Some minis today: A town with no WiFi, growing up in a sex cult, and the unsolved murder of a Jazz Age dancer. They have nothing in common besides their blue-green cover schemes. I didn’t plan it that way, but I like it!
The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence was one of my most anticipated this year. Unfortunately, it fell flat for me.
Author Stephen Kurczy, himself a luddite who doesn’t own a cell phone, investigates the small town of Green Bank, West Virginia: home to the Green Bank Observatory, “where astronomers search the depths of the universe using the latest technology […] With a ban on all devices emanating radio frequencies that might interfere with the observatory’s telescopes, Quiet Zone residents live a life free from constant digital connectivity.”
This was billed as a Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-type exploration of quirky personalities in an unusual locale, but I struggled to get interested in it once the initial curiosity of a place without WiFi or radio waves, and a population with no interest in such, wore off. The portraits of the residents didn’t really capture me, and there wasn’t enough about what living there was actually like to give me a good understanding. I still well remember a time before constant scrolling and I guess I wanted to know more what it would be like to live that way now, but this didn’t quite deliver.
It’s also a bit depressing alongside the recent spotlight on how truly terrible parts of West Virginia’s infrastructure, including electricity and internet connectivity, really are. Green Bank takes it to another level by banning WifFi and radio waves, of course, but I guess it seemed less extreme considering this.
The most interesting element to me were the people who feel that they’re suffering from some kind of allergic reaction to wireless transmissions and consider Green Bank a refuge. It’s quite sad because they’re clearly ill with something, but their diagnosis remains questionable.
If you’re especially interested in the work of the Observatory I’d recommend it, otherwise my search for anything that remotely feels like that magical mix of eccentric characters and rich locale that Midnight captures continues. (published August 3, 2021, buy it used or new at SecondSale.com)
Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult, by Faith Jones (November 5, 2021, buy it used or new at SecondSale.com)
There have been a number of memoirs coming out in recent years from former members of the second generation of the Children of God (the Family), that is, children born or led into the group at a young age by their parents. Faith Jones, now an accomplished lawyer doing lots of impressive-sounding international work as well as a TED speaker, writes a haunting but wholly compelling saga of her childhood in the group, mainly living on their farm compound in Macau with stints elsewhere, like Thailand and Japan. It covers the time until her entry into college in the United States, including her family’s various punishments when falling out of favor and exiles from the Family over the years.
She’s actually creepy founder David Berg’s biological granddaughter, although she never even met him. Everything about this group is so strange, and Jones shows so clearly what living under it was like. This might be one of the best examples I’ve encountered of what the inner workings and day-to-day life in such a group is actually like. Like others who have managed to get away from cults and abusive upbringings, education was a major motivator and driver of change for Jones, and her accomplishments considering where and how she started are nothing short of incredible.
Her relationship with her mother really resonated with me – not the sex parts (and oh my god, what her mother lets her see and do! I shrieked and cringed and felt sick) but the extremes of a pal-type friendship and yet her mother’s teasing at Faith’s expense. I hadn’t quite seen this explored before the way it was here and it captured the dynamic of that weird kind of relationship so well.
Actually everything here is exceptionally well done, and Jones is a truly beautiful and skilled writer. She manages to write convincingly from a child’s perspective as well as from her adult one, and she explores so much about what she thinks of certain experiences now, with hard-earned perspective. It manages to be funny and incredibly touching even as it’s sometimes completely horrifying (fair warning – it’s often explicit: Jones was sexually abused more times than I can count). But her writing is eloquent and she’s clearly very intelligent and well-adjusted, so it ends up feeling more inspiring than upsetting.
There’s been some questioning about the “nun” aspect of the title, as Jones never actually becomes a Catholic nun, let’s get that out of the way. She explains that her existence was nun-like, devoted entirely to Christ at great personal sacrifice, even as she had to live in a hypersexualized atmosphere and was encouraged to submit to men whenever they wanted, whether she did or not. So I thought the juxtaposition worked quite well and that it was a pretty fair assessment of what this must have felt like for her.
I’ve really gotten out of reading true crime the last few years (Zodiac interlude aside) but this narrative nonfiction with a Jazz Age historical twist piqued my interest. It’s a very well written, thorough account of the unsolved murder of a young interpretive dancer (cool career alert) named Frieda “Fritzie” Mann in San Diego in 1923.
Author James Stewart spent years researching this story, wanting to work on a lesser known historical crime. He moves through the particulars of Fritzie’s life, from her Jewish family’s immigration to the United States, and on through her last relationships, as two of her boyfriends, a handsome actor and an army doctor, move into the fore as suspects. There’s also speculation about whether this was a murder at all, or if it could have instead been an accident or suicide.
The elements of the crime story are meticulously well done, as Stewart places everything about Fritizie’s behavior and choices in the context of her era, and I learned a lot here. He provides a steady commentary throughout, explaining both the investigation and what’s known of the people involved. At times the detail was even almost too much, as I had trouble retaining some of the particulars, but it is an engaging mystery. It includes the author’s idea of what most likely happened, and I like when someone who has put a significant effort into researching gives this kind of insight as well.
But what really sets this apart is the historical aspect of the story. What starts as a murder mystery becomes an important look at morals and social values in Jazz Age California amidst Prohibition. This was so fascinating in every facet, covering things from daily communications to dating culture. And it’s heartbreaking and unacceptable that certain choices and difficulties Fritzie faced nearly 100 years ago are still the subject of constant debate and legislation today. I have to quote Fiona Apple here: “This world is bullshit.”
Many of Stewart’s primary sources are newspapers, as this became a sensational headline-grabbing story that the press had a field day with. It reminded me in ways of Paul Collins’ The Murder of the Century, in that the newspapers and media culture played such a role in the story. I’m fascinated by this kind of history and I think I enjoyed it even more than the crime story itself, but it’s worth noting that much of the book is culture and socially-related, so if you’re only here for the murder mystery it may not be for you. For an immersive look at the era, it’s great.
I received these as advance copies courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.