Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law

Kate Rossmanith

Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law
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Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law

Kate Rossmanith

Kate Rossmanith studied people for a living, and thought she understood human nature well. But in the wake of her daughter’s birth, the vulnerability and intensity of parenthood took her completely by surprise. Faced with a debilitating insomnia, she spent hours awake reflecting on her own upbringing and the unwelcome role remorse can play in even the most devoted parents' lives.

Increasingly fascinated with the concept of remorse, she was drawn to the criminal courts, observing case after case. She talked to criminals, lawyers and judges alike, trying to answer the fundamental question: how can you know whether a person is ever truly sorry?

But it soon became clear the project was creating seismic shifts in Kate’s own life. The more she learnt, the more she saw how her relationship with her father, who for many years was a distant and often angry man, was steeped in remorse. The more she learnt, the more she saw the faultlines in her marriage, widening under the strains of parenthood. And ever present was a family history sketched across war-torn Europe, with the seeds of heartache taking root in Australia.

Review

Small Wrongs is a powerful consideration of remorse, and whether we can ever truly know it when we see it. As an ethnologist, Kate Rossmanith is more than equipped to explore this subject from a theoretical perspective, this book is far from a work of dry academia. Rossmanith’s writing is engaging, and her subject preoccupies her to such an extent that she finds it as inescapable in her personal life as it is in her professional realm.

The central thread of this absorbing book is Rossmanith’s search for the elusive legal, moral, and personal reality of remorse. Her considerable research, conducted over years, involves sitting in on court cases and interviewing numerous experts – including judges, lawyers, police, psychologists, and more. She speaks with victims of crime, and those who have committed crimes. She meets those who claim to be able to distinguish genuine from performative remorse, others who claim to feel it, and still others who simply do not feel it. In one particularly revealing interview, she meets with someone who understood the system well enough to recognise how remorse needed to be demonstrated at the crucial moment, but admits to only truly feeling it some years later.

Several parallel enquiries emerge as her research leaches into her thoughts about her personal and family life. Investigating remorse brings her to a new understanding of her childhood, and, in particular, her difficult relationship with her father. She finds she must confront the tensions in her marriage, and examine her actions as a mother. Her understanding of the measuring and weighing of offence and reparation, action and responsibility, is thrown into confusion when she finds herself involved in a traffic accident. Small Wrongs will appeal to readers with an interest in our justice system.


Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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