Geeky bumbler charts the lure of delusions
JOURNALISM:Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, by Jon Ronson, Picador, 439pp, £14.99
If you’ve never read Jon Ronson, the frequently-asked-questions section of his website, jonronson.com, will give you an idea what to expect.
Q: I think I am a mind-control victim. Will you investigate?
A: Sorry, no. I get many emails from people who believe themselves to be mind-control victims. I have decided this is an area I don’t want to get into.
How many journalists get “many emails” from people in such straits? I don’t doubt for a minute that Ronson does, nor do I find his refusal to go there surprising. He’s greatly interested in delusions, but his subjects, or targets, are rather those who would prey on the deluded. The first section of his new book, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, is appropriately titled “The Things We’re Willing to Believe”.
Ronson has said he writes funny stories about unfunny things. His persona is that of geeky bumbler; extremely canny geeky bumbler. His previous works of nonfiction document the doings of those on the fringe, psychologically, ideologically or otherwise. The Men Who Stare at Goats, made into a film starring George Clooney, concerns the involvement of US military intelligence with the paranormal. Them: Adventures with Extremists recounts, well, Ronson’s adventures with extremists. The Psychopath Test explores the nature of psychopathy.
In the pieces contained in this collection, gathered from GQ, the Guardian and elsewhere, Ronson revels in the disjunction between the constructed (public) selves of his subjects and the reality behind those constructions. We get megalomaniacs, high on their own spin; vigilante superheroes patrolling American cities; and the US’s “most divisive” psychic, Sylvia Browne, who specialises in telling the parents of missing children whether their kids are dead or alive, and is utterly unapologetic when she gets it wrong, as she famously has.
Browne’s own QAs go something like this. A woman in her 30s tells Browne that she hasn’t been feeling well and is wondering why. Browne’s reply? “Do you want to know the truth, honey? You’ll be dead in two years.” For a 30-minute telephone reading with Browne, costing $750, there is a four-year waiting list. There should be a section in this book titled “Absurd Humiliations We Are Eager to Undergo”.
Ronson also has an interest in murders, disappearances and mysterious deaths, especially when they happen behind smiley-faced facades, as in the case of the youth-activities worker Rebecca Coriam, who vanished from the Disney Wonder cruise ship in 2011. There is a piece on Christopher Foster, who in 2008 shot his wife and daughter and set his Shropshire mansion on fire before killing himself. And we meet the American Unitarian preacher George Exoo, “the back-street abortionist of the assisted suicide world”. (The Irish government attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Exoo extradited for helping the Dublin woman Rosemary Toole to take her own life in 2002.) Exoo at first seems heroic, but, as happens with Ronson’s subjects, when the layers are peeled back the picture complicates.
Otherwise, there are parents passing off their children as “psychic sages”. There is a brush with the imbecilic rap duo Insane Clown Posse, who reveal that all that time they were singing violent, misogynistic songs, they were actually – yes! – evangelicals. We meet the broadcaster Ray Gosling, an early idol of Ronson’s, who falsely confessed to the mercy killing of his lover, and Richard Bandler, who calls himself “a little sociopathic” (as a youngster he electrocuted his stepfather; as an adult he taught a 10-year-old boy how to be a sniper) and who is now making millions peddling “neurolinguistic programming”.
In a great piece on the seedier realities of the early days of British pop, we spend time with the songwriter and producer Jonathan King, convicted of sexually assaulting teenage boys. In another, we learn about the Jesus Christians, also known as the “kidney cult” because its members donated kidneys to total strangers.
Among the crowd, there are a couple of geniuses. The piece on Stanley Kubrick sees Ronson combing through the late director’s maniacally archived life in his Childwick Green mansion. My favourite character in Lost at Sea is Martine Rothblatt, who started satellite radio and was also the driving force behind the development of a treatment for the once-fatal lung disorder pulmonary hypertension. (The spur was her six-year-old’s diagnosis; the doctor said the girl would be dead by the age of 10). Martine, formerly a man named Martin, has been married to Bina Aspen since 1982, and the two are now engaged in a project to upload Bina’s memories, thoughts, desires and facial expressions to a robot called Bina48. Ronson interviews both Martine and Bina48.
“What does electricity taste like?” I ask.
“Like a planet around a star,” Bina48 replies.
Which is either extraordinary or meaningless – I’m not sure which.
When Ronson falters, he’s either straining too hard for laughs, as when he retraces a jaunt from a Bond novel, or hanging a story on a gimmick that produces results too anecdotal to shed any real light, as in his look at income disparity. Or it’s because a desire to keep things light seems, in a couple of cases, misguided.
But, all in all, Lost at Sea is fairly addictive stuff. When Ronson is in full investigative and creative flight, he renders credit-card debt compelling. And no one is more aware than he of the “poisoned chalice”that some of these stories represent, and of how journalism like his is helping to make the fringe fringier. “Ray spent a lifetime beautifully documenting life’s ordinariness, but then a generation of documentary-makers like me came along for whom ordinariness wasn’t enough. We wanted to document life’s extremes, and so his gentleness became passé and he unravelled into chaos. And now I’ve come along to document it.”