A Nightingale in the Lion’s Den

I first met Kaya Genç at his home in Istanbul. It was 2017, and I lived a short walk away, up and down a few steep, sloping streets in the city’s historic core of Beyoglu. The district is a collision course of ideologies, where family grocers and underground factories compete with vegan restaurants and vintage clothiers. It snakes through a swathe of art galleries and antiques dealers before leading to a cross section of two alleyways, Altıpatlar and Çubukçu, which translate to six-shooter and pipe-maker, respectively. Under the nostalgic spell of meters-long Ottoman smokers and the 19th-century weapon-of-choice, the young journalist grinned, approaching mid-career prestige as arguably the most important Turkish writer writing in English still living in Turkey.

Around the corner, The Museum of Innocence received guests into a world of fictive artifacts based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Before becoming a political exile, the Nobel laureate would stroll under the shadow of Armenian tenements to schmooze with curators exhibiting contemporary installations on bare concrete floors, well-lit for teasing out the latest theories in conceptualism. It’s a milieu that Genç captures with verve in his second nonfiction book, The Lion and the Nightingale, which begins and ends on New Year’s Eve, encompassing the bittersweet political and cultural dramas that ensued and changed history in the year 2017 in the Turkish Republic.

Genç poured coffee, and raised his phone to snap a photo of me. He was making a record of every visitor. I was an admiring fellow writer, the younger; a year into my life in Istanbul, far-flung from my Anglo-American world. We wrote for the same arts section of a Turkish daily newspaper’s English-language edition. His criticism displayed a signature deftness and plain professionalism that lent itself to descriptive prose and the creative interpretation of his subjects. His style was spare, and incisive. He introduced his first-person voice with surprising freshness. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won reelection in 2018, Genç finished his New York Times op-ed with a tone of apathy, weary of his nation’s affinities for military coups and single-party rule.

I asked him what his aspirations were, as a writer who had published a novel in Turkish, and reams of journalism in two languages, leading to his 2016 book of reportage about the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, titled Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey. He pointed to a tome by Masha Gessen, one of many stacked and shelved along with magazines of every variety, most including his contributions to the book reviews, from New York, Los Angeles, London, as well as The Nation, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to name a few. He wanted his nonfiction to read like fiction. If that is the litmus test, The Lion and the Nightingale earns its keep.

The book opens tragically, with an intimate account of the Reina Nightclub massacre. Genç has a talent for writing about Turkey to Western taste, providing the usual fare of terror and oppression. Yet, he accommodates multiple perspectives while remaining convincingly independent, at times proudly and transparently leftist. His is the writing of a Turkish journalist committed to freedom of speech and assembly in a country where those rights are endangered. It is a boon for readers to have that delivered to them directly in English, from the source. In his humanist approach to bias, Genç stands with the artists that he portrays so personally in The Lion and the Nightingale. Journalism, Genç defends, is an art. And he has proven its merit as literature.

Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, generally liberals, are symbolized as nightingales by Genç, who sees Turkey’s sociocultural fabric as riven by their confrontation with representatives of militarism, industry and politics. On the right, populist strongmen and conservative demagogues assume his metaphor of lions. That dualism is fixed and encircled by multifarious external forces both malign and freeing, such as Turkey’s vulnerability to international terrorism and the compulsion to fight for individual, free expression as a people divided by ethno-religious majoritarianism, mass incarceration, and multigenerational diaspora.

But, as is typical to nations traditionally allied to the global East, liberalism has had a wholly different narrative in Turkey’s political history than that of Western democracies. Briefly, the Republic of Turkey was born out of a nationalist, secular dictatorship, a totalitarian liberalization led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Lion and the Nightingale is an apt reflection on a mirror-like opposition to Western historical convention. The book’s focal point revolves around the rise of Erdoğan and his unprecedented consolidation of presidential power following the 2017 constitutional referendum. In response, nightingales changed their tune, migrated, or fell silent.

“In the eyes of liberal Turks, Erdoğan’s term in office began promisingly,” he wrote, giving ample background to the counterintuitive progression of Erdoğan’s ascent. “Here was a politician critical of Kemalism. He questioned the nationalistic foundations of the Turkish state. He appeared to criticize its patriarchal national identity. This was music to Nightingales’ ears. For a long while, many artists openly or discreetly supported the governing party. Through their art, they interrogated many aspects of the Turkish identity that it undermined. An awkward period ensued. The Turkish art world’s provocative iconoclasts were saying the same things as Turkey’s conservatives.”

But as he later comments, “Their overlapping agenda with the Lions was too good to be true.” The Lion and the Nightingale is also a work of meta-nonfiction. Genç takes the reader on the adventure of his research, explaining how and why he chose to interview certain people, barbers and housemaids as well as cultural and political elites. He empathizes with workers and their struggle to process their disempowerment. He approaches people especially skeptical and unused to voicing broad, societal concerns, and paints a number of intimate psychological portraits. “There is a strong element of fear of the state among Turks,” he wrote.

Adhering to principles of New Journalism, Genç reports in a way similar to Gay Talese, who confidently inked the thoughts of his sources. The reader rides shotgun with Abdulkadir Masharipov before and after his nightmarish shooting in the first hours of 2017. On his way to gunning down 39 people at Reina Nightclub, Genç profiles the terrorist’s exchange with the cab driver in staggering detail. “He felt awkward when the passenger asked if he could use his mobile,” he wrote. “The passenger was talking to someone he called hodja; the driver thought he was getting spiritual advice from an authority.” Reporting the thoughts and feelings of key witnesses makes for a stiff cocktail of literary journalism and crime drama.

Genç delivered a premeditated shock to the system by opening The Lion and the Nightingale with a sobering account of brutality in the heart of Istanbul. Four chapters chronicle each season set to despair, hope, dissent, and silence, in that order. Cingöz, a married man from a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul, has a nightmare and pens an arabesque poem on his morning commute: “I take refuge inside the smoke of my cigarette.” Genç charts the mental and emotional landscape of his people with visual acumen, to reflect the thoughts of the working class and professional artists that he followed and documented, down to their everyday activities, from the Anatolian countryside to the offices of Hong Kong.

With ample tact, reporting on the private lives of citizens is an ethical balancing act that, when effective, clarifies into the roots and ramifications of widespread social ills. It is particularly strategic when writing about the political atmosphere of a country like Turkey, where people are censored and criminalized for expressing themselves freely in public forums. “There was a gap between people’s views and their articulation in public,” wrote Genç. “In an Istanbul coffeehouse I thought how these two issues, the gap between private and public views, and our ability to cut ourselves off from reality, reflected my conflicted view of the state.”

Orhan Pamuk described the private-public gap in personal opinion most memorably for Genç in his 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, as “evidence of the power of the state.” Frequently, he compares Turkey’s stifling political climate with its complex relationship to American foreign policy, and the old European appetite for Orientalist prejudice. “This belief in our freedom to choose a future for Turkey is a very American way of thinking,” he wrote. As a student, Genç cultivated his unique stance within the domestic political spectrum as an internationalist intellectual. He grew up after Turkey’s first democratically elected politician, Adnan Menderes, fell to a military coup in 1960, entangled in U.S. withdrawal and intervention.

“I sensed people silently considered Turkey as a laboratory that could teach them about the future of the United States more than the history of my country,” he wrote. “I found this frustrating. Treating foreign cultures as testing grounds for their own was quintessential Orientalism.” Leftists Turks label advocates of progressive American values, liboş, or “sissy.” Since the media purge following 2016’s failed coup, foreign journalists increasingly claimed local coverage of Turkey in the international press. “I knew I could face the same prospect. Exile. Friends around me moved to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other European capitals.”

As a self-proclaimed nightingale, Genç has been surprised by his reception at home, where, for example, after the publication of his first nonfiction book, Under the Shadow, about popular resistance against the current government during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, the state-owned television station TRT World invited him to interview. He has a sense of humor remembering how mainstream Turkish newspapers reviewed his book positively. At the same time their columnists were rallying for the unjust detainment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who spent more than two years in Europe’s largest maximum-security jail, located just outside Istanbul, for allegedly funding millions of protestors in 2013. (Kavala was acquitted in February only to be rearrested on equally spurious charges linking him to the 2016 failed coup.) Writing in English is a major part of Genc’s self-preservation. The vendetta against Kavala, Genç reported in his new book, is ideological warfare, waged by the lions incriminating nightingales, i.e. the culture sector, as the opposition.

In his recent essay for The Point, published in May, “How to Lose a Language,” adapted from the book How to Lose a Country by exiled Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, he reflected: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.” His English has a clear, distanced perceptivity underscored by his cultural and linguistic objectivity. The Lion and the Nightingale, however, enters deeply into the work of fellow Turkish journalists who write in Turkish, with special empathy for their struggles, personalities, and careers on the other side of a distinctly opaque language barrier.

