What We’re Reading: Naomi Zeichner

June 22, 2012

Tired of reading the same recommended books from the usual sources? Just think of our weekly What We’re Reading column as your non-committal book club with The FADER and some of your favorite bands. For this installment, associate editor Naomi Zeichner recounts some stories about crazy people.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath? by Jennifer Kahn
Looking back, it appears that I've mostly been reading about madness. Jon Ronson has a theory why that's the case. In one of the chapter's of his book The Psychopath Test, he writes about how television populates itself with perceivably abnormal people, and why audiences respond: "The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder than we fear we're becoming, and in a recognizable way. We might be anxious but we aren't as anxious as they are. We might be paranoid but we aren't as paranoid as they are. We are entertained by them, and comforted that we're not as mad as they are." The characters in Ronson's book are certainly entertaining, and for such a quick read, there are a lot of them—a egomaniacal CEO in Florida, a detained psychopath who Scientologists are trying to get out of a treatment facility, pushy pharmaceutical reps, a Swedish man who sends meticulously constructed, nonsensical books to academics around the world and many more. Ronson manages to paint all of these people with compassion, even while whipping from vignette to vignette, efficiently noting all the winks and wall paint shades that make the situation's he's put himself in interesting. Jennifer Kahn's article, about whether or not children can or should be diagnosed with psycopathy, complements Ronson's book well. It looks closely at one case, parents talking about how hard and how joyless raising a kid whose brain doesn't seem to be wired for empathy is. It's brutal.

A Shift in the Matrix-Dispelling Darkness By Shining Light to the World : A teaching by Lama Christie by Christie McNally
In April, a man named Ian Thorson was found dead in Arizona after he and his wife were asked to leave a Buddhist retreat, where 40 people had committed to living together in silent meditation for three years. The couple were exiled in February, after the woman, Christie McNally, stabbed Thorson with a knife. They were camping in the desert, near the retreat, when Thorson died from dehydration and sun exposure. McNally sent a distress signal from a transmitter she was carrying. Police found her delirious and don't suspect foul play. McNally's last teaching (a communiqué she wrote while still at the retreat, plus an addendum she added after leaving) is online, typed in a big, loopy cursive font. She says the stabbing was divine play gone wrong, part of her efforts to experience the agressive energy her husband had. At the end of the letter, she's sitting on a hill in a sleeping bag, looking across the wide-open desert and says, "It is strange there is so much strife." How did she get there? Turns out Thorson's parents had been trying to get him away from Michael Roach, the millionaire turned monk who ran the retreat, for years. Even worse, McNally had been secretly married to Roach, divorcing him just a month before linking with Thorson.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Earlier this spring, allergy sick and just wanting to stay home, I read all 867 pages of Freedom in a binge over a couple of days. I've never been a big reader of novels, so I can't say which ones this borrows from or how it transforms the modern idea of the form. The family at its center, the Berglunds, are for the most part dark and disagreeable. Patty, the mother, is something like Bravo's teetering, ragey Real Housewives, but instead of being edited into the worst, most absurd version of herself for television, Franzen let's her develop across a couple decades. For two stretches, Patty writes about herself. At the end, against all odds, Franzen gives her a sort-of happy ending.

From The Collection:

What We're Reading
What We’re Reading: Naomi Zeichner