Leora Smith | Longreads | January 2020 | 18 minutes (4,961 words)

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CW: This story discusses a suicide that occurred at the Burning Man festival in 2017, and also thoughts of suicide.
In between the fabric folds of towering red and white tents, a small, gray push-button phone sat on a dusty cushion, shaking with a high-pitched ring.

Outside, the air throbbed with music. Deep bass notes crisscrossed the landscape, merged with the voices and footsteps of Burning Man’s tens of thousands of attendees, and flooded the desert with sound.

But inside, there was only the phone, its ring echoing off the tent walls.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Hi,” said the voice on the other end. “Is this god?”

* * *

A well-worn phone booth stood off a busy thoroughfare in Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis that Burning Man’s participants build together every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. During frequent dust storms, a sign above it reading
Talk to God beamed through the thick, whitewashed air like a desert marquee.

Below the booth a buried phone line ran about 100 feet to a secret location. There, it connected to the God Phone. Anyone who found it got to play god.

When I discovered the God Phone in 2017, the first few calls I fielded were silly, easy. Callers asked me, “What should I do tonight?” Or, “What’s god’s favorite thing out here?” Over and over they expressed glee at my gender. “I knew god was a woman,” people said, or sometimes, “I’d hoped you were.”

But about 30 minutes in, a man called, and a hesitation in his voice drew me in so closely that I felt like we were meeting in an ethereal space deep inside the phone cord.

“There’s something I want to do,” he said, “and I want you to tell me if I should or not.” The otherworldly room we inhabited shrunk around me. “What’s the thing?” I asked, already knowing he wouldn’t tell me. “I’ve tried it in the past,” he said, “and it didn’t work. But this weekend I might try it again.”

I can’t say why I thought the man might harm himself. But in the moment I felt that threat as solidly as the receiver in my hand. And I wish I’d been motivated otherwise, but all I wanted to do was drop it and run.

I asked if the thing would make him happy, and he said he thought it would. “You should do the things that make you happy,” I told him, my tongue pushing out the words while the knots in my stomach tightened, trying to rope them back in. He whispered a thank you and hung up.

A few nights later, during Burning Man’s culminating event — the burning of a giant effigy called The Man — a man died by suicide. Before he died, he was sitting just 20 feet away from me.

In a crowd that big, I know it’s unlikely he was the same person who called. But for two years I haven’t been able to shake the thought from my head.

* * *

Almost a year after my night on the God Phone, the legal services organization where I worked held a training on recognizing when clients are thinking of suicide and making space for conversations about it.

Our teacher was Karen Grant-Simba, a trainer with the suicide prevention organization LivingWorks and a former case manager at a hospital’s mental health department. She wore her hair in thick locs and spoke in a voice so soft I felt I could crawl right up and fall asleep inside it.

Karen’s training focused on “invitations,” the hints people drop that they are struggling. An invitation might be something a person said, the way they looked, or just a feeling you got in your gut around them. She described the fear we feel acknowledging these invitations. The way our voices catch in our throats. The way our better instincts bubble up like heartburn and how we push them down, back, and anywhere but out.

When someone seems like they are hurting, Karen encouraged us, take a risk and tell them you noticed. Then, she had us practice. She told us to turn to a partner and say these words out loud: “Are you thinking of suicide?” The question quickly filled the room; it pinged between partners and off the walls and my mind traveled on it, back to the man in the phone booth.

“Are you thinking of suicide?” I imagined asking, curled up by the God Phone. “Are you thinking of suicide?” I thought, and I walked to the phone booth to see him face-to-face. “Are you thinking of suicide?” I asked as I led him back to the God Phone so we could sit and talk through it. “Are you thinking of suicide?” I said and we shared a long conversation that ended in a hug.

The words began slipping off my tongue, easier and easier each time. I wished someone had painted them on the phone, had given me a warning that I might need them.

* * *

A common refrain at Burning Man is “safety third.” Every year, artwork at the event is physically dangerous.