One endearing nightingale is named Murat Çelikkan, whose quarter-century service to journalism culminated in his incarceration in the wake of the July 2016 failed coup. Working for a mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became a guest editor at Ozgur Gundem, a daily read mostly by Kurdish people. Genç realized he had walked past the paper’s offices at least twice a day for the last five years when he saw a video of the raid that shut the paper down. Çelikkan could often be seen in the bohemian neighborhood, red in the face and roaring with laughter behind his mischievous smile. But by September of 2016, he was learning Kurdish in a cell with four other inmates. It wasn’t the first time he suffered jail time, nor the second.

“In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues,” Genç wrote about Çelikkan. He also depicts a young journalist named Ömer Şan. When San wrote his first poem in his hometown of Rize, along the Black Sea, a far cry from progressive circles in Istanbul, he shared stomping grounds with Ahmet Erdoğan, the father of the Turkish president. The region, Genç explained, is vital to understanding “New Turkey.”

Şan covered environmental protests, bolstering a tradition that inspired 3.5 million people to join the Gezi movement. “I found Şan’s story interesting not only because he spent his life attending May Days, like me, but also because he was a reporter. He had devoted his life to documenting injustices and stories that define life in Turkey,” Genç wrote in solidarity. “Despite censorship and state pressure, Şan remained a muckraker.” It is a stretch to imagine a nightingale raking the muck of concrete-heavy oppression. But when a country becomes a den of lions, a song, the night, and wings are saving graces. Or, as Genç wrote of his visit to the reclusive, prestigious artist Evlent Kutluğ Ataman, “He seemed victorious to be living in a massive house in the middle of nowhere.”

The Mystery of the Other and Preoccupation with the Self: On Meng Jin’s ‘Little Gods’

In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?

There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:

Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.            

Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
Bonus Link from Our Archive:– Writers to Watch: Spring 2020

Questioning Her Own Questioning: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’

“The impulse to escape our lives is universal,” Leslie Jamison writes in her new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a book—both directly and indirectly—full of methods to escape the doldrums of daily existence: virtual-world games, travel, near-mythic sea creatures, fairy tales, past lives, the unreality of Las Vegas.
Jamison writes, “Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of ‘leaving’ aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.” These lines capture an attitude that runs through the collection, a particular perspective that adheres together the book’s wide array of subjects and styles: even though the manifestations of our interests and beliefs might look vastly different, the same underlying challenges and desires unite us.
Jamison is known best for The Empathy Exams, an essay collection from 2014 propelled to international attention by way of its opening piece, a memoir-driven, braided essay investigating the idea of empathy. In many ways, the book was an unlikely hit. Sharing little in common with humorous personal essay collections—which often reach wide audiences and hit bestseller lists—The Empathy Exams uses a wild mix of forms and styles. It was research-based and journalistic as often as it was personal and more reminiscent of the work of writers like Baldwin and Didion.
But the magic of The Empathy Exams is simple: Jamison is a stunning writer. She’s an emotionally raw and revealing memoirist; a journalist looking outward with a keen and nuanced eye; a literary critic finding clues to understanding the modern world from the literature of the recent past. In the book, she seems to be Jo Ann Beard, Janet Malcom, and Susan Sontag all wrapped into one. And in the years since its release, The Empathy Exams has become a touchstone; one of those books that other books are frequently compared to.
Last year she published The Recovering, a personal and literary history of alcoholism and recovery. But Make It Scream, Make It Burn is the true follow-up for which fans and interested admirers have been waiting. This level of anticipation rarely bodes well. There are so many ways that a follow-up can disappoint and, as great as it is, Make It Scream, Make It Burn will surely disappoint some.
While The Empathy Exams set its tone by beginning with its most personal essay, Make It Scream begins with one of its least personal: “52 Blue,” the story of a lonely whale, singing its own tune, and the humans who turn the whale into a metaphor. It’s perhaps one of the collection’s best essays, but initially it doesn’t seem like an ideal opener; it’s a slow burn, research-heavy, loaded with exposition. It’s only through the second essay—“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” a piece about past-life claims—that “52 Blue” is put into thematic context and the work it’s done as an opener suddenly becomes obvious.
“I’d grown deeply skeptical of skepticism itself,” Jamison writes in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again.” “It seemed easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.”
It’s the ultimate essayist move: a writer questioning her own questioning; pushing against the act of pushing against. Though she never addresses where the boundaries of open-minded consideration lie, the essay’s bid for mystery and wonder feels exciting, almost ecstatic. It’s here that the book picks up speed and the collection’s larger themes come into focus: the limitations of doubt, how narrative and metaphor operate in our daily lives, and the universal need to believe in self-improvement. She writes, “Reincarnation struck me as an articulation of faith in the self as something that could transform and stay continuous at once—in sobriety, in love, in the body of a stranger.”
Jamison is an expert at restraint. She often holds her opinions back to let her readers come to their own conclusions, and she regularly keeps essays from becoming too personal to ensure the subject at hand isn’t overshadowed. But it’s when she lets the reins out—when she momentarily puts her journalist and literary-critic selves to the side—that her talent becomes more obvious.
In “Layover,” Jamison begins with a simple situation—“This is the story of a layover,” she writes. “Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now.”—and lets it expand into the universal, like the perfectly impossible textbook definition of a personal essay and what it can do. What begins as a piece about an annoying, overnight layover develops into a piece about the blurry lines between selflessness and selfishness. “Does graciousness mean you want to help—or that you don’t, and do it anyway?” Jamison writes. “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particular backstory.”
Later in the book, “Rehearsals” opens with a line announcing a certain wildness to come: “Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth.” As unhinged as the best wedding dance party, the essay flips from the second person to first person, bouncing around the country, chronicling the narrator’s experiences as a wedding guest. Beyond its sentence-level play, it manages to also be in conversation with the collection’s ideas about constructing narrative and casting doubt aside. “You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and you’re all in agreement—not to believe in love, but to want to. This, you can do.”
As skeptical as Jamison has become of skepticism, she’s still a skeptic in a certain essayistic sense: she’s always digging deeper, refusing to trust surface appearances, never letting a wedding be just a wedding. “Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings,” she writes. “They give a horizon to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.”
Despite these gems of forward motion, Make It Scream, Make It Burn doesn’t have the same energy of The Empathy Exams. In large part, it’s simply because the book is so neatly organized. While The Empathy Exams bounced between essay forms, giving it an excitement and unpredictability, this collection is broken up into three sections, with similar essays grouped together. The book is perhaps more coherent because of it, but it also creates spots where the pace slows to a crawl—especially in the middle section, where a series of three art and literary criticism essays bogs the book down, despite each essay working individually.
Still, Make It Scream is easily one of the best essay collections of the year, if not of the past decade. Jamison is a superstar of personal essay for a reason—not only is she a great prose stylist and meticulous researcher, she’s also infinitely curious. It’s this curiosity that makes everything she writes so infectious and makes this collection what it is: a wise and open assortment of essays that, throughout, feels like a gift.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fellow Creatures: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’Notes from the Purgatory File: An Interview with Leslie JamisonA Year in Reading: Leslie JamisonBottoming Out: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Recovering’The Millions Interview: Leslie Jamison

Confronting Hypocrisy on the Page: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather’

The bookseller’s baby was three months old, and when the weather turned colder she realized she owned exactly one pair of pants that fit. We lamented the high cost of ethical clothing and how hard it was to justify when one’s body was in transition. We agreed it was all too easy to give in to the temptation of fast fashion, even though we knew its impacts on the environment and human rights. We bemoaned the hunt for secondhand items—how even though there were so many on sale, there were so few of quality. Neither one of us wanted or needed jeans with bedazzled, leopard-print back pockets.

People I know often bring up the topic clothing because they know I sew and write about slow fashion—sustainable, ethical, and slower approaches to consumption that include handmade garments, buying secondhand, and mending. Recently, I started saying little in return—not because I was at a loss for words, but because everything I could say about the subject of clothing and its impacts on the environment and human rights seemed at once too complicated and eternally insufficient.

It’s all been said.

Which is how I imagine Jonathan Safran Foer felt at the outset of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. In his latest nonfiction book, the author outlines how the climate crisis can be partially addressed by reexamining, yet again, our consumption of animal products. It’s a natural progression from 2009’s Eating Animals, which combined memoir and investigative reporting to examine factory farming. Yet We Are the Weather is not interested in rehashing the same arguments as much as it is interrogating why we aren’t acting on what we know.

