Once upon a time – I would say it was during the George HW Bush administration – I had the idea of writing a book about women whose lives were circumscribed by their attachment to their religious beliefs and practices. I was fascinated by the choices they made in a modern world and wanted to understand how they managed to live in late 20th century America. I’m sorry I never wrote this (note to my agent: what do you think?), but if I did, I hadn’t planned to include people who claimed to communicate with the dead, people who believed in UFOs, yeti hunters or ghost hunters. And no members of cults or for-profit organizations like Scientology.
Krasnostein’s generous and compassionate book, “The Believer: Encounters With the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle,” recounts his experiences with followers of eccentric or, say, science fiction beliefs, as well as with many Christians, who are treated with respect. His tour of humanity, spanning unlit country roads in Australia to crumbling apartments in the South Bronx, shows that many human beings benefit from the discovery of an ideology that not only encompasses their beliefs, but also their lifestyles. I don’t know if Krasnostein is amused, gullible, or just tolerant of ghost-types, and that’s one of her gifts.
After watching the Subway Choir performance, the author watched other Mennonite choirs on YouTube – and, she writes, she felt “tears burn my eyes”. It was not the songs or the talent of the singers that moved her. “It’s not a question of technical mastery,” she explains. “The voices are by no means perfect. But each time, it provokes in me a certain reserve of feelings, a tenderness. What moved her was discovering how the members of the choir learned to sing together in harmony. “’They grew up with it,’ explains Becky, the pastor’s wife. “At church, we don’t have a choir because we want everyone to be involved. Krasnostein realizes: “That’s all, really. These songs are houses with warm parts for everyone. This is what it might look like.
That moment on the subway provided the big bang for this book. Krasnostein met several Mennonite families who had moved from their small, homogeneous community in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, (population 3,201) to spread the word of Jesus to the black and Latino population of Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx. They gave birth there, they homeschooled their children there, and they basically created little bubbles of whiteness and innocence in the bare city.
Krasnostein often mentions his Jewish heritage and the European roots and emigration of his ancestors. And yet, she had no trouble absorbing the serenity of her Mennonite subjects sitting in their cramped apartments with children in the Bronx.
When she spent time at Kentucky’s Creation Museum and Ark Encounter – where “a life-size Noah’s Ark. . . [rests] on an endless stretch of grass in the middle of nowhere” (just off I-75 halfway between Cincinnati and Lexington) – his legacy was not well appreciated, nor was his belief that dinosaurs died out millennia before people existed. The evolution-denying scientists she interviewed at those giant theme parks were believers, theorizing about how Noah and his family fed the dinosaurs that arrived in pairs. – who knew? – aboard his 510-foot-long ark, if their calculations are correct.
We meet Katrina, a beautiful young mother who is dying of cancer. Krasnostein was introduced to him by Annie, a death doula and a monk who had been married several times. It’s hard to decide who’s more interesting – the social activist mother of three with terminal cancer who tries to do everything right for her children, or Annie, who as part of her introduction to Krasnostein shared the notes of suicide that she had written while he was deeply depressed 20 years earlier. Annie had already been pronounced dead (for three minutes in her twenties after an overdose) and had come to view every setback and trial in life as an opportunity for learning and growth.
Krasnostein jumps from topic to topic and back again, with the fluidity of a coiled string for a cat’s cradle game – back and forth to where she started. She takes us to Vlad Dubaj, a biomedical imaging doctor who enjoys visiting haunted houses where he communicates with “ghosts”. And we get to know Lynn, a 70-year-old grandmother who spent 35 years – half her life – in prison for the murder of her ex-husband after throwing their 2-year-old son down the stairs. Now living in a homeless shelter in New York, Lynn spends her days working and volunteering at Trinity Church as a devout Episcopalian.
Faith in something can bring a community together for its adherents, and it can separate those people from the larger community. What becomes clear soon enough is that people who believe in things considered “marginal” often only share those ideas privately. They live both among us and apart from us. We learn that believers in the paranormal and the UFO abductions often choose not to to share their experiences or opinions with most strangers, lest they lose the other party the respect. But the author judges person. His empathy fills its pages. She even admits: “I had never thought of anxiety as an autoimmune disease before. But of course.”
You won’t meet any skeptics in “The Believer”. Take Rhonda, who started dating Fred when she was 16 and he was 19. Her dream was to become a commercial airline pilot. Their dream was to get married and start a family together. Unfortunately, Fred did poorly in his necessary exams and his path to certification was a long one. Fred’s last communication was on October 21, 1978, when he flew over water one night before meeting Rhonda for a date. Audio tapes from the control tower reveal that he was having difficulty in his Cessna. He told the controller in Melbourne that there was an unusual object flying just above his craft. This was causing problems with his equipment and radio. He disappeared that night and no trace of his plane or his body was ever found.
In Australia, where vast swaths of land and sky seem to harbor a host of mysterious sightings, Fred has become famous and almost idolized, especially by communities that take UFOs seriously. To this day, Rhonda puts on her engagement ring once a year on their anniversary. She thinks of him every day – as the love of her life – despite the other relationships she has formed since Fred’s disappearance. Rhonda’s life was set back on this day in 1978. She believes in love, and she believes Fred’s bodily disappearance is connected to something mysteriously extraterrestrial, which in her eyes is more a good thing than a bad thing. a bad.
Throughout his story, we feel not only Krasnostein’s compassion, but also his desire. While some people in the book prefer pseudonyms to protect their privacy, Krasnostein was admirably successful in gaining the trust of his subjects. His talent for penetrating intimate circles and eliciting personal testimonies is impressive. The profiles are fascinating – I can’t imagine talking to paranormal enthusiasts for more than 10 minutes without falling asleep or secretly checking my phone, but the Krasnostein portraits left me with a feeling of melancholy all the same. We all want so badly to belong, to believe, to connect, to be whole, to be good – and that’s a lot, that you work at the Ark Encounter in Kentucky or pursue aliens in Victoria.
Encounters with the beginning, the end and our place in the middle
Tin house. 397 pages. $27.95