Kate Rossmanith’s Small Wrongs: How We Really Say Sorry in Love, Life and Law is a hybrid work of ethnography and memoir, focused on remorse. Wide-ranging, the book considers remorse in relation to the Catholic practice of confession, according to which contrition is thoroughly ritualised, and in relation to the challenge of teaching children to say “sorry”, which reveals how remorse is a learnt cognitive skill. But it is at its most powerful in exploring remorse in a legal context.
Informed by interviews with judges and members of parole boards, as well as offenders and victims of crime, Rossmanith provides a panoramic vision of the law as it is practised on a daily basis in this country, and particularly New South Wales. A highlight was learning about the arcane processes through which judges arrive at sentencing decisions. This involves a form of “intuitive synthesis” that considers sentencing laws, precedents and remorse.
Remorse is viewed as foundational to the law because it promises solace to victims and the potential for reintegrating offenders into society. The problem, however, is how to evaluate remorse. A performance of remorse must be “studied for its purity”, but such assessments are a fraught science.
As a work of ethnography wary of the “god trick” of objectivity, Small Wrongs explores the perspective of the author. However, her story – involving post-partum anxiety and marital problems – while played for melodramatic effect, is not altogether gripping. Rossmanith’s middle-class viewpoint is also an issue, given the ways in which the author’s privilege – represented by a childhood in Oxford, where her academic father was a visiting scholar, and her own career as an academic – is underplayed rather than acknowledged, and given the ways in which ethnography ought to be self-conscious about disjunctions between the author’s perspective and their subject/s. Courts are filled with low socioeconomic-status offenders and victims who must negotiate the complex behaviours of remorse policed by a privileged few. Indeed, because the book turns from ethnography to domestic memoir, Rossmanith’s position of privilege is indulged rather than interrogated. Her story even reads a little like a bourgeois romance.
This is a problem, in part, with Small Wrongs’ hybrid genre, but it nevertheless provides a welcome understanding of what happens, beyond the headlines, in our justice system. KN
Hardie Grant, 240pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Kate Rossmanith, Small Wrongs". Subscribe here.