What we know: the four main ways to help save life on the planet are to eat less meat, drive less, fly less, and have one less child. Foer argues most of us rely on cars to get to work, many of us aren’t flying frequently (and giving up one or two flights a year wouldn’t be too difficult or too impactful), and most people aren’t deciding whether or not to have a child (though as a 32- year-old woman, it does seem like everyone is in the midst of that decision).

Out of these four, the one decision we make on a daily basis is what to eat. Another daily decision that isn’t discussed in We Are the Weather but seems worthy of consideration is what to wear.

The food system is a vastly larger animal (pun intended) than the fashion industry when it comes to ecological impact, but the latter’s influence is not insignificant: the UN reports the fashion industry “consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined,” contributes to approximately 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and produces 20 percent of global waste water. Additionally, 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of the materials could be reused. One pair of denim jeans uses 10,000 liters of water, which would take one person a decade to drink.

And yet knowing what we know doesn’t always lead to action.

Foer spent three years researching Eating Animals, followed by two years of readings, lectures, and interviews about the book. Despite this, the author couldn’t bring himself to abstain from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs.

“So it would be far easier for me not to mention that in difficult periods over the past couple of years—while going through some painful personal passages, while traveling the country to promote a novel when I was least suited for self-promotion—I ate meat a number of times,” Foer writes in We Are the Weather. “Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against.”

He adds, “And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort.”

Last year, after my mother called to say her flight had been cancelled and she wouldn’t make it for Thanksgiving, I drove to the mall. I gravitated toward rows of shoes. A pair of nude heels called out to me: faux suede, ankle strap sandals with a three-inch block heel and cross toe, marked down to $22, which happens to be my lucky number. I tried them on over socks, took a picture, and texted it to my mother, who was still on the bus home from the airport. Should I buy these? 

I knew I shouldn’t. I knew $22 for a pair of shoes meant somewhere someone had cut corners: not paying workers a living wage, unsafe factory conditions, environmentally unsound practices, or all of the above. I knew the materials were not biodegradable, so the shoes would sit in a landfill for longer than I’d ever wear them. I knew it was impractical to buy high-heeled sandals in Wisconsin in November.

And yet I bought them, wore them exactly twice, and still see them in my closet each day. They brought me comfort when I needed consolation, but the alleviation was short-lived, replaced by the discomforting fact of my complicity and hypocrisy.

In the chapter of We Are the Weather titled “Dispute With the Soul,” Foer laments how one of his friends—“a fellow writer and, what’s more, a passionate environmentalist”—refuses to read Eating Animals. “It upsets me because he is a sensitive thinker who cares and writes about the preservation of nature,” Foer writes. “If he is unwilling even to learn about the connection between eating and the environment, what hope is there for hundreds of millions of people to alter their lifelong habits?”

The chapter is a back-and-forth between the author and an unnamed, unidentified entity, presumably the soul, which asks, “Why won’t he read it?” 

Foer’s reply: “He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.”

The author clarifies that he doesn’t intend to make himself out to be better than his friend, but uses “his shortcomings to illustrate my own: if I argue against eating animal products while continuing to eat them myself, then I am a massive hypocrite.” Foer then names this as a problem not because of the impacts of those actions, but because “no one wants to be a hypocrite.”

The author investigates his own hypocrisy by mining history for stories of individuals and collectives, questioning their actions like he interrogates his own. Foer examines whether personal actions matter when the problem is systemic and structural. Everyone I spoke to about the book immediately brought up the same point: our individual habits don’t matter, and focusing on personal responsibility becomes a way of excusing corporations and entire nations whose contributions to the climate crisis are inexcusable.

The title and subtitle seriously oversimplify Foer’s book, and what could be misconstrued as a pedantic and mildly pejorative tome extolling the virtues of veganism is actually an investigation of our daily choices, what they say about us as individuals, and what they could say about humanity. It is not about food so much as it is about life and how to live it, which is fitting as the two are inextricably linked.

Nonfiction is often a presentation of the author’s research tied up with a neat conclusion about what to do with this information. We Are the Weather essentially says: I did the research, I know the conclusion, but I am unable to live into what I know is right and good—not just for me but also for future generations. 

“Confronting my own hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to live—even to try to live—with open eyes,” Foer writes.

Although the environmental impacts of clothing manufacturing are not unpacked in We Are the Weather, Foer collaborated with sustainability-minded designer Stella McCartney on a capsule collection named after the book. It’s not the first time a major label has emblazoned a book’s title on a t-shirt—in 2016, Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, designed white tees featuring the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists for her inaugural collection. Dior’s feminist shirts will set you back $860, while Foer’s are $530 apiece; their high price tags perpetuate the unfortunate notion that slow fashion or feminism are for those who can afford it, as though they are luxuries.

Reflecting on the collaboration three years later, Adichie told Elle, “A t-shirt is not going to change the world, right? But I think change happens when we spread ideas.”

The building and layering of ideas and stories in the book becomes an implicit reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight. Decisions are daily, and the impacts are revealed over time, many of which are unseen by those who have the privilege of choice, keeping us from implementing any personal, meaningful change. At points, Foer returns to the linguistic roots of words like “crisis,” which “derives from the Greek krisis, meaning ‘decision.’”

“Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose what was previously hidden,” he writes. “As the planetary crisis unfolds as a series of emergencies, our decisions will reveal who we are.”

We’re grappling with who we are as a society and culture—not only to let the climate crisis reach this point, but to continue to hurtle down a terrifying trajectory. We may not know who we are just yet, but we know who we don’t want to be: hypocrites—people who act contradictory to their stated beliefs or feelings.

The word hypocrisy is borrowed from the Greek hypokrisis: playing a part on the stage, pretending to be something one is not. Is it a coincidence that the latter half of hypokrisis is the same root as krisis, a decision?

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer
Sentimental and Manipulative: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’
Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’
Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’

Modern Feminism’s Big Lie: On ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

In her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, New York Times Magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner has done something astounding. The astounding thing isn’t that she’s written a book that’s garnered praise in both commercial and literary circles. Although yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a true commercial success, a witty New York Times bestseller that’s going to become a limited series on FX. And yes, it’s a literary-world darling, too, making the longlist for the 2019 National Book Award.

The remarkable thing Brodesser-Akner has done is to write a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man.

That man is Toby Fleishman, a 40-something liver doctor going through a divorce from Rachel. Rachel, we learn, is a status-obsessed social climber. Rachel is also the couple’s primary breadwinner (in this echelon of wealth, a medical salary is chump change compared to Rachel’s earnings running a talent agency), and Rachel is the spouse who, at the onset of the novel, drops their two kids off with Toby in the middle of the night before completely disappearing.

So, we follow Toby as he tries to find Rachel and process the end of his marriage and handle his kids and earn a promotion. Then there’s the apps. Newly single Toby has discovered the world of dating apps, a world that is, in the book as in real life, as exciting as it is draining as it is confidence-boosting as it is hilarious as it is deeply depressing.

Brodesser-Akner is equally entertaining and insightful as she judgmentally walks us through Manhattan’s world of the incredibly rich, its uber-alpha, finance-bro husbands and stay-at-home mothers with an endless supply of nannies, yoga pants, and tanks proclaiming “Lipstick & Lunges” and “Nevertheless, She Perspired.” From inside Toby’s mind and world, Brodesser-Akner makes some shrewd, impactful, incredibly funny, and incredibly correct points about class and friendship and marriage and divorce and aging and parenting and love. And there’s a version of this book that could have carried on that way to the end. Fortunately, Brodesser-Akner has written something better.

Which brings me to Libby. Did I mention that Toby’s story—in fact, the whole book—is narrated by Libby, a friend of Toby’s from his college years and a former magazine writer turned Jersey housewife? Libby is easy to overlook for the book’s first half, portrayed mostly as Toby’s omnipresent narrator, rather than an actual character with her own story to tell.

But as the book goes on, Libby becomes a person with her own story—and that story is about a world that stops seeing women as people as they become brides and wives and mothers and, ultimately, personality-less containers we can fill with the familiar, simplified stereotypes we hold about those roles.

Of course, Brodesser-Akner is not the first to tackle how age makes women’s wants and needs and general personhood disappear from the public’s collective mind. Still, there’s something new here. This book is not about women fighting those stereotypes, let alone overcoming them, as such examinations usually become; no one is finding herself here. Instead, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a long-overdue look at women who are disappearing in real time. Women who didn’t realize this would happen to them, too.

Which is to say, from Libby’s story emerges Rachel’s story—which is, of course, more complex and painful than Toby’s version of her story—from which emerges all the stories of the women who once seemed like one-dimensional side characters in a man’s story.

