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Apology Line: 1-Minute Therapy Over the Phone

November 03, 1988|MICHAEL ARKUSH | Times Staff Writer

Callers listen to a brief recording on the answering machine, and then spill their souls.

"I went out with a guy for 7 years and did everything I could to make him happy. And now I caught him with my best friend. It hurt real bad."

From another: "I'm sorry for Grace. I hurt her, and I got her pregnant. We used to love each other, and now she had to move away, and I would like to say I'm sorry."

One minute later, it's over. The machine, like the bank teller or supermarket checkout worker, waits for the next customer. Fast-food therapy. Cry and run.

But M. J. Denton, the faceless voice on the Apology Sound-Off recording line, the brainchild of the Encino-based United Communications International, sees nothing trivial in such confessions.

"These calls are very real to me," said Denton, 39, of West Hollywood. "I get calls from people who tell me things they haven't told a soul in years. It's often the first step in admitting the problem to themselves."

Later, Denton can only listen to the tape. She'd like to intervene, especially when the caller contemplates suicide, but she recognizes the dangers.

"I'm not a therapist, and I'm not here to give them answers," Denton said. "They call me because they know I won't judge them. I just listen. I let them cry or shout, and be exactly who they are."

And many do call. United Communications estimates that each day, several hundred from across the country air their confessions, and 14,000 call a designated 1-900 number to hear other people's apologies. Both numbers are heavily advertised on national cable television stations.

United Communications, according to an AT&T spokeswoman in Los Angeles, makes $1.35 for each 1-minute call to the 1-900 number. The call costs $2 for the first minute, and 45 cents for each additional minute.

Denton and an assistant select the best messages each day, delete sexually explicit material or profanity, and then replay them the next day. Callers can call to hear their own messages. Many air their apologies, and then tell their friend or lover to call and hear what they've said. Some have even addressed their comments to the dead.

"Someone just called to speak to a girlfriend who died exactly a year ago in a car crash," Denton said. "She wanted to apologize."

One day, a caller called Denton "Ms. Apology," and the name has stuck. Her soothing voice invites listeners to tell it all. This is not what she had in mind when the line opened in June. She feared it would turn into another L.A.-based sex line.

"I thought it was going to be a part-time job," said Denton, an independent rock music producer who came to California from Florida seven years ago. "We thought people were going to get out their anger about Noriega and things like that. We had no idea it was going to be so personal."

So personal, in fact, that some callers leave their names, and phone regularly--a real-life soap opera. People such as frequent callers Elsie and Tracy leave Denton wondering about their fates: What will happen next? They have become, she says, "her friends."

Teen-agers call and complain about wrecking daddy's Porsche, or losing their boyfriend's class ring, but most of Denton's "friends" sound as if they are between 25 and 45 and are experiencing problems with love. They cheat on their spouses and feel bad about it afterward. Ms. Apology is the perfect outlet. She'll listen, and she won't talk back.

"It's so sad, really," Denton said. "I care about these people. But what does this say about our society? I think it says that people can't talk to each other."

Is she concerned that her anonymous service will replace face-to-face communication between people?

"What's worse? Talking to a machine or having no one to talk to?" she said.

To leave a confession, callers can dial (213) 654-1055. To hear others' apologies, dial (900) 909-6000.

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