Early in This Brilliant Darkness, the new book of essays and profiles by Jeff Sharlet, we see a photo and short profile of Mike, a 34-year-old night baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. This is his final shift. He’s going to paint the walls of a church, high up on a ladder: “You can’t be afraid up there.” A tear, tattooed by his right eye, is for his son—”who died when he was two months old.”
These moments fill Sharlet’s fascinating, heartfelt book. He has a knack as a writer, as a person, for capturing people in image and word. Sharlet has always been interested in the way the stories we tell shape and reveal the meanings in our lives—with good and bad results (see The Family; and the Netflix series version, for an example of the latter).
Sharlet teaches at Dartmouth College, where he is associate professor of English and creative writing. He is an editor at large for Virginia Quarterly Review, and his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Oxford American, and The New York Times Magazine. The Family, a celebrated Netflix series, was based on his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
We spoke about belief, sharing stories, and bearing witness to this world.
The Millions: Early in the book, there’s a scene of you driving “over the Green Mountains, to Schenectady” to visit your father. It’s a frequent trip, and you almost always drove at night: “It seemed easier, the steep twisting road more likely to belong to me alone; the radio, when I could find a station, less clogged with news and yet more alive with voices. Night shift-voices.” Those voices, you write, believe “in God, or aliens, or blue-green algae.” You wanted to believe “in other people’s nightmares and dreams, projected onto the black night-glass of the car windows.” It’s beautiful writing, and it makes me wonder: now that the book is finished, do you believe in those nightmares and dreams? What do you believe the night does to them, to us, to you?
Jeff Sharlet: I believe in nightmares and dreams the way I believe in God—what matters most about stories, I think, is what people do with them, how they shape our lives. Whether they’re “real” or not matters, too—I’m a journalist, I love that creature we call “a fact”—but I’m moved by the great modernist poet Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The stories we tell with those “real toads,” the facts, are the imaginary gardens in which we live. Night is a fact, but my experience of it, then and now, is the imaginary garden for which I’ve attempted to write a geography. In the book, I write that darkness isn’t the absence of light, it’s the presence of ink, the stuff from which letters and words and stories are made. I’m not such an insomniac anymore—making this book maybe cured me of that—but I still see night in those terms.
TM: Late one night you stop to see Larry, owner of Treasure Center—“a grackle’s shop of shiny pop culture detritus, samurai swords, and Franklin Mint collectibles.” You say his store also has the best “religious kitsch” that you’ve seen in a while, but he doesn’t like that description. You buy plastic hands—”painted pink matte over veiny knuckles and long pointed fingers, as if they’d come from a horror model kit repurposed for prayer”—and when you think of them later, you write the “faith that put them in a glass case” was “as free of irony as I am of the divine.” Here—and elsewhere in your writing—you often come back to God and absence. Why the frequent return to these subjects? Why—if the perceived irony of Larry’s kitsch exists—are you still drawn to belief?
JS: I think of something my writing students sometimes say, about a book or a story dealing with some reality very different from the way they understand their lives. “I can’t really relate to it,” they say. To which I respond: we read, we look, we try to perceive the world because whether or not we can relate to any given reality, it may well relate to us. That is, the story—broadly speaking here, belief—matters to my life whether or not I believe. I’d better try to understand it. But that’s just being pragmatic. I’ve always been drawn to belief as a nonfiction writer because to engage with it you have to reach beyond the stack of facts that comprise ordinary journalism. Who-what-where-when-why does not account for what Larry saw in those prayer hands, which matters as much or more than any kitsch I might perceive.
TM: In one photo, a man is on the ground, spread in front of a gated archway, smothered in birds. It’s an almost impossibly perfect shot: some birds are mid-flight, others scurry toward him, and one faces the camera. Early in the book, you write that phone cameras can capture a state of reality that the technological perfection of more advanced cameras cannot. Phone cameras, you describe, capture “sort of what it looked like, something like what I saw, something like what I felt.” Like so much of This Brilliant Darkness, this is really worth pondering. What is that space between reality and artifice? Is it art? The man smothered in birds—is that moment real?