The more the women come into focus, the more compelling the book becomes, to no surprise to anyone who has read Brodesser-Akner’s magazine work. At a time when lots of smart ladies are writing lots of smart things about being a woman, Brodesser-Akner has established herself with a singular ability to write about her gender. A recounting of Rachel’s traumatic delivery of her first child is one of the book’s most haunting and stand-out moments. The fact that afterward Rachel feels most understood by the women she meets in a rape survivor’s group is a damning, but not inaccurate, assessment of all the different ways women’s bodies are violated.

Once the women’s lives are fully realized, readers are left with Rachel, a woman who has thrown her life into her job and winds up unhappy; Libby, who quit her job to become a full-time mother in the suburbs and winds up unhappy; Nahid, a woman Toby meets on a dating app who had no kids and never worked and offered her rich husband lots of sex and winds up unhappy; and Karen Cooper, a hospital patient in a coma because no one was able to diagnose her with a disease that could have been very easy to diagnose by looking her in the eye. And on the list goes until you have to ask: What, exactly, was the path these women were supposed to take to make things turn out differently? How does one escape the pitfalls of being a woman?

And yes, the problem with women is men. Because if you follow any female character’s problems back far enough, you’ll eventually hit a man—a cheating spouse, a sexist boss, etc. But the men are not the enemy. Not exactly. Because the book’s women, on the whole, are just as flawed as the men, and Toby, our leading guy, is never really treated as a villain.

The problem is the lie the women have been fed: that sexism is over and the world is fair and that if a woman plays her cards right, she can avoid disappearing. As narrator Libby explains it, “When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something special about us that we could achieve anything.”

From there comes an absolute evisceration of The Future Is Female t-shirts and other such mantras and commodities that modern feminism feeds us. Really, the whole book is worth reading for this passage alone.

And the problem is the Modern Feminist WomanTM Fleishman’s female characters thought they could become. They thought they could live in a world without the barriers that held back the women who came before them. They thought they had choices and that they could be mothers and workers and do yoga or just wear yoga pants without doing yoga, and they thought that they could Have. It. All. while simultaneously laughing at the idea of having it all. And the women thought this because this was the image of modern feminism they had been sold from their childhood years of Take Your Daughter to Work Day to today’s endless supply of cheap girl-power slogans or even, dare I say it, pussy hats. But for Libby and Rachel, this is part of modern feminism’s big lie. All of it tokens women mistakenly accept in exchange for experiencing the same sorts of barriers that have always held women back. (Of course, if you don’t take the tokens, you’ll hit the barriers anyway.)

At this point, it seems worth stating that Brodesser-Akner has not written an angry book. She has, in fact, written a very funny book, and a compassionate and heartbreaking one, too. Equally apparent, Brodesser-Akner has written a very tired book, which is probably the perfect emotion for any book tackling issues of gender in Trump’s America. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a book that is desperately searching for solutions to the despair of gender disparity that it knows it won’t find —and yet, Brodesser-Akner and her characters helplessly and relentlessly and incredibly charmingly search for them anyway.

Amazing Grace: Reading Kelly J. Beard’s ‘An Imperfect Rapture’

Absolutism is a rhetoric of political convenience, a flashcard deck of judgments with Old Testament swiftness and certainty. Blue collar, white collar, and the billionaire class. Urban and rural. Red state versus blue state. Fact and fable. Each term generates its own litany of forgivable and unforgivable sins. These absolutes efface our desire to understand—a yearning necessary for true intellectual growth and narrative, as Malcolm Heath notes in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Kelly J. Beard’s memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, speaks across the void between those absolutes. The youngest child to a set of parents devoted to each other and the fundamentalist principles of the Foursquare Church, Beard takes the courageous plunge back into the 1960s and ’70s of her youth. As she explores her past, she slowly shines light onto the events that scaffolded her childhood and adolescence: domestic violence, disability, mental illness, addiction, poverty, shame, and the dissonance between the promises of faith and the family’s dire financial straits.

Neither elegy nor ode, neither dirge nor fanfare, Beard’s memoir carefully attunes the harmonic resonances between her memories, her vulnerability, and her own capacity for forgiveness. The first scene presents these elements with a dynamic swell. The opening paragraph is a single sentence—“My mother saw demons.”—a fierce downbeat that pulls the reader into a tangle of fraught intimacies. In this scene, Beard’s mother is confiding in her Bible study group from Palm Spring’s Desert Chapel. As a member of the church’s telephone prayer chain, she received calls to minister to the ill, or to those showing signs of demonic possession: “My mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from youth services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of the pool, gurgling like a baby.”

Beard’s parents leave their own children at home to minister to her; they “stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool.” It’s a harrowing story. Yet, through this scene, Beard telegraphs the issues that vexed her early years. Her parents’ dedication to each other and their faith left their children neglected and abandoned—even if the kids were unaware of it at the time. As Beard’s mother recalls the prayer visit to the woman in the pool for her church group, the events of the previous night pulse for Beard with the discomfort of a dull ache:
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.

I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything.
The moment is an otherworldly snapshot of a night in the Beard household, perfectly compressed. The Palm Spring house is claustrophobic—she can hear her father in the bathroom and she is literally bunked snug above her sister. Here, Beard intimates a few truths about her family. Her parents are on a mission, together. They believe in the power of prayer above all else. And for those two things, they’ll leave their children in the dark of night.

Despite this vague awareness, Beard writes, “I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream-and-black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach.”

It’s not hard to imagine Beard as a child reaching for her mother’s apron strings, in the hope of grasping some tether to genuine affection, with true comfort always out of reach.

Vulnerable and hurt, yet patient and forgiving, Beard’s tone throughout the memoir evades the polemical rage of memoirs like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which wield domestic violence, poverty, and substance abuse as an ideological cudgel. As Flannery O’Connor puts it in her essay collection Mystery and Manners, “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

And the Beard family certainly trembles. The children cower if their father wears a certain belt, because they know the slightest accident or indiscretion—something as simple as spilling milk—can provoke him. They endure his physical lashings, alongside the verbal ones doled out by their mother. (While she does not condone the abuse, Beard’s empathy compels her to grapple with her parents’ specters: her father’s impoverished upbringing, her mother’s loneliness.) Beard contends with eyesight bad enough to render her legally blind, but the blessings of modern optometry pale when a prayer meeting seems to heal her sister’s eye: “For my parents, Barb’s experience seemed to dilute the miracle of the half-inch thick glasses that focused my sight.”

But there are perils beyond the household and the church. When Beard’s father loses his job as a salesman for Farmhand equipment, life in Palm Springs becomes untenable. The family uproots for Colorado, then Montana, as her father chases odd jobs (traveling salesman, newspaper routes, ranch hand, and more) to provide a home for the family—not an easy task, for a man well beyond his middle years. Naturally, to resolve this apparent trial of Job, her parents turn to prayer. “And as happened more times than not,” Beard writes, “the answer to their prayers cost more than they expected.” Beard’s mother finds that her credits in a nursing program won’t transfer, and she has to retake classes in Colorado—amplifying her vindictiveness.

To compensate, Beard cycles through a revolving door of friends and experiments with drugs. For another memoirist, it would be easy to resort to a rhetoric of absolutes, of vindictive condemnation. But Beard’s elegant and direct prose teems with complexity and nuance. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, the memoir peels back the rind of anger and finds within a morsel of grace.

A pivotal scene demonstrates how the memoir shucks off the visceral, immediate reactions that might occur in real life, in fiction, or in a spur-of-the-moment telling. Beard’s parents had promised that she, then a teenager, could trick-or-treat with her friend Denise; instead, her parents saddle her with humiliating chores and her father beats her. For revenge, she runs off with Denise, and the two bunk away in a dorm room at the University of Colorado. There’s a hint of sexual awakening when, in the dorm room, “Denise and I glanced at each other like newlyweds.” And their time in the dorm lights in her an epiphany that, in the twilight years of her adolescence, will spark a passion for music and creative writing. “[I]t never occurred to me,” Beard writes, “that college could be exciting or anything other than a means to a job like teaching or nursing.” (Here, Beard’s work resembles such kin as Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland or Tara Westover’s Educated: In all of these memoirs, education equips the author with the desire to understand and the capacity to forgive.)

After a few days spent smoking and lingering together in a twin bed, Denise decides to go home, which triggers intense feelings of abandonment and fear: “In my head, I begged please don’t leave me please don’t leave me please don’t leave me.”

The memoir refuses to rage against Denise. Beard ends the scene and the paragraph, stating, “It will take me more than thirty years to see her decision as grace, to understand her mother’s desperate barter.” She glances toward the future, Halloween of 2004, when her own daughter gathers with friends before trick-or-treating. She sees in them a reflection of her young self: “In that moment, an opaque film will dissolve from my inner eye, and I will see in them what I missed in myself: how delicate their limbs, how fragile their lives. I will see the intricate, mostly inarticulate ties binding mother to daughter. I will glimpse an angel.”

