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Depending On the Kindness of Strangers for Absolution


A woman in a grocery store line tells a shopper behind her that after she had a baby, her husband left her for her best friend, leaving her aggrieved and seeking solace in the arms of her own best friend, a man. Now in love, she gushes, she is again pregnant and the soul mates are skipping off to marry.

* A man seated next to a woman on a plane discloses details about fissures in his marriage and confesses to deep guilt about how he treated women as a young man, his circumspection inspired by the foul treatment to which his own daughter is subjected in her dating life.

* A mother of two young boys, standing in a department store line, confides that she is financially strapped, that her husband left her for a friend, and that the lout still has the nerve to request conjugal favors on demand.

Strangers who divulge personal details to bystanders may be seeking the recuperative powers of confession. They may also be after sympathy or trying to make sense of chaos. In some cases, experts theorize, a person imparts intimate information to see how it plays ("I have a penile implant") or to establish instant intimacy ("I really need to get married").

"Public confession is replacing private intimacy somehow," says Regina Barreca, an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut who is at work on a book about confession. "People are lazy. They want microwave emotions. It is easier to go up and spill your guts than to get to know someone. I was sitting next to someone at a dinner who said 'Hi, I am so-and-so and I am recovering from binge eating.' Well, the only thing you can say to that is 'Please pass the salt.' "

The ritual is as old as language itself. Bartenders are standard stranger listeners, as are hairdressers and cab drivers. And public transportation provides some of the most popular confessionals.

"It is an old phenomenon, talking to the stranger at the bar or the person at the bus stop . . . the transient confessional," says Stuart Fischoff, a Cal State psychology professor. "It is a safe way to unburden yourself."

Safe for myriad reasons. You cloak yourself in anonymity by confessing to a stranger. The listener has no context in which to make judgments about authenticity or version of events. The stranger is ideal. With no more information than is provided, they nod, look concerned, posture sympathetically and stand there taking it. Rare is the person who flees while a poor soul is displaying psychic wounds or confiding secrets. We are a "culture of acceptance," says University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz, in which the norm is to show compassion.

"We are looking for absolution, not from God, but from the stranger, who represents the public, as a jury of one," says Barreca. "We are looking for understanding, acceptance . . . often a stranger gives it because they only hear your side of the story. There is this bizarre catharsis people get from confessing and a lot of them really feel better after. The culture says: 'Tell someone your deepest thoughts, you will feel better.' "

The impulse to confess likely has its roots in what sociologist Philip Rieff described in 1966 as the "triumph of the therapeutic," the growing cultural trend of people to turn from church to psychoanalysis for salvation. Alfred Hitchcock, in his 1951 movie "Strangers on a Train," illustrated the phenomenon when two men meet on a train, one unloads his psyche onto the other, which leads, in Hitchcockian tradition, to murder.

But ritual confession has invaded every cultural milieu today: Roughly 200 confessional-style memoirs were published last year, according to one estimate; TV talk shows flourish unabated and television interview shows snag their best ratings when they get some celebrity to bawl while disclosing intimate details about his or her emotional life (a Barbara Walters trademark).

The phenomenon is pervasive, especially in the anonymity of big cities. Once dumped, the information isn't likely to bite back in urban environs.

"A man standing in a Bank of America line told me that he was insane and delusional and that he was going to be baby Jesus in a manger scene at the park," says Jim Conway, a Venice psychotherapist. "And I believed him."

Changing ideas about privacy and courage have enabled people to routinely give just a little too much information to strangers.

"Lack of shame and an increasing evaporation of the line between public and private has changed things," says Fischoff. "What once was considered a thing to be ashamed of is now being perceived as a badge of honor. An increasing trend toward being in therapy and admitting publicly that you have problems has made it an all-American thing. It has almost become a fashion statement."

No need to feel badly about confession interruptus, say the experts. Say you have to pay your bill and decamp from the grocery store line amid a stranger's tell-all tale, fret not. The person will either keep talking to the atmosphere or find the next warm body in line.

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