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Fictional Truths: Confession in Herculine Barbin

Anne Sullivan

The story of Herculine Barbin is difficult to classify. It seems to both evade and inhabit several genres— Is it a memoir? A diary? Autobiography? Barbin's story reads like a murder mystery, a suicide note, and a theatrical romance all at once. What perhaps links all of these categories is 'confession'—the central voice in Barbin's narrative. Barbin's project is to "unveil," to excavate her own identity. Confessional writing makes the private public; it carries the notions of secret and revelation, honesty and 'truth.' Francis Hart explains, "'Confession' is personal history that seeks to communicate or express the essential nature, the truth of the self" (4). Thus is the task—revealing 'the truth of the self'—that Barbin seems to undertake. Likewise, the reader expects a gradual disclosure of buried truth. This confessional structure is imposed and perpetuated through Barbin's own voice, the reader's participation as 'judge,' and the modern packaging of the text. Yet in spite of these components, Barbin's narrative remains fictional; a story of 'constructed' and 'remembered' fact. The act of confession—the attempt to authorize the self—fictionalizes the confessor.

That Herculine Barbin's story is meant to be 'confessional' is apparent at the outset. She opens her memoir with a bold admission: "I am twenty-five years old, and, although I am still young, I am beyond any doubt approaching the hour of my death" (1). She then launches into a series of lamentations, leaving the reader to wonder how Barbin arrived at this state of profound bereavement. By opening her memoir with a glimpse of the 'present'—the moment of narration—Barbin sets up a confessional structure. The reader expects to be carried through her personal tale, learning her secrets and following her inner thoughts to ultimately arrive at the 'end'—at the twenty-five year old Barbin's deathbed. The reader is situated as a witness who waits for 'truth' to be unveiled, not invented. We expect an intimate and truthful 'autobiography.' As the narration progresses, we can see that Barbin indeed strives to establish the facticity of her story. She is attentive to temporal 'accuracy,' for example, as the narration moves sequentially and evenly through the past, following a linear chronology. Additionally, Barbin is careful to protect the privacy of those implicated in her story, avoiding proper nouns ("Childhood in L.," and "stay in B," (121) for example). Barbin is conscious of her voice: "I am writing my personal story, a series of adventures involving names that are far too honorable for me to dare to reveal the involuntary roles that they played in it" (35).

The reader is also asked to participate in Barbin's confessional narrative. The audience plays a significant role in constructing Barbin's story, for she maintains a sense of being watched and judged throughout the narration ("Ah well! I appeal here to the judgment of my readers in time to come" (54), for example). No matter what form or genre we may recognize in Barbin's narration—diary entry, suicide note, murder mystery, or memoir, for example—it is clear that she imagines an audience who will somehow adjudicate her story. By drawing in the reader as a judge or perhaps witness, she constructs a full confessional circuit—the text connects Barbin with her confessor, the reader. She imagines her future conviction: "No matter how strict may be the sentence to which the future shall condemn me, I intend to continue my difficult task" (36). The judicial metaphor is quite fitting. Barbin will continue with her confession in spite of the harrowing 'sentence' that lies ahead.

Interestingly, the modern packaging of Barbin's story enforces its confessional and revelatory qualities. Our reading of the "memoir" is shaped by its physical presentation. Barbin's text is not isolated; it instead leans against several external voices: Michel Foucault, for example, the many voices of translation, and the medical records that immediately follow Barbin's story. We know that Foucault brings us this text, having discovered it within the archives of the French Department of Public Hygiene. Entitled, Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, the text carries a sense of mystery and revelation before we have even opened the cover. The "discovered" memoirs—saved from eternal obscurity by Foucault—have journeyed to our hands from France, and we, a reader perhaps never intended, listen to Barbin as eavesdroppers—as accidental recipients of a great secret. The private is literally made public. Before meeting Barbin, we thus arrive at the text with an expectation, to some degree, of truth. The memoir, in fact, lies wedged between "authorizing" voices: Foucault on the one side, and official records on the other. The memoir concludes with a collection of documents that seem to corroborate the preceding account. We move from Barbin's story to a conglomeration of "evidence:" a summary of the "names, dates, and places," the medical reports, clippings from the press, and recovered letters. The confessional tone of Barbin's story is interestingly affirmed by the critical treatment and packaging of her text.