What is truly masterful in An Imperfect Rapture, though, is the texture of Beard’s prose and her capacity to inflect each sentence with urgency, insight, and compassion. Like life, narrative involves so many acts of faith, ones that demand us to accept and revel in the fraught and the complex. That Beard transcends righteous anger through an ethic of forgiveness and tolerance—an ethic that demands that readers abandon the easy ideology of absolutes and assumptions—is an added grace of this vital memoir.

Bringing Voices Across Oceans: On Grace Talusan’s ‘The Body Papers’

The term “Asian American” is rooted in 1960s political activism but over the past several years, it has been expanded in use. It is now common to use “Asian American” to describe a literary genre. And although Filipinos are the second largest Asian demographic in the United States, and are the fourth largest immigrant group in the country, the narrative of the Filipino American remains trapped under the broadly stroked term “Asian American.” 

Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers pulls Filipino American memoir to the forefront of Asian American conscience with heartbreaking prose, taking on the impact of immigration, sexual abuse, medical trauma, and the diaspora via the documentation of—and a meditation on—brownness and her body. With conversational lucidity and subtle, direct prose, Talusan unveils an account of suffering—the short-and long-term impacts of unaddressed mental health needs, becoming a citizen, systematic racism, cancer, fertility, and filial piety. Confessional yet unapologetic, The Body Papers shows the lengths to which a writer will go to trace her lineage and find her identity, even if it means crossing oceans to unknown places. She modernizes the Philippine diaspora by peppering Tagalog vernacular in her prose and grounding the essays with medical records, immigration papers, and personal photos. 

With American suburbia and Catholicism as background, Talusan does what many children of immigrants do in adulthood: finally show up for the long awaited reckoning with our childhood memories of acculturation. “Our house was American on the outside, but Filipino on the inside. We left our shoes at the door and wore slippers inside the house. We had a tabo…an electric rice cooker…an altar with statues of the Santo Nino…and we would kneel together as a family…to pray the rosary.” Talusan memorializes the seemingly innocuous details of teenage, pained assimilation: putting hair lightening products in her raven hair, just like her blonde friends, and enduring microaggressions camouflaged as insights from school teachers and counselors who failed to recognize her cultural roots and racialized experience. 

Talusan explores lineage as a survival mechanism. Her documentation status, diaspora, and family dynamics lay groundwork for understanding the egregious sexual abuse she endured from her grandfather who she learns, after telling her family about the abuse, was a “relentless pedophile” whose abuse was protected by generations of silence and secrecy.

“All those years, I thought I was protecting the old man with my silence. I expected my father to beat my grandfather bloody. I thought the old man would be killed. Every day, I thought I’d been saving his life. My parents believed me. They did not seem very surprised to learn of my grandfather’s behavior. And that’s when I realized that he must have done this before. As soon as I told my parents what happened, they warned me to keep it quiet. I can forgive this reaction now—they knew a story could destroy you.”

In a nod to the paradoxes of Filipino American life, The Body Papers oscillates between anecdotes of erasure and hypervisibility—particularly when it comes to racial consciousness. As Talusan ages, she develops a deeper awareness of racial complexity and explores her own complicity and sense of inferiority because of white supremacy. Memories are framed with both leniency and criticism, but Talusan also incriminates herself for not fully grasping how white proximity has padded her anger and has fed her a false illusion of belonging. After she tells her high school counselor she wants her collegiate experience to be a more diverse experience, she uses the term “people of color” for the first time. In response, the white counselor compares his skin to hers, saying his skin, as a white man, is darker. He concludes, “I’m no more a person of color than you are.” 

Talusan investigates her response pattern: first quiet acquiescence that hides her outrage and then, later, self-admonishment for failing to articulate her anger. “I’m still mortified at how I acquiesced. At the time, the development of racial identity was still in the fetal stage. Maybe I wanted him to be right. I also wanted to believe that my life would not be negatively impacted by race. Even now, I wish this were true. As a high school senior, I had no clue how to talk about race to white people. I still have no clue how to navigate that minefield.” And she recognizes the lifelong influence of racial dominance. “Even now, reflexively, I want to protect my relationship with them at the expense of my own feelings. Like them, I’m also steeped in white supremacy.” 

There are multiple forms of trauma and healing processes that take place throughout the memoir. In her mid-30s, Talusan discovers that she has a family history of both breast and ovarian cancers. She opts for a double mastectomy after learning she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which marks her as highly vulnerable to a lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancers. At one point, Talusan’s healing processes overlap: “I felt oddly relieved, I realized, that the part of my body my grandfather had most admired had been severed from me.” And then, after an emotional battle and eventual concession to her husband who does not want children, she decides to have an oophorectomy which ends her dreams of becoming a biological mother.

In this unvarnished, graceful memoir, Grace Talusan delves into the most intimate to tell us unforgettable stories from her body. The Body Papers is a double-ringed narrative where immigration is more than regional displacement, family is both destructive and restorative, and trauma presents and re-presents itself in a number of ways across her lifetime. This astonishingly brave work breathes life into a past that most would hope to forget. Talusan, however, does something different. She offers a meditative tour of immigration, trauma, and family. The Body Papers beats a different drum of triumph and sings a rare song of honesty; the book is an understated marvel that continues to sound even after the story is finished.

László Krasznahorkai Comes Home

This September, Ottilie Mulzet’s superb English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be published, completing the novel cycle he began with Satantango and continued with The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the culmination of Krasznahorkai’s labors, a manic Greek chorus that infuses festive Technicolor into his multifaceted, bleak vision. It is Krasznahorkai’s funniest and most profound book and, quite possibly, also his most accessible. Krasznahorkai has hinted that this may be his final novel and, if that’s the case, then it is a tremendous sendoff to one of our most talented writers.

Baron is set in a dead-end Hungarian village riddled with gossips and backstabbers and structured with chapters ominously named after drumbeats. Plastic bags swirl through the air, and a gang of frightening—yet surprisingly human—Neo-Nazi bikers patrol the town. Bitter pomp and fierce one-upmanship reign freely. Everything in this remote village feels strangely universal: everyone blames refugees and “the Gypsies” for all of the country’s ills. Politics are waged in faultfinding and bogus positioning. Then, without explanation, a huge convoy of black luxury cars speeds through town, hypnotizing the residents as they pass. Approximating horsemen of the apocalypse, their procession preludes the village’s downfall.

In a bramble patch just outside town, a world famous professor lives in a hovel fashioned from garbage. The Wittgenstein-like professor has renounced attachment to the world (including, Krasznahorkai points out, his social media apps) and works to purge his thoughts in hopes of attaining his own type of nirvana. The experiment is short lived; he wakes one day to find his long-neglected daughter standing outside his hut, flanked with reporters and accosting him with a bullhorn, demanding he acknowledge her.

Back in town, Baron Béla Wenckheim arrives on the train. Despite his grandiose image, the Baron is befuddled and aloof and is only there because his family paid his horrible gambling debts in South America in exchange for his pledge to disappear and not cause the family further embarrassment. So, in hopes of returning to the place he once knew—and to the woman he once loved—the Baron disembarks only to be greeted with grand fanfare, replete with speeches from both the mayor and the police chief, detailing the ways they will use the funds they mistakenly assume the Baron intends to donate. That the whole thing, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, echoes Christ’s Passion is no mistake. The Baron suffers abandonment, accidentally insults the woman he returned to, and, in agony, finds himself wandering in a Gethsemane-like forest, vying for God’s attention. After his exit from the narrative, his clothes are divided and ruined by a homeless mob.

Coinciding with the Baron’s Gethsemane, one of the book’s most striking scenes describes the professor sitting in an empty train station, weighing belief in God. Though he knows he cannot prove—or even necessarily believe—in God, the professor considers the clear repercussions he must accept if the only alternative to our troubled existence is nonexistence. The denial of God is terrifying because the chaos we experience in our individual lives is only a repetition of the blind chaos gripping the universe. Without greater providence, culture is stunted and chaos is the only reality.

Krasznahorkai is an uncommonly generous writer. Even as he teases, maligns, and undermines his characters, he remains empathetic to their plights and blind spots, for he knows that even the most evil deeds are conjured by brokenness. Unable to find solace in the possibility of transcendence, Krasznahorkai’s characters find themselves mired in uneasy limbo, defending themselves from the chaotic world that grips them. And, finally, time runs out. The book’s closing passage is shocking, powerful, hilarious, inevitable, and about the darkest curtain drop one could imagine as the majority of the characters are wiped from existence without much explanation.

