Australian-American author Sarah Krasnostein’s lates,t The Believer: Encounters With the Beginning, The End, And Our Place in the Middle, is such a difficult book to do justice to. Nominally, it’s about some of the oldest storytelling topics of love, death, and how we occupy the present, told through the author’s “journey to discover why people need to believe in absolute truths and what happens when their beliefs crash into her own.” I’ve mentioned often what an important topic I think this is, whether it’s interrogating religion or closely examining conspiracy theories, and this is a must-read if you love these kind of journalistic deep-dives into Characters with a capital C, told in a kind of weird, emotional, ambitious, lyrical style.
Like her previous book, The Trauma Cleaner, it’s a sensitively done look at unusual, passionate people, threaded with memoir including her own presence in the story, and peppered with related research. She takes it beyond the more obvious examples of belief versus skepticism — like ghosts, UFOs, and creationism — and looks at ideas around “dying with dignity and autonomy,” how honest we are with ourselves, or with reconciling deep-rooted belief with hard evidence.
Something I especially liked was her respect for others’ beliefs even as she signals to the reader that she’s clearly on team science. She still acknowledges that there’s something powerful that stokes belief and the dedication to it. But she’s also honest in her own experiences alongside her subjects, who are in their element, while bringing both scientific and psychological research along with a patient understanding of why impossible beliefs hold such appeal in the first place: “I do not sense a ghost but, often, absence is more terrifying than presence.” Although her personal memoir isn’t as wild as her subjects’, she knows when and how to tell bits of her own story to emphasize the bigger points she’s making.
It would save me, his seemingly secret knowledge that the homes we build in our heads are no safer than the ones we build in the world. And that the only solution to this is no solution at all, but rather one breath; and the next one.
One of the most moving stories is Lynn’s, a woman who had her abusive ex-husband killed rather than let him abuse their son. She was convicted and served decades before settling into a halfway house in her 70s. It’s a heartbreaking story, but Lynn is such an interesting figure: someone who acknowledges the darkness of what she’s done — including hiring someone to murder and the effect that had on that man — while defending her reasoning and accepting the life she’s had and future before her. It’s this humbling narrative of being hit with all the worst-case scenarios and just keeping on.
I also really liked the story of Australian pilot Frederick Valentich, who disappeared after radioing that he saw a UFO (he was a big believer in them) told through Krasnostein’s interviews with his former fiancee, Rhonda. It’s a weird, perplexing story I’d never heard of (although, serendipitously, Last Podcast on the Left covered it a few weeks after reading this!).
I did wish she had pushed some of her subjects a bit harder, namely the religious ones (the entire project began thanks to her seeing a Mennonite choir performing in the New York City subway). A scientist working on behalf of the Creation Museum (always a horror/delight to see this thing pop up in a story) and a neurobiologist who believes in the paranormal and goes ghost-hunting are highlights.
Like one of the issues I had with The Trauma Cleaner, the writing here can sometimes be flowery and unnecessarily complex. When it works for me (“the fact that everything changes is the knife of the world but also its gift”) I love it but when it doesn’t it can be tough to read, since you have to reread fancily worded but clunkier sentences a few times to figure them out.
Still, I enjoyed this much more than The Trauma Cleaner, and I think it’ll be one of my favorites this year. It was always compelling, and Krasnostein (interestingly also a lawyer in addition to a writer) again approaches her topics with such a humanistic bent that you get that very rare experience of feeling like you understand other people a little bit better.
The format is somewhat odd but one I ended up absolutely loving, considering the shortening of my attention span over time. Chapters are short and each one alternates between three subjects per section. This really worked for me, and kept me from reading another book at the same time as this one, although for readers with stronger attention spans who like one story told start to finish, the topic shifts might be less appealing.
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published March 1, 2022 by Tin House Books
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.