my own thought processes, namely that the words this woman used set off a train of associations in my mind about the autobiographical and the confessional. But they did not come to me until quite some time later.

    We had the seminar on the Thursday afternoon. These thoughts came to me more than twenty four hours later on the Friday late when I was out driving to collect one of my daughters from a party and the next day I wrote about them in my blog.

    I don't feel now as though I'm harboring an insult. Is this how it sounded to you?

    If I were harboring said insult – and it's quite possible that I was – I hope I've written my way beyond it.

    Thanks again, Rachael.

  52. When I was little, Marja, my mother a devout Catholic, often told us how different Catholicism was in Holland.

    Holland was a forward thinking country she told us. Whereas she found Australia in the fifties and sixties deeply conservative.

    I think it has changed in Australia now, too, but our memories have a way of sticking around. A good thing, too, otherwise we would have far less to write about.

    Thanks, Marja.

  53. You raise some interesting observations about autobiography and reader response, and all that stuff about the so-called 'autobiographical pact' Harry:

    'Is it's purpose to have an emotional bog by dumping one's trauma on others? Or is it quarrying the store of personal experience to arrive at some more universalistic understanding of the human condition?'

    I can't answer the question, nor offer much on the issue of the arts as entertainment, but I think there is some aspect in all these things – blogs, painting, writing, photography, poetry etc that is 'performative'.

    Performance has many roots, going back to the needs and desires of our first ever audience – generally our parents – and they're not all bad.

    Thanks, Harry, for your far reaching thoughts.

  54. Thanks, Kath.

    It strikes me when I reflect on your comment here and think back to your blog, which is also autobiographical, in a manner of speaking, there is a difference when we write about past and our childhood experience and when we write about the present.

    Sometimes people are more tolerant when we write about prsesent events and sometimes not. The same applies to our writing about the past.

    In any case we run the risk of censure from whichever time dimension we write, from someone at leat.

    I'm sure you know about this, Kath, powerful writer that you are.

  55. Thanks for the encouragement, Mike.

    I tend to sweat on what others say about my writerly efforts, as much as I try not to take things too personally, whether they're complementary or the comments take the form of insults. I'm probably not alone in this.

    Margaret Atwood in one of her books on writing lists some 72 reasons why writers write and I suspect there are many more.

    Thinking about it now, I don't think she lists the desire for absolution among them.

    Thanks, Mike. I value your thoughts.

  56. Yes, you NAILED it to the wall – it is not a confession because there IS no sin.

    It is the sharing of a story in which the telling of it is not prompted by guilt or sin but by love and the motivational to connect with others.

    Such intentions need not be questioned for that is the same as shutting the door on love offered freely.

  57. I've “had it tough”? Good heavens, I'm almost insulted. My mother had it tough. And I made life tough for other people. Who's to blame? Everyone. Let's change it all.

    Rage at injustice? No I don't. I rage at stupidity: all those fake Parisians and New Yorkers wobbling around here. They've dumped this place, the entire country. It's a marvel they don't speak French. They speak American, but that's easy, “Hey guys”.

    You praise mine, I'll praise yours, that's blogging -most of it. Slightest criticism and they burst into tears. Or a rage.
    I'll be honest with you, if I had a blog I'd put everything in it, and that's disaster. Commenting at Copperwitch is enough for me, I can say what I like there.

    That's what amazes me; this huge woman, heaving herself onto buses every day, calling herself Lardarse, hating bigotry intolerance and proving it by tolerating me. I don't know what to say, she's a mother: appalled one moment laughing the next.

    I'm not an outsider, I've got my place in all this; life is nothing without indignation, ask the latte set. A comment from RH gives them constipation, turns them red in the face. I'm benevolent, know my job.

    Well look here, you want to write an autobiography and your family don't like the idea, is that right? Your kids especially don't like it, maybe they don't even like you blogging; very public; anyone can see it. Their friends can see it. Well here's my advice, maybe just go ahead, write your book offline, if it makes hard copy all will be forgiven.

