A new podcast explores the history of New York City‘s confessional hotline The Apology Line, where anonymous callers would phone in to spill their deepest, darkest secrets, from racism to robbery to outright murder.
The Apology Line was launched in 1980 by artist Allan Bridge, who hung up flyers in lower Manhattan encouraging strangers to call up and ‘apologize for their wrongs against people without jeopardizing themselves.’
Bridge, who came to be known as Mr. Apology, soon racked up thousands of hours’ worth of messages on his answering machine from people admitting to affairs, theft, and violence — but as Wondery’s new podcast The Apology Line recounts, bearing the weight of the world’s confessions grew increasingly difficult for Bridge, who lost friendships and even faced death threats before his untimely accidental passing.
Flasback: Allan Bridge was known as Mr. Apology in the ’80s and early ’90s when he ran The Apology Line, a hotline for confessions
Soliciting stories: He posted flyers around Manhattan encouraging people to call and apologize anonymously for things they’d done
The Apology Line podcast is narrated by Marissa Bridge, Alan’s wife, who watched the story unfold in real time.
Allan was born in Falls Church, Virginia and earned a fine arts degree from the University of Chicago before eventually moving to New York City in 1977.
An artist, he did work as a sculptor and carpenter to make money, but he also shoplifted until he felt guilty enough to give it up.
‘Shoplifting began to seem juvenile, almost scuzzy. I wanted a way to reconcile my darker side with my lighter half,’ he told Wired in 1994.
So in 1980, he came up with an idea for a social experiment cum interactive art project: He printed flyers to hang up in TriBeCa — and eventually elsewhere in the city — inviting people to apologize for things they’d done to others.
‘Attention amateurs, professionals, criminals, blue collar, white collar. You have wronged people. It is to people you must apologize, not the state, not to God. Get your misdeeds off your chest!’ the flyers read.
The message went on to encourage callers to remain anonymous, and to even call from a payphone so their numbers couldn’t be traced.
A statement: An artist, Allen collected the recordings, which eventually numbered over half a million, and would shared them in a fan magazine, on the radio, and at art shows
The flyer worked: Soon Allan was getting hundreds of calls from people who would leave recordings on his answering machine — new technology at the time — and share their secrets.
People confessed to infidelity, theft, racist thoughts, domestic violence, bestiality, and child molestation.
Callers included child runaways, a silent witness to a robbery, and people who’d committed acts of violence — including one who admitted he was HIV+ and knowingly spread the virus to men and women.
One woman apologized because she felt guilty about being rich, another said he killed his own mother, and yet another confessed to 15 or 20 muggings and a murder. One even claimed to be the Zodiac Killer.
Over the course of the 15 years that the line was up and running, Allan received over half a million messages from across the US and Canada.
‘I think that there were very few ways people could unburden themselves back then,’ Marissa reflected to amNY. ‘There was confession to a priest or talking to a psychiatrist or a therapist or confiding in a close friend — but this provided another way, a free way, and a way that was very easily accessible.
Criminal activity: People confessed to infidelity, theft, racist thoughts, domestic violence, bestiality, child molestation, murder, and more
‘Not everybody can afford to go to a therapist then or now. Allan obviously posted all around New York City and in the boroughs around New York City, but he also posted a lot in the subways or where maybe he’d get people who were criminals or had a lot of stuff to unburden themselves with — and they got it.’
According to a 1994 Chicago Tribune story, about 70 per cent of callers were women, who apologized for everything from being rude to coworkers to cheating on their spouses.
‘[The line] is for ordinary people who feel troubled by something they did and want to reconcile those feelings by getting it off their shoulders,’ Allan said at the time.
The hotline became popular enough that Allan introduced extensions to categorize types of confessions, like sex, crime, child abuse, hatred, and addiction. He allowed most to go to voicemail, but would occasionally pick up and talk to the caller, particularly in cases where he or she sounded suicidal.
‘Allan was a petty criminal in his early life, and he worried that people could fall too easily into being either the predator or the prey. He lived his life to say, “Let’s see if we can be better people,” Marissa said, according to Westword.
A large part of the growing popularity was that Allan wasn’t alone in listening to the confessions — he shared them, hence his direction that callers remain anonymous.
Downsides: The line led to death threats for Allen, who became consumed with the line and lost many friends
Some of the recordings would be played in the outgoing message on the answering machine, before callers could leave their own confessions. Others were printed in magazines, some played at Allan’s art shows in galleries and museums, and some made it onto radio shows.
Allen even launched a fan magazine with a circulation that reached 4,000.
‘The Apology Line is much more than just confessions and apologies,’ he wrote in the quarterly magazine, according to the New York Times.
‘From the very beginning, callers have mostly used the line to open up the lonely hidden-away recesses of their identities — to reveal secret activities or thoughts or fixations or obsessions or yearnings.’
Speaking to the New York Post, one caller said the appeal of the line was that it was like a ‘proto-Internet … with a community composed of people you never meet.’
Allan remained true to his promise to keep the calls anonymous, even when police came calling. Once, while giving an interview to the SoHo Weekly News, he described a caller who said he’d beaten and robbed gay men. When a detective read the interview and contacted Allen about it, he wouldn’t hand the tape over — but did agree to play it publicly in a radio interview so the detective could tune in and listen.
Allan managed to have a small amount of financial success from The Apology Line, selling the rights for a movie and a novel. The movie, Apology, aired on HBO in 1986.
Telling the story: His wife is now sharing the story in a new podcast called The Apology Line
But ultimately, the hotline appears to have done more harm than good. According to Marissa, who married him in 1984, Allan faced death threats — including one left on his very own answering machine.
‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to kill you,’ the caller said.
‘We were scared,’ said Marissa. In New York City in the ’80s, ‘if somebody said they were coming to kill him, I believed it.’
Stay tuned: New episodes of Wondery’s The Apology Line come out every Tuesday
His life continued ‘unraveling’ in the early 1990s, taking up his whole life. It didn’t help that a few callers weren’t exactly apologizing, but rather bragging about what they’d done — with no sign of remorse.
‘Keeping up with everything was a Sisyphean task. Calls got dark,’ said Marissa.
Most of the couple’s friends ‘drifted away,’ and Allan clung to the project longer than either of them had expected.
‘Originally I don’t think he thought it would last more than a year or two, but he felt even at that time that the callers needed him and that this was a really needed service, so he didn’t stop doing it,’ Marissa told amNY.
‘He, like most artists, have a cycle to work on something for a couple of years and then you move on — he never moved on from that. It just had too strong of a grip on him.
‘It did get more intense as the years went on, and it was difficult living with it, but I also really believed in the project.
Eventually, he was thinking of giving up the line altogether, but he never got the chance: In 1995, when he was 50, he was killed by a Jet-Ski in a scuba-diving accident off the coast of Long Island.