In the prologue of The believer: encounters with the beginning, the end and our place in the middleSarah Krasnostein tells us that what drove her to pursue the following six profiles was a need “to understand them, these people I found unfathomable, attached to faith in ideas that went against the tide of more accepted realities. say that I needed to get closer to something, to someone, who seemed very far to me.”
The distance between Krasnostein, a journalist with a doctorate in criminal law who identifies herself as entering “a secular humanist Jewish basket,” and her subjects – a Buddhist death doula, a group of paranormal ghost hunters, “doctoral scientists” on the staff of the Creation Museum (which promotes a literal interpretation of Genesis), a woman who spent half her life in prison for the murder of her abusive husband, the fiancé of a missing pilot and ufologists who claim to know what happened to him, and a Mennonite mission in the Bronx – initially seems vast, as do the distances between the subjects. What unites the six profiles is how these people cling to belief in things that cannot be empirically proven, what Krasnostein calls “certainty in the absence of knowledge.” These beliefs, as varied as they are, testify to the confidence that the existential enigmas of human life – how it began, how it ends, what comes next, what else is out there, how to make peace with its realities – are not only responsible, but have precise answers.
The Krasnostein project in The believer, to try to understand – really understand – his subjects and their beliefs, reminded me of a rhetorical concept that I used to teach in composition classes in college, a concept that I was not not really sure it was doable. It comes from Wayne C. Booth, the literary critic who coined the term “unreliable narrator” in his 1961 book The rhetoric of fiction. In composition studies, however, Booth is best known for The rhetoric of rhetoric: the quest for effective communication. There he delves into the ethics of rhetorical techniques, issuing the command that “It is ethically wrong to pursue or lean on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, when it is right to seek understanding . . . .Pursuing mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves care.” The holy grail of this type of rhetoric is what Booth calls “eavesdropping rhetoric”: “I’m not just looking for a truce; I want to search for the truth behind our differences.” This empathetic stance, of truly listening to someone whose beliefs are radically different from one’s own without trying to crush them, underlies Krasnostein’s approach, although she admits that “one of the lies that writers tell is that everything must be understood”.
Of course, it is easier to listen to some beliefs than others, easier to sympathize with the determination to face death with open eyes than with the conviction that God intends death to be a punishment for human sin. . While Krasnostein spent a remarkable amount of time with each of his subjects, meeting some over a period of years, we only spend a few pages with them at a time. This is due to the fact The believer is organized not in six discrete linear profiles, but in 53 short chapters where the six profiles intersect and loop into a sort of mix tape.
Initially, it’s shocking to spend two pages meeting with Dr. Vladimir Dubaj, a Melbourne neuroscientist who is researching data supporting the existence of the paranormal, and to switch to a three-page meeting with the Creation Museum in Kentucky. (Krasnostein divides his time between the United States and Australia, and the stories of The believer reflect this divide.) But as The believer progress and harmonies accumulate among what Krasnostein calls “six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable”, the brilliance of this approach is revealed. I don’t know if I would have had the patience to read 40 pages in a row about the Museum of Creation listening to a geologist who believes that God created the world in six days and that scientific facts support this claim, a ” flavor of logic” I find infuriating. But by reading this story among the others in small slices, I was able to better appreciate the underlying commonalities that reveal aspects of the human condition.
Even with the position of listening rhetoric, Krasnostein does not just act as a microphone for the beliefs of his subjects; she repels them at crucial moments. His approach is not to demystify, but to provide philosophical and personal interjections that allow a deeper look at why people believe what they believe and how certain beliefs can “stun” us. For “In the Beginning,” that means bringing in Hannah Arendt and her own family’s Holocaust story. Positioned against the assertive answers provided by apologists who work for the museum, Krasnostein gives us an excerpt from Arendt’s book The life of the mind: “‘[T]o lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and stop asking unanswered questions [be to] lose…the ability to ask all the unanswered questions on which all civilization is built.” A little later, she reminisces about Holocaust Memorial Day at her elementary school, reading a poem by Hannah Szenes, who believed that Nazi “atrocities were not incompatible with the beauty of the world and a God reigning over it all.” These interspersions expose a deeper “truth behind our differences,” as Booth would say.
Although it was the same curiosity and desire to bridge the gap that drove Krasnostein to all of these topics, some are more compelling than others. I was most drawn to Annie the doula of death, the subject Krasnostein herself seemed most comfortable with. Given the subject of his first book, The Trauma Cleanser, which portrays a woman cleaning up the aftermath of crime scenes, fires and suicides, it’s no surprise. Here, the distance between the worldviews was such that Krasnostein seemed to wish he could collapse. It would be nice to accept radically, as Annie does, that our lives are ephemeral, to know that “the fact that everything changes is the knife of the world but also its gift”.
I had the hardest time with the profile of the Mennonite missionaries. It was the Mennonites who started Krasnostein’s project – she was drawn to a choir of them singing in a south Bronx subway station, wanted to understand their beliefs and their separatist way of life and why she was so ” pierced” by their harmonies. I questioned the purpose of including another group of Christian fundamentalists, especially since they too are dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people in these pages, and because initially it looks like Krasnostein wants to connect with them. Eventually she withdraws from them, acknowledges “for the best” that they haven’t converted more members to their church given their “hateful stance on differences”, and that kind of division – where a person believes that another person should not exist – maps the limits of listening-rhetoric.
Ultimately, however, The believer achieves its objective of crossing distances, of transcending oneself in order to understand the other. Towards the end, Krasnostein writes, “I believe we are united in the emotions that drive us in the beliefs that separate us.” The harmony of feelings that unfolds through these different stories testifies to this.
Kristen Martin is working on a book about the American orphanage for Bold Type Books. His writings have also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.