Revealer contributor Scott Korb confesses reservations about an online confessional:


Mitzi Confesses
(The Wedding March, 1928) is black and white, simple, all text. It’s a confessional site for the voyeur set, with content provided entirely by readers who when they were young “often did gay things,” who have “done nothing but slack off and jerk off for 20 years,” or who “really wish someone would assasinate [sic] Bush.” The confessions are each categorized by the one confessing as a deadly sin, Pride through Anger, with an eighth, add-on category called “Misc.” As a reader, you can view them in order (beginning with most recent, to the minute) or at random. The confessions are searchable by category. The whole thing operates out of Canada, and on the condition of anonymity: “You have a right to your privacy and at we respect that right.”

The language is clearly religious, and the on the surface, the set-up seems particularly Catholic: an unadorned private confessional, the full disclosure of wrong-doing, and, unexpectedly perhaps, the Catholic confusion about the word confessor, which means both “one who confesses” and “one hearing a confession.” Sure, the confusion surrounding the Catholic sacrament is subtler than I let on here—with the “one who confesses” more accurately meaning one who “confesses himself a follower of Christ and endures persecution for this faith.” But I also like to think that the word is an equalizer of sorts for this religion, whereby, ideally, Catholics could more clearly see their clergy (and the clergy could more clearly see themselves) as equally human and sinful, despite their sacramental intercessory role between man and God. The best thing about—and perhaps the most Catholic thing about the site—is that its confessors are very plainly, and by design, fulfilling both roles; call them, for clarity’s sake: “confessor” and “confessee.”

The greatest departure from the Catholic sacramental model—and at times the site’s most disturbing revelation—is that in confessing, most of the “confessees” seem to have no intention of changing behavior most of them admit to be, if not patently destructive, at least ill-conceived. (Admittedly, some of the confessions are simply anecdotal, humorous or embarrassing, and to them I say: No harm, no foul.) The Catholic sacrament has five elements: “conversion,” “penance,” “confession,” “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”; has one. Confession alone is very often entertaining. And while a secular confessional should not be expected to lay down any ecclesiastical law, administer a penance, or serve as the thing to be become reconciled with, it is too bad that forgiveness—which demands humility—is not more highly valued here. The confessors of seem awfully proud.

Revealer associate editor Kathryn Joyce reports on the complications of two secular confessionals:

Couched between the muffled recordings of what sound like two young women—one laughing as she apologizes for “being the way I am,” and one crying over a friend she’ll never speak to again—is the languid voice of a young man, apologizing for lies he’d told his new boyfriend. “And [for] basically having reservations,” he continued. “I’d like to apologize for having such a lack of integrity and I’d like to apologize for bad things I think about people who are close to me that I would never tell them. That’s about it…oh, and I’d like to apologize for embezzlement. Thanks.”

The three voices are among the 100-200 callers who respond each month to advertisements for the Apology Number: a free New York voicemail service which functions as an anonymous, secular repository for people who need to “get something off their chests,” in the words of its creator, 19-year old Vassar College student Jesse Jacobs. Though Jacobs was unaware of it until recently, his service has a predecessor in Allan Bridge’s 1980 landmark public art project, the Apology Line, which similarly collected anonymous apologies on an answering machine. Bridge, who devoted himself to the project until his death in 1995, saw creativity in the act of confession itself: “an attempt to find meaning in the restructuring of one’s experience into a moral tale,” the finding of a moral being the only way a person could “turn the page and move on.”

Listening to some of the new generation of apologies—a few obvious pranks, but most seemingly sincere—that Jacobs has collected since he began advertising his line last spring, it’s easy to wonder whether the callers imagined their confessions winding up here. “Here” is on a laptop computer in a run-of-the-mill college dorm room, replete with empty liquor bottles, sporting equipment, bunk beds and multi-tasking posters that represent various extra-curricular interests: Coors light, football and the women who’ll pose for both. On a superficial level, it’s hard to associate the pain expressed in the recorded apologies with the only person, so far, who has access to them: Jacobs, a friendly and handsome brunette who carries himself with remarkable ease, plays on two Vassar athletic teams and is studying art and architecture.

Jacobs’ inspiration for the line, which consists of a nine-dollar per month voicemail account that his father Jeff helps finance, came over a family dinner in Miami Beach, Florida. “It has a lot to do with the ethics in my house,” said Jacobs. “My dad is really stuck on accountability. We just got into this discussion about how no one really takes accountability for anything anymore because it will get them in trouble. So I just thought it would be a great idea—why not have a venue where people can call up and apologize and get things off their chests that normally they wouldn’t be able to get off? I guess the idea is that getting rid of that weight will make you feel better.”

These words—make yourself feel better—feature prominently in Jacobs’ promotion of the line, whether in advertisements in Time Out New York or New York Press, or in the 4-5,000 cards he has covertly dropped around Manhattan and the greater metropolitan area, “like Johnny Appleseed.” Taken with his statement of purpose however, it raises other, more significant questions about the project than the unlikely trappings of its young confessor: does calling an anonymous phone line actually encourage accountability? If the goal is to help people “get things off their chests” privately, what’s to distinguish the line from traditional religious confession, therapy or journal-writing? Is apologizing to make yourself feel better at odds with the goal of taking responsibility for your actions?

