Oct 6
A bunch of feminists on the cover of the NYT magazine (!) clockwise from top right: Phyllis Chesler, Ellen Willis, Kate Millett, Ann Snitow, Alix Kates Shulman (source)
essay by Alice Gregory 
"Bad faith is the great pitfall of all confessional writing," declares Ellen Willis in "Sins of Confession." The 1981 essay professes to be a review of Ingeborg Day’s memoir, Ghost Waltz, but that’s underselling it.  I’ve never read Ghost Waltz and I probably never will, but it doesn’t matter: I will reread “Sins of Confession” many times.
The essay is the sixteenth of the twenty-seven collected in No More Nice Girls, and its thesis is  a buried lede within the anthology. Ellen Willis—or her editor, or whoever was responsible for the Table of Contents—  has slyly tucked her mission statement smack dab into the book’s middle. In all her essays, Willis is simultaneously personal and political, and this double description saves her writing from the hazards of straight-memoir or straight-criticism. She isn’t self-indulgent, but she isn’t boring either. Unlike other critics and essayists who became famousin the 1970s, Willis is without a real cult of personality. She doesn’t have the gorgeous frailty of Joan Didion, the roughhousing raunch of Pauline Kael, the clinical precision of Janet Malcolm, or the biting cruelty of Renata Adler—all great writers whose work (when you’re in a  skeptical mood) can  sometimes seem pockmarked with tics and blurry with bad faith. Willis might not inspire girl crushes, but at least she never stinks of shtick. Willis is not to blame for anybody’s mortifying juvenilia. 
 
One of the great pleasures of reading the anthologies of a single author is getting to see how they handle assignments of different subject and length, written sometimes decades apart and modulated to the specifications of editors or publications. Whether writing about abortion or bus rides, Willis is generous in her idealism and isn’t stingy with prescription, either. She never quite scolds, but she does see things wrong with the world, and she does believe that her ideas about how they can be fixed are good ones. But for all of Willis’s sobriety and persuasiveness, she isn’t all that charismatic, which is actually a virtue: you can agree with her without worrying that you’re getting seduced by shiny sentences.
Anyway (as Willis would say), “Sins of Confession” is a must-read essay for any youngish person yearning to have her scruples articulated in print by someone else. Sometimes you don’t know what you believe until someone else says it, and inchoate principles are dangerously tempting to defy.  

Before she even begins to tackle Ghost Waltz, which does indeed deserve and even court violent confrontation, Willis breaks the confessional mode into three distinct categories. “In the classic confession—St. Augustine’s the paradigm—" she explains, “the writer fully concurs in the reader’s moral judgment.” The second sort of confession is an inversion of the first; it is the “anti-confession” and here, “the writer challenges the values by which he or she expects to be judged, and so recasts the transgressors as a revel against oppressive norms.” The final sort of confession, and the one that Willis will spend the rest of the essay arguing against, is something she calls the “documentary confession.” Pioneered by Rousseau, the documentary confession is the falsest of all: “its emphasis is on examining transgressions, rather than condemning or justifying them, and its premise is that the exposure of dirty secrets is in itself a moral act.”
“Confession for its own sake” is impossible; believing otherwise is lazy and dishonest. Willis makes this very clear from the moment she segues into the book review proper:
In her memoir Ghost Waltz, Ingeborg Day has written a confession whose method is documentary and whose object is openly redemptive. She resists, succumbs to, wrestles with the temptations of the form, and ends up with a book that is as much about the process of confession as the content of it. The book is also one more piece of evidence—as if any more were needed—that in the post-enlightenment 20th century, redemption is very hard to come by.
 
