Book review: Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is one of those books that I haven’t been able to decide if I should read. But I knew as soon as I heard comedian Karen Kilgariff describe another of British journalist Jon Ronson’s books, Lost at Sea, that I had to read this one immediately. I love journalistic essays, especially ones dealing with missing people (like those mysteriously disappeared from cruise ships, the subject of the title essay), cults donating kidneys en masse, pop star Robbie Williams’ interest in UFOs and the paranormal, dubious “mind gurus”, alternative religions, psychic fraud, conspiracy, and mysterious scandal and tales of odd behavior in general. It’s all here in droves.
I think most of these essays were previously published elsewhere, dating back to the early 2000s. But none of it felt dated, and much of the subject matter was entirely new to me anyway. Some of it, despite not being cutting-edge new, remains relevant. Like “Amber Waves of Green”, a piece looking at American taxpayers on wildly different levels including their divergent opinions on spending, charity and the system. Or another, “Who Killed Richard Cullen?” about the sinister and very sad results of predatory lending practices and credit problems.
Ronson’s investigative technique is hands-on but not necessarily research intensive, or maybe it just appears that way. The research he employs is more personally experimental, less scientifically thorough. Much of the material centers around his enrolling in workshops, seminars, or conferences, attending gatherings to get an insider’s look at the workings of certain groups, leaders and beliefs. So his style is very observational. He has a way with interviews too, allowing his subjects to tell important parts of the stories themselves, whether they’re kooky or meaningful, which ends up being more revealing and enlightening about the topic.
It was somewhat problematic that much of his information, the majority of the basis of these essays, really – appears to be based on on-scene observation as opposed to deeper research, when I think a little more balance would’ve lent additional credibility. But there’s still much to be said for what can be seen with one’s own two eyes, and it’s clear he wants to let direct observation do the heavy lifting in his particular breed of investigative journalism.
One of my favorite pieces was “Is She for Real?” about controversial TV psychic Sylvia Browne. Ronson goes on a cruise where she’s – in residence, I guess, you would call it – appearing as some kind of featured performer but the draw of the cruise is clearly to see her. Ronson traces Browne’s history, popularity, and controversy before recounting his experience and the impressions others have on the cruise. Much of the essay deals with the particular awful brand of fraud many psychics operate in, claiming to be able to locate missing persons and give grieving families closure. Browne has been infamously wrong in a number of such cases, and Ronson gives both the practice and Browne herself tongue-in-cheek consideration.
I also loved “The Chosen Ones”, in which Ronson writes about what happens at a meeting of “Indigo children”, children who are “super-evolved chosen ones” and whose parents, with the help of a doctor running these special programs, have determined they’re psychic, deeply spiritual, otherworldly beings. They’re dragged through spiritual exercises and meditation meant to channel their psychic powers and help them regress to learn about past lives. As Ronson observes, most of the children seem either perfectly normal, or to have ADHD or a similar condition. Intrigued by a My Kid’s Psychic documentary, he attends an Indigo children meeting.
Nikki produces a number of blindfolds. She puts them over the eyes of half the children and instructs them to walk from one end of the room to the other.
The idea is for the unblindfolded kids to telepathically communicate to the blindfolded ones where the tables and chairs and pillars are. Nikki says this is half an exercise in telepathy and half an exercise in eradicating fear.
“Part of the reason why you’re here,” she tells the children—and by “here” she means on this planet as part of a super-evolved Indigo species—“is to teach the grown-ups not to feel fear.”
The exercise in telepathy begins. And it gives me no pleasure to say this, but blindfolded children immediately start walking into chairs, into pillars, into tables.
“You’re not listening, Zoe!” shouts Nikki, just after Zoe has collided with a chair. “We were [telepathically] saying ‘Stop!’”
“I can’t hear!” says Zoe.
The title essay is haunting, exploring the strange phenomenon of people disappearing from cruise ships, including both a neglectful attitude and even efforts by cruise lines, Disney among them, to cover up elements of the disappearances or manipulate the facts surrounding them. Like many pieces here, it’s worth a reread or further examination, not just because it’s weirdly intriguing, but because it sheds light on something very wrong.
I especially loved the range of topics he explored, so I think this collection would’ve been a winner for me regardless of how well it’s written, but his writing style additionally appealed to me so much. It’s somewhat staccato, breezy, but always packing a lot of information into seemingly simple sentences. He also has this wonderful way of phrasing things simplistically and directly without ever sounding lazy, boring, or like he’s plainly rattling off facts. I don’t even know how he does it. But it makes everything he writes interesting and easy to absorb, which is a great ability for an investigative journalist to have.
Since reading this, I’ve found that The Men Who Stare at Goats is written similarly. It means that you inhale his books. I love reading them, they’re so much fun, I just think I’m forgetting half of what I read because I read it so quickly. Yet also since reading it, the stories from Lost at Sea keep popping into my head – these lives and situations leave you with a lot to think about.
Most of all, I liked that the book consistently stokes curiosity. Even when I wasn’t fascinated by Ronson’s choice of topic, or I didn’t entirely agree with his opinions or presentation (the worst essay was “The Fall of a Pop Impresario” about convicted pedophile Jonathan King; a too-long, uncomfortable and seemingly tone-deaf Guardian piece that just shouldn’t exist, really) I generally found something interesting and worthwhile in each piece. These are smart, often silly, hands-on observations of the strange and unusual, curated and punctuated by a journalist’s questioning and led by his own curiosity and skepticism. 4/5
Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries
by Jon Ronson
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