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Susan Wise Bauer: 'The Art of the Public Grovel'

  • Book of the MonthSusan Bauer's new book details the rise of public confession concerning sexual sin in America.

    By David Williard.

    Book of the Month
  • Book of the MonthBauer became interested in confession while attending Liberty University.

    By David Williard.

    Book of the Month
  • Book of the MonthBauer connects the rite of confession with the American democratic experience.

    By David Williard.

    Book of the Month

The last 50 years have given birth to a trend in which high-profile indiscretions of American elected and religious officials are dragged before a public that to some seems much-too-interested in demanding confession, says Susan Wise Bauer, author of "The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America."

Yet, it is reasonable for a voter or a parishioner to insist on an accounting, adds Bauer, assistant professor of English at the College. "If a person cheats on his or her spouse, then it is reasonable to think he or she may cheat on us," Bauer explains.

In her book, Bauer traces the rise of "public confessions" through the evangelical "altar calls" prevalent at large tent-style crusades, the group-therapy sessions that became popular following World War II and the talk-show television formats popularized by personalities such as Phil Donahue and, lately, Oprah Winfrey. She then details why some confessions—notably those of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Swaggart—were successful with the general public while others—those of Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter—missed their marks.

During an interview conducted in the Swem Media Center, Bauer elaborated on numerous confessions. Clinton, she said, over the course of five confessions, each time gauged just how much more the public wanted him to "grovel" concerning his misconduct with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.  She said that Ted Kennedy, who confessed about leaving the scene of the accident in which Mary Joe Kopechne drowned, alienated himself from the public by casting himself as an elitist when he opened his confession by saying "We were in Martha's Vineyard, taking part in the regatta." Jimmy Carter, she suggested, confessed to "lust" in his heart in the wrong venue, Playboy, and gave too much information. "People want you to grovel; they don't want to be able to picture in their minds what you did," Bauer said.

In 20th-century America, confession serves a particular purpose.  Bauer writes: "American democratic expectations have woven themselves into the practice of public confession, transforming it from a vertical act between God and a sinner into a primarily horizontal act, one intended to rebalance the relationship between leaders and their followers. We both idolize and hate our leaders; we need and resent them; we want to submit, but only once we are reassured that the person to whom we submit is not better than we are."