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Prologue- True confession

Given the evidence of television, America may be the most profusely confessional nation since the Spanish Inquisition put aside its rack and auto-da-fe.

Center stage one recent morning, a man--urged on by a pleasant master of ceremonies--confesses that he betrayed his wife with her younger sister. Stage left, the sister crosses her legs in a miniskirt and confesses that she had always resented her older sibling. Stage right, the wife weeps, confessing that she had not paid sufficient attention to her husband.

A little farther along the electronic midway, an array of sinners beckons: a former sitcom actress who has just published the story of her decline and fall by drugs and bulimia; an admitted murderer who has found God but is still seeking commutation of his death sentence; a woman who left her infant behind a police station; an athlete who is not going to snort coke ever again; a genial mob hitman (subject of a made-for-TV movie) on a velvet sofa in a ranch house somewhere in the Southwest; an insurance appraiser who duped car accident victims for 20 years and who says, from behind the dark circle that chases his face like a tadpole scurrying for the safety of shade, that he wasn't the only guilty party, only the one they caught.

"We cannot well do without our sins. They are the highway of our virtue," Thoreau mused in his journal. Henry David could be a wise-guy, and it isn't always safe to assume his meanings. But I take his metaphors here for granted. Sin is a road. It stretches to the horizon and never gets any wider, deeper, or more interesting than it already was. Brother kills brother. Lover betrays lover. President is unfaithful to wife in Oval Office while at the same time talking on the phone with a lobbyist from the sugar industry. It's a repeated dim figure, dull and dulling as the TV shows that profit by amplifying its banal strain.

I was reminded of this when I visited a courthouse a few months ago to sue a guy who'd resurfaced a bathtub for me. I was prepared with speech and photographs, but winning the case took 15 seconds--the length of time it took for the judge to determine that Alex B. hadn't showed up to contest my claim that he'd made my bathtub look like a guano-covered atoll. Time suddenly bestowed on me, I went upstairs to catch an hour of criminal court.

I happened to walk in on arraignment hearings and so was treated to a swift parade of 10 or so sinners, including a man who'd walked naked down a city street on a Saturday afternoon with no expectation of being arrested. I seem to recall that all the accused were men of about 30, many had mustaches, all of them mumbled when addressing the court, and all said "sir" as frequently as they could.

And then a door opened to admit a court officer leading four young men who were manacled at arm and ankle and shackled to each other with chain. Two of these sad figures, it developed, had been arrested for assault, and a third for car theft. Sitting side-by-side on a wooden pew, they behaved like fools. One admitted to a second crime while being arraigned for the first and had to be told by the judge to shut up. A second would not take his lawyer's advice regarding a plea bargain. A third ogled the young female district attorneys and at several points urged his fellows to do the same.

The fourth was a short, muscular young man who might have stepped from a mural in an Aztec ruin. It developed that he had beaten his roommate with a claw hammer and was being charged with attempted murder. He stood at attention and gazed at a place high on the courtroom wall while his story emerged from a dialectic between DA and lawyer: argument, struggle over hammer, 911 call, bloody scene, quiet surrender to police, no previous criminal record, references from an employer who wanted him back at work, a plea for bail. Occasionally, the young man's chest swelled suddenly, like the bosom of a child trying to catch his breath after a crying jag.

Ultimately the man was refused bail. As he was being led away, he turned to face the congregation of defendants, lawyers, town counsels, nervous sweethearts, police witnesses, and me. Red-eyed with exhaustion, he threw us a look of anguish, remorse, terror, and appeal that landed like a rock thrown through a window. "Salve me," the note would have read.

I have not heard from Alex B. since the court declared him to be in my debt; nor do I expect to hear from him until the contempt-of-court fines start to pile up. But if I should ever see him again, I would not know him, despite the fact that he once spent several hours in my company in my house. His face is gone. The face of the sorrowful prisoner in the Quincy District Court I believe I will always remember.

Ben Birnbaum

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