Confess Already: The Power of Disclosure in Writing

Confession has a bad reputation. It is pulled from suspects in the interview room. It is linked to crowded boxes at the back of the sanctuary. It is mocked when heard from writers who describe the body. 

I am told Sharon Olds’ confessions are pornographic–she wrote about the pope’s penis after all. I am told we live in an age of too much celebrity confession (braggadocio or commonplace varietals). 

I say confess already.

But confession is no banana split.

My relatives mistake my questions as a request for them to confess. I have asked family members what I thought were benign questions about my ancestors, such as: What was your favorite memory of your grandmother? To which the granddaughter responded: Nothing in particular. She was kind. Okay, not many details, I think to myself. Let me ask another question: What was your father’s relationship like with his mother? She quickly stiffened and likened my questions to an interrogation. Where is this going?, she asks meHer body triggers a response as if she were confessing, which she then immediately tries to squelch.

Confession is the wince when forking a sopapilla, releasing the scalding steam before it is ready to be eaten.

I recently asked my mother to send me a picture of herself at the age in which she gave birth to me—1979. Not only was I curious about how young my mother would look in the photo, but I was curious to see what photo my mother would select. Would she choose a photo that put her in a good light, figuratively and literally? Would she select a photo to influence how I view her now? I didn’t tell my mother this, but an energy healer had recommended I place a photo of myself as a happy child on my desk, alongside a photo of my mother when I was first born. All of these gestures are supposed to help me—in a subtle and slow way—continue to forgive my mother.

I received the photos in the mail a few days later. She had sent the photo I requested of myself—the one of me wearing yellow OshKosh B’gosh overalls in our New Jersey kitchen. She sent a photo of herself sitting at Grandma’s laced dining room table. She is looking dreamily out into the distance, with two shell clips in her hair, and her favorite ombre sweater in purple and blues. She looks like a saint—St. Therese of Avila-esque. Something is off.

I certainly don’t remember my mother like this. And perhaps this is the point of the whole exercise. See your mother as she wants to be seen, not as you remember her. She wants to be your friend. She didn’t mean to hurt you. 

Looking at this photo of her, I can almost believe this.

When I ask my mother, Who is this woman in the photo you sent me? She says, Oh, I don’t know, all casual and non-committal. When I ask the same question another way, she snatches the air from between both of us, and says, What is this an interview?

Confession to one is small-talk to another.

Obviously, people in our lives don’t want to disclose or reveal their true feelings because of shame or embarrassment or void connected to their memories. Yet, the benefits of confession are strong. Or, said inversely, the strength required to keep something a secret (the effort involved in inhibition) has negative effects on our bodies. Researchers James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth in Opening Up By Writing it Down (2016) conclude that “After confessions, significant drops in blood pressure and heart rate as well as improvements in immune function occur. In the weeks and months afterward, people’s physical and psychological health is improved” (41).

The changes happening on the bodily level from confession are indications that something is happening in our brain. Are we integrating our memories into our current reality in order to form a more coherent narrative? Or is our body/brain keeping memories at bay, thus limiting our ability to understand who we are and how we got here?

Pennebaker and Smyth share the study from a UCLA researcher, Matthew Lieberman, and his team. Lieberman’s study concludes that “putting our deeply emotional experiences into language and words facilitates our brain’s capacity to help us manage our emotional states” (39). They observed people who were really scared of spiders. Yet, when they were able to express these fears in the presence of a real spider, they were able to move closer to the spider (as compared to those who only looked). “Putting those fears into language appeared to confer some protective benefit” (39).

What is going to happen if I make these confessions about my mother?

And I am already badgering myself for confessing. Do you know how much flack you are going to get for this? You know you can’t share this right? Why would you want to hurt your mother like this? You’re just ungrateful. I’ve known your mother. 

I have already deleted the confessions in the process of writing this blog. Words like cruel, ghost, and You still make me cry.

Of course, confession in a journal is different from confession in front of a person you know. Sharing your confessions does not always end well, depending on who you share them with. It can end relationships. It can also make relationships stronger.

Confession is the tong you use to pick up a hotdog from the boiling water. It’s the perfect tool, yet not the only one. You can also use a fork, your fingers, or a pocket-knife.