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With The Greatest Generation, veteran NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw shined a spotlight on the courageous and determined men and women who lifted America out of the Great Depression and defeated Hitler in World War II. The 1998 bestseller was embraced as a long-overdue tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary people beset by extraordinary circumstances.

By contrast, Boom! Voices of the Sixties, Brokaw’s omnibus of personal observations interspersed with dozens of contemporary interviews with the baby boom children of the Greatest Generation, is a kaleidoscopic collection of reflection, reassessment and occasional regret for a decade that will forever be defined by the changes it produced.

Like a lightshow worthy of a Grateful Dead concert, Boom! is both dazzling and dizzying as it plays off the sparks, fires and misfires of the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, political dissent, feminism, rock ‘n’ roll, the rise of the counterculture and the race to the moon. Little wonder that no Greatest Generation-style consensus emerges from these pages. One would hardly expect such diverse voices as Andrew Young, Joan Baez, Karl Rove, Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, Dick Gregory and astronaut Jim Lovell to agree on much of anything, and they don’t.

"Oh no, there’s no consensus in this one," Brokaw chuckles. "The Greatest Generation was a much more linear generation. The swings in the boomer generation are much greater. The prism through which they see the world is fractured compared to the Greatest Generation."

Brokaw divides Boom! into two parts. The first surveys the turbulent years between the JFK assassination and Richard Nixon’s resignation; the second traces the " aftershocks: consequences, intended or otherwise" that followed.

"My intention was not to write the defining history of the ’60s because a) I don’t think you can do that yet, and b) the books that have been written about the ’60s were primarily books about what was going on only at that time; they don’t have any carryover. My intention was to go back and say, what do we think now?"

The title evokes both the generation that brought about sweeping cultural changes and the suddenness with which those changes occurred. "Crew-cut veterans of World War II looked up at the dinner table—and—boom! they saw a daughter wearing no bra, talking about moving in with her boyfriend, and a son with hair down to his shoulders," Brokaw writes.

Born in 1940, six years before the official start of the baby boom, Brokaw straddles the two generations, but admits the heartland values he grew up with in South Dakota owed more to the Greatest Generation. By the time the Summer of Love arrived in 1967, he was a reporter and anchor with the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, a husband and father entrenched in the American dream, and, like most Americans, struggling to understand the revolution around him.

"The swings were wild. Anybody who was living during that time was either absolutely repelled by what was going on, utterly charmed by it, or confused and somewhere in the middle. I was in the middle," he says. "They were saying America sucks, but I was thinking well, it doesn’t suck for me."

Brokaw dabbled in the zeitgeist, smoked a little pot, grew his hair to a fashionable length, even donned a peasant shirt on weekends, but it was never a good fit. He aspired to join the ranks of Walter Cronkite and Huntley&Brinkley, and knew that evenhanded reportage on the swiftly changing home front was his ticket to the big chair.

"The major networks and the big newspapers in the country were run by white, middle-aged men who were mostly members of the Greatest Generation," he says. "So it was this startling upheaval in life as we had known it, and the trick was to try to get it right—not to just mock it, not to let the pendulum swing too far, not to become too infatuated with it, which was easy to do."

Loss hangs heavy over this reunion of ’60s voices; gone too soon were such influential figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and John Belushi. Gone too is Brokaw’s college buddy Gene Kimmel, a Marine captain whose 1968 death in Vietnam fueled Brokaw’s anger at the war. "I honestly believe he would have been governor of the state of South Dakota," he says. God, what a loss. "I feel it to this day."

Two observers launched the earliest attempts to try to make sense of the ’60s. Director Lawrence Kasdan’s film The Big Chill used a reunion of college friends to explore the aftermath of the decade, while Lorne Michaels "rearranged the television landscape" by harnessing counterculture humor to produce a hit TV show at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday nights with "Saturday Night Live!"