Almost every section in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming runs about 70 pages, and these sections flow easily as Krasznahorkai’s meandering prose swaps points of view at each paragraph break, allowing his characters’ opinions to mesh and conflict. Incredible distance is covered in an oddly intimate, if disorienting, way. While this tactic can make a new reader initially seasick, the reader who sticks with it finds the going easier and the rewards many. The emotional and psychological realizations Krasznahorkai can evoke are singular and breathtaking.

In sharp contrast to the perfectly whittled dialogue so prevalent in fiction today, very few direct quotations ever appear in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Rather, characters endlessly regurgitate and revise their statements, often describing a single action with two or more verbs in an attempt to either more accurately describe their actions or, more likely, better justify themselves. Perhaps they are being honest in what they report, and perhaps not. We never quite know, for these character’s truest selves—as in real life—remain inscrutable.

This, more than anything else, is what makes Krasznahorkai’s work worth reading. As the world seeks to reduce and streamline communication, and as our attention spans are attenuated by our thirst for digital-world dopamine-hits, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming presents a powerful rebuttal to our infatuation with easy, saccharine anger. We are, all of us, clumsy egomaniacs, and the truth is that things are messy, hard to understand, and almost impossible to pin down. As Krasznahorkai’s ragtag characters struggle forward, he reminds us that the words we speak are mere indicators of our vast, submerged realities.

These days, the general feeling is that the world has moved on from long, difficult novels. They are irrelevant, plodding dinosaurs whose sole purpose is to establish the gravitas of the author behind them. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the hard reset, capturing our frantic, pessimistic moment with frightening verisimilitude. The style is challenging, yes, but it is not self-serving. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming calls into question our acceptance of the crippling status quo, delivering universal truths in a way that few books can anymore. It is precisely the novel we need in these difficult, foreboding times.

That’s Her in the Spotlight, Losing Her Religion

This Is My Body, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s debut memoir, opens with the author on stage at The Refuge, an evangelical megachurch in a suburb of Houston where she works as worship leader, a role for which she must “look young, but not too young…pretty, but not too pretty.” In front of the stage, a white casket holding an 18-year-old girl sits open, obscured by the colored lights and the fog pouring from a machine backstage. “We’re both objects in this space,” Hammon writes, “the eighteen-year-old girl and me, two different kinds of painted dolls.”

Just before she begins to sing, Hammon’s phone vibrates in her dress pocket as she receives texts from a man she met an arts conference, “a man I might love, who is not the father of my eight-year-old daughter. Not my husband of twelve years.” Meanwhile, beside her on stage, Hammon’s husband, a member of the worship band, strums his guitar and waits for her to begin. “Much of the time these days, I don’t believe what I’m singing,” she writes, “What I believe doesn’t really matter though. I’m here to provide a service, to do a job I’m good at.” The scene culminates in Hammon’s increasing discomfort with both her personal faith and its performance: “I pull my eyebrows together and close my eyes as I sing, an expression of meaningful reflection, an expression I practice often,” she writes. “I close my eyes. I know how to do this. I impersonate someone who believes.”

The opening chapter holds in growing tension the threads we will follow as This Is My Body unfurls with a narrative propulsion that is sustained throughout. As each chapter jumps in place and time—from Houston in 2015 to New York in 2001 to Budapest in 2008—readers are oriented not by chronology or location but by Hammon’s developing sense of her own faith and of herself, as she moves from her “half-Jewish childhood” to a spiritually omnivorous young adulthood; from evangelical megachurches to missionary work abroad; from Bible study groups that promise to “[make] an unhappy marriage work” to group therapy sessions for sex and love addiction.

Wandering through this contemporary wilderness, Hammon displays a knack for memorable scenes and wry observations: in her mid-20s, after contracting HPV from a New York DJ she met “while doing lines of cocaine at a bar on Avenue A,” Hammon converts to Christianity and is baptized by two women in cut-offs and tank tops during a thunderstorm in the glow of Coney Island. “I’m underwater for just one second, maybe two,” she writes, “the briefest instant. Then they pull me to the surface, and I find my feet underneath me again…I’m a Christian now. I am made new…I have a religion now, and a new kind of family. Born again of water and of Spirit, washed by the Spirit and made clean. Clean, finally. It took less than five minutes.”

Her new Christianity requires she leave her old life—”my liberal politics, my shelf of new age books and tarot cards, guiltless sex”—behind. She abandons her years of seeking, giving up Seder, Hanukkah, and Jewish mourning rituals for Bible study and volunteer shifts at a soup kitchen; she swaps her self-help books for a copy of the New Testament. She quits reading her horoscope and throws out her crystals. “I began to walk the paces of what I believed was a religious life, a good life. I supplanted the rhythms of my childhood with the rhythms of the evangelical church. Maybe the person I should have been sitting Shiva for was me.”

In Budapest, where Hammon has travelled with her husband and two-year-old daughter to evangelize through street performances, she feels an increasing discomfort with the prescribed roles and the “subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny of religious men” she finds in the evangelical community. This misogyny—in churches that allow women to “speak” but not “preach”—should not come as a surprise to readers, but the particularities of Hammon’s experience bring the effect of these slights, big and small, to life. Her frustration at being expected to cook and clean for her fellow missionaries sits alongside the condescension of pastors who touch her inappropriately, pay her less than her male counterparts, and advise her on her wardrobe by quoting from the Bible: “Do not cause another to stumble.”

Hammon also struggles with evangelism itself. In one particularly striking scene, while performing music and sharing testimony in a public park, Hammon takes shelter from a storm with a group of Polish travelers who’ve been playing Hacky Sack in the park and listening to her and her husband perform all day. One of the young men succinctly appraises American evangelism, saying, “when you guys, Americans, come here to Europe and get on the microphone to talk about your religion—it sucks, man.”

Running parallel to her spiritual seeking, Hammon explores motherhood, her relationship with her husband, her infidelity, and her growing sense of her own feminism. Hammon’s strikingly contemporary reflections about her treatment in conservative churches—where she was once groped by an older pastor, was offered a lower salary than her male counterparts, and was fired and replaced with a male singer—make her story a particularly salient one for this particular moment, in the wake of the #MeToo Movement, when the white evangelical church has openly aligned itself with a president and a political party that systematically denigrates, criminalizes, and imprisons the “least of these.”

Though This Is My Body is described as a spiritual memoir, the heart of Hammon’s searching often centers around faith’s container—whether it comes in the form of a synagogue, a church, or a group therapy session. As a preacher’s kid, I empathized with Hammon’s sense of being chronically out of place; too God-haunted for secular circles and too skeptical for any church she tries to make her home. But sometimes I wondered whether Hammon might be searching for a perfect fit in inherently—and often deeply—flawed spaces. In the book’s early pages, Hammon recalls a moment a few months before her baptism, when she asks Sabrina, the woman who would soon immerse her in the choppy waters of the Atlantic, “How could God be so good if his people were so awful?” “God is not the church,” Sabrina responds. “The church is made of people and people fail.”

As the child of a father who was Jewish and a mother who was not, Hammon writes that she was never considered “really Jewish.” She recalls swooning over the ornaments of a faith that was not quite fully hers: “the lilting, minor-key prayers…the syrupy-sweet smell of the Manischewitz wine and the delicately embroidered linens that covered golden loaves of challah.” She remembers a rabbi pulling her away from her friends as they prepared to carry the Torah into the service. “He’d figured out that I was not a real Jew,” she writes. That early experience of exclusion sticks with her: “I was hooked, not on Judaism but on religion in general—on something so magical and important that I was forbidden from participating in it.”

It is this longing for participation, for membership that animates Hammon’s search for a faith community that will affirm her call to ministry—not despite her gender, her talents, and her flaws, but because of them.

“Being good, doing good, following the rules, any rules—this is probably the thing I’ve been most consistently addicted to in my life, truth be told,” Hammon writes. But it is only in sex and love addiction meetings—and in the burgeoning friendships with the women she meets there—that Hammon is able to be honest about her desires and her transgressions without being rejected, shamed, or silenced. In the end, Hammon finds her search for faith sustained not by checking boxes or following rules but by keeping her eyes open to God, however God appears: “Fractured bits of experience, memory, beauty that open into something larger.”