JS: The pigeon man—he preferred not to use his name—a sort of St. Francis of Dublin, where I met him, is real, and that moment—that snapshot—is as real as any other moment that’s past. The snapshot is its memorial, its echo, its ghost. A friend calls these pictures+words “ghost poems,” and adds, “only, these ghosts show up in photographs.” That feels right to me. The space between reality and artifice—which is, of course, the only means we have to attempt to represent reality—is what we speak of when we speak of documentary art. I’m drawn to work that accounts for the approximation, the mediation of the one who looks and listens and tries to understand. I think there’s a transparency—a hopeful transparency—in recognizing that I can’t tell the pigeon man’s story, or anybody else’s story, any more than I can be a “voice for the voiceless,” an inadvertently arrogant bit of phrasing. These people’s stories, and voices, are their own. What I can share is my story about the moments between us, stories that are made up of bits and pieces of both of us. There’s an idea that empathy is something you extend to another. I don’t think that’s quite right—I think it’s something that happens, usually in brief moments—maybe only the duration of a snapshot, a conversation—between people. Maybe it’s a process of seeing and being seen, that vulnerability like a flickering current between you.
TM: Mary, a 62-year-old woman who lives in a motel, cracks open her door when you knock. “You want to interview me,” she says. “Why? I don’t have any power!” She finally invites you inside. Why did she let you in? Why did people—strangers—talk to you during the years you worked on this book?
JS: Because I asked? I don’t know. As a journalist, with an assignment and a notebook in hand, it’s easy for me to break the fourth wall of daily life. That’s my job. This book was different. I told people I was working on a book, but nobody cared one way or the other about that. I wasn’t on assignment. I found it awkward and embarrassing, sometimes, to approach people who I hoped to talk with often for reasons I myself didn’t yet understand. And those people opened the door, when they did, for as many reasons as there are people in the book. We speak of “taking a photograph,” and some writers thank “subjects” for allowing them to “take their time.” But those manners obscure a much more interesting and often more intimate exchange. I can’t “take” Mary’s photograph, unless I’m sneaking up on her, which I’d never do. For better or worse, we made those images together. Mary wasn’t much interested in them—she’d glance at them—but maybe that was because her contribution—her body, her self—was already so vast. Likewise, I can’t “take” her time. She’s not really my “subject,” I have no authority over her. She opened the door for her own reasons, and this is my story about the time we spent together. Maybe that seems limited, but I don’t think so—I keep coming back to this beautiful line from Leslie Jamison’s brilliant book The Recovering—“the saving alchemy of community.” Leslie’s writing about the recovery community, but I think that alchemy is possible—I think I felt it, anyway—in the smaller exchange of stories that make up this book. This is sentimental, I know, but here I embrace that—there’s a poem in the book my daughter said when she was very little. She’s sort of a quiet current throughout the book—there are ways in which it was written to her and her brother, though they may not read it for years (or ever!). She said: “The night I was born / you were born / we were born / we were born together.” That to me is what the book is about. I think it can be true far beyond the bounds of family.
TM: “Sensation is what’s possible when seeing won’t change anything, when you don’t know enough to bear witness, when all you have is the fact of your eyes, the fact of the camera: a record of things, seen and unseen.” What a fantastic line. Bear witness, seen and unseen, there’s the vocabulary of belief (almost liturgically so). Do you still take photos? What sensation remains now that the book—these stories, these images—is out in the world?
JS: I do still take photographs, though since the heart attack at the end of the book—mine, three years ago—not as many. I’m fully recovered, healthy, I move more than ever, but I do feel sometimes as if even just the fact of my eyes is enough, that the fact of the camera is sometimes more than I need. That line accompanies an image of a burning car, [which I believe] is the same as is on the cover. There’s a body in the car. I was second on the scene; shortly after a young cop arrived. There was absolutely nothing he could do—the car was an inferno. But the next day in the news the police said he had tried to rescue the burning person. That broke my heart a little. I thought that shamed the cop in a way that was terribly wrong, because the undercurrent of that false statement was that somehow he had failed because he had not incinerated himself to recover a body from which any soul was already smoke. I get where the impulse to tell that untrue story comes from, I think. We don’t like to admit the damage done, we’d rather believe it’s never too late than learn how to live with hurt and loss. Bearing witness is, I think, a big part of how we live with hurt and loss. Sometimes when we insist on greater powers than we possess, we obscure powers we actually have. You ask what sensation remains. I think witness remains. The book—originally I subtitled it “a memoir of other people’s lives”—is just a marker of what I saw. Like any book, really. A snapshot. As real as all the other moments that pass and still linger.