    “Heckling”? Ha!- gotcha! What an insult.

    It is, and you know it.

    We're even now.

  58. Leslie from her blog Ramblings from yet another stranger on the bus, sent through this comment by email because it refused to attach itself here. I've needed to divide it in two.

    Elisabeth, here comes your late, sideways, free association applying, stream of consciousness blogger friend from across the globe. Once again, you have hit my unprotected body with an emotional Mack truck. There were so many shared experiences in your post .

    I'd never read any of your writing about what happened under the bridge, but you know about what happened to me in my childhood. The abused child is saddled with guilt and shame brought on by the words and looks of others (all adults, in my case, so it was even MORE damning and certain if the adults were so indicating) when she did nothing wrong. Even though everyone knew, and medical attention had to be sought, my abuse was never spoken of out loud. My family were secret-keepers. And that made it worse, as well. If it couldn't even be discussed, how terrible must it/I be in the scheme of things? I wouldn't have uttered it to a priest under penalty of death.

  59. Continued from Leslie…

    I have a relationship with a man I have known for more than 40 years. We know each other well. There is some verbal shorthand we use, as do many people who share common events across many years. When referring to my life at a particular point when I was an angry, defiant, risk-taking teen, he calls it the period when the trolls came out from under the bridge and grabbed me. He's written poetry about it. Deeply moving poetry about how much he wanted me at that time, but the trolls got me for awhile first.

    I have to confess that I sometimes sinned in the confessional! I wasn't about to utter anything controversial to the priest. I had no siblings to fight with and confess that. I felt pretty small in that coffin-like box with a genuine representative of god sitting on the other side of the screen, so I wasn't going to make any waves. I made up small sins, to fill the air with a few words. I did the penance, too, for the sins I didn't commit. Internally, I ran from Catholicism at age 8. I said it outright at age 11 and have not ever returned. I still sport the scars.

    And, about autobiography. I LOVE your final sentence of your post. And you have read my words when I have said, often, "I just feel compelled to tell what happened." A couple of my takes on what we write:

    1) I had some experiences recently that I enjoyed tremendously and I wrote a post celebrating wonderful times. Before I posted it, I conversed with the friend who experienced the adventure with me and mentioned I was writing. She was appalled. This isn't precisely the situation, but it's very close: if I posted and her husband read it, it would make trouble in her marriage. We had a couple of very tense days and I expressed, "I have to consider not writing about my life because you lead a double one. That's really uncomfortable for me." I didn't put up the post. I've asked not to be put in a similar situation again. I don't believe I'd censor myself again.

    2) Last fall, after meeting Kass in the blogosphere and seeing her photos of the place that was once my home, I wrote some posts about my early childhood. I had NEEDED to tell these chapters of my life for a long, long time. I got back comments that helped me sort out a lot of garbage. When a complete stranger says,"That wasn't your fault." or some other kind words, the adult can let go of some things. "Hey, that's true. I wasn't responsible for that. I couldn't do anything about it." Around these posts, I met many of the bloggers I care for the most. And then I got a taste of that "impact on the reader" thing that you mention. I posted about Sugarhouse 50+ years ago. I got a comment from a follower who used some words that mademe understand some adults today were cringing in pain for the 6-7 year old of long ago. I surely don't want pity for anything that's happened in my life. And I don't want to cause anyone else pain. But those comments and my realization that my words affected others in sometimes hurtful ways has dried me up. I haven't written another post about my early life. It troubles me. That's the time I need to tell about. But so far I haven't been able to take it on again. (I try to never use the words, "I can't".)
    Sorry to go on so long. You touched me. You always do. In the places not everyone can reach in me.

  60. My emailed response to Leslie:

    My family were secret keepers, too, Les. I suspect it's one of the reasons I write. I suspect it's also one of the reasons why some people think I should curb my tongue, write less, give fewer details, keep it clean.

