Senator Scott Brown, the rising-star Republican from Massachusetts, is on a media blitz this week promoting his new book, Against All Odds. Reviews describe the book as a compelling account of Brown's escape from a troubled youth--moving 17 times in only 18 years, with 7 marriages between his two parents--and attending college and law school before being elected to replace the Massachusetts icon, Senator Edward Kennedy. Brown's story has all the trappings of an all-American tale, but there is one detail in particular that interviewers are choosing to highlight more than others: Brown's revelation that he was sexually abused as a child by a camp counselor.

Brown said that before revealing this deeply personal episode in his book, he had told no one about the ordeal, including his parents and wife. When asked why he chose to disclose the abuse now, he replied that he wanted to be upfront with the public about his life, and felt that leaving out this part of his childhood would be less than honest. (Watch Brown discuss his book and the abuse on 60 Minutes).

Days before Brown's revelations, on the floor of the US House, Representative Jackie Speier of California, a Democrat, told her colleagues in an emotional speech that she endured an abortion when the fetus, at 17 weeks, moved from the uterus to the cervix and was no longer viable. Speier said that she underwent a procedure, and "lost a baby." She was addressing a Republican-led effort to halt federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and her admission has caused quite a stir on the blogosphere. (Watch Speier's speech).

What is striking about these two events is the intensely personal nature of both, and the very public way in which these two lawmakers reveal their stories. In Brown's case, he tells a story so that his constituents will have a fuller picture of their public servant. For Speier, the goal was a bit different: using personal narrative to remind others that political debate and decisions affects living, breathing people.

Over at The Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer, in discussing Brown's book (and another by fellow Massachusetts pol Governor Deval Patrick), writes, "personal stories about overcoming crises and obstacles are now political staples. By exposing a politician's trials and vulnerabilities, they imply his capacity for empathy and compassion; chronicling his success in spite of physical, economic, or emotional hardships, they offer assurances of strength and reliability. Besides, personal stories are naturally more engaging than discussions of policies or ideas..."

Kaminer goes on to chronicle some other famous politicians' personal disclosures, and discusses what they might mean in regards to therapy. But I wonder, perhaps these types of admissions are part of our nation's civic religion? Is a profoundly public confession of personal struggle, loss, or vulnerability a sacrament for our public servants to undergo? This is not to dismiss the trials of Brown or Speier, or to accuse them of political grandstanding. In fact, here are many worthy and venerable sacraments of civic religion already. Memorial Day observances, Fourth of July picnics, pilgrimages to Washington's monuments and Arlington's cemetery, voting on election day, and countless other acts all permeate the national psyche and contribute to a civic religion that takes the place of an intentionally absent national religion. But perhaps these acts in themselves are too ethereal, too distant in an age marked by facebook and memoir. Demanding that those closest to the altar of Americanism participate more directly with the populace in these rituals is a logical next evolutionary step in our civic ritual. Narrative and ritual is what drives all religion, and personal stories from our politicians helps to fill in some of the missing pieces. Certainly these types of stories are not new to the national discussion, but they seem to be more frequent now, unique to no party or ideology. Scott Brown and Jackie Speier are but the latest initiates into this evolving sacrament of public disclosure, and how their stories are received by the public is evidence that this sacrament is one that will strengthen in the years to come.

Comments

Karen Anne Stone | 2/23/2011 - 10:55pm
I think the use of the term "sacrament of public disclosure" carries along with it (in view of the lower case usage of the word "sacrament") something very different from the capitalized use of the word Sacrament.  I do NOT think that there was any intent of saying that the "sacrament of public disclosure" conferred any sort of Sacramental Grace... which is one of the things inherent in the capitalized use of the word Sacrament.

Why so incredibly defensive ?  These two people, Sen Brown and Rep Speier, were only relating their own, hurtful personal experiences... and thus sharing a part of their inner being.
Robert Dean | 2/23/2011 - 12:57pm
Mr. McKee, in using the word ''sacrament,'' I think the author's operative device here is metaphor, so why your scathing tone?  (In any event, I'm puzzled as to why people often seem so angry on these posts.)
Mark Harden | 2/23/2011 - 9:48am
I agree. What in the world does the title of this post have to do with the article? It is so disconnected that I wonder if there was not an editing error and that title was intended for another post? There is certainly no discussion within the article of the headline question. What gives?
Molly Roach | 2/23/2011 - 8:50am
It is worth noting that there is a difference when the abuser is a priest or any other kind of clergy.  This is not to minimize the consequences of sexual abuse for anyone only to point out that the identity of the perpetrator and repeated encounters are variables that must be taken into consideration.
Craig McKee | 2/23/2011 - 9:21am
Use of the term SACRAMENT in this article shows a complete ignorance of its meaning on the part of the author. Use of the title AGAINST ALL ODDS for this book shows a complete understanding on the part of the author that this electoral anomaly will never happen again in Massachusetts!