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Confess And Be Happy
I’m Scott, I’m an alcoholic and I killed my
girlfriend in 1971
Saturday morning A.A. meeting was large - a circle populated
with 12- steppers, some casually dressed in jeans and others
with suits and ties or the trim executive outfits yuppies
wear when venturing near a fashionable shopping area in
few of the folding chairs were untaken, and 10 minutes into
the meeting a man with scruffy reddish-brown hair and a
mustache, perhaps 40 or just over, wandered in and looked
about in sullen appraisal.
I finally learned the hard way, I just had to let go and
let God,” a girl was saying, running her hands through
her dark hair. “That’s about all I have for
today, so I'll pass.”
was the scruffy-haired fellow’s turn already, and
he wasted no time. “I’m Scott, " he said,
“and I’m an alcoholic.
Scott, " everyone greeted him.
glad to be here,” he said. “I came today - although
this isn’t my regular meeting - because my sponsor’s
been telling me I’ll never stay sober unless I confess,
like the fifth step tells us to. Here’s the deal.
Back in 1971, I murdered my girlfriend - it’s that
simple. I injected her with an overdose of heroin. I took
her to the emergency room, but nobody suspected I had done
it. It was easy to get away with it.”
few heavy sighs, but no one interrupted. It was not unusual
to hear a shame script, a recitation of what people had
done when they were drinking – a “drunkalogue.”
Most of it was covered under the leader’s usual reminder
at the opening of each meeting. “What is said here
should stay here.”
served some prison time later, for manslaughter, on a drunk
driving charge, " Scott added, “but they never
found out about my girlfriend. So there it is and I’ll
' t worry, " the leader assured him, “We ' re
not going to hang you. "
a woman stood up and walked over to Scott.
Christ died 2,000 years ago for your sins, " she said.
"I want to give you a hug. God loves you.” Awkwardly,
she bent down and hugged Scott.
Scott had exaggerated his guilt. There’s the joke
about the alcoholic who was in a San Francisco hotel at
the time of the great earthquake. He awoke, looked out the
window, and said to himself, “Oh, hell, how am I ever
going to pay for this?”
meeting droned on as usual, with speakers one by one telling
of their struggles not to drink, and to maintain a spiritual
center. None made a reference to Scott’s confession.
And when they were finished, all stood up, joined hands
in a circle, and intoned the Lord’s Prayer.
was invited to stay for coffee, but he slipped away, presumably
with confidence that his secret was safe. And yet, “We
are only as sick as our secrets” is another A.A. tenet.
is murder covered by the 12-step formula? Apparently at
least one precedent says no, because last year Paul Cox,
a carpenter from Larcbmont, N.Y. was convicted for a 1988
double slaying he revealed during an A.A. meeting five years
Alcoholics Anonymous fifth step says to admit our wrongs
“to God, to ourselves and to another human being.”
Another human being might be a priest or a doctor, but could
“ourselves” mean a room full of strangers? How
far does confidentiality go in a 12-step meeting? And are
we really empowered to forgive on behalf of victims we don’t
even know? And who are we to decide a killer is no longer
Porfiry inviting Raskolnikov, the murderer in Dostoyevsky's
“Crime and Punishment, " to confess, said “it
will be infinitely better for you.” But there was
a little matter of expiating the crime with a few years
exile in Siberia.
experienced the redemptive love of Sonya, as well as the
understanding of the detective who trapped him for his own
good. Sonya was willing to go with him to Siberia, but she
never suggested that his solution was to hide his crime.
"Go to the crossroads, " she told him, “bow
down before the people, and kiss the ground, because you
are guilty before them, and say aloud to all the world,
' I am a murderer! ' "
does not tell Raskolnikov to say it to a group assured that
his secrets will be kept. She says "to all the world.”
Let’s hope Scott’s not still a danger to others,
but who am I to decide, particularly when justice these
days seems to be as much a matter of popularity or social
prestige as of guilt or innocence. When was the last time
a rich man was executed?
decades Klansmen walked out of Southern courtrooms with
smirks on their faces, after justice was not done. Do we
give the same blessing to those crimes we do not report?
What right does a killer have to expect us to keep his secret?
Recently in a Kansas City suburb at least a dozen teenagers
kept the secret of a classmate who had been involved in
a murder. All knew, none told….as if they were sworn
to the Mafia code. And a friend told me he had not reported
being mugged because he was afraid of retaliation.
don’t owe it to society to get myself killed,”
you are society,” I said. “If everyone makes
that decision, we have anarchy. "
we don’t care enough about the victims - including
Scott’s nameless girlfriend, dead for nearly two decades.
A minister has told me how he handles confessions like Scott’s,
He offers to go with the confessor to the authorities, to
stand by him as he accepts accountability. A 47-year-old
friend of mine was provoked into a fit of weeping and a
call to her daughter, who hangs out with drug people, after
I told her about Scott’s confession. “That could
happen to her, " she said. "I could get a phone
call at any moment saying that’s just what happened
we are so far down the road of contempt for ourselves and
the earth that we listen with benumbed fascination, then
share our own confessions with the dreamy confidence that
no one will really take them seriously. Porfiry and Sonya
no longer live among us and we are not obliged to accept
Siberian exile, though it might restore sanity.
The New York Times Magazine, February 26, 1995)