Monthly Archives: April 2014

In Defense of Confessional Literature an Essay by Lisa Korthals

This essay was written as a response/imitation of William Giraldi’s ‘In Defense of Darkness’






The only work that will ultimately bring any good to any of us is the work of contributing to the healing of the world.” – Marianne Williamson

 In the summer of 1989, my final summer before junior high school, I was voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on. My favorite books always had dark themes involving young women in extreme situations. Teenage girls fighting to survive sexual abuse, prostitution, drug use, or even being institutionalized were always on my radar. A few of these books stand out in my memory: Lisa, Bright and Dark by John Neufeld; Born Innocent by Bernhardt J. Hurwood; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green; Randy by Jack W. Thomas; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Phoebe by Patricia Dizenzo; Cindy by John Benton; Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews; Lovey by Mary MacCracken; Daddy’s Girl by Charlotte Vale Allen; Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber; and One Child by Torey L. Hayden. All of these books portray neglected and abused children living through traumatizing and sometimes horrifying situations.  I would cry my way through all of the horrors experienced by these troubled, abused, and above all, neglected young girls feeling everything I imagined they felt i.e. fear, pain, hopelessness, and heart break. It was safer to let my heart break over the pain of these fictional girls, because by the end of their books they would be rescued by a friend, teacher, social worker, or some other Good Samaritan. I could weep over their suffering, because it would end; even if mine wouldn’t.

Even though I felt shaken, disturbed, and sick-to-my-stomach drained during these readings, this was, I believed, cathartic suffering. There was a camaraderie and outlook these characters and I possessively shared. Setting aside my personal connection to their circumstances, I knew I was learning something valuable about human depravity, abject hope, and chosen survival. This was not the kind of teenage angst portrayed in serial books like Sweet Valley High, The Babysitter’s Club, or even The Nancy Drew Files; this was true misery penned by people who understood what it meant to be victimized and lived to tell the story. This was something I needed in my life, if only I could find a way to move the hope I found on the printed page to my own flesh and blood heart.

My parents cringed at my strong identification with the anguish of these fictional characters. If asked, they would patently deny any personal connections to the subjects of: incest, verbal/emotional abuse, and childhood trauma. My father believes (and has always believed) that I am an overly sensitive, emotional woman who cries more than she works; and that is a cardinal sin for him – crying. For him, crying over one’s emotional pain is unacceptable, because it is not physical pain. Therefore, it can and should be controlled.  

My father is an admirer of silence. I secretly suspect that he hated my youthful love of these books because the authors’ were shouting openly their personal struggles. From his point-of-view the protagonists in these confessional novels should have just shut-up and dealt with life: Phoebe should just have told her parents she was pregnant and dealt with her situation; Lisa should have kept her mouth shut about her schizophrenia; the teachers in Lovey and One Child should have minded their own business; Sybil should have kept her delusional, attention-seeking lies to herself; and the author of Daddy’s Girl had no right to share family secrets with others. If I had my choice my father would have been teaching a special education class in an urban area, filled with troubled boys and girls in need of help, talking them through their personal traumas, giving himself wholly to the nurturing of others, stopping only to raise his own children with love and compassion. Unfortunately, there are other ways to be a parent.


         “Most of the pain we feel is nothing more than a story that needs telling.” ― Ashly Lorenzana        

Many literary agents, editors and publishers refuse to invest in confessional stories and novels on the subjects of abuse and mental illness because they are considered white noise. Sadly, this leaves a vast number of countless abused men and women without a voice, while insulting those who have chosen to pen their tales in the process. The notion that readers have grown bored with stories of survival or do not consider the issue of abuse in its many forms important is contemptuous. If that were the case, Sylvia Plath would never have published The Bell Jar; Ken Kesey would have thrown One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the fire; much of Nabokov’s work would never have made it out of Russia; Dave Pelzer’s stories would be collecting dust on a book shelf; and Hayden’s lost children would have slipped through cracks vanishing into oblivion. And these are just a few examples from more recent literature. If you add in stories and novels now considered classics—it’s one big festival of abuse.

Readers in search of healing, however, do not set the market standard, many as they may be, since they are far outnumbered by the sexual-seeking and lascivious fans of E.L. James. Popular culture has always set the publishing standard and Americans have begun turning an apathetic eye to any writer who does not offer sex, violence, and a happy ending. Stories of survival and healing, pale in a publisher’s eyes when compared to the top-selling seedy worlds of teenage angst-ridden vampires or contract toting sadomasochists. Thus, the space for confessional realistic fiction is shrinking a little more each year.

When the average reader does manage to tear themselves away from the sci-fi/fantasy and erotica landscapes so prevalently published, they are not likely to focus their attention on anything or anyone other than themselves. When I was in seminary, a fellow cohort expressed utter frustration and contempt for women who shared their stories of abuse and healing. This female student wondered why victims of abuse had to bring it up at all; she believed it was her job to ask someone sharing their story of healing why they chose to do so in the first place. She concluded this rant by asserting that people who share these things most likely did it for attention; attention she did not feel they deserved. She was not alone in her feelings; the majority of the class agreed with her. Talk about indifference.


“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” – Hippocrates

When Neufeld published Lisa, Bright and Dark in 1969 it was immediately noticed by critics and readers alike, and it has remained a best seller for over forty years. Some considered it no more than a cheesy, after-school special waiting to happen, while others saw it as a raw, honest look at mental illness among the suburban classes. Neufeld’s own thoughts on his now internationally acclaimed novel reflect these two viewpoints:

What I wanted to do was write a short book, full of emotion and detail and excitement, for readers of all ages. I didn’t know that Edgar Allan would be regarded as a children’s book. It was. And when it was, everything fell into place. The minute Edgar Allan was launched successfully; I sat down to write Lisa, Bright and Dark. It, too, was a success so there was no turning back.

Neufeld’s novel and others like it are the presentation of humanity, the presentation of a human choice: we can choose suicide or healing. Many experiencing the reality of the themes present in confessional literature will choose suicide; only a small remainder will choose healing. The presence of confessional literature does not determine whether or not an individual will choose suicide, but many who experience cathartic suffering through this genre of fiction find an opportunity for healing.

My father would say that these books offer nothing more than blame. He laments the fact that many survivors of childhood abuse have begun to tell their stories laying blame at their parents feet. This opinion has been forged in the scars left from his own traumatic childhood: he was beaten, sexually abused, and abandoned through indifference and death by those he loved. First by his mother whose departure caused him to hate, and second, by his grandmother whose death killed any love that had begun to grow within him. To this day, he sees no need to discuss, let alone, write about things that he has already survived; things that cannot be changed. My own experiences have shown me that healing is possible through knowledge and identification. The knowledge gained through reading confessional literature is that no one is alone and healing can begin through one’s identification with the fictional characters that make up these novels. This is not my father’s way, but it is mine.

All healing is internal, and due to this, the various characters, plots, and themes found in confessional literature are as diverse as pain itself. If the story is realistic, filled with suffering and chastened hope, best to allow it to be what it is: an opportunity. Like the characters that fill the pages of these books that I have come to treasure, we feel we can’t go on, but we find a way. Our fathers will carry on in their way, our friends will support or leave us, we will be schooled by contempt in our communities and then, against all statistical logic, we will survive and remain to tell a healing tale.

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