From Father Divine to Jim Jones: On the Phenomenon of American Messiahs

“And you can call me an egomaniac, megalomaniac, or whatever you wish, with a messianic complex. I don’t have any complex, honey. I happen to know I’m the messiah.” —Rev. Jim Jones, FBI Tape Q1059-1

“There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds.” —David Bowie

Philadelphia, once the second-largest city in the British Empire, was now the capital of these newly united states when the French diplomat and marquis François Barbé-Marbois attended a curious event held at the Fourth Street Methodist Church in 1782. Freshly arrived in the capital was a person born to middling stock in Cuthbert, R.I., and christened as Jemima Wilkinson, but who had since becoming possessed with the spirit of Jesus Christ in October of that revolutionary year of 1776 been known as “The Comforter,” “Friend of Sinners, “The All-Friend,” and most commonly as “Public Universal Friend,” subsequently wearing only masculine garments and answering only to male pronouns. Such is the description of the All-Friend as given by Adam Morris in American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation, where the “dark beauty of the Comforter’s androgynous countenance” appeared as a “well-apportioned female body cloaked in black robes along with a white or purple cravat, topped by a wide-brimmed hat made of gray beaver fur.” Reflecting back on the theophany that was responsible for his adoption of the spirit of Christ, the Public Universal Friend wrote about how the “heavens were open’d And She saw too [sic] Archangels descending from the east, with golden crowns upon there heads, clothed in long white Robes, down to their feet.”

Even though the Quakers, with their reliance on revelation imparted from an “Inner Light,” were already a progressive (and suspect) denomination, heresy such as All-Friend’s earned his rebuke and excommunication from the church of his childhood. But that was of no accordance, as the Public Universal Friend would begin a remarkably successful campaign of evangelization across war-torn New England. Preaching a radical gospel that emphasized gender equality and communalism, All-Friend was the leader of an emerging religious movement and a citizen of the new Republic when he arrived at the very heart of Quakerism that was Philadelphia, where he hoped to convert multitudes towards this new messianic faith.  

Barbé-Marbois was excited to see the new transgendered messiah, writing that “Jemima Wilkinson has just arrived here…Some religious denomination awaited her with apprehension, others with extreme impatience. Her story is so odd, her dogmas so new, that she has not failed to attract general attention.” All-Friend was not impressed by rank or pedigree, however, and having been tipped off to the presence of the marquise among the congregation, he preceded to castigate Barbé-Marbois, declaring that “Do these strangers believe that their presence in the house of the Lord flatter me? I disdain their honors, I scorn greatness and good fortune.” For all of the All-Friend’s anger at the presence of this sinner in his temple, Barbé-Marbois was still charmed by the messiah, writing of how All-Friend “has chosen a rather beautiful body for its dwelling…beautiful features, a fine mouth, and animated eyes,” adding that his “travels have tanned her a little.” Though he also notes that they “would have burned her in Spain and Portugal.”

Such is the sort of spectacular story that readers will find in Morris’s deeply research, well-argued, exhaustive, and fascinating new book. A San Francisco-based translator and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon, Morris’s first book provides a counter-history of a shadow America whose importance and influence are none-the-less for its oddity. In a narrative that stretches from the All-Friend and his heterodox preaching as the last embers of the First Great Awakening died out, through case-studies that include the 19th-century Spiritualist messiahs of Thomas Lake Harris and Cyrus Teed (the later known to his followers as “Koresh” after the Persian king in the Hebrew Scriptures); the massive real-estate empire of Harlem-based Father Divine and his racially egalitarian Peace Mission; and finally the dashed promise and horror of Jim Jones and the massacre of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, which took 900 lives and was the most brutal religiously based murder in American history until 9/11. Morris doesn’t just collect these figures at random, he argues that “a direct lineage connects Anne Lee, the Shaker messiah who arrived to American shores in 1774, to Jim Jones, the holy-rolling Marxist,” making his claim based not just on similar ideological affinities but often times with evidence of direct historical contact as well, a chain of messianic influences starting at the very origin of the nation and functioning as a subversive counter-melody to the twin American idols of the market and evangelicalism.

Often dismissively rejected as “cult leaders,” these disparate figures, Morris argues, are better understood as the founders of new religions, unusual though they may seem to us. In this contention, Morris draws on a generation of religious studies scholars who’ve long chafed at the analytical inexactitude of the claim that some groups are simply “cults” composed of easily brain-washed followers and paranoid charlatan leaders with baroque metaphysical claims; a sentiment that was understandable after the horror of Jonestown, but which neglects the full complexities and diversity of religion as a site for human meaning. America has had no shortage of groups, both malicious and benign, that sought to spiritually transform the world, and denounce the excesses and immoralities of American culture, while sometimes surpassing them and embracing convoluted theological claims.

In new religious movements there is a necessary radical critique of inequity and injustice; as Jonestown survivor Laura Kohl recalls, the utopian impulse that motivated the Peoples’ Temple was originally “at the very cutting edge of the way we wanted society to evolve. So we wanted to be totally integrated and we wanted to have people of every socio-economic level, every racial background, everything, all included under one roof.” When their experiment began, people like Kohl couldn’t anticipate that it would end with mass suicide instigated by an increasingly paranoid amphetamine addict, because in the beginning “we were trying to be role models of a society, of a culture that was totally inclusive and not discriminatory based on education or race or socio-economic level. We all joined with that in mind.”

Such is the inevitable tragedy of messianism—it requires a messiah. Whatever the idealistic import of their motivations, members of such groups turned their hopes, expectations, and faith towards a leader who inevitably would begin to fashion himself or herself as a savior. Whether you slur them as “cults,” or soberly refer to them as “new religions,” such groups stalk the American story, calling to mind not just industrious Shakers making their immaculate wooden furniture in the 19th century, but also Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh looking positively beatified in his follower-funded Mercedes Benz, Marshall Applewhite dead in his Nikes awaiting the Hale Bop Comet to shepherd Heaven’s Gate to astral realms, and David Koresh immolated with 75 of his fellow Branch Davidians after an eight-week standoff with the FBI and the ATF.

While it would be a mistake to obscure the latent (and sometimes not-so-latent) darkness that can lay at the core of some of these groups—the exploitation, megalomania, and extremism—Morris convincingly argues that simply rejecting such groups as cults does no service to understanding them. This sentiment, that some religions are legitimate while others are irretrievably “cults,” is often mouthed by so-called “deprogrammers,” frequently representatives of evangelical Christian denominations or sham psychologists whose charlatanry could compete with that of the founders of these new faiths themselves. Morris claims that part of what’s so threatening about the figures he investigates, and not other equally controlling phenomena from Opus Dei to the Fellowship, is that unlike those groups, leaders like Ann Lee, Father Divine, and even Jones provided a “viable alternative to the alienation of secularized industrial urbanism, and a politico-spiritual antidote to the anodyne mainline Protestantism that increasingly served as a handmaiden to big business.”

For Morris, such figures and groups are genuinely countercultural, and for all of their oftentimes tragic failings, they’ve provided the only genuine resistance to the forward march of capitalism in American history. These groups are seen as dangerous in a way that Opus Dei and the Fellowship aren’t because they so fully interrogate the basic structures of our society in a manner that those more accepted cults don’t, in part because those mainstream groups exist precisely to uphold the ruling class. As Teed wrote, “Christianity… is but the dead carcass of a once vital and active structure. It will rest supine till the birds of prey, the vultures and cormorants of what is falsely called liberalism have picked its bones of its fleshly covering leaving them to dry to bleach and decompose.”

“Far more than their heretical beliefs,” Morris writes, it is the “communistic and anti-family leanings of American messianic movements [that] pose a threat to the prevailing socio-economic order.” Lee may have thought that she was the feminine vessel for the indwelling presence of Christ, but she also rejected the speculation-based industrialization wreaking havoc on the American countryside; Teed believed that the Earth was hollow and that we lived in its interior, but he also penned cognoscente denunciations of Gilded Age capitalism, and modeled ways of organizing cooperative communities that didn’t rely on big business; Father Divine implied that he ascended bodily from heaven, but he also built a communally owned empire that included some of the first integrated businesses and hotels in the United States; and Jones claimed that he was variously the reincarnation of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the Buddha, Christ, and Vladimir Lenin, but he was also a staunch fighter against segregation and he and his wife were the first Indiana couple to adopt an African-American child. Such inconsistencies don’t invalidate these figures legitimate beliefs, but they make the ultimate conclusion of how many of these movements all the more tragic because of them.

Though not expressly stated this way by Morris, there is a sense in American Messiahs that the titular figures are both the most and least American of us. The least because they embrace a utopian communism anathema to the national character, and the most because what could be more boot-strapping in its rugged individualism than declaring yourself to be a god? Such are the paradoxes inherent in a commune run by a king (or queen). These new religions steadfastly reject the cutthroat avarice that defines American business in favor of a subversive collectivism. At the center of the social theory and economics of every group, from the Universal Friends to the Peoples’ Temple, is a model of communal living, with Morris writing that such organization “represents the ultimate repudiation of the values and institutions that Americans historically hold dear: it rejects not only the sacrosanct individualism on which American culture thrives, but also the nuclear family unit that evolved alongside industrial capitalism.”

