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Columns

Confessions, Part II

Just When I Thought I Said All I Could Say

By Taonga R. Leslie, Crimson Staff Writer

Here’s a confession. Outside of historical visits, choir concerts, and dutiful trips with my parents, I’ve been to church exactly once. I was sixteen and I had just lost my virginity at camp—yes, camp. I had also drunk my first drink, smoked my first cigarette and checked off a laundry list of other “firsts” that teenagers tend to rush through in their mad dash to adulthood. I returned to my hometown half-proud, half-ashamed, and terrified to tell anyone I knew. My problem wasn’t finding someone per se—I had several friends who I knew would congratulate me and pry for juicy details. The challenge was finding someone who would take it as seriously as I did.

While I was spilling my secrets in a dark confessional booth, millions of similarly angst-ridden teens were sharing their stories online. Assisted by the Internet, our generation has made a lifestyle out of personal revelations. Many of us began having semi-public discussions about our sexuality, mental health, and gender identity as early as middle school, and social media platforms like Formspring.me, Whisper and Yik Yak have made it easier to tell faceless millions about our secrets. For the most part, our generation’s confessional culture has contributed to decreased prejudice. Yet while the culture of sharing has made the political aspect of our identities more salient, it also tends to obscure our individual stories.

Because most sharing apps favor a popularity-based model, a very small range of narratives tend to dominate the media landscape. Confessions that entertain or resonate with us get voted up while others fade into obscurity. On Youtube, the coming out story has emerged as its own genre, complete with unsettling compilations that purport to rank the “most inspirational” videos on the platform. Unsurprisingly, the most popular entries in this genre feature conventionally attractive white boys and their accepting parents. Meanwhile, those with less polished, easily consumed narratives may endure the double trauma of having their singular experiences sidelined or ignored.

The basements of confessional culture run deep. Although a tremendous number of tweets, videos, and posts are produced every day, very few receive more than a handful of views.  As a result, while the volume of shared Internet content continues to rise, Americans report feeling more isolated than ever.

This semester, in a course I'm taking on the autobiography, I’ve talked a lot about genre and whether it is even possible to write so intensely about a single person any more. If religion, institutions, and family can no longer command our attention or respect, how can we demand the same as individuals? Beyond their entertainment value, what are individual histories worth?

I won’t pretend that I have the answer. Six years after my turn in the confessional booth, I am less certain than ever. Every ounce of eighteen-year old certainty that I brought to college has been replaced by a relentless spirit of self-questioning and self-doubt. I am once again at a crossroads, terrified of a future that is not entirely clear. I’m still not sure what to think or how to feel.

More than ever, I find myself falling back on my instincts and intuition. On faith.

I still believe in the individual. I still believe in the soul. I still believe our stories are important. And they deserve better than what our culture offers them.

Taonga R. Leslie ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House.

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