Dance Dance Immolation, a famed installation set up a few times between 2005 and 2013 by the artist collective Interpretive Arson, had participants play a game inspired by Dance Dance Revolution in fire proximity suits that protected against flames shot directly at dancers with every missed step.

In 2018, artist Dustin Weatherford stacked seven old cars, one on top of the other, in a piece called Night at the Climb-In. People scaled the structure, navigating the rickety mirrors and rusted doors to the top where they could sip drinks in a canned-ham trailer 34 feet in the air. (Officials from the Bureau of Land Management and Burning Man closed the installation to climbers a few days into the event after someone fell and got hurt.)

But the God Phone’s risks felt different from Burning Man’s usual danger. There was no purposeful climb to a precarious lookout, no donning of fireproof gear in preparation for something that was obviously a bad idea. What sort of responsibility did the artists have for this other kind of art, I wondered, the kind where the risks were more hidden?

I never thought I’d go back to Burning Man after my God Phone experience, and I definitely didn’t think I’d go back to the phone. But in 2019, I did. I sat there for 24 hours, because I wanted to know if other conversations like mine were happening there. Was the God Phone safe? If someone got hurt, how would we know?

* * *

At 10 a.m. on the day I visited the Talk to God phone booth, a line of people already stretched from it. Would-be callers formed an impromptu catalogue of Burning Man fashion: tutus, bedazzled military hats, leather fanny packs, and dusty combat boots on every foot.

I passed the queue and traced ever-widening circles searching for the gods’ lair until I found it, just a few hundred paces away, kitty-corner from the booth, obscured only half-heartedly by a gauzy curtain.

Inside, 10-foot-tall black light paintings of a dragon and the Buddhist deity Quan Yin loomed over a man in a weathered white armchair, holding the receiver to his ear. By his feet, a speaker quietly projected both sides of the conversation, and onlookers gathered around it, sitting on large cushions draped in green faux fur.

The whole setup sat atop a plush black carpet patterned with geometric shapes in bright, elementary-school colors. Taken together, the space had the feeling of a 20-year-old’s first grown-up living room, or the basement hangout from a grainy sitcom.

I walked in and joined the group huddled around the speaker. From there, we had a clear sightline to the phone booth, and everyone who approached it.

The calls came in quickly, with barely any break between them. Lighter questions (What do you think about Christmas?) and universal ones (Why do you let natural disasters happen?) were peppered with confessions (I’m in love with someone but I’m married to someone else) and personal requests (Can you watch over my son in rehab? I’m worried this might be his last shot).

The speaker muffled everyone’s voices slightly, insulating us in the sound. We were voyeurs floating in a secret room wallpapered with worries.

What sort of responsibility did the artists have for this other kind of art, I wondered, the kind where the risks were more hidden?

A 30-something named Benji sat beside me in the huddle, his plain gray T-shirt and khaki shorts the most nonconformist outfit in a sea of eccentrics. He smiled while he talked and told me he was raised ultra orthodox Jewish just outside New York City (“Black hat, the real deal,” he said), but declared himself an atheist about five years ago. Around that time, he attended Burning Man and found the God Phone.

“The conversations we have on the God Phone are very similar to the conversations I used to have with my god,” Benji said. “There’s just one difference,” he added, laughing. “The Burning Man variation of god has it so when you pick up the phone to speak, god actually responds.” He said it with such positivity, but I couldn’t relate. My own flawed, too-mortal response had been the very thing that made me worry about this whole experiment.

More calls came: Can you tell me why my mom left? What is my purpose here? Why do children get sick?

The next time it rang, the man in the god chair looked at me. “You’re god,” he said, holding out the receiver. I shook my head, no.

* * *

The Talk to God phone booth first appeared at Burning Man in 2003, the brainchild of a group of artists from Ojai, California, who camped together under the banner OBOP, short for “Ojai Bureau of Pleasure.” While many installations only make the difficult trek to the Nevada desert once, the booth has been there, in different iterations, every year since.

