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Reviewed by:
  • Compelling Confessions: The Politics of Personal Disclosure
  • Julie Rak (bio)
Suzanne Diamond, ed. Compelling Confessions: The Politics of Personal Disclosure. Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson UP/Rowman and Littlefield, 2011. 230 pp. ISBN 978-1611470420, $65.00.

Confessional discourse is an important aspect of auto/biography and life writing studies, but there is much work that remains to be done on the idea of personal disclosure in writing in educational settings, the ethics of personal writing, and the public meaning of disclosure itself. Suzanne Diamond’s collection begins to address these issues in its exploration of the idea of disclosure in a variety of approaches: there are essays here from rhetoric and composition studies, psychology, media studies, legal studies, and English studies. The strength of this collection lies in a number of fine essays—including one by Diamond herself—on issues connected to ethics and confession in the areas of pedagogy and public life. Diamond’s essay, which begins the collection, revisits what in rhetoric and composition studies is called “the expressivist-social constructivist debate” (or the Elbow-Bartholomae debate) about the place of [End Page 824] personal, confessional writing in composition for college or university classrooms. Diamond carefully unpacks responses to the problems and possibilities that personal disclosure has for students who are learning to write, and concludes that the reluctance of its advocates to call this kind of writing “confessional” disguises some of the ethical challenges at play when instructors request personal disclosure. She concludes that it is important to receive personal narratives in context, and to develop critical tools for analyzing them which pay attention to the lines of power that exist in a classroom.

Other essays offer up equally compelling discussions about the ethics of personal disclosure in either a pedagogical or public context. Lisa Baird’s discussion of disclosure in creative nonfiction makes a nuanced distinction between creating an authentic voice and the authenticating voice. The latter emphasizes the rhetorical strategies writers use to create a public persona to authenticate a discussion of public, and political, concerns. Much of what Baird says about rhetoric dovetails in an elegant way with what auto/biography theorists say about the social mission of personal writing. The work of G. Danial Lassiter, Matthew J. Lindberg, Shannon K. Pinegar, and Lezlee J. Ware on false confession in the criminal justice system, where traditions of coercion actually create false narratives that can send the wrong people to jail, has a wider application to studies of confessional discourse in the humanities and social science. Christy Rieger’s essay about student writing and the problem of fictionalization as an alternative to disclosure reviews debates in composition studies about whether events can be fabricated, and concludes that students need to know about the place of ethics in non-fictional writing in the genres of memoir and journalism so that experience can be used in a reflective, and reflexive, way. Dawn Skorczewski provides her classroom as a case study in the complexities of teaching trauma narratives. Skorczewski concludes that she “had unconsciously transposed a confessional cultural paradigm” onto her classroom at one point, and argues that a context-building approach to these texts rather than a personal narrative strategy helps students to formulate responses within a community of voices about the narrative. She has shifted her teaching from an emphasis on personal responses to trauma to what she calls “a testimonial approach to witnessing” that does not cast out the personal, but helps students to articulate emotional responses and think critically (and compassionately) about what experiences mean. Chandra Wells’s examination of “the Vagina Posse,” a confessional online community based on experiences of infertility, is a careful analysis of the rhetorical strategies these bloggers use to “construct a persona that nonetheless feels authentic.” Wells shows how the online selves of these women work to create a discursive community that eventually moved away from personal disclosure to political activism offline. [End Page 825]

Given the strength of so many of the essays about rhetoric and composition in Compelling Confessions, I wish that Diamond had gone the whole way and only focused on this area. Many of the essays, including the ones about popular culture and...