Vol. 10 No. 7 (July 2000) pp. 444-445.
TROUBLING CONFESSIONS: SPEAKING GUILT IN LAW AND LITERATURE by Peter Brooks. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 207pp.
Reviewed by Ruth Ann Strickland, Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, Appalachian State University.
By blending the disciplines of law and literature, Peter Brooks examines the meaning of confession within the context of the two distinct disciplines and its place in our culture. He explores the paradoxical nature of confessions. Brooks points out that while we in Western culture seek to extract confessions as a precondition for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, we are also suspicious of them. We wondering whether they were freely given and we simultaneously attempt to formulate "voluntariness" standards. Although confession may be good for the soul, it may not always be authentic and trustworthy. Brooks contends that we should not be entirely comfortable with the way we use confessions in the criminal justice system. In his accounts of confessional speech, he brainstorms about how we use
confessions, especially in relation to state's ability to obtain confession from individuals, and what it means to confess.
Leading off Chapter 1 with an examination of the Supreme Court cases of MIRANDA v. ARIZONA (1966) and BREWER v. WILLIAMS (1977), Brooks discusses the problem of determining whether a confession is voluntarily made. Since much of Western literature portrays confession as necessary for redemption and as therapeutic, the law's efforts to ensure "voluntary" and reliable confessions may be confounded by circumstances of the confessional speech act. The
Christian Burial Speech delivered to Robert Williams exemplifies the complexity of the confessional speech act. Although Robert Williams's confession was reliable, validated by Williams' ability to lead the police to the corpse of the murdered child, concerns about the "voluntariness" of his confession arose. Did Williams confess due to the Christian Burial Speech and was his confession valid without his attorney present? Is it possible to develop legal responses to address all the troublesome aspects of the confessional speech act? Although a conscientious effort should be made to ensure that a confession is true, not coerced and reliable, this is not
likely according to Brooks. Brooks mentions the case of DICKERSON v. UNITED STATES (2000) that was scheduled for a Supreme Court hearing at the time he was writing this book. Brooks argues that rather than overturning MIRANDA'S protections against involuntary self-incrimination, the Court should look at
strengthening them. Perhaps to Brook's relief and to that of numerous civil libertarians, the Supreme Court left intact the MIRANDA warnings by saying that the right to remain silent is grounded in the Constitution and that Congress cannot overturn the MIRANDA ruling.
Brooks uses Chapters 2 and 3 to illustrate the complexity of confession
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through works in literature. He argues that looking at confession simply as a legal construct oversimplifies the moral and psychological dimensions of voluntariness in confession. He believes that writings in literature offer a richer, deeper understanding of the nature of confessions -- why they are given, why they may be problematic and why we should not always accept them at face value. What goes on behind closed doors in an interrogation room is difficult to ascertain, according to Brooks. Brooks further asserts that perhaps society does not really want to clear up all the ambiguities associated with criminal confession. To clear criminal cases and restore order, perhaps society as a whole desires to turn a blind eye to certain confessional speech act realities. On this point, Brooks might explore in
future writings the motive behind videotaping of confessions. On one hand, some would argue that police department videotaped confessions give judges and juries the chance to see (with their own eyes) whether police used coercive tactics in obtaining a confession or whether the defendant was in the proper state of mind to offer a voluntary confession. On the other hand, perhaps this is just another farce. It means that we see what we wish to see and avoid all the unpleasant nuances of the confessional speech act that videotape might offer.
In the latter part of the book, Brooks examines the role of confession in contemporary American culture. American society is literally drenched with confession from racy talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey to real life court dramas played on in our living rooms on COURT TV to the wrenching testimonials of victims in victim impact statements at the end of trials. Brooks concludes that so much over-saturation of confessional speech acts may trivialize and diminish the value of confessions in the long run. The tying of individual self-worth to the act of confession in literature suggests that confession is in some ways a search for self, morally and psychologically. But the personal act of confession, especially when tied to one's self worth, may be impossible to validate in the external world of truth and fact. This is just one of many paradoxes that make the act of confession difficult to evaluate.
Given the number of "false" confessions in the criminal justice system that we know about and their impact on the administration of justice, criminal justice practitioners should pay attention to this book. Although it is not an easy read, Brooks offers a thought provoking analysis of how we view confessions, how we use them and why we use and view them in the ways that we do. It is a reflective book rooted in legal theory and literature, not a "how to" book. However, it still has valuable insights for not just academicians but also for practitioners. In my opinion the most valuable insights offered by Brooks are his skepticism about the confessional speech act and his questioning of its surface validity, particularly as it is used in the American legal system.
BREWER v. WILLIAMS, 430 U.S. 387 (1977).
DICKERSON v. UNITED STATES, U.S. LEXIS 4305 (2000).
MIRANDA v. ARIZONA, 384 U. S. 436 (1966).
Copyright 2000 by the author, Ruth Ann Strickland.