Cover image for Troubling confessions : speaking guilt in law & literature
Troubling confessions : speaking guilt in law & literature
Brooks, Peter.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
x, 207 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


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PN56.C67 B76 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The constant call to admit guilt amounts almost to a tyranny of confession today. We demand tell-all tales in the public dramas of the courtroom, the talk shows, and in print, as well as in the more private spaces of the confessional and the psychoanalyst's office. Yet we are also deeply uneasy with the concept: how can we tell whether a confession is true? What if it has been coerced?

In Troubling Confessions, Peter Brooks juxtaposes cases from law and literature to explore the kinds of truth we associate with confessions, and why we both rely on them and regard them with suspicion. For centuries the law has considered confession to be "the queen of proofs," yet it has also seen a need to regulate confessions and the circumstances under which they are made, as evidenced in the continuing debate over the Miranda decision. Western culture has made confessional speech a prime measure of authenticity, seeing it as an expression of selfhood that bears witness to personal truth. Yet the urge to confess may be motivated by inextricable layers of shame, guilt, self-loathing, the desire to propitiate figures of authority. Literature has often understood the problematic nature of confession better than the law, as Brooks demonstrates in perceptive readings of legal cases set against works by Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Camus, among others.

Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov captures the trouble with confessional speech eloquently when he offers his confession with the anguished plea: this is a confession; handle with care. By questioning the truths of confession, Peter Brooks challenges us to reconsider how we demand confessions and what we do with them.

Author Notes

Peter Brooks is Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities and director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Brooks's book about stories--verbal narratives, talk with a purpose, criminal and other confessions--probes how confession as "a mode of discourse" is "capable of producing both the deepest truth and the most damaging untruth." The author marshals 47 legal cases, as well as autobiographies, novels, poems, films, and essays--a mountain of words he balances with Pascal: "Our linguistic instruments are too blunt ever to touch the truth." Stories--the opposing stories of prosecutor and defense attorney-- can mean life or death, can control sanity or insanity, guilt and exculpation. They are sometimes cris de coeur, sometimes exhibitionist. All is blended into a pattern and tradition of Western culture: literature, religious traditions, and psychotherapeutic culture suggest that "where confession is concerned, the law needs to recognize that its conceptions of human motivation and volition are particularly flawed, even perhaps something of a fiction." This is a dense, compact book, well worth reading in a world where the application of capital punishment and rule of law are in question while in the marketplace citizens vie to confess to everything imaginable. In detailing the history of confession and its integration into Western culture, Brooks has created a matrix by which individuals can better understand themselves and the legal system. All collections. ; Canisius College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 1
1 Storytelling without Fear? The Confession Problemp. 8
2 Confessor and Confessantp. 35
3 The Overborne Will--A Case Studyp. 65
4 Confession, Selfhood, and the Religious Traditionp. 88
5 The Culture of Confession, Therapy, and the Lawp. 113
6 The Confessional Imaginationp. 144
Notesp. 173
Indexp. 195