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'The Believer' approaches the idea of 'certainty in the absence of knowledge'

Tin House Books

In the prologue to The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, The End, and Our Place in the Middle, Sarah Krasnostein tells us that what drove her to pursue the six profiles that follow was a need "to understand them, these people I found unfathomable, holding fast to faith in ideas that went against the grain of more accepted realities. It may be accurate to say that I needed to get closer to something, someone, that felt very far away."

The distance between Krasnostein, a journalist with a PhD in criminal law who identifies as fitting in "a secular humanist Jewish basket," and her subjects — a Buddhist death doula, a group of ghost-hunting paranormalists, "PhD scientists" on staff at the Creation Museum (which promotes a literal interpretation of Genesis), a woman who served half her life in prison for her abusive husband's murder, the fiancé of a disappeared pilot and the ufologists who claim to know what happened to him, and a Mennonite mission in the Bronx — initially seems vast, as do the distances among the subjects. What unites the six profiles is how these people cling to belief in things that cannot be empirically proved, what Krasnostein calls "certainty in the absence of knowledge." These beliefs, varied as they are, signal trust that the existential conundrums of human life — how it began, how it ends, what comes after, what else is out there, how to make peace with its realities — are not only answerable, but have precise answers.

Krasnostein's project in The Believer, of trying to understand — really understand — her subjects and their beliefs, reminded me of a rhetorical concept I used to teach in college composition courses, one I wasn't actually sure was achievable. It comes from Wayne C. Booth, the literary critic who coined the term "unreliable narrator" in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction. In composition studies, though, Booth is better known for The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. There, he delves into the ethics of rhetorical techniques, issuing the commandment that "It is ethically wrong to pursue or rely on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, while it is right to pursue understanding. ... To pursue mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves attention." The holy grail of this kind of rhetoric is what Booth calls "listening-rhetoric": "I am not just seeking a truce; I want to pursue the truth behind our differences." This empathetic stance, one of truly listening to someone whose beliefs are radically different than one's own without seeking to trounce them, undergirds Krasnostein's approach, even if she admits that "one of the lies writers tell themselves is that all things should be understood."

Of course, it is easier to listen to some beliefs than others, easier to empathize with a determination to meet death with eyes open than with the conviction that God intends death as a punishment for human sin. While Krasnostein spent a remarkable amount of time with each of her subjects, meeting with some over a period of years, we only spend a few pages at a time with them. This is because The Believer is organized not in six linear, discrete profiles, but in 53 short chapters where the six profiles are interspliced and looped in a sort of mix tape.

Initially, it is jarring to spend two pages meeting Dr. Vladimir Dubaj, a neuroscientist in Melbourne who is searching for data that supports the existence of the paranormal, and flip to a three-page encounter with the Creation Museum in Kentucky. (Krasnostein splits her time between the U.S. and Australia, and the stories in The Believer reflect this divide.) But as The Believer progresses and harmonies accrue among what Krasnostein calls "six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable," the brilliance of this approach reveals itself. I do not know that I would have had the patience to read 40 straight pages on the Creation Museum listening to a geologist who believes that God created the world in six days and that scientific fact supports this claim, a "flavor of logic" I find maddening. But in reading this story amid the others in small slices, I was better able to appreciate the commonalities underneath them that reveal aspects of the human condition.

Even with the stance of listening-rhetoric, Krasnostein doesn't just act as a microphone for her subjects' beliefs; she pushes back against them at crucial junctures. Her approach is not to debunk, but to provide philosophical and personal interjections that allow a more profound look at why people believe what they believe, and the ways some beliefs can "stunt us." For "In the Beginning," this means bringing in Hannah Arendt and her own family's Holocaust history. Positioned against the assured answers that the apologists who work for the museum provide, Krasnostein gives us a snippet of Arendt's book The Life of the Mind: "'[T]o lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions would [be to] lose ... the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded." A little later, she brings forth a memory of Holocaust Memorial Day at her elementary school, reading a poem by Hannah Szenes, who believed the Nazis' "atrocities were not inconsistent with the beauty of the world and a God ruling over all of it." These interspersions expose a deeper "truth behind our differences," as Booth would say.

While it was the same curiosity and a desire to bridge distance that led Krasnostein to all these subjects, some are more compelling than others. I was most drawn to Annie the death doula, the subject that Krasnostein herself seemed most comfortable with. Given the subject matter of her first book, The Trauma Cleaner, which profiles a woman who cleans up the aftermath of crime scenes and fires and suicides, this is not surprising. Here, the distance between worldviews was one Krasnostein seemed to wish she could collapse. It would be nice to radically accept, as Annie does, that our lives are impermanent, to know that "the fact that everything changes is the knife of the world but also its gift."

I had the most trouble with the profile of the Mennonite missionaries. It was the Mennonites who started Krasnostein's project — she was drawn in by a choir of them singing at a subway station in the South Bronx, wanted to understand their beliefs and way of separatist life and why she was so "transfixed" by their harmonies. I questioned the purpose of including another group of Christian fundamentalists, especially since they too dehumanize LGBTQ+ people in these pages, and because initially it seems that Krasnostein wants to connect with them. Eventually, she pulls back from them, acknowledges "for the best" that they have not converted more members to their church given their "hateful stance on differences," and this sort of divide — where one person believes another person should not exist — maps the limits of listening-rhetoric.

In the end, though, The Believer succeeds at its goal of bridging distances, of transcending the self to comprehend the other. Toward the end, Krasnostein writes, "I believe we are united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that separate us." The harmony of feeling that unspools across these different stories attests to that.

Kristen Martin's is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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Kristen Martin