In this way, whether in a Shaker commune or one of Father Divine’s Peace Missions, the intentional community offers “an escape from the degrading alienation of capitalist society by returning—once more—to cooperative and associative modes of living modeled by the apostolic church.” But at the same time, there is the inegalitarian contradiction of allowing a woman or man to be preeminent among the rest, to fashion themselves as a messiah, as a type of absolute CEO of the soul. Such is the marriage of the least American of collectivisms combined with a rugged individualism pushed to the breaking point. And so, America is the land of divine contradictions, for as Harris wrote in his manifesto Brotherhood of the New Life “I have sought to fold the genius of Christianity, to fathom its divine import, and to embody its principles in the spirit and body of our own America.”

Despite the antinomian excesses of theses messiahs, Morris is correct in his argument that the social and economic collectivism promoted and explored by such groups are among the most successful instances of socialism in the United States. A vibrant radical left in America has always been under attack by both capital and the government, so that enduring instances of socialism more often find themselves in a religious context than in a secular one, as failed communes from Brook Farm to Fruitland can attest to. Additionally, because it was the reform-minded French sociologist “Charles Fourier, rather than Karl Marx, who set the agenda of socialist reform in antebellum America,” as Morris writes, there was never the opportunity for a working-class, secular communist party to develop in the United States as it did in Europe. Into that void came sects and denominations that drew freely from America’s religious diversity, marrying Great Awakening evangelism to early modern occultism and 19th-century spiritualism so as to develop heterodox new faiths that often cannily and successfully questioned the status quo; what Morris describes as a “nonsectarian, ecumenical Christian church rebuilt around Christian principles of social justice [that] could be an instrument of radical social reform.”

And though their struggles for racial, gender, and class egalitarianism are often forgotten, Morris does the important job of resuscitating an understanding of how groups from the Shakers to Teed’s Koreshan Unity functioned as vanguards for progressive ideals that altered the country for the better. In ways that are both surprising and crucial to remember, such groups were often decades, if not centuries, ahead of their fellow Americans in embracing the axiom that all people are created equal, and in goading the nation to live up to its highest ideals, while demonstrating the efficacy of religious movements to effect social change and to demonstrate that there are alternative ways to structure our communities. After all, it was in the 18th century that Shakers taught a form of nascent feminism and LGBTQ equality, with their founder Mother Ann Lee publicly praying to “God, Our Mother and Father.”

In groups like the Shakers and the Society of Universal Friends there was an “incipient feminism, which continued to develop” and that defined American messianism over the centuries in the attraction of a “predominantly female following often through promises of equal rights among the faithful.” Women were able to find leadership positions that existed nowhere else in American society at the time, and they also would be emancipated from mandated domestic drudgery and abuse, allowing them an almost unparalleled freedom. As Morris notes, “For the tens of thousands of Americans who attended [these revivals], it was likely the first time any had ever seen a woman permitted to stand at a public lectern.” To read the radicalism of such a spectacle as mere performance, or to ignore their subversive language as simple rhetoric, is to deny that which is transgressive, and perhaps even redemptive, in figures otherwise marginalized in our official histories. An 18th-century church acknowledges the evils of misogyny, and made its rectification one of its chief goals. Nineteenth-century new religions denounced institutional racism from the pulpit long before emancipation. There is admittedly something odd in Spiritualist churches holding seances where the spirits of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would possess mediums and speak to the assembled, but the fact that those founders then “tended to express regret for their participation in the slave economy, and advanced that a more temperate and egalitarian society would ease the heavenward path of American Christians” isn’t just an attempt at rationalization or absolution, but an acknowledgement of deep historical malignancies in our society that people still have trouble understanding today.

Regarding America’s shameful history of racial inequality, many of these so-called messiahs were often far ahead of conventional politics as well. Father Divine’s Peace Missions are an illustrative example. Possibly born to former slaves in Rockville, Md., and christened George Baker Jr., the man who would come to be called Father Divine studied the emerging loose movement known as “New Thought” and developed his own metaphysics grounded in egalitarianism and the same adoptionist heresy that other pseudo-messiahs had embraced, namely that it was possible to be infused with the spirit of Christ in a way that made you equivalent to Christ. Furthermore, as radical as it was to see a woman preaching, it was just as subversive for Americans to imagine Christ as a black man, but Father Divine’s mission was suffused with the belief that “if God first chose to dwell among a people dispossessed of their land and subject to the diktats of a sinful empire, it was logical for him to return as an African American in the twentieth century.”

Morris explains that it was Father Divine’s contention, as well as that of the other messiahs, that “Such a church might rescue the nation from its spiritual stagnation and the corresponding failure to live up to its democratic ideals.” At the height of the Great Depression, Father Divine built a racially integrated fellowship in a series of communally owned Peace Missions that supplied employment and dignity to thousands of followers, composed of “black and white, rich and poor, illiterate and educated.” His political platform, which he agitated for in circles that included New York City Republican (and sometimes Socialist) mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as well as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, included laws requiring insurance, caps on union dues, the abolition of the death penalty, banning of assault weapons, and the repeal of racially discriminatory laws. Even while Morris’s claim that “Father Divine was the most well-known and influential civil rights leader on the national stage between the deportation of Marcus Garvey and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr.” might need a bit more exposition to be convincing, he does make his case that this enigmatic and iconoclastic figure deserves far more attention and credit than he’s been given.

At times American Messiahs can suffer a bit from its own enthusiasm. It’s always an engaging read, but Morris’s claims can occasionally be a bit too sweeping. After reading quotations from pseudo-messiahs like Teed’s, when he writes that “The universe, is an alchemico-organic dynamo… Its general form is that of the perfect egg or shell, with its central vitellus at or near the center of the sphere,” such exhaustive litanies become exhausting, because strange cosmologies are, well, strange. When you read about the course of study at Teed’s College of Life, where for $50 participants could learn “analogical biology and analogical physiology, disciplines that taught the ‘laws of universal form,'” you can’t help but wish that just a smidgen more cynicism was expressed on Morris’s part. There is an admirability that Morris takes such figures on their own accord, but it’s hard to not approach them with some skepticism. When it comes to hucksters claiming to be possessed by the indwelling presence of God, it’s difficult not to declare that sometimes a crank is a crank is a crank, and a nutcase by any other name would still smell of bullshit.

Still, Morris’s argument that we have to understand the messiahs as instances of often stunningly successful countercultural critique of American greed and inequity is crucial, and he’s right that we forget those lessons at our own peril. If we only read Teed for his bizarre anti-Copernican cosmology positing that we live within the Earth itself, but we forget that he also said that the “question for the people of to-day to consider is that of bread and butter. It must henceforth be a battle to the death between organized labor and organized capital,” than we forget the crucial left role that such groups have often played in American history. Even more important is the comprehension that such groups supplied a potent vocabulary, a sacred rhetoric that often spoke to people and that conceived of the political problems we face in a manner more astute and moving than simple secular analysis did. It’s not incidental that from the Shakers to the Amish, when it comes to successful counter-cultures, it’s the religious rather than the secular communes that endure. When Father Divine’s follower who went by the name John Lamb said that “The philosophies of men…were inadequate to cope with humanity’s problems,” he’s wisely speaking a truth just as accurate today as during the Great Depression when “clouds of tyranny” were wafting in from Europe. Say what you will about Morris’s messiahs, they were often woman and men who understood the score, and posed a solution to those problems regardless of how heterodox we may have found their methods.

Morris writes that “The American messianic impulse is based on a fundamentally irrefutable truth first observed by the Puritans: the injustices of capitalist culture cannot be reformed from within.” You can bracket out your theories of a hollow Earth and your spirit medium seances, but that above observation is the only one worth remembering. A profound lesson to be learned from the example of the women and men who most steadfastly lived in opposition to those idols of American culture. And yet, we can’t forget where the excesses of such opposition can sometimes lead—it’s hard not to wash the taste of the poisoned Kool-Aid of Jonestown from our mouths. With such a tragic impasse, what are those of us who wish there were utopias supposed to do? The great failure of these egalitarian experiments is that they paradoxically ended up enshrining a figure above the rest, that in rejecting American individualism they strangely embraced it in its purest and most noxious forms. If we can all look into those stark, foreboding mirror sunglasses favored by Jim Jones to conceal his drug-addled and bloodshot eyes, I don’t wonder if what we see isn’t our own reflections staring back at us, for good and ill. Perhaps there is an answer in that, for in that reflection we can see not just one man, but rather a whole multitude. What’s needed, if possible, is a messianism without a messiah.