When the Solution is to Listen: The Timely Reminder of Helena Dea Bala’s Craigslist Confessional

“People Needed to Talk. … They Needed to Get Things off their Chests. Truly, to Vent.”

CJ Green / 10.20.20

I have a solution for COVID. I have opinions on whether schools should reopen. I also have plenty of advice for staying sane during these times, plus some simple ideas for closing the wealth gap. I have little patience for identity politics. And while I’m at it, I have a few roughly sketched plans for peace in the Middle East.

It all seems so easy, perhaps a sign of how little I really know. Yet lately all I seem to have are solutions. Not coincidentally, all anyone else seems to have are … complaints. Laments, I suppose. Especially if you, like myself, live very much online. Simply scan a few headlines, and you’ll find much to lament.

When she immigrated to the United States at age twelve, Helena Dea Bala had legitimate laments. Sleeping on a futon from ages thirteen to eighteen, she had some solutions, too. Hers included working hard and striving, quite literally, for the American Dream. As a teenager she worked alongside her mother, cleaning houses on weekends. She studied hard, excelled in school, and eventually graduated and “made it” as a lawyer and lobbyist in DC.

“I’d worked hard to finally win my American dream,” she writes in the introduction to her new book Craigslist Confessional, “only to find a mirage in its place — an experience very different from what I’d expected.” All her solutions fizzled. She was left feeling “alienated, misunderstood, dismissed, and shut out.”

But I didn’t feel entitled to complain. Each day on my way to work, I passed at least five homeless people and reminded myself: You have it good. You are employed. You are educated. You are healthy. You have so much more than most people. So I shamed myself into a disquiet silence.

A particularly dismal day resulted in her sharing a sandwich with Joe, a homeless man who could be found sitting outside her office every day. First she made small talk, asking him questions. Then he asked questions back.

I surprised myself with what I shared — thoughts that had, until then, seemed so personal and devastating but paled in comparison to Joe’s everyday struggle. For the first time I was able to be refreshingly honest. I spoke without fear that he’d judge me or that the gossip would trickle down to friends, family, and coworkers. Neither of us had anything to gain from the other. Ours was an interaction born out of need. It felt, simply, like we were confessing.

Bala went home and posted an ad on Craigslist that said, “Tell me about yourself.” And so she began listening to people — for free. Most meetings would span between one and two hours, though her longest, she writes, took eight hours: “the project was always, first and foremost, about listening — about creating space for others to share fearlessly, without reservation.”

This all began more than five years ago, and today, Bala’s “job” is as important as ever. If, before the pandemic, we needed to talk, now we certainly do. To complain. To fume. To grieve. What we certainly do not need are easy solutions from armchair experts. We don’t need to hear our friends opining about how much better things would be if only they were in charge. “Why don’t you …?” “Have you thought about …?”

By contrast, as Bala discovered,

… people needed to talk. Not to converse, not to get advice, not to have clever repartee. They needed to get things off their chests. Truly, to vent. So the interviews went from a conversational style in the very beginning to very one-sided — about 95 percent them, 5 percent me. I listened. I asked occasional questions, mostly to clarify details. Maybe I asked a leading question or two (I am trained in law, after all), just to get to the heart of something. But for the most part, I wanted to create the impression that I was not there at all — that the person was talking to him- or herself, out loud. Even thoughts are transformed, filtered, when they’re thought for an audience. I wanted very little of that filter, so I practiced listening. Just listening. Not thinking about how I was going to respond. Not interjecting. Not creating any sort of personal or emotional reaction to something shared — this was very hard — but just being present.

She admits that she is not a therapist, is upfront when she is “out of [her] depth.” Indeed, some of the confessions are devastating. One can only imagine what it was like to hear them in person. There are stories of drug addiction but not recovery. There are stories of sudden loss, grief, rage. Nearly every confession includes some standout line, a blade slicing out at you from the page. One man, Andy, early forties, confesses, “I lose myself in work to avoid feeling like I’m being gulped up by an unexciting, unremarkable life.” Hello workism, are you listening? Another man is so intensely negative that I almost mistook his confession for an Ottessa Moshfegh story. If you weren’t convinced about low anthropology, this collection will illustrate what “unfiltered” life really is. In private, people are suffering. Not only that, but often our suffering is self-inflicted. Our minds are at war with our lives.

Yet the book maintains an inherent hopefulness: by its very existence, we know that no confessant suffers alone. Each has his or her opportunity to share, to be heard, and to know that they are not the only ones. Occasionally, too, you may encounter a surprise ending, a happy twist.

But pure listening achieves more than simply letting the speaker feel known. Lending an ear, without prescription, communicates the absence of judgment in a way that exceeds mere tolerance. If a confession is juicy enough, listening may even verge on forgiveness, or create a similar effect: a visceral release from one’s long-held burdens. An hour to vent might create space for something unusual to happen: healing.

The book is divided into five sections — Love, Regret, Loss, Identity, Family — each containing several stories, notating only the confessor’s first name and age range. Fittingly, the book concludes with “Helena, thirty.” We are left to assume that the young woman who initially felt “un-entitled to complain” carries, like all of us, her own suffering, her own story. Beautifully, she concludes, “Everything is not perfect. But knowing that I’m not in it alone makes it, strangely, bearable.” Then, casting a glance over the rest of the book, she writes, “I imagine us all huddling together in a storm shelter, waiting for bad weather to pass. And pass it shall.”

Since March, my wife and I have been taking midday walks around our neighborhood. The loop is about thirty minutes in total. Sometimes we critique our neighbors’ landscaping. Sometimes we vent about life and “what’s going on.” Sometimes, one of us talks for the first fifteen minutes; then, on the way back, the other does. We don’t do this enough — I am often sabotaging, with interruptions, tangents, solutions. But Bala’s collection reminds me that when we can listen — when I can listen — there is never time for solutions. We may never figure out how to fix this world, much less our own lives. But while one of us is talking, for that little while, we are heard.