    I don't intend to upset people when I write but if I censored myself more as some people seem to think I should, it would make it nigh on impossible for me to write.

    I think hard about what I post but I'm no clairvoyant. I cannot anticipate people's response. No one can. It's one of the joys and hazards of writing in the blogosphere.

    You were a brave soul indeed, Les, to run from Catholicism at age eight. It took me more than another ten years, perhaps because I had siblings and a relatively supportive mother to keep me in tow.

    I'm grateful for your words here. Given that you had intended posting them on my blog in the first instance, is it okay for me to put them up on your behalf? I won't if you don't want me to, but they are such wonderful thoughts and as ever so beautifully expressed that I'd like to share them with others. As well you reinforce my own view that we write to share our experiences that we hope others might recognise and understand to some extent.

    There is an imperative to this process. For me it's insistent. I can't ignore it. As for others who are close to us who don't want us to write about events that might include them, it's difficult.

    I have no answers. I do my best not to offend the ones I love and to meet my own needs to express myself through my writing at the same time. But I stuff up some times.

    Thanks again Les, for your kindness in responding here as you have. It helps me enormously.

  61. Thanks, Phoenix for your kind words here. How quickly we move from thoughts about the nature of autobiography to thoughts about motivations for writing it.

    Some see it as an act of vengeance, others like you see it as an act of love. I prefer the latter, but I suspect it can be all these things and more.

    You and I have much in common despite our geographical distance. Thanks again, Phoenix.

  62. Yes. And I've always thought the word "confessional" is a tad patronizing, too, as if one's story and the telling of it is less than literary.

  63. Thanks R.H.

    I'm sorry to hear that your mother had it so tough and that as a consequence it seems you've thought to make it tough for others. You still do, judging by your comments. Still I'm sure it's more complex than this simple equation suggests.

    I admire Copperwitch for the same reasons you do, I suspect. She dares to say the unsayable and calls a spade a spade.

    She is not precious, but she too sounds vulnerable like you and me and all the rest of us, I imagine. She also lets you, R.H. speak and I'm happy to let you speak too here on my blog because in between the occasional vitriolic outburst you have important things to say and I respect that, but please watch the racist slurs.

    If you think about it, they are generalisations and generalisations don't help us talk together.

    I think if it's at all possible it's better to stay with the particulars, that way we're less likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sorry to use such a terribly overused cliche.

    Thanks again, R.H.

  64. In between vitriolic outbursts. That's funny. Well it's true. And I don't like the vitriol myself, cringe when I read it later.
    I sure hope you don't think what I said about fake Parisians and New Yorkers was a slur on the actual people. I meant local Aussies here, living out a dream of being in Paris and New York.
    I've been to America and they looked after me very well. I like Americans. I even liked George W, though many didn't.

  65. And you do a good job of it too. It is always amazing what you come across in the blog world. I would never have thought I would read this story when I stopped by this evening. Is there any better medium than blogging for sharing real life?

  66. Thanks, Elizabeth. Needless to say, I agree with you about the idea that the term confessional verges on the patronizing.

    Certainly it denigrates our autobiographical efforts, as you imply, by hinting that they are less than literary.

  67. Thanks R.H again.

    I'm glad you qualify your comments here. Maybe I read your previous comment too hastily but I did take it as an insult to those from overseas.

    I'm glad to hear that you 'meant local Aussies here, living out a dream of being in Paris and New York.'

    It makes sense to me now that you write against pretentiousness.

    So far, in the blogosphere at least, I have not met many pretentious people if at all, but maybe I'm lucky.

    I take the view that anyone who makes the effort to spend hours writing and beavering away online, has to want to communicate in some way or other and one of the joys of the blogosphere is that it offers an opportunity to be honest in ways you sometimes can't be in daily life.

    Simultaneously it's possible to adopt a persona, as we all do to some extent online to, so it's paradoxical.

    Fact and fiction rolled into one, but isn't that the way it is with most things in life.

