Review: ‘Craigslist Confessional’ by Helena Dea Bala

For fans of Humans of New York and PostSecret, a collection of raw, urgent, and heartfelt stories, shared anonymously.

What would you confess if you knew it would never get back to your spouse, your colleagues, or your family? What story would you tell about your life if a stranger was willing to listen with no judgement, no stigma, and no consequences—just an unburdening and the relief of confession?

After graduating from law school, Helena Dea Bala was a lobbyist in Washington, DC, struggling to pay off her student loans. She felt lonely and unfulfilled but, after a chance conversation with a homeless man she often saw on her commute, she felt…better. Talking with a stranger, listening to his problems, and sharing her own made her feel connected and engaged in a way she hadn’t in a long time. Inspired, she posted an ad on Craigslist promising to listen, anonymously and for free, to whatever the speaker felt he or she couldn’t tell anyone else. The response was huge—thousands of emails flooded her inbox. People were desperate for the opportunity to speak without being judged, to tell a story without worrying it would get back to friends, family, or coworkers—and so Craigslist Confessional was born.

The forty confessions in Craigslist Confessional are vivid, intimate, and real. Each story is told in the confessor’s voice; they range from devastating secrets (like addiction, depression, and trauma), to musings on lost love and reflections on a lifetime of hard choices. Every confession presents a point of view not often seen, not often talked about.

[Adapted from Goodreads]

DETAILS

Date finished: 21 February 2020

Publisher: Gallery Books

ISBN: 9781982114961

Review

Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.

A collection of forty anonymous stories, Craigslist Confessional is the passion project of a D.C. lobbyist with a desire to fulfil a fundamental human need: to have one’s story heard. Helena Dea Bala’s story begins not with the ad she posted on Craigslist offering to listen (anonymously and without charge) to secrets people felt they couldn’t share with anyone, but rather with her own experience of confessing her own problems to a homeless man outside her work. The conversation prompted a realisation of the dissonance between her internal reality and the person she presented externally to the world: “I felt inherently dishonest,” she writes in her introduction. “And, I often thought, if I couldn’t be honest with others, how could I be honest with myself? Had I gotten so warped, so sucked into playing the role of the perfect daughter, the perfect employee, the perfect girlfriend, that I could no longer tell my genuine life from the one I was projecting?”

The narratives Bala includes in her collection are raw, urgent, vivid, and deeply intimate. Though they are but a few carefully selected stories she has listened to, they range from the deeply moving experience of a wrongfully-imprisoned black man, to the harrowing struggles of a recovering addict, to the heartbreak of a young girl whose boyfriend has been cheating on her with a mutual friend. In spite of their variety and the deeply personal nature of each voice’s confession, they all hum with an undeniably human resonance.

Bala’s success stems from her gentle handling of the most important, most sensitive task of all: emphasising the humanity at the heart of each of these confessions and stressing their importance as stories that unite, rather than divide, us. Her project is an admirable one, described as “hearing and seeing what others don’t – about pulling back that curtain that separates our secretive inner lives from our perfectly curated outer lives.” Her focus on honest storytelling stems from a process of active listening, of moving past the performances of success and stability in which we – all of us – partake, of celebrating the bravery of these strangers who dare to remove their masks, if only for an hour or two.

The challenge that Craigslist Confessional poses to its readers is the very act of unjudgmental listening that its author herself has undertaken. We are presented with the opportunity to engage honestly with these stories, to meet the emotional vulnerability of Bala’s confessors with an equal vulnerability of our own. The reading experience is framed in such a way that we are encouraged to empathise – not sympathise. Pity is an inappropriate emotion here, where we might instead recognise something deeper in the voices that often reflect our own vulnerabilities back at us. Sometimes the only experience the reader might share with the confessor is the need to share, to express something that has hitherto existed as a wordless and formless mass of experience – but that alone is enough. The desire to speak and be heard lies at the core of all these stories, just as it lies at the core of our humanity.

Craigslist Confessional is, above all, an opportunity to reflect on our own untold stories, to view the internal and external lives we lead from a new perspective. Though perhaps not enjoyable in an escapist sense, it is nonetheless an important read that I highly recommend.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended to: Anyone looking to do some self-reflecting, or anyone ready to engage in the life-changing act of listening.

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