A Fascinating New Documentary About Sex and Suicide Hotlines

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There’s a weird mystique to suicide hotlines. Usually we imagine a desperate person on one end — perhaps with his or her feet dangling over the edge of a bridge — and an infinitely calm, empathetic person on the other, talking him or her down. In real life, things are a bit more complicated. Most people who call suicide hotlines aren’t suicidal, or at least not imminently so; they just need someone to talk to. And for many hotline volunteers, the empathy (and stoicism) they project during a call is a bit of an act — they are deeply affected by the calls they receive, even if they understand the need to keep things together for ten minutes at a time.

I speak from a little bit of experience here. For nine months, before I had to move for grad school, I volunteered at Samaritans in Boston for one four-hour shift a week. Given this brief stint and the broader cultural fascination with suicide hotlines, I was very excited to check out Hotline, a Kickstarter-funded documentary released on iTunes today that dives into the world of not just suicide hotlines, but sex lines, psychic hotlines, and LGBT hotlines, among others. It brought me back to the weird, temporary intimacy of taking calls from deeply troubled people, and it nicely captures humans at their best and most emotionally generous.

Hotline is character-driven — the focus is squarely on the employees and volunteers who devote parts of their lives to talking strangers through their troubles. Perhaps the most interesting example is Jeff, a.k.a. “One Lonely Guy,” who, in the wake of a difficult breakup, posted signs around New York inviting people to call him just to talk. He was soon inundated:

Jeff Exclusive Clip from Hotline Documentary on Vimeo.

The film’s takeaway message — and we hear different versions from it again and again from Jeff, phone-sex operators, crisis-hotline volunteers, and the famous/infamous Ms. Clio (who gets a bit too much screentime) — is that simply talking to another empathetic human being is a really important part of being alive and can literally be life-saving in some instances. This is not an earth-shattering observation, but it’s one people often forget given the prevalence of text-based communication, and given that all but the most desperate individuals tend to view the notion of calling up a stranger to talk about personal matters as either extremely awkward, an uncomfortable sign of weakness, or both.

So Hotline is basically a survey of how people reach out into the darkness to find a friendly voice. Sometimes this means sexually confused teens in small, conservative towns calling an LGBT hotline in New York; sometimes it means lonely men calling up phone-sex operators whose online listings advertise different “characters” meant to appeal to different sorts of callers.

The film does explain, in a general way, that it’s stressful to work or volunteer for these hotlines. But it doesn’t quite get into the weird ways taking calls from troubled people can mess with your head. It’s a kind of intimacy that’s incredibly hard to describe: Imagine picking up a phone and, for seven or 12 minutes, attempting to scrub from your voice every trace of judgement, to suppress every instinct to scold or warn or give advice, as a stranger pours out his heart.

If that sounds tough and emotionally exhausting, that’s because it is. (I found it astounding that there were volunteers who did two or more shifts a week when I could barely handle one.) And it’s only more so when you factor in the fair number of calls from people who are mentally ill or otherwise not in a place where they can have a “normal” conversation with you.

Hotline mentions the masturbators, at least — cretins who call up and simply breathe heavily into their phones as they do their thing (at Samaritans, I never had to deal with them because they’d hang up and call back until a female picked up the phone). But the film doesn’t delve into other common experiences volunteers go through, such as how it feels to listen to and empathize with a desperate-sounding 12-year-old girl for seven devastating minutes, only to hear her — and the friends who have apparently been in the room with her the whole time — crack up with laughter, revealing her whole soul-crushing story of sexual abuse to have been a prank.

The problem is, after you’ve hung up angrily on the masturbator or the slumber-party pranksters, your phone is inevitably going to ring in another minute or five, and you have to somehow return to that place of empathy and openness, because the next person who calls may really need your help. It’s a strange sort of emotional bombardment, and Hotline missed an opportunity to unpack it a bit.

The film also could have benefited from going a bit more into the ongoing transition from voice to text some hotlines are undergoing. Hotline’s basic stance is that voice is, in certain ways, better and more emotionally engaging than text, and that there will always be a market for voice hotlines. That’s fine. But the fact is that Samaritans and its ilk are, at this very moment, rolling out text-based versions of suicide “hotlines,” since teenagers today are a lot less likely to pick up a phone. How do you translate the soothing, intimate nature of a phone call into tiny-type text? It’s an intriguing question that Hotline sidesteps.

Luckily, there are enough colorful, empathetic characters to carry this documentary, and it’s worth checking out for anyone interested in the lengths struggling people will go to continue feeling connected to humanity.