On Confessions

“The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell.”

Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (1978)

A short note on the theme of confessions: a topic that has been following me around over the past few weeks, appearing in what I’ve been reading, watching, thinking or making.

I went on holiday to the Highlands last week, and while I was there I made a short film about Isobel Gowdie, a new part of my larger project ‘Oh Ill Thief’. I used an old audio piece I recorded with my friend Megan that is an adaptation of Isobel’s third confession for witchcraft, written in 1662 in the town of Auldearn, Nairnshire. Around these words I put together a collage of the sights and scenes I found in the local area, the mountains, animals and ruins we came across, piecing together the images in the script with the footage I’d accumulated.

At the same time I was making my film, I was re-reading Emma Wilby’s definitive study of Isobel Gowdie’s story, contextualising the confessions in their time and place and their subsequent interpretations: The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in 17th Century Scotland (Sussex Academic Press, 2012). This was so that I could infuse my film with as much historical realism as possible, trying not to direct the narrative too much with emotive scenes or outright gore. I wanted to keep the ambiguity and mystery that are ever-present in the confessions, the enigmatic results of their form and content, that Wilby maintains in her analysis, using logic to answer questions raised by the documents with likelihoods but not outright assertions.

‘According to the historian Emma Wilby, several aspects of witchcraft included in Gowdie’s confessions are seen in Peter Binsfeld’s 1592 drawing.’

In between, I also returned to Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, specifically Vol 1: A Will to Knowledge (1978). A key part of this discourse is the importance to Western notions of sexuality and power of the Catholic emphasis on confessions. Confessing was made central to Catholic practice in the 11th century and since then formed more and more of the core of societal behaviour. The acts of extracting and giving a confession have metamorphosed from religious self-cleansing of sin, into widespread use in medicine, psychology and psycho-analysis, sociology and the criminal justice system.

Sigmund Freud’s sofa: the site of countless confessions forms part of the craze for confessing over the past 300 years

Our insatiable appetite for confessing has spread to celebrity gossip, television and film, news coverage, auto-biography, even forming important moments in our most intimate relationships. The confessor and the interrogator perform a dance of power, trust, truth and lies that is intrinsic to our Western identities, but our appetite, as Foucault hints, is never satiated. Our desire to get to the heart of the truth means that no matter how detailed and exhaustive the confession, the more we are convinced that there is something missing, something hidden inside it.

In recent years, the popularity of true crime documentaries and podcasts such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) have emphasised the prevalence of false confessions, and research is showing more and more how easy it can be to implant false memories and coerce normal people to admit to acts that they never did. In these cases, we are more aware than ever of not simply what is being confessed, but how the confession is made and why. We can now see that the relationship between the act of confessing and the impartial truth is superficial, and easily exploited.

We apply this new knowledge of false memory and false confessions retroactively to events like historical crimes and witch trials, for example. Witch trials, uniquely, extract confessions that by our modern reckoning are for crimes which categorically do not exist, and therefore we think of witch confessions as always false, coerced. The degree to which the confessions were true (in terms of intended malice or real acts) to those who made and heard them is something beyond our contemporary understanding. If something doesn’t exist how can it still be real?

But of course nowadays it is the criminal confession that most captures our imagination, for more than just the grisly details: the sincerity, legitimacy, motivations, and psychological warfare involved in getting someone to admit something they don’t want to admit. And of course it is always the piece of information that is missing from the confession that most haunts the detectives: where the body is buried, why they did it, who is really to blame.

Some of the cast of ‘Criminal: UK’ (Netflix, 2019)

There are a few confession-focused TV dramas on at the moment that I’ve also been watching in conjunction with the reading and making above: A Confession starring Martin Freeman on ITV and Criminal on Netflix. Criminal has especially interested me as each episode reads more as a play than television show: the emphasis on the script and acting performances, envisaged more as short character studies and psychological portraits, interlinking and independent at the same time.

The most interesting thing about Criminal, apart from its slick pared-down drama (every episode takes place in the same interview and observation rooms and never moves beyond, with the action happening in real time) is that the four series are set in different countries: UK, Spain, Germany and France. It’s fascinating comparing the different nations’ story-telling techniques, historical references, stylistic choices and thematic concerns. Taking the detective teams, for example, we see that the UK police have the warmest, friendliest workplace relationships; the Spanish are full of tension and bitterness, the Germans start off cold and end on a grudging mutual respect. The UK team go to the pub and deal with alcoholism, the Spanish deal with exploitation, trust and deceit, the Germans reference the Berlin wall and tensions between East and West. The UK’s plots are the weirdest, the Germans’ the most historical/political, the Spanish the most emotionally raw and gritty.

It’s a fascinating example of the way that a modestly small narrative with a handful of characters set in two rooms can, through comparison and variations on a formula, tell a wider story about nationality, culture and history. And what other possible setting can there be for such an achievement, what other context could be richer in drama, other than the extraction of a confession?

Watch ‘Oh Ill Thief’ (2019) below, my new Isobel Gowdie film, shot on location in Wester Ross!

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