Regarding the last question, Jacobs doesn’t see a contradiction in the motivations for calling. “If something is bothering someone [enough to make them call], then they’re already subconsciously taking responsibility for it. They wouldn’t have guilt if they didn’t think that there was something that they had done.”

Tina Tessina, a licensed psychotherapist in southern California with 25 years’ experience in counseling believes an apology needs to “do something,” in order to be sincere. Ideally it would repair a relationship or correct the mistake, but at least should represent a commitment to “fix whatever’s going on in your character that you’re doing something like that.” Taking responsibility and feeling better aren’t inherently incompatible to Tessina, who agrees with Jacob that there’s a lack of accountability in our culture. “You do feel better when you apologize,” she said, but if that’s the only motivation, “what have you fixed of what you did wrong? You might get it off your chest and release the pressure that way, but it’s not going to stay off your chest. It’ll keep coming back.”

Allan Bridge: Mr. Apology
(Photo: The Apology Project)

Marissa Bridge, widow of the late Allan Bridge and caretaker of all Apology Line materials, sees the issue as more complex. Her husband’s Apology Line differed significantly from Jacobs’ in its interactivity. Not only could callers listen to the apologies of others, they could leave messages responding or giving advice. Bridge himself frequently responded to individual callers, urging them to seek outside help, speaking with them in person and occasionally even meeting them. Because of the intensity of her husband’s personal involvement with the line, Bridge said, people took it very seriously and formed an electronic-community of support and accountability which was groundbreaking in a pre-internet, pre-900-number telephone era. The idea of a public audience for the apologies was an integral part of the line from its conception as a service for criminals to apologize to society.

“If you’re just calling to apologize to make yourself feel better, and you’re apologizing into a void where no one will ever hear it, is that really an apology?” Bridge asked. “Like if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it fall? I guess it’s still an apology, but [to me] an apology really implies a receiver—a giver and a receiver. I think Allan’s point was that it’s always better to apologize to the person that you’ve hurt, but if you can’t do that for some reason—if you don’t know the person, or too much time has passed, or you’re too ashamed, or you’d get arrested—you’ve at least got to put it out to the public and let people hear what you have to say.

“There was this guy Richie who was allegedly a serial killer, and he called off and on for eight years. People would leave messages for him saying, ‘you should commit suicide,’ or ‘you should turn yourself in.’ Allan spoke to him at length for many years on the telephone directly. I know that had an effect because [Richie] would comment on it. And he wasn’t necessarily ready to stop, but maybe that helped slow him down or eventually stop him. That’s why the interactivity is really critical in making people take responsibility…It really helps people to get to a point of changing their lives, and moving on, and stopping their horrible behavior.”

For Tessina, the two projects, despite their differences, share a central problem though, if their aim is to foster a sense of accountability. Confessing either to a community of strangers, or to a voicemail account that only a couple of people will ever hear, is at best only a step towards taking responsibility, said Tessina. “It might be great practice before actually making amends to someone. In my opinion, apologizing to a void (unless you believe the void is God) is not the same as taking responsibility. I can see its value as practice for doing something real, but I don’t think it’s real itself.”

Jacobs, though not defensive about these questions, seems to have anticipated them. He repeats that his line only exists as a venue for people who are “feeling bad about something they did. That’s it. It’s entirely self-contrition.” It’s not, he says, “about me trying to play a god-role and bring redemption to these people: ‘you do seven Hail Mary’s for what you’ve done. Please repent.’ It’s totally not about that at all.” Jacobs doesn’t have a clear answer for why callers wouldn’t just apologize in some private, internal way instead of choosing such a limited audience with him. After consideration, he said he guessed “just the idea of having someone listening is good enough.”

Some callers do sound relieved to unburden themselves, though none has confessed to any crimes as serious as those captured on Bridge’s line (multiple murderers, child molesters, and serious corporate embezzlers). Among the most affecting (if ambiguous) calls is that of a middle-aged sounding woman, who began, “It’s hard to apologize because I always feel people owe me an apology…I regret that I hurt someone’s child many years ago, and I feel, you know, devastated, desperate. I didn’t mean to hurt the child, I meant to hurt the person that brought the child that I was so angry with, but I was afraid to take out my feelings on them.”

Another is that of an older man, apologizing to a friend who’d named him in his will. “Every time he goes away on a trip,” the man said, “I think: if he died, I’d get a lot of money. And I feel really bad about that. It’s almost like I’m wishing him death—but I’m really not. It’s just a horrible thought to have, that if he died, if he went away, and I didn’t hear from him, and then I got a call…” His voice trailed away—maybe in speculation, maybe in remorse. Jacobs is touched by this call: “To call in and apologize for having that thought? I thought that was really commendable.”

Other callers seem not to be quite in the spirit he would wish, however, such as a young woman who began, “Goddamn it, Mel, I’m really sorry. But I’m not fucking sorry at all. You know what I mean?” Or similarly, the woman who ended her call, “I am not sorry. But I feel better that I said it.”

Jacobs does get repeat callers, several people in particular call almost weekly. He takes this as a good sign for the most part—the line catching on as he’d hoped. “I guess if they call back, they’re into it,” he said. “Unless they’re just doing a lot of bad things.”