OBOP member Michael Shevchuk remembered four muses merging in his brain to form the concept: Burning Man’s 2003 art theme “Beyond Belief”; a line from a U2 song (“God has got his phone off the hook, babe, would he even pick up if he could?”); an exchange between a fictionalized Andy Warhol and Jim Morrison in the film The Doors (“Somebody gave me this telephone. … And she said that I could talk to God with it, but I don’t have anything to say”); and an old telephone booth that Shevchuk walked past daily in his neighbor’s yard.

When campmates and artists Steven Jeffre and Scott Siedman heard the idea, they rushed to make it real. Within days they found an abandoned booth already missing its phone by a highway, and mined it for parts: hinges, handles, a ceiling unit that housed its lights, and the shelf where the phone rested. Using these parts and some plywood, they built a slightly enlarged replica of a classic Ma Bell booth, and the first Talk to God phone was born.

I understood that, as an artist, Miles celebrated the varied, sometimes difficult experiences people had on the phone. But as someone who lived one, I didn’t.

In the vast expanse of Burning Man, a small phone booth could get lost, but instead it made a mark. Over 16 years, thousands of people have interacted with the installation, placing a call or answering one. Reddit and Facebook threads overflow with accounts of phone calls that left an impact.

In early 2018, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery hosted an exhibit of Burning Man art. That year, Smithsonian curator Nora Atkinson gave a TED Talk, positioning Burning Man as a new art movement, one where a piece’s value is determined by the emotional connection it creates between people. As she spoke, a picture of the Talk to God phone booth appeared over her left shoulder, an example of an iconic piece in a bizarro pantheon.

In 2007, OBOP disbanded and, in a ceremony common at Burning Man when a piece of art has run its course, some camp members decided to burn the phone booth. When word spread of its destruction, a community swooped in to ensure its return and continued presence. A member of a neighboring camp scavenged a new booth in a Seattle junkyard. A retired phone enthusiast in Boston recreated its technical parts, boxed them up, and mailed them to California.

Since then, two people — Jaye Hersh and Miles Eastman — have each brought the booth in different years. They call themselves its shepherds. I talked to both Jaye and Miles, and to Scott who helped build the first booth, about my unnerving God Phone experience before going back this year, and none were surprised.

“I’ve heard so many stories of people having those kinds of conversations,” Miles told me.

“Does that worry you?” I asked. On the contrary, he said, “I think that you stumbled on the purpose and the beauty of the piece.”

His answer worried me.

* * *

This year, a clipboard holding a bright orange piece of paper rested by the God Phone. Be Kind! the page read in big, rounded purple letters across the top.

Jaye — who goes by “Yay” at Burning Man — was shepherding the phone booth. On the first day I met her she wore flowers in her hair and electric blue lipstick that somehow stayed perfectly applied for the entire week of dry, lip-cracking desert heat.

As a shepherd, she had two rules. The first: Encourage “a kinder, gentler god.” The second: God always answers. Her campmates took shifts, acting as standby gods in the lair when the chair sat empty. On two nights, nobody signed up for the 4 a.m.–6 a.m. shift, so Jaye slept by the phone.

Her instructions provided a kind of lightness. When the questions got hard, kindness was easy. Sitting with experienced gods, newer gods got support and even a bit of a script. Many gods mimicked Jaye’s signature “I love you” signoff, though I couldn’t always tell if they meant it, or if they just liked hearing it back. Either way, I was unreasonably moved listening to adult men exchange unabashed, tender “I love you”s at the end of their calls.

It was a very different God Phone from the one I found two years prior.

From the God Phone’s first day at Burning Man, members of OBOP disagreed on how to run it. Scott’s approach was “get out of the way and trust people.” He said he was chasing honesty and intimacy between strangers. For him, those moments of feeling stuck, unscripted, or unsettled but forced to engage — those were the whole point.

