In 1980, an artist called Allan Bridge posted flyers around the streets of Manhattan, New York City. “ATTENTION CRIMINALS,” they read. “You have wronged people. It is to people that you must apologise, not to the state, not to God. Get your misdeeds off your chest! Call apology (212) 255-2748.”
Thousands of people called to divulge sins great and small – even those that warranted no apology at all. A woman with a lilting Texan accent apologised to her husband for being overweight; an upset child confessed to hitting their neighbour’s aggressive dog in self-defence. But quickly, darker messages made their way on to the machine. One man claimed to be the Zodiac killer, another, calling himself “Richie”, said he targeted and murdered gay men.
Bridge was known only as “Mr Apology” to his callers and the press, until he died in 1995. His widow Marissa Bridge narrates The Apology Line, a documentary podcast from Wondery that considers Bridge’s conflicted feelings around how to ethically navigate his most successful project, and the dark turn it took when serious violent offenders began to call in and admit their crimes – including the strange cat-and-mouse game that later unfolded between Bridge and Richie. This all makes for the type of eccentric, grimly engrossing mystery that defines many famous podcasts, but it also says something of Bridge’s original achievement that the voicemails themselves are the most compelling part of this story. They are both relics of Eighties New York, and sound strangely contemporary, as though the messages were being left now. They are wide-open windows into other human lives.
A Wisconsin police officer makes the disturbing confession that he often gets “a little too carried away outta line” and “beats the shit out of” the people he arrests: “Most of the time it feels really good.” One man says, with urgency and pain, “I was in Vietnam. When I think of things I have done, I’m sorry that I still have life.” These snippets raise impossible questions about violence, remorse, shame, forgiveness and rehabilitation: 40 years on, they remain as compelling and confounding as when they were first recorded.
The Apology Line
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical