A few years ago, when I was shelving books at Borders, Oprah’s Book Club—that gold standard of the book biz—had a bit of a scandal. A Million Little Pieces, a book about the author sinking into a life of drug abuse and crime and then finding redemption, turned out to be basically fabricated (Wikipedia charitably calls it “semi-fictional”). And this after Oprah’s endorsement—how embarrassing!
But why would anyone pretend to have sunk to lower depths than they really had? What is this modern fascination with redemption stories?
Redemption stories are nothing new, of course, and a taste for them is far from unique to we moderns. Witness the Prodigal Son, a story told to christendom for thousands of years. But I do think there is something particularly modern about our craving for stories like A Million Little Pieces, aside from those elements of the story which are, of course, specific to our era.
There’s an element of voyeurism and virtuous people living vicariously through other people’s stories of debauchery, of course. This less than noble but fairly harmless impulse is behind such recent successes as Netflix’s House of Cards. Or, in history, behind the success of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
But I believe that there’s more to it than that, even. We live in a morally uncertain era. Despite the continuing existence of Christianity, the West is for the most part post-christian in its moral reasoning—even among most practicing Christians. We have gone from having the laws of right and wrong inscribed in the cosmos by an Almighty God to the little gods conjured up by Reason. These little gods do not really persuade; for one thing, they rarely have anything to say about actual decisions made in the course of a human life.
What draws us to the story of redemption is the power of the virtues required to walk down that path. It takes less self-command to avoid doing drugs in the first place than it does to overcome an addiction nursed over many years. It takes less courage to “Just Say No” than to try to rebuild the trust that you have squandered, with the knowledge that at best it will take years and at worst you may never be able to get it back. It requires a greater sense of justice to take responsibility for your own actions when those actions have caused a great deal of harm, than when they have not. And, perhaps most crucially, it requires greater generosity to forgive such a person, allowing the audience to indulge in feeling virtuous after indulging in vicarious sin.
The addict and criminal struggling for redemption shines brightly, much more brightly than those who had the prudence to avoid such debauchery in the first place.
This is not healthy. The man who works three modestly paying jobs to provide for his family, and never allows himself to fall into a cycle of self-destruction, has a moral fiber a thousand times greater than those who fail to destroy themselves and manage to find their way back to the light. The woman who lives modestly for many years to get her PhD and then works hard to pay off her student loans is incalculably superior to even the greatest Saint of Redemption.
Our fixation on such stories is the fault of our storytelling class, who Deirdre McCloskey refers to as “the clerisy”. I share McCloskey’s goal to revive “a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.” The conversation about this bourgeois life of ours has not been ethically serious since at least 1848. This does not mean that bourgeois life has been immoral—just that moral thinking on the questions that matter to our daily lives has been confused, to say the least.
We should not need to hit rock bottom to discover what a good life looks like, nor should we require others to do so. I understand the appeal of the redemption story—I have lived one myself (a very, very tame one by the standards of A Million Little Pieces). It is indeed praiseworthy to turn your life around; it should not be forgotten that many who walk down the road of self-destruction never manage to return. But whatever praise we may feel someone deserves for it must be balanced against the harm they did to the people around them, and to themselves, before being redeemed.