The Right to a Confidant

by Alex Warlow

I always thought the word ‘confidant’ sounded a bit grandiose, the sort of word only a Tennessee Williams character would use. Because basically it’s just someone who won’t grass you up. Someone you can tell your darkest fears or guiltiest secrets to without fear of reprehension. Or at least someone who gives that impression.

The traditional examples of confidants are those bound by duty to confidentiality either by religion; as with the case of a Catholic priest at confession, or by profession as with a doctor or therapist. In the mid 20th century, organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Samaritans were devised to offer a place removed from judgement and away from an overarching professional or religious tact.

Today we can all access a place where we can be as much ourselves or alter ego, on the internet, for support or guidance. As we’re still getting to grips with the instant interaction the devices in the palm of our hands afford us, it’s common to think we might actually be over sharing with a stranger rather than not utilising that resource enough.

Something I recently learnt about the Samaritans led me to write this post. To provide some background, the Samaritans was formed in the 1950s by a priest who had to conduct a funeral for a young girl, who had started her period and killed herself, thinking she had contracted an STD and had no-one to talk to and tell her otherwise. The service began as a phone line, however today, users can also contact the service via e-mail or text. The phone line does not show up on phone bills and the company holds no records about anyone who calls the service. If someone calls up to tell the listener that they are about to kill themselves on the other end of the phone, there is nothing they can do directly to prevent that; it’s what the service is designed for in a way. They can’t send an ambulance and have no details about the person’s name or address. I know volunteers who’ve heard someone fall silent on the other end of the phone but invariably tell themselves that they would never truly know what happened.

The technology does exist for the Samaritans to be able to trace callers, however the role they play is not the same as the role of the paramedic or policewoman. Just as Catholic Priests are still largely exempt from giving testimony, the Samaritan joins the ranks of a few professional confidants. For family members, this element of the service may seem desperately frustrating, but without these last enclaves of secrecy, where would the most desperate of us feel comfortable to turn to.

At least as early as the formation of religion, civil society has created places for us where we have a right to anonymity and confidence. Whereas some people could view these walls of silence as counter-productive to keeping the peace, perhaps these safe havens ultimately demonstrate our humanity.