Miles, who shepherded the booth the year I first found the phone, shared Scott’s ethos: no instructions, no supervising gods. They described their hands-off approach as an act of faith. “I trust in the love and compassion of our fellow human beings to show up for each other,” Miles said. “It’s worth the risk,” he added, “to allow that natural sort of serendipity.”

I understood that, as an artist, Miles celebrated the varied, sometimes difficult experiences people had on the phone. But as someone who lived one, I didn’t.

* * *

By 2 p.m. on my day at the God Phone, there was still a line at the phone booth. By 3 p.m. the gods had answered nearly 30 calls.

God, can you watch over my house in Florida? I just heard about the hurricane and I didn’t close the shutters.

Can you check on my brother in New York? He’s depressed and I’m worried about him.

Can you send a message to my mom and dad? One of them has been there a while, but the other is a newer arrival.

Do people who die by suicide get into heaven?

Do you know who stole my bike?

Some of the calls felt serendipitous in their timing: One caller talked about a partner leaving her and connected to a god who’d just finalized a divorce. A caller struggling in an open relationship talked to a god who had just opened up her marriage. And a person in need of a bike tire somehow reached a god who had a spare that was just the right size.

Around 3 p.m., Courtney, a woman in big rhinestone sunglasses and exuding a mama bear energy, sat beside me. She seemed like someone who, if she passed a broken-down car on the side of the road, would both stop to fix it and feed the driver home-baked muffins while they waited. Laughter danced at the edges of her words, a warm South Carolina accent curling them like a mischievous smile.

As we listened together, Courtney told me about the town where she grew up, how she learned about Burning Man online, and that the God Phone’s camp adopted her when she sought advice about the event on an online forum. “I don’t have much family,” she said, and arriving in the camp felt like coming home.

After eyeing the phone for a few calls, she decided to take one.

Hello, this is god.

I’m freaking out a little, the caller jumped right in. How do I let go of trying to control everything?

I’m god, she said, laughing. I get it.

I need to know I’m gonna be OK, he said.

Yeah. You’re wonderful, and I love you unconditionally and you can do anything you want to do.

The caller burst out in relieved laughter.

I love this, he said, with a new energy in his voice. Thank you so much.

The call hardly lasted two minutes. But as I watched that man walk out of the booth in the distance, I saw him transformed. Something lifted just by speaking his worries out loud.

So many people shared God Phone stories with me in the months leading up to Burning Man. You’re writing about the Talk to God booth? they’d say excitedly. I just have to tell you the most amazing thing that happened there.

More often than not, the conversations they described were short. To me, they often sounded almost inconsequential. But I learned that this simple opportunity to pause, to share a hurt, to hear someone acknowledge it stuck with people for years.

What stuck with them was that someone answered at all, that they had a space to say, ‘I’m in the middle of the biggest party in the world, and something inside me hurts.’

As the afternoon went on, more calls came in. Most weren’t about thoughts of self-harm or big life decisions. For the most part, they were the kind of everyday sadnesses we carry around quietly all the time.

Sometimes, I followed the callers to learn more about them. Nearly every one shooed away their friends before we talked about their experiences, not wanting to share the topic of their calls. “I don’t want to be a burden on them,” one woman told me.

Talking with them I realized how many people, like me, had run away from hard conversations. How we did it on purpose, and sometimes without realizing. How people who needed to talk waited for invitations to spit out the hard stuff, and how good it felt when they did.

In between calls, Courtney asked why I was writing about the God Phone, and for the first time that week, I told someone the whole story.

When I finished, she said, “You did the best you could that day.” And I almost believed her.

* * *

Before heading to Burning Man this year I had lunch with Karen, my teacher from the suicide training, to ask her thoughts on the booth. Was it safe to have untrained people fielding calls? Did she agree with Miles that it was worth the risk?

“There is power in just being able to verbalize how you are feeling,” Karen said, explaining that talking about thoughts of suicide was better than keeping them in. “People live their lives with thoughts of suicide in the background,” she told me. “The more we can normalize the experience the better we’ll be for it.”