    You needn't answer that, RH. This conversation is getting far away from the original topic and there'll be many other opportunities to debate these issues elsewhere. Thanks again.

  68. I agree Nancy, the blogosphere is a great place to travel through when you want to be surprised.

    Thanks so much for commenting here. I'm pleased you found the topic of interest.

    As you can see, we haven't drawn any firm conclusions yet, as if anyone ever will, but the debate has been both fun and challenging along the way.

  69. Super! When I hear criticism about "confessional" writing, I answer by praising freedom of speech. It comes down to the quality of the writing. One might as well ask, What is the value of all that violence in Shakespeare's plays?

  70. I make notes for this and the clock jumps. Suddenly it's 7am. I'm anxious to leave this subject and anxious not to leave it unfinished. Sorry to keep going.
    I think you're being stubborn, clinging like mad to the word confession meaning sin. As Jane Moxey commented, confession has secular meaning as well. So what are we talkng about, autobiography or the confessional box? I don't see a big difference, it could be a good thing.
    We're all crooks anyway and other peoples scandal is fascinating, your experience under the bridge has enormous interest. It's a criminal offence and a sin too, but not your sin unless you knew it was wrong. Maybe you did. Whatever the case, this is what readers want from autobiography: frankness, if you've got the guts to do it.
    I'd write an autobiography to clear away ghosts, they give me hell, but making it a 'poor me' story without confessing my own faults would be useless to me and a fraud on everyone.
    Readers have expectations: fiction is contrived. It's allowed. You can't do that with autobiography. It has to honest.

  71. Thanks Mim, Why so much violence in Shakespeare indeed? Why not?

    The answer, His art describes life.

    You're not the first to question the need to put down the autobiographical. It seems like a second rate genre, perhaps because we all write autobiography in one way or another. It becomes the everyman form of writing.

  72. Gosh RH, this post will probably conclude with you and I wrangling to the bitter end about who has the last say.

    I acknowledge the secular meaning of confession, which is why early in the piece I suggested I'd need to do more research.

    Still I don't think that there's much of the secular in the notion of sin. And I agree with you one hundred percent people like to read about other people's misdemeanours, more than they like to read about their virtues.

    Thanks, again, R.H.

  73. Davide from
    suggested it's fine for me to add his comments, which he originally sent via email, here:

    Dear Elisabeth, I wanted to tell you that I have been very struck by your latest post, I enjoyed it, in particular for what I understand is your basic rejection of "confession" and your perplexity, and the huge amount of comments it attracted, about confessional as a definition of a kind of poetry. I must imagine your sort of intriguing and shocking feelings which must have grown in layers after the encounter with that man. I am writing an email to you because I am still reading all the comments, so I don't want to write there in the comment section before getting to its end.
    Actually I consider the notion of "sin" as something to reject almost totally except for a small part of it which anyway shouldn't involve any sense of guilt or need of atonement: "sin" in the sense that it's a pity, a sin, wasting…energies, perspectives, lives, whatever should cherished, relished, protected and preserved… Sin should be just about "going against waste", without even Eliot's tremendous weaving on that in The Waste land, he has done that once, and once is enough!

    All my best, Davide ( Tommaso )

  74. Wow, great post. I will blogroll you if that's okay.

    I have run a 'secret' post on my blog a couple of times with great success. Some of the secrets shared though were sad and I found myself worrying about the commenter. Some were just silly, as you'd expect, but mostly it was enlightening.


  75. Can you believe it?
    We share a couple of "confessional" stories. LOL

    I was brought up as a Roman catholic, and was a practising one until I was adult. The different was I went to a methodist school, and didn't learn all the Cathegism.

    When I was in university in canada, I sat on the easy chairs and fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, I saw this dirty old man. He had exposed his pink red penis to me. I was shocked, and I left. I told nobody. Years later, i told my husband, I should either have kicked his groin or told the security guard, but I did neither. You are the second person I have told this to.

    I am no longer a Roman Catholic, and no longer need to confess inthat "coffin" box.

