‘The Believer: Encounters with love, death & faith’ by Sarah Krasnostein

2021, 342 p

Sarah Krasnostein’s breakthrough book The Trauma Cleaner, the biography of the late Sandra Pankhurst was such a compelling telling of such a complex personality that it is Sandra, and not Sarah, who remains in my memory. But looking back on my own review, Krasnostein was obviously present in the narrative, something that I bridled against when I read it. In this most recent book of six different explorations on the nature of belief, I was very much aware of Krasnostein as journalist in what could, in a different configuration, be a series of six in-depth, long-form essays. Each one of them on its own merits is interesting, but I did find myself wishing that there was more integration and more of an overarching argument in the book. In the preface, Krasnostein writes:

You’re about to read six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable. Their combination is the seventh note.


I’m not convinced that ‘combination’ in itself is a story, as such. Certainly the structuring of the text is very deliberate. The book is divided into two parts. Part I ‘Below’ is fronted with a quote W.H.Auden’s ‘The Hard Question’: And ghosts must do again what gives them pain. Part II ‘Above’ has an etymological description of the word ‘chord’, as both noun and verb.

Each of these two parts has three stories, but they do not appear one after the other but the narrative cycles from one episode to the next between them in turn. Extracting them from the intertwined narrative, the first story, ‘The Death Doula’ traces the involvement of a buddhist death doula Annie Whitlocke who is caring for Katrina, a bayside 59-year old woman who is dying of cancer. The second story, ‘Paranormal’, is where Krasnostein interviews and accompanies people who are looking for paranormal activity, some by sensation, others like Dr Vladimir Dubaj by looking for empirical evidence of the paranormal. The third story in Part I is ‘In the Beginning’, where Krasnostein visits the Creation Museum in Kentucky , the brainchild of Ken Ham, a former high school teacher from Queensland. He is the founder and CEO of Answers In Genesis, a fundamentalist evangelical ministry which reads the bible literally (including the ‘young earth’ creation theory that the universe was created 6000 years ago). These three stories appear in a regularly alternating structure throughout the 165 pages of Part I.

Part II (‘Above’) has three intertwined stories too. ‘Halfway Home’ tells the story of Lynn in America, imprisoned for thirty-four and a half years – half of her life- for arranging for the murder of her ex-husband who sought custody of his child. ‘Theories of Flight’ tells of Victorian pilot Fred Valentich who reported a mysterious craft and lights above his plane before it disappeared somewhere close to Cape Otway in October 1978. His disappearance, along with the sighting by many people of another unidentified craft in Westall in 1966 and the Roswell incident in 1947 (US), is still discussed and trawled through by ufologists whose meetings and lectures Krasnostein attends. In ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, Krasnostein meets a community of Conservative Mennonites at the Light of Truth fellowship in New York, speaking mainly with the women whose conservative fundamentalist Christianity is more family-based than that of the Creation Museum in Part I. The structuring of these chapters is not as regular as in Part I, possibly because there is an imbalance in the length of the stories.

The book finishes with a Coda, which gives an update on ‘The Death Doula’, ‘Half Way Home’ and ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. Interestingly, these stories were more centred on women, where her relationship with the ‘subjects’- is that the right word for her informants?- is closer.

Given that such care has been taken with the arrangement of this narrative, it behoves the reader to ask “does it work?” I don’t really know if much has been gained by this cutting and dicing, beyond what would have been achieved by a straight one-after-the-other narrative. At least in this book, the reader is provided with a table of contents, something sorely lacking in Michelle Tom’s even more disjointed Ten Thousand Aftershocks (my rather bad-tempered review here). It is possible to backtrack and find the earlier episodes if memory falters. I am nonplussed by the inclusion of ‘Half Way Home’, which is more a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, rather than a broader search for meaning. I found myself wondering if this story really belonged in a different book.

In her foreword, Krasnostein says that her book is about

certainty in the absence of knowledge; how the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we’d like it to be can stunt or save us.


Of Jewish heritage herself, her impatience is most palpable in the two manifestations of Christian belief – the Creation Museum and the Mennonites – while she seems to be able to maintain a detached and still contingent scepticism for UFOs and the paranormal. She talks of ‘distance’, both psychological and objective, and it was this distance that attracted her to these stories in particular.

I didn’t set out to find these stories….In each case, I needed 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 close to something, someone, that felt very far away. That I believed maybe I could.

One of the lies writers tell themselves is that all things should be understood.


I suspect that Krasnostein herself would admit that she has not been able to bridge this distance in each of these cases. Despite her involvement in the last days of Katrina’s life, the process and experience of death is still beyond her grasp, although she learns more about life from attending Katrina’s living-wake (i.e. Katrina herself attended, before she died) and the ceremony after her death. The religious believers remain beyond her understanding and sympathy; she is not sure about the UFOs or ghosts. She admits that she used to think of the world as a type of text, indexed and logically related, and “a faith that, if I could only ask the right questions, I could finally understand.”

To believe in the world as this type of text is to believe that all lives- regardless of whether they resolve happily- make sense. To have faith in context and causation. To insist that people for the most part are intelligibly coherent in the sense of being predictably inconsistent and that they are capable, within reasonable bounds of incredible insight and meaningful growth as they learn, painfully, to bend themselves around reality instead of expecting reality to miraculously bend itself around them.

To repeatedly believe this about people is, to borrow from Philip Roth, to be wrong. But at least it is also to be wrong about oneself. And what other choice do we have?


This is probably getting closer to my own belief about myself and the way the world works, and I’m not sure that it is as “wrong” as Roth proclaims. The title ‘The Believer’ could be applied to five of the six people she has interviewed and encountered here, but she and I alike question how much insight and growth some of them display, when the certainties are imposed from without rather than emerging from within. But the title could just as easily be applied to Krasnostein herself, as she tests out a ‘faith’ in human nature that Philip Roth (in all his typical bombast) declares to be wrong. And, as she says of this faith and the attempt to reach across distance, perhaps we have no other choice.

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

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