"One of the great lessons of the ’60s that people have not focused on enough is that it was very entrepreneurial," Brokaw says. "Loren was a perfect example of that; he was a very young man when he did that and it was his idea, his concept. [Apple’s] Steve Jobs grew out of the ’60s zeitgeist. Len Riggio said Barnes&Noble is a product of the ’60s, and it truly is."

Why didn’t more of the seeds of flower power take root?

"What a lot of the younger activists like Sam Brown and Carl Pope said was that they didn’t have any adult supervision. We were great at organization, we were great at tactics; we had no strategy," says Brokaw. "Gary Hart said we could organize a circus in the middle of the Sahara Desert but we didn’t have an economic policy."

Brokaw says that for all its sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the ’60s will likely remain a Camelot-like era whose very evanescence belies its true impact. As Arlo Guthrie puts it, "Thank God the ’60s are still controversial. It means nobody’s lost yet."

Jay MacDonald still tunes in, turns left and drops stuff.

With The Greatest Generation, veteran NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw shined a spotlight on the courageous and determined men and women who lifted America out of the Great Depression and defeated Hitler in World War II. The 1998 bestseller was embraced as a long-overdue tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary people beset by extraordinary circumstances. […]
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Even before it hit the bookstores, SuperFreakonomics was inciting scorn and outrage. That may have had something to do with its flashing-lights subtitle: “Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” This verbal torrent virtually stampeded reviewers toward the juicy parts. The authors couldn’t have hoped for better publicity than seeing Paul Krugman denounce their climatological inferences the New York Times. Which he did.

Like its predecessor, Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics provides great conversational fodder about the immediate and longterm consequences of human actions, both great and small. The point that aroused Krugman’s ire was the book’s implication that the global-warning camp may be a tad alarmist and not always rigorously guided by science. In the same vein, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention assailed the book for questioning the superiority of child safety seats over regular seat belts in shielding children over two from serious injury. (The authors did, however, agree that safety seats are more effective than belts in preventing minor injuries.)

Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Dubner, an author and former editor at The New York Times Magazine, arrived at their conclusions by sifting through a host of research studies to glean insights about human behavior, its causes and effects. Their aim, they say was to “tell stories . . . that rely on accumulated data rather than on individual anecdotes, glaring anomalies, personal opinions, emotional outbursts, or moral leanings.” For example, they venture into why opening up the workplace to women may have led to a measurable decline in teacher quality and why children in utero during Ramadan seem especially susceptible to developmental defects. Accept them or not, the authors’ judgments are consistently thought provoking. BookPage got the chance to ask Stephen Dubner a few questions about the new book.

Early in the book you say, “We are trying to start a conversation, not have the last word?” What ends would you expect such a conversation to serve?
It would be nice if people could think about and discuss and act on things without operating from their preconceived notions.

Why does this book falls under the rubric of economics rather than, say, behavioral psychology? Is it your thesis that all human activity has an economic dimension?
Sure, if you mean by "economic dimension" that we all respond to incentives. But incentives, as we write all over the place, are hardly limited to financial ones.

What was the division of labor for this book? Who did what?
Levitt does the nouns and adverbs, and I do the verbs and adjectives. We quarrel over the prepositions. Well, really: it's a collaboration whose particulars depend very much on the section in question. Some are hybrids of Levitt's empirical research and my reporting and writing. Often we have long talks about how particular sections will be laid out, what works and what doesn't work. The idea is to blend analysis and non-fiction storytelling in a way that short shrifts neither the analysis nor the reading experience.

Given the many variables between outwardly similar situations, do you think history has any predictive power—as opposed to simply being a catalog of possibilities?
I love that question, though I'm not sure my answer is worthwhile. I guess I'd tend toward the "catalog of possibilities" idea, especially if you're talking about economic history. So much of the conversation after the recent financial and economic meltdown centered on predictions based on what had happened in past recessions and depressions—the vast majority of which of course failed to come true (so far, at least).

Are media as sensationalist as you suggest throughout, or are we just more attuned to sensational stories than we are blandly informative ones?
I think they are one and the same. Reporters are humans too, and stories that attract our attention attracted theirs first.

Did you