Yet in spite of such emphasis on truth and revelation, Barbin's story reads more as fiction than fact. It is important to first recognize the narrative tradition of 'confession' to which Barbin's story belongs. There are two primary systems of confession operating in Barbin's narrative—religious and legal—both of which impact Barbin's sense of 'truth.' They are institutionalized forms of confession that entail a degree of performance and ceremony ("So help me God," for instance, and "Bless me father, for I have sinned"). Both systems utilize the "confession" to correct sin or wrongdoing, acting as an instrument of control. In Barbin's story, we can indeed see how the religious and legal systems (to say nothing of the medical system) seek to rectify her dubious moral and civil status. These narratives—of truth, confession, and penance— which religious and legal systems construct, undoubtedly influence Barbin's own story. Rita Felski remarks in her essay, "On Confession," that "the 'authentic self' is very much a social product, and the attempt to assert its privileged autonomy can merely underline its profound dependence upon the cultural and ideological systems through which it is constituted . . . the act of confession can potentially exacerbate rather than alleviate problems of self identity" (2). Likewise, Barbin's own 'confession' will always be defined by the systems that police it. We can see the impact of moral ideologies, for example, in the tone of guilt and shame that her narrative adopts. There can be no 'true' confession. The stories that legal and religious systems construct help to situate Barbin's own self-representation.

Also compromising the 'truthfulness' of Barbin's story is her retrospective posture. I opened by discussing Barbin's introduction ("I am twenty-five years old . . .") as a signal of her pending confession. What this opening also indicates, however, is Barbin's skewed retrospective lens. As the memoir is virtually written upon Barbin's deathbed, her story will undoubtedly be colored by her present misery. The text becomes a space in which Barbin may account for the present—to explain why she has been miserable her whole life. She records 're-membered' fact, blending truth with fiction. Critic Gilmour explains in her work Autobiographics, "autobiography is a form in which the self is authorized," (3). yet Barbin's attempt to legitimize her present self fails.
Barbin, after all, never seems to 'confess.' Her story is halted by silences— moments when she refuses to say. We see how silence invades Barbin's relationships: her ambiguous letters home, for instance, and her relationship with Madame P. (Barbin recalls the "incredible playacting in which feelings were confessed with the most magnificent sang-froid" (1). Yet these silences also inhabit her narration, separating Barbin from the reader. Barbin, for instance, often backs away from important descriptions: "I shall not say what that night was for me!!!" (36), for example, and "I cannot say what emotions gripped me . . ." (37). The reader remains distant from Barbin throughout the story, never quite understanding the reason for her profound misery. The reader's expectation of a 'confessional' story—which Barbin encourages from the outset—is never fulfilled. Revelation is continually deferred. Barbin circles around the 'secret' yet never discloses it. This 'truthful' story, it seems, is actually a construction; Barbin's history is a story of the present.

As we analyze the temporal posture of Barbin's voice, along with the different social narratives that surround her, we understand that this 'confessional' tale is both fact and fiction. Barbin becomes an 'author' in her attempt to 'authorize' the self. Critic Gilmour notes the limitations of confession: "The very act of confessing seems almost to conspire against the one bound to tell the truth" (1). We can recognize this 'conspiracy' against Barbin. In her struggle to relay the truth of her identity, to confess, Barbin is drawn into a system of constructionism. The fictional self inevitably emerges from self-representation. Just as Barbin's story questions the notion of a 'true' sex, it also challenges writing as a tool to convey pure memory—to excavate the 'truth.'


1) Barbin, Herculine. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century Hermaphrodite. Trans. by Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

2) Felski, Rita. "On Confession." Women, Autobiography, Theory. Ed. by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

3) Gilmour, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

4) Hart, Francis. "Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography," New Literary History 1. Baltimor: John Hopkins University Press, 1970.

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