by Sarah Krasnostein
Published March 2021
My mother is a Buddhist, in ways that some people might consider born-again. She has always been a Buddhist, but over the last few years, her practice and belief have become almost evangelical. Most conversations we have are about Buddhist philosophy, the ways in which I might apply it to my own life. She has more than once suggested meditation or prayer as an alternative to therapy, a prescription I disagree with for many reasons. She surreptitiously leaves Buddhist books scattered around my home when she visits, so that I might also read them and come to see the world in the same way.
My mother talks about becoming a monk, which would mean that she would have to leave our family. The whole point of Buddhism is to become enlightened, to separate yourself from whatever might tether you to the earthly realm. Including family. Do I find this hurtful? Yes, of course. The idea feels like rejection or abandonment – a turning away from the traditional values of family and love, which I was raised to cherish the most.
Difficult as I find it sometimes, it is, perhaps, a little easier to understand my mother’s position because there is no wildness to her beliefs. It’s not as though she’s a flat earther or alien conspiracist. The one thing she does believe in that may be socially controversial is an afterlife, but to some degree, so do I. But the tension remains that she has found fulfilment and meaning for her own life in this religion, and I have not, and I probably will not. I do not fully understand her new position, yet I see how it has transformed her, filling her body with light.
Everything is impermanent, according to Buddhism. Yet we are here, now, at this moment, experiencing the world in all of its ugliness and beauty. Where and what is the meaning of that? How do we come closer to knowing? Can we know at all?
‘One of the lies writers tell themselves is that all things should be understood.’
So writes Sarah Krasnostein in the introduction to her second book, The Believer, in which she follows six people or groups who hold socially divergent beliefs, both spiritual and moral. Separated into two sections – ‘Below’ and ‘Above’ – the writer traces the stories and lives of Mennonites, creationists, a Buddhist ‘death doula’, an incarcerated woman who murdered her abusive husband, ufologists and paranormal hunters. Through these seemingly disparate stories, multiple versions of truth and the world emerge – some conflicting, some harmonious.
Krasnostein’s 2017 debut, The Trauma Cleaner, unspooled the knotty life of Sandra Pankhurst, a transgender woman who runs a trauma cleaning business. What made that book such an accomplished feat of narrative nonfiction was Krasnostein’s clever and considered craft – the trauma cleaning happened not only in the sites that Pankhurst excavated professionally, but also within her own mind. Through dialogue and seemingly random memories, Krasnostein connected the dots to fill in gaps where Pankhurst had forgotten, emerging with a compelling and complete story. Krasnostein’s interactions with Pankhurst were probing yet gentle – the relationship felt genuine, built upon trust and care, as the writer attempted to understand the cleaner’s experiences, however harrowing. That Krasnostein managed to write such a complex book about someone else’s life without it seeming appropriative or exploitative was perhaps the most impressive thing of all. Especially in the wake of Pankhurst’s recent passing, The Trauma Cleaner reads as an elegant and open-hearted tribute to an extraordinary, complicated life.
The Believer stretches this empathy and insight across the lives of multiple individuals using a similar immersive methodology. The result is a polyphonic work that reverberates across the wide spectrum of the human experience, lending credence and kindness to differing beliefs without judgment.
The idea of shaping or manifesting a desired world through selected beliefs is one of the cornerstones of the book. Expanding upon Jorge Luis Borges’ image of the world as a library, Krasnostein writes of a belief in a world as a ‘certain kind of text; a faith that, if I could only ask the right questions, I could finally understand’. So while the writer may be positing that not all things need to be understood – and indeed, something as deeply personal and subjective as belief cannot always be easily explained or rationalised – this work certainly tries. It is an empathetic window into why these beliefs exist, how they came to exist, and how they affect the way these people move through the world.
Krasnostein adopts an approach to storytelling that is reminiscent of Louis Theroux, accompanying people on their travels to places of interest. As in The Trauma Cleaner, she also inserts herself into the story from time to time. Through these multiple perspectives, a triptych of experience is created: the world as seen through the eyes of her subjects, through her own eyes, and finally, through the eyes of the reader in light of this new information. It’s a fascinating and layered approach to writing.
Krasnostein’s own memories take on new meaning as she is exposed to more differing belief systems. Flashes of her childhood return to her as she remembers the feeling of a ghostly presence in her grandparents’ home. She conjures a memory, then allows herself to update or interrupt the memory with new information; in this way, Krasnostein is in conversation not only with the reader, but with herself. I was reminded of Nadja Spiegelman’s writing on the fallibility of memory: how easily something can be remembered, forgotten, misremembered or, in this case, re-remembered.
When Krasnostein is immersing herself into the worlds she is researching, they become more real to her, sometimes to her surprise. There’s one moment when, after spending time with paranormal hunters, she gets into her car and her phone immediately starts playing Fleetwood Mac’s forebodingly titled My Little Demon. In another instance, she’s driving past a property where a flying object was seen decades earlier, and she finds herself looking for evidence. Krasnostein is a pragmatic character – her writing and meticulous research show that – but at these points of vulnerability, the inexorable pull of belonging and understanding, and submission to faith, is most visible.
There are small moments in The Believer that illustrate the loveliness of faith, showing how these divergent ways of seeing the world can enhance the experience of living and dying. A living wake, not dissimilar to a Harry Potter deathday party; Katrina, the dying woman, enjoying fine food and the company of everyone she loves, dressed to the nines, one last celebration before she leaves the world; Annie the death doula, overseeing this occasion.