Ghost Waltz is Ingeborg Day’s attempt to grapple with her own anti-Semitism, a project that’s obviously riddled with liabilities: “it’s easy to fudge the distinction between confession and expressing,” Willis writes, comparing it to “lancing a boil and spreading the germs.”  She takes Day’s effort with an almost unsettling degree of seriousness—before ultimately denouncing the book. As Willis sees it, Day’s moral failure isn’t her anti-Semitism itself but rather “the cheap pseudo-redemption of catharsis.”
Bigotry is bad, but you don’t need to have hada father in the SS to fall victim to this most insidious of crimes. “The cheap pseudo-redemption of catharsis” is an occupational hazard for anyone with an Internet connection and the inclination to prove themselves to strangers. When you spend a lot of time online, it can begin to feel like everything you consume is produced by someone almost just like you, and in turn, that everything you produce is consumed by people who might as well be your friends. And when this is the case—or even if when just feels that way—there’s little incentive to explain yourself. It’s all too easy to work under the assumption that we all already “get” each other—all too tempting to expect outsized empathy from others. They know I don’t really mean that. They know that I know I should be ashamed, so it’s fine. But there’s merit in presuming that maybe, just maybe, your opinions don’t speak for themselves—that maybe, just maybe, you should work a little bit at defending them. We share a greater quantity of ourselves than ever before, and whether the quality of that quantity is high or low, it would be fraudulent to feel that we’re not making all sorts of implicit moral claims under the ostentatious neutrality of the “status update.” Every joke honed, article shared, and sandwich eaten is a tiny chapter in our “manipulative plea for absolution”—the piecemeal documentary confession that we all seem to be publishing now.
In an age of ironic dressing and micromemoiring, it’s easy to forget that you can’t absolve yourself merely by knowing yourself. Life is not one long AA meeting, and admitting your mistakes is rarely the first of many right steps on the road to moral recovery. This ethos’s implications trickle down to the most trivial things (wearing a shirt you know is ugly does not make it not ugly), while also scaling up to the most important things (admitting to selfishness does not make you not selfish). When Willis wrote “Sins of Confession” she could not have predicted how curated our culture would become or that all our marketing would be niche, but the essay is prescient. We can strip it for parts and use them as 21st century lessons.

A bunch of feminists on the cover of the NYT magazine (!) clockwise from top right: Phyllis Chesler, Ellen Willis, Kate Millett, Ann Snitow, Alix Kates Shulman (source)

essay by Alice Gregory 

"Bad faith is the great pitfall of all confessional writing," declares Ellen Willis in "Sins of Confession." The 1981 essay professes to be a review of Ingeborg Day’s memoir, Ghost Waltz, but that’s underselling it.  I’ve never read Ghost Waltz and I probably never will, but it doesn’t matter: I will reread “Sins of Confession” many times.

The essay is the sixteenth of the twenty-seven collected in No More Nice Girls, and its thesis is  a buried lede within the anthology. Ellen Willis—or her editor, or whoever was responsible for the Table of Contents—  has slyly tucked her mission statement smack dab into the book’s middle. In all her essays, Willis is simultaneously personal and political, and this double description saves her writing from the hazards of straight-memoir or straight-criticism. She isn’t self-indulgent, but she isn’t boring either. Unlike other critics and essayists who became famousin the 1970s, Willis is without a real cult of personality. She doesn’t have the gorgeous frailty of Joan Didion, the roughhousing raunch of Pauline Kael, the clinical precision of Janet Malcolm, or the biting cruelty of Renata Adler—all great writers whose work (when you’re in a skeptical mood) can sometimes seem pockmarked with tics and blurry with bad faith. Willis might not inspire girl crushes, but at least she never stinks of shtick. Willis is not to blame for anybody’s mortifying juvenilia. 

 

One of the great pleasures of reading the anthologies of a single author is getting to see how they handle assignments of different subject and length, written sometimes decades apart and modulated to the specifications of editors or publications. Whether writing about abortion or bus rides, Willis is generous in her idealism and isn’t stingy with prescription, either. She never quite scolds, but she does see things wrong with the world, and she does believe that her ideas about how they can be fixed are good ones. But for all of Willis’s sobriety and persuasiveness, she isn’t all that charismatic, which is actually a virtue: you can agree with her without worrying that you’re getting seduced by shiny sentences.