    I will die in hell because I have excommunicated myself.

  76. Thanks, Rachel. I suppose in my description of the confessional as like a coffin, I associated sin and death. It has something to do with a belief in the afterlife. If you live a good life her and now and sinless then death is not so awful given the promise of a better life later, or something like this.

    To this day I wonder about the associations I made as a child about these things, as opposed to my adult connections in hindsight. Memory and fiction are such close cousins.

  77. Thanks, Davide. As I write in my email response to you, I'm inclined to agree – the notion of sin is a way of oppressing people, though of course there are instances of good and bad, right and wrong. Sin adds a religious dimension that doesn't always help us to appraise the value of an action or thought.

  78. Thanks, Ms Smack. By all means blog roll away.

    As for secrets, have you heard of the post secrets archive, where people post secrets anonymously. Is yours the same concept?

  79. Ann, I'm sure you won't die in hell. It seems the power of these religious beliefs can torment us all. Thanks for your commment here.

    There is something about the distress you describe here, caused by some troubled person's attempt to exhibit himself to you has stayed with you.

    I wonder whether in writing about it here that it loses some of its power.

    Thanks, Ann for your response here. It confirms to me in some ways that sometimes autobiographical writing can evoke a resonant response – whether of identification or a sort of dis-identification whereby someone says something like, please don't talk about that it's too awful.

    Sometimes they put their protests more forcefully.

    Or sometimes, like you, they empathize, and sometimes they stay silent.

  80. Thanks Pat, for your additional thought about the desire to be read.

    Why do we write here in the blogosphere, if not to be read?

    And yes, it's good to be reminded – that little girl's action did not constitute a sin, at least not in all likelihood, but there might be others who see it differently.

  81. When I said confession has a secular meaning you said you don't think there's much of the secular in the notion of sin.
    Why say that? Why go on about sin? You remind me of Grahame Greene.
    As for the dirty old man you mentioned I'd expect little kids would be more upset by the spooky experience itself than whether it's a sin. Who cares? It's a criminal offence. If your mother had gone to the police they might have caught this bloke and locked him up. Meanwhile I'm surprised that a priest would give you a penalty for it, he'd know it wasn't your fault.
    I've no idea how devout you were as a child but if you put this experience in an autobiography as spiritual angst you'll be laughed at. Why didn't your mother just report it to the authorities? Sending you to confession seems bonkers to me.
    Anyway, if autobiography and confession are 'two different things' to you then just leave it out for goodness sake. No one will insist. It's your business, your choice.

    PS: Now I'm wondering how many people here have confessed adultery.
    I'm sure God would forgive them (how many Hail Marys for that?), but their spouse wouldn't.

  82. Dear Elizabeth,
    I have no idea how you found me in the blogosphere, but you made a comment on my post about pets this morning and I came to see who you are. I'm very glad that transaction occurred because I enjoyed this blog very much.
    The discussion of this particular post was stimulating, and I laugh to use such a word when one of the subjects at hand is a little girl's exposure to a pervert.
    Your priest appears to have been a pervert as well. Damn that.
    "Confessional" writing has morphed into a derogatory phrase from its neutral beginnings. Unfortunately for me and those like me who prefer to write from a first-person point of view, the telling of our personal experience may seem somehow intellectually inferior.
    I find, however, that I'm drawn to those who relate their own thoughts and emotions, and who examine those for a broader meaning. Even if we don't look for a broader meaning, I find enormous value in preserving an individual's experience, much like I honor a painter's particular vision in a painting.
    Speaking very generally, a first-person reflection on an event is often honest, intriguing, and worthwhile. Sometimes I enjoy seeing the universality of an individual's viewpoint or reaction, and sometimes that viewpoint opens up my horizon, giving me a new perspective.
    At any rate, I've added you to my blogroll and I will be back. I like your autobiographical writing, no matter what the hell the word "confessional" means to anyone else.
    Cheers to you, from Chris at Enchanted Oak.

