IT WAS ABOUT THE TIME MARION Barry was sentenced to six months in prison that I began to wonder about contrition. The sentence was stiffer than some people, maybe most people, expected, and in explanation the word "contrition" was soon advanced. Barry had shown precious little of it, and, as a result, the judge had thrown the book (actually an abridged version, since Barry could have gotten a year) at him. Barry seemed to have become a one-man paradox. He was convicted for what he had possessed (cocaine) but jailed for what he hadn't: humility.
I will grant you that the word "contrite" or a variation thereof does not appear even once in the statement made by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. He did, however, refer to what he says was Barry's attempt to foil both the prosecution and the investigation and to his efforts to persuade the jury "to disregard the law and the evidence." If that's not the furthest thing from contrite, I don't know what is.
Anyway, contrition was certainly mentioned by lots of others -- especially those who believed that Barry deserved to go to the slammer. He was not contrite, they said, and they offered what I thought was the oddest proof: He had chosen to run for a city council seat. A contrite person, I suppose, would have abjured the council, donned sackcloth and spent the rest of his life caring for the homeless. Just what do you do to prove you're sorry?
I ask that question because contrition, or something close to it, was frequently demanded of me when I was a kid. Are you sorry? some adult would ask after I had done something wrong. Actually, that's not quite right. It was after I had been caught doing something wrong. Under such circumstances, even the dimmest child learns not to tell the truth. "I'm sorry," I'd lie.
Of course, what really made me sorry was getting caught and, invariably, punished. Why the adult world demanded that I be both punished and contrite was something I could never understand. Wasn't getting caught enough? You spanked me. You punished me. It seems to me you got more than your money's worth. In fact, would it not have been logical to skip the punishment entirely if, indeed, I was contrite? I would be another person the moment contrition, like a fever, came over me. The person deserving of punishment would no longer exist.
It hardly takes a Sigmund Freud to see that here, in the seemingly innocuous demand that a child be contrite, is the beginning of all neurosis. If you tell the truth and admit you're not contrite, your punishment is bound to be more severe than if you lie, which is what you are told never to do. Should you tell the truth and be whomped, or should you lie and be praised? It is then, in the confusion of contradiction, in the panic of paradox, that you learn that to seem good you have to be bad. If as a result you subsequently wend your way through life a bit crazy and thoroughly (as Freud put it) meshuga, nothing could be more understandable.
This, in the end, is what happened to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He died something of a nut, but his craziness can clearly be traced to the age of about 8 when, precocious little Viennese that he was, he discovered that it is best to lie. "Why should one tell the truth if it's to one's advantage to lie?" That question led him to the study of philosophy, and it was, I guess, his inability to answer it that made him more than a bit dotty. His last words, uttered after much personal suffering, in fact instructed someone to lie: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."
As a father, I recognized (even before having read about Wittgenstein) that in telling my son not to lie, and at the same time asking for contrition, I was going to make him either crazy or a brilliant philosopher. As is traditional in my family, I instructed him always to tell the truth, even about his own misdeeds. In this way, I was doing what all parents attempt: to get the child to be my partner in parenting, to turn stool pigeon on himself. If, when I suspected something was amiss (was that smoke I smelled?), I could rely on him always to tell the truth, I could take early retirement as a parent. Thus, morality had an enormous utilitarian payoff for me, but not for him. The child who confesses everything, always and with candor, is like a self-cleaning oven. Just press the button and he will be contrite.
As any child can tell you, contrition is the neighbor of humiliation. There is something about it that suggests breaking the will. First you get caught (bad enough) and then you must sort of turn state's evidence on yourself. You must denounce the person who committed the wrong or illegal act. You must turn your back on him or her and say that whoever that person was, it is no longer you. Most of the time, to do what's demanded is to acquiesce in a lie. From there to a Stalinist show trial is but a short step (in logical terms).
Roman Catholic friends of mine fairly salivate when contrition is mentioned. Parochial school memories rush from them in a babble of free association. Contrition seems central to Catholicism (of course, almost everything is central to Catholicism). But I think it is best that we simply dispose of the concept in matters of criminal law. It's enough that the person (M.S. Barry, in this case) was caught and convicted. Years ago, during Watergate, Richard Nixon's press secretary said that "contrition is BS." With all the lies told during Watergate (and all the false contrition since), that was a rare moment of truth.