Show Trials, Part 10: Mea Culpa

The Show Trial theatrical simulator could be adapted to any number of other decision-making contexts. An earlier idea was to build an AI confessional. Users would submit their sins to Father Heuristic in the privacy of an anonymous online interface, built with the help of a seasoned but forward-thinking priest. Through a series of structured interviews with the sacerdotal consultant an extensive catalog of popular sins would be compiled, along with appropriate penances for each type of sin. Father Heuristic might offer penitential volume discounts for multiple offenses of the same type. The good Father might pose a series of queries to the repentant sinners, ascertaining the extent to which they are heartily sorry and the firmness of their resolve to amend their lives. If done well, the online confessional might even receive an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from the Holy See Himself. Data compiled from confessions could be mined to expose moral faults at striations of varying demographic specificity. An auxiliary economy can be imagined in which, for a fee, someone would perform the sinner’s penance vicariously. Penances could be outsourced in bulk to Filipinos as piecework, a few pesos for every thousand Our Fathers, a bit less for Hail Marys because they’re shorter and quicker to recite. In my experience though the priests typically assigned the same penance no matter what I did or how often I did it. Say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys; now give me a good Act of Contrition while I mutter something in Latin and be on your way, my son.

A more nuanced extension of the Father Heuristic scheme suggests itself for a staged Confessional Show Trial. Instead of reciting their same old practiced litanies of routine sins – I swore three times, disobeyed my parents twice, lied twice, murdered once – and throwing themselves on the mercy of the court, the defendants, kneeling in the witness stand that has been converted into a confessional booth, would bring unusual cases before the cassock-robed Judge. The severity of the sin, whether specific circumstances might ameliorate guilt or even assuage it altogether, whether the confessed act might even be a good deed rather than a bad one – ambivalence would permeate the tales told by the defendants. In each case, however, the Judge would make the same decision (drumroll): Guilty (tadaah!). Three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys; sign of the cross; Colonel Lynch, if you please, escort this sinner back to the pews…

I’m reminded of another confessional story, one I outlined a few years back on Ktismatics, the blog I used to write. Around that time a cinematographer friend and I started talking about making a short film together. We created an imaginary film company that I named Mayhem Productions. I put together a few ideas for screenplays, and we even agreed on which one to shoot, but we never actually got started making the movie. The conversation with the cinematographer appears in the first chapter of Station Zero. Several of the ideas I wrote up as scenes in O’Gandhi, which I was working on at the time. On the blog I synopsized one of the preliminary film treatments that stayed an orphan. At the time it seemed like such an obvious story that somebody must already have written it and that I had unconsciously stolen it.


A priest is in the confessional. He lifts the screen to talk to the sinner, whom the priest sees only in silhouette. The guy confesses to robbing a church. The priest offers absolution and assigns penance; the forgiven sinner goes away. The priest opens the screen on the other side of his little booth to talk to the next penitent. Ten minutes later somebody rushes in to tell the priest that the church has been robbed. The guy had confessed and received forgiveness before, or maybe just after, committing the crime.

Some time goes by, maybe a month: a guy confesses to rape. The priest forgives, the sinner goes away. A minute later a scream:  someone discovers a bound-and-gagged woman, clothing torn, lying on the floor of the confessional. The rapist was confessing while in the act of perpetrating the crime.

Third time: the priest recognizes the voice immediately. The guy confesses to murdering a priest. The priest understands: it’s going to be me this time. The priest engages the sinner in dialogue. The sinner believes he has no control over his actions, that his crimes are inevitable, and he wants to be forgiven in case he’s shot and killed while escaping the scene of the crime, so he can go to heaven.

(I’m not sure how this one ends yet. It could end just as the guy is confessing to murdering the priest. Confession doesn’t work this way in the Catholic church anymore, so it’s sort of retro.)

This story idea generated a few comments. The first, from a regular commenter of irregular temperament, suggested an ending to the story:

The priest opens the little hole in the wall and gives the sinner a deep blow job, in order to save his life.

I replied that I didn’t think the priest could get off so easily. The second comment came from someone with an unfamiliar name but whom I suspected of being a person I knew. Once I had pissed him off severely and he had been intermittently trolling me ever since.

That’s a really dumb movie idea – it’s been done before so many times… Surely, watching movies all day should give you better ideas than that, John – like getting a real job and supporting the family.

I didn’t remember having seen any such movie, but I suggested an ending in response to the troll’s accusation:

This suggests an alternate story development. So the guy comes into the confessional and asks forgiveness for killing a priest, we see the panicked look on the priest’s face, and then “CUT!” says a Voice from the sky. “For the sin of derivative hackneyed storytelling I damn you both!” The floor of the confessional is a trapdoor: both priest and sinner slide screaming into hell.

Over oatmeal one morning Anne lamented that everything she does, everything she says, is the wrong thing. See, I replied enthusiastically, there’s the universal appeal of the Show Trials: it doesn’t matter, the verdict is always the same. I got the feeling that this wasn’t the right thing to say. Down comes the gavel. Guilty. Colonel Lynch, if you please…

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