  83. Sex crimes against children are worse than murder.

    Well it's 5am and I regret some of the things I've said here, especially the tone. I want to encourage your writing, you work very hard. Don't be put off by your family, they should at least enjoy having an eccentric mum.
    It seemed ridiculous that you'd think personal faults shouldn't go into a life story. I can't understand that, because for me a life story tells all. I thought you'd realize too that people confess things just to be rid of the secrecy/loneliness. A friend of mine is a psychiatric patient, severe case, and his doctors are curious to as to why we're friends. They wanted a look at me, so eventually I went with him to Clifton Hill: The Professor Mullen Forensic Center. I said, “It's because I can confide in him, tell him things I could never tell anyone else, and what's more, in casual conversation.” That's it.
    There's a legend about a man who whispered a secret to a hole in the ground, and a plant grew there and whispered it in the breeze.
    I don't mind that at all.

  84. Oh, dear girl–you did nothing wrong. That was abuse–that man was the sinner. Not you.

    Ah, dear little girl that you were–what happened was NEVER your fault.


    Shame on that Priest for not recognizing your innocence.

  85. 'There's a legend about a man who whispered a secret to a hole in the ground, and a plant grew there and whispered it in the breeze.'

    Thanks for this lovely image, R.H.

    I don't want to keep hammering at it but i think you may have misunderstood me. I do not for one minute believe that we should not include 'personal faults' in life story. Not for one minute.

    I think the best life story comes from writers who are able to write about their personal faults without becoming too 'confessional' about them.

    And there are ways of expressing ourselves in this regard. I'm not one for the Alcoholics Anonymous approach – the self flagellation that is necessary on the way to abstention. I imagine you know the way it goes. At least it used to be this way twenty,thirty years ago.

    The reformed alcoholic will tell you often, clearly and loudly in words to the effect that 'I am an alcoholic. I used to beat my wife, I stole from my children…'

    I'm not trying to have a go at AA here however simplistic my comment might seem, because I think AA has its place and can be very helpful in getting people to stay off the grog, but I don't think it's a good style of wrting.

    I'm going to write further on variations on this topic in another post as soon as I can get it written RH, so maybe we can continue our discussion there, or maybe I've finally made myself a little clearer.

    One thing that this post has alerted me to, as of I didn't already know it, writing can be translated into many different versions depending on who's doing the reading. In other words there are multiple readings of the one text.

    Thanks RH. You sound as though you've mellowed somewhat and I'm grateful for your perseverance here, and very glad that I did not moderate your comment out in the first place. It's good to hear from you.

  86. Good to meet you here, Chris.

    I resonate with your idea – 'Sometimes I enjoy seeing the universality of an individual's viewpoint or reaction, and sometimes that viewpoint opens up my horizon, giving me a new perspective.'

    And I also agree that autobiography can get poor press as 'intellectually inferior' despite of or perhaps because of its popularity.

    I can't remember how I came to meet you via your blog, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts about your pets.

    I too love reading the autobiographical in many shapes and forms.

    This is what you get in the blogosphere – a million different voices and perspectives. A sort of democracy, at least for those who can find their way to express themselves and be heard.

    Thanks again, Chris.

  87. Thanks Beth for your kind thoughts.

    The little girl that was once me felt I had been responsible in some way, as little people do. The adult in me knows now it was not my fault. It was not/is not a sin.

    I see that some people read my post as though I still do not know the difference between a child's thoughts and those of an adult, but I think I'm fairly clear on it now.

    And I'm grateful to all those readers who like you, Beth, feel the need to clarify this with me. The child in me is reassured.

    This then leads me onto thoughts about the multiplicities of selves that exist in the one person, particularly where writing is concerned, but that's for another post.

  88. Thanks, Maggie May. Such words coming from you brings joy to my heart.

    You are as one person has suggested in comments on your blog, the next Sylvia Plath, and not on account of her fate, I trust, but on the basis of your powerful writing.

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