I have been reading “Confessions” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the great thinkers ever to walk the earth. He also wrote “The Social Contract,” which laid a foundation for government by the people. In “Confessions,” Rousseau spilled his guts about various misdeeds. As a teen, he traveled about and stole small things, much like the main character in “On the Road” by Jack Kerouak. While working for an old woman who died, he stole a ribbon of hers. When a higher-up found the ribbon in Rousseau’s room, Rousseau claimed that a servant girl had stolen it and given it to him. The poor girl was fired and probably ruined for life. Rousseau never got over feeling guilty about that dastardly deed. Later Rousseau exposed himself to women he did not know and was soon seized by a sword. Think of the possible field justice that might have occurred! Rousseau made up a nonsense story and the man let him go. I haven’t finished the book, so I don’t know to what else Rousseau will confess. He wrote the book to educate others about what the real life of a person is like, he said.
Lots of people confess their crimes and other transgressions. Some confess to ease their conscience or create a chance to enter heaven. Police interrogators prey on that urge to obtain confessions. Good thing, because many more criminals would go free without confessions.
A mentally ill man in the New York area recently confessed to the murder of a little boy over 30 years ago. The boy was one of the first missing children whose photo was put on milk cartons. Police department receive many false confessions regarding high-publicity crimes. Only when the confessing person can prove that he committed the crime, e.g., by providing information known only to the police and the killer, do the police take the person seriously. In the New York case, the police arrested the man. Why do people falsely confess to these crimes? They may have a desire for fame (really infamy).
Does confessing help malefactors feel better and do better? A true confession may, even with negative practical consequences that can result. Confession can give a person a chance to start again. The Catholic Church and other religions are big on confession as a way of wiping away sin.
There are other ways to start again though, such as by making amends, if possible, to the person harmed or to society in general, and by never repeating the bad act.
I have enjoyed Rousseau’s book because it shows that a first-class jerk can develop into a highly productive individual. Maybe there is hope for me yet…
Have you confessed something? With what result?
John Malouff, PhD
Assoc Prof of Psychology