Krasnostein is frank in how this affects her:
I do not feel I can stand it. I am watching until those hands are my hands and those photos were downloaded off my phone, I am watching as it presses on my chest through the fabric of my black suit and my white shirt and my gold tie until I stand up and screech that I can’t do it, I will not do it, I cannot leave or be left, I cannot, I cannot, I cannot…
Somehow it feels both nonsensical and as though it is the most ordinary and logical thing in the world, to have this kind of gathering, to have someone assist with exiting the world as with entering. Krasnostein’s strength is in allowing her discomfort and confusion to exist in tandem with others’ beliefs and unorthodox approaches to life. It is, to me, a great example of empathy. Even when conversing with those with whom she does not ‘inhabit a mutually recognisable world’, including those with problematic or harmful beliefs, Krasnostein is respectful and curious. Without affirming these beliefs, she probes the subjects to reveal their sources, prompting the reader, too, to reflect upon how beliefs are formed – what might have happened in someone’s life to lead them down a certain path, however ugly.
One of the most engrossing threads in The Believer follows the disappearance of a young pilot named Frederick Valentich in 1978, one year to the day before Krasnostein was born. Valentich took off from Moorabbin Airport in a Cessna 182 and was never seen or heard from again, with no remains of the aircraft found. Theories about what became of the pilot spin into extraterrestrial territory, but what I found the most moving – and harrowing – about this particular story was the impact it had on Rhonda, the fiancée he left behind.
“There’s no answer. I’ve looked for the answer but there’s none,” Rhonda tells Krasnostein. Four decades on from his disappearance, their year-long relationship continues to haunt her, floating over her other relationships like a spectre. Every year on their anniversary, she wears her engagement ring. In Rhonda, we see the erosion of belief – the acceptance that there is no answer, that there will likely never be an answer, and that that in itself might be the answer.
In the wake of Valentich’s disappearance. theories about UFOs emerged, and the rest of the chapters in this thread introduce the reader to this community of conspiracists and their stories. The focus shifts away from Rhonda, but I could not stop thinking of her. Krasnostein writes that the lack of closure around the disappearance had ‘a worse effect on those who loved him than knowledge’ – the gaps in reality, to be filled in only by hope. I thought of the living families of the subjects of true crime documentaries – for many people, these stories are fascinating mysteries to unravel, but for others, much closer, they are eternal harbingers of heartbreak.
Reading the book, especially this section, I was reminded in many ways of Eleanor Gordon-Smith’s Stop Being Reasonable, which tackles belief from a different perspective – how it is formed, and how it might be changed, similarly through case studies. Gordon-Smith’s thesis is that reason and rationality is not at the core of belief – rather, what we believe is informed by our human experience and emotion. In this way, it’s a companion book of sorts to The Believer, one that makes an effort to understand how a person may have come to a particular mode of thinking and existing.
Gordon-Smith writes that people can be influenced by ‘the sorts of things our rational pundits tell us to check at the door: their sense of self, or what they’d been told, or how they felt, or the costs of uncertainty, or who (not what) they believed, or even who they loved’. I came back to this often throughout my reading of The Believer – that logic and emotion might coexist or conflict, and that beliefs are viewed both internally and externally through this framework.
Krasnostein’s generosity, curiosity and lack of judgment towards her subjects made me believe that there is a way to stay true to one’s rational self while also being open to other possibilities. Her approach is philosophical, too – by asking rhetorical questions and offering her own reflections, she prompts the reader to consider these stories in the larger context of life, and the world as it currently exists. It’s an intellectually stimulating reading experience that is sometimes overwhelming in the enormity of its questions.
While the stories in The Believer can be read individually, the beauty of the work lies in the ways they unexpectedly collide. In an interview with Guardian Australia, Krasnostein described writing the book as “building a house of unlike things”. While equal weight is given to each story, naturally some of the stories are more compelling than others, but their great commonality is in singing what Krasnostein calls ‘the human song of longing for the unattainable’. There is a breathlessness to it all – the interconnectedness of all of our lives, the places where we meet and diverge, the singularity of wanting to feel something among all of the nothing.
Early in the book, Krasnostein writes, ‘the only discomfort we tolerate worse than not knowing is knowing’. She also writes, ‘the fact that everything changes is the knife of the world but also its gift.’
These two sentences seem on the surface to be opposed, but in the space between them is, for me, where this book lies. Through the stories of others, we see the desire for meaning in a meaningless world, and the beauty and universality of that; we also see that the lack of definitive answer, and the ever-changing nature of life, is, yes, confronting, but also immense and wondrous.
At one point in the book, Krasnostein writes of her envy for the believers: ‘their refusal to accept absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Their insistence on seeing a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality, constant confirmation – in the good and in the bad – of a loving presence.’ Especially in the uncertain and frightening times we are living in, I understand this need for some kind of steady ground – and unity, and empathy – more than ever.
Reading The Believer made me feel as though the point of everything is understanding, or at least trying to understand, the ways in which we all elect to cope, to parse the vastness of the universe and emerge with a series of possible explanations or solutions.
For my mother, perhaps Buddhism is that anchor. For me, perhaps it’s something I have yet to find. Belief – whatever that might look like – is an attempted hold on a truth that is always just out of reach. Belief is the process of creating individual worlds that feel worthwhile and livable. What else could there possibly be?