Listening to Karen, I realized what she was saying wasn’t just true about thoughts of suicide, but about all kinds of sad thoughts. Still, her answer surprised me. The phone felt so risky — for the callers and the gods.

I reached out to Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of the advocacy group Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), for a second opinion.

Shortly before the premiere of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, the streaming giant reached out to “Dr. Dan” for advice on a scene that depicted a teenager dying by suicide. When Netflix released the scene, to widespread criticism, SAVE partnered with another nonprofit to release a guide to help parents and teachers discuss the series with young people watching it, and to help prevent a possible copycat effect — that vulnerable people watching the scene might try to harm themselves. I imagined he’d given a lot of thought to art that engaged with issues of self-harm.

“I’ve talked to people who used that phone,” he said, shocking me. And he echoed everything Karen said.

“Obviously,” he explained, “it would be best if the people hearing these things were trained.” But faced with the option of having the phone booth as is, or not having it, he said he’d pick having it. “It doesn’t take any training to be a good person,” he added. “You just have to be compassionate, caring, empathetic, and willing to listen.”

Dr. Dan did have a word of caution. “You have to hope,” he said, “that whoever is answering isn’t going to support someone toward self-harm.” I’d planned on asking him about my conversation, but shame sank it like concrete in my throat. I managed to push it out and ask Karen directly.

“That was not a bad conversation,” Karen assured me. “A bad conversation is saying, ‘Just do it.’ A bad conversation is hanging up the phone and walking away.” Then, she added something that hit me hard: “Sometimes the fear that people have is that once they become aware of something that serious, there is an expectation to do something they are not skilled to do. But, she added, “We don’t need to be able to fix things for people.”

I thought back to the course I took with her. The way I imagined saying the right words and inviting the caller to the God Phone, imagined us talking, imagined us hugging and walking away. The way I wished I could have fixed the ache I thought I heard.

I realized that of all the people who talked to me about their God Phone experience, not one of them said god actually solved their problem. Most didn’t even remember exactly what the person who answered the phone said.

What stuck with them was that someone answered at all, that they had a space to say, “I’m in the middle of the biggest party in the world, and something inside me hurts.”

* * *

In the early evening, two women approached the phone booth. One, in a neon-orange mesh bodysuit, lifted the phone and posed while the other snapped a photograph.

In the gods’ lair, the phone rang.

This is god, Courtney said. How may I help you?

The woman in the bodysuit, unaware the phone actually connected, startled at the sound of Courtney’s voice.

Is this god? She turned around, moving as far into the booth as she could. Do you answer prayers? Then she whispered, Can you help my boyfriend to be faithful?

I watched the conversation and I thought, it’s really not very hard to ask someone if they are struggling with something. On just a moment’s notice, almost anyone could tell you that they are.

* * *

It’s easy to be cynical about Burning Man. At its worst, the event is capitalist escapism. A party where the wealthy run away from, and disdain, the most toxic elements of a system that, for 356 days of the year, many of them sustain, advance, and profit from.

But sitting at the God Phone reminded me that, at its best, Burning Man is an immersive art project. One based on values of communalism, kindness, and generosity.

Many of the people I met at the God Phone had attended Burning Man three, four, even 15 times. Some of them were wealthy, but many weren’t. I learned that a lot of people first went to Burning Man for the parties, but almost no one went back just because of them.

People went back because it was a place where they felt they could be their fullest selves, which meant wearing a tutu, taking on a new name, or just telling a stranger that sometimes they found themselves on a dance floor and all they wanted to do was cry. Then trusting that someone would say, “You’re wonderful, and I love you unconditionally.”

* * *

Just after 11 p.m. I stepped away from the phone for a nap and to change into warmer clothes. As I stood up, a new god plonked himself in the chair. When I got back at 3 a.m., he was still there, nodding off between calls.

