by Loren Seibold
Confession has never been out of style. Three millennia ago King David set down his sinfulness (Psalm 51), his depression (Psalm 6) and his paranoia (Psalm 31) in sometimes embarrassing detail—and people still sing his poetry in church. In his Confessions Augustine of Hippo roamed between theology, debauchery and penitence, and shaped Christianity for the next 2000 years. Much later Victorian author Thomas De Quincy revealed his opium addiction in a book-length essay. “I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man,” he says. (Though he adds that he has an unrecorded acquaintance—known to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge—whose drug usage quite left De Quincy in the opium dust.)
Even in the age of the tell-all, Senior Atlantic editor Scott Stossel’s new book (excerpted in a cover story in the January Atlantic) is still shocking. For a world-class editor like Stossel to admit that in professional settings he is often drugged and half drunk and searching for a bathroom to vomit in, is more than just a disturbing picture. True it may be, but it’s also a reminder that only the financially and professionally secure have the freedom to tell the whole truth. Could you admit all of that and still climb to the top of your profession?
I have mixed feelings about the published confession. “Nothing, indeed,” writes De Quincy in the introduction to Confessions of an Opium Eater, “is more revolting to English feelings, than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars.” Yet if it is so revolting, why is confession (and its sibling, the memoir) so eagerly devoured? Why is his wandering the slums of English cities the only thing we still remember about Thomas De Quincy? If the problem confessed about isn’t yours, the likely payoff is a kind of self-congratulation: “God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men.”
Those who nowadays write bold confessions often say they want to lift the veil, to empower sufferers to seek help. A pastor breaks the silence about his pornography addiction, a pharmacist about pushing pills, a TV star about childhood abuse. My Age of Anxiety falls into this category: after all, 40,000,000 Americans (Stossel’s number) suffer from his problem. So unlike some confessions, Stossel’s is not spiritual or moral, but medical and psychological. He’s a victim of crippling anxiety that he can trace far down his family tree. Fortunately, he can also trace down that same tree enough talent, intelligence and privilege to give him the wherewithal to try every therapy on the planet, and have an audience when he writes about it.
What is anxiety, exactly? At bottom it’s a natural coping mechanism, the fight-or-flight response that keeps creatures alive. But for people like Stossel, it’s all gone terribly wrong. Quote:
“The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts).”
As painful as this book is to read, its vivid prose unmasks the problem in a way that might open doors for other sufferers. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the readers who find it therapeutic are well outnumbered by those who are merely indulgent upon another’s misfortunes.