ODENTON, Md. — Susan Trial stood in the library lobby, flipping through a binder of other people’s life stories. Each page held an account, a true one, of a life lived on the margins.
“I’m a Black, Spanish-speaking, American Muslim,” one read. “I’ve learned to move about in a society that labels me incorrectly nearly every time.”
Another account read, “I lived in an integrated neighborhood and attended segregated schools from first grade until I graduated high school.”
“I’ve been living with chronic illnesses for over half my life,” read yet another. “Because my chronic illness and mental illness are invisible, I have had difficulty being understood.”
As Trial browsed the pages, the librarians explained: Saturday’s event at the Anne Arundel County Public Library was an offshoot of the Human Library, a worldwide nonprofit group where people from the community serve as “books,” sharing their real-life stories and struggles. Today’s titles were wide-ranging: an incest survivor; a woman suffering post-traumatic stress disorder; a gay, transgender Saudi Arabian man; a first-generation Guatemalan immigrant. Posters invited participants to “unjudge someone.”
After a few minutes of browsing, Trial, 42, shut the binder.
“I’ll just take whatever the next open slot is,” Trial told the librarian. She found all the stories compelling. She thought it was important to be open.
For the past few years, the story of America has been the story of choosing sides. Headlines often speak of our divided nation, where the nuts and bolts of identity — gender, homeland, sexual orientation — feel somehow distinctly political. News and social media reveal the exhaustive cycle of spats about labels and lines that we’ve devised. These things are supposed to help us grapple with who we are and where we stand; arguably, they leave us isolated, alienated.
All this makes the Human Library’s exercise both simple and radical. For 15 minutes, people sit across the table from a stranger, freed from social constraints, and connect. Ask any question. Share any story. Listen. Look the other person in the eye. Just try.
Each of the “books” sat at a folding table, surrounded by objects they hoped would help explain themselves. Some brought drawings and paintings, because art had helped them cope with their trauma. Some brought photographs — of families, of pets, of themselves before they looked like they do now. Every table had a box of tissues.
Chelsea Stevenson’s table was elaborate — elephant statues, henna instruction books, photographs, fake plants. She’d made the space so very hers that sitting down felt like sitting in her living room.
Stevenson, originally from Texas, is black and a native Spanish speaker who converted to Islam in college. Her “book” title was “Intersections Uncovered.”
“What made you choose me?” Stevenson asked after a middle-aged woman sat down and shyly said hello.
The woman was quiet for a moment, fidgeting with the tablecloth. She looked away as she fumbled for words.
“I don’t think I’m prejudiced,” she said, then cut herself off. “I just . . . sometimes I get confused.”
Stevenson nodded patiently, smiling. This was the whole point.
“I’ve never really known a Muslim,” the woman admitted, meeting Stevenson’s gaze. “But I would like to.”
This is what the day’s conversations demanded: a commitment to honesty and a willingness to learn. All around the room, people were opening themselves, at the expense of privacy and awkwardness and vulnerability.
“What made you want to do this?” a woman asked Erin Berg, 32, whose title was “Autistic, Gay, but so much more.”
“I just wanted to impress upon people that I’m not just a label. I’m not just one thing,” Berg said, lacing and unlacing her fingers. “I’m not just autistic. I’m not just gay. I’m a nerd. I really love my dog.”
The woman nodded and shared a story of a friend who had two autistic sons. Through them, she said, she knew that living as a person with autism — even high-functioning — was full of challenges. She asked Berg what things were difficult for her.
Berg, who lives in Crofton, Md., explained that her autism makes her highly sensitive. She can’t stand to wear jewelry or tightfitting clothes. Today, she wore a loose sweatshirt with a “Lilo & Stitch” T-shirt beneath it. She recalled how, as a kid, she’d thrash and scream when her mother put her in outfits that made her uncomfortable.
“Back then I couldn’t explain, ‘This outfit makes me feel anxious and nauseous, like I’m crawling out of my skin,’ ” she said. “I’d just be yelling, ‘Get it off, get it off!’ ”
The weight of the conversations was evident, as people emerged from the room teary-eyed and sniffling. Many said they could handle only doing one or two — it was so draining to give up so much of themselves, to let someone in so deeply.
“I can’t handle any more,” one man confessed to his wife as they sat in the lobby. “I feel like I need all day just to process the two conversations I had.”
Many people, like Trial, had come to challenge their preconceptions of those unlike them. But over and over, people found themselves confronting their shared struggles, not their differences.
The open slot Trial was given was with Caitlin Smith, a woman who suffers from complex PTSD. Trial was expecting someone who’d survived a natural disaster or served in the military. But when she sat down at the table, along with another man, and saw Smith’s books, she was jarred. These were books she owned, that helped her cope with parental abuse. This was someone like her.
As Smith spoke of her childhood and the traumas that had given her PTSD — days of being ignored and underfed as punishment, feeling unloved by the people who were supposed to love her most, dissociating to protect herself from parental rages — Trial nodded in recognition. As the conversation moved toward how to heal, they rattled off book titles and strategies for managing their pain. They bonded over their connection to the moon cycle as a symbol that everything will pass: Smith had it on a ring, Trial had it tattooed on her arm.
“A big part of it is how you learn to put on a mask,” Smith said. “But my value is in being able to see past other people’s masks, because I have my own.”
When the librarian informed them their 15 minutes were up, the women embraced. Afterward, Trial sat quietly in the lobby with her husband, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, explaining how caught off-guard she’d been.
“I was overwhelmed,” Trial said. “I could have spent another hour with her.”
Later in the afternoon, as Smith sat waiting for the next session to begin, Trial went back inside and handed Smith her business card. Maybe these connections didn’t have to be fleeting, she thought. Maybe this could just be the start.