I sat down by the speaker, untangling myself from a long string of lights woven through my shoelaces to keep me visible at night. When I was settled, the tired man in the chair handed me the phone. “You’re god,” he said, standing up before I could decline. When the phone rang and I answered it, the receiver weighed heavily in my hand.

God, what do you know about shame?

The man calling wore a gray steampunk jacket and large goggles to protect against the dust. He explained how hard he’d worked to get to Burning Man, but once he arrived, he just felt lonely. Then he felt ashamed for being lonely. A lot of people feel that way, I told him. They all call me.

He laughed, then got quiet. I thought of Karen’s advice, and instead of pulling back, I stepped in further. Do you want to come sit with me? I asked. He said he’d think about it, then ended the call. Twenty minutes later he called back, and I guided him to the God Phone.

Over the next few hours we sat together. We talked a bit, but not very much, and we listened to the calls come in. By morning I was still carrying shame inside me, and I think he was too. Neither of us had fixed anything, but it was cozy at the God Phone, and I was grateful for the company.

* * *

In the early hours of the morning, the sky lit up, its pastel colors forming a rainbow. A woman stopped in to take a few calls and explained it was her nightly ritual before going to sleep. Later, a man wearing a captain’s jacket and a top hat joined us. He said he was part of the original camp that brought the Talk to God phone booth, and he’d been taking calls at sunrise for years.

They were just two of a handful of people I met who, once they found the phone, visited it again and again.

‘I trust in the love and compassion of our fellow human beings to show up for each other,’ Miles said. ‘It’s worth the risk,’ he added, ‘to allow that natural sort of serendipity.’

When I got home, I reached out to Benji to ask why he returned so often. “It’s therapeutic,” he told me. “It reminds you that we are all struggling with things, we are all insecure, and we’re all lonely.” He added, “It’s not nice to know that other people are suffering, but it’s comforting to know that not everyone is having the best time all day long. … It feels not alone.”

* * *

Unexpectedly, 24 hours at the Talk to God phone booth reminded me of my first year of law school, when I felt so sad and overwhelmed that I sought out counseling for the first time.

In the counselor’s office at the school, she asked my field of study and I told her. She responded, Oh, I’m seeing all of your classmates. Before she said that, I’d thought I was the only one struggling. But afterward, a warm feeling washed over me. It was the same one that Benji described at the God Phone, and the same one that Karen tried to foster in her courses: normalcy.

I still wish the God Phone had some referrals or instructions for really hard moments, but my time there won me over to Karen and Dr. Dan’s perspective: Given the choice of having the phone as is, or not having it at all, I’d pick having it every time.

Because the God Phone bathed everyone — callers and gods — in that feeling of normalcy. In a place where, most of the time, everyone and everything was striving to be extraordinary, it provided an oasis of ordinary. And people gravitated to it. At every hour of the day they gathered around speakers, they lined up, they came back again and again just to feel it.

Surely, that was worth the risk.

* * *

At the end of the week, after most people had packed up and gone home, Jaye’s partner John walked out to the phone booth to disassemble it. Jaye always left it standing to the last possible minute, tearing down all the tents and rolling up the wall hangings until the booth and the God Phone lay out in the dust alone, just in case someone needed to make a call.

Finally, when everything else was done, John unplugged the God Phone. Then, they dug up the phone line, carefully refilling the trench where it lay, erasing the mark it left in the sand. They hauled the heavy booth to their pickup truck and lay it upside down for the drive home. Plonked there, legs in the air, the booth didn’t look like much, just a blue metal box with some stickers on it.

“We took it out there having no idea what would happen with it,” Jaye remembered about the booth’s first year at Burning Man. But people gravitated to it immediately. “It was clear that people needed that,” she said, “and we could give that to them.”

Jaye wrapped the God Phone’s dangling cord around it, tucked it carefully into the dusty nightstand, and packed it away for next year.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there are resources for you. Reach someone for immediate support, 24/7/365, at these numbers:

* * *

Leora Smith is a writer and a lawyer living in Toronto.

* * *

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Copy-editor: Jacob Z. Gross