Anyway (as Willis would say), “Sins of Confession” is a must-read essay for any youngish person yearning to have her scruples articulated in print by someone else. Sometimes you don’t know what you believe until someone else says it, and inchoate principles are dangerously tempting to defy. 


Before she even begins to tackle Ghost Waltz, which does indeed deserve and even court violent confrontation, Willis breaks the confessional mode into three distinct categories. “In the classic confession—St. Augustine’s the paradigm—" she explains, “the writer fully concurs in the reader’s moral judgment.” The second sort of confession is an inversion of the first; it is the “anti-confession” and here, “the writer challenges the values by which he or she expects to be judged, and so recasts the transgressors as a revel against oppressive norms.” The final sort of confession, and the one that Willis will spend the rest of the essay arguing against, is something she calls the “documentary confession.” Pioneered by Rousseau, the documentary confession is the falsest of all: “its emphasis is on examining transgressions, rather than condemning or justifying them, and its premise is that the exposure of dirty secrets is in itself a moral act.”

“Confession for its own sake” is impossible; believing otherwise is lazy and dishonest. Willis makes this very clear from the moment she segues into the book review proper:

In her memoir Ghost Waltz, Ingeborg Day has written a confession whose method is documentary and whose object is openly redemptive. She resists, succumbs to, wrestles with the temptations of the form, and ends up with a book that is as much about the process of confession as the content of it. The book is also one more piece of evidence—as if any more were needed—that in the post-enlightenment 20th century, redemption is very hard to come by.

 

Ghost Waltz is Ingeborg Day’s attempt to grapple with her own anti-Semitism, a project that’s obviously riddled with liabilities: “it’s easy to fudge the distinction between confession and expressing,” Willis writes, comparing it to “lancing a boil and spreading the germs.”  She takes Day’s effort with an almost unsettling degree of seriousness—before ultimately denouncing the book. As Willis sees it, Day’s moral failure isn’t her anti-Semitism itself but rather “the cheap pseudo-redemption of catharsis.”

Bigotry is bad, but you don’t need to have hada father in the SS to fall victim to this most insidious of crimes. “The cheap pseudo-redemption of catharsis” is an occupational hazard for anyone with an Internet connection and the inclination to prove themselves to strangers. When you spend a lot of time online, it can begin to feel like everything you consume is produced by someone almost just like you, and in turn, that everything you produce is consumed by people who might as well be your friends. And when this is the case—or even if when just feels that way—there’s little incentive to explain yourself. It’s all too easy to work under the assumption that we all already “get” each other—all too tempting to expect outsized empathy from others. They know I don’t really mean that. They know that I know I should be ashamed, so it’s fine. But there’s merit in presuming that maybe, just maybe, your opinions don’t speak for themselves—that maybe, just maybe, you should work a little bit at defending them. We share a greater quantity of ourselves than ever before, and whether the quality of that quantity is high or low, it would be fraudulent to feel that we’re not making all sorts of implicit moral claims under the ostentatious neutrality of the “status update.” Every joke honed, article shared, and sandwich eaten is a tiny chapter in our “manipulative plea for absolution”—the piecemeal documentary confession that we all seem to be publishing now.

In an age of ironic dressing and micromemoiring, it’s easy to forget that you can’t absolve yourself merely by knowing yourself. Life is not one long AA meeting, and admitting your mistakes is rarely the first of many right steps on the road to moral recovery. This ethos’s implications trickle down to the most trivial things (wearing a shirt you know is ugly does not make it not ugly), while also scaling up to the most important things (admitting to selfishness does not make you not selfish). When Willis wrote “Sins of Confession” she could not have predicted how curated our culture would become or that all our marketing would be niche, but the essay is prescient. We can strip it for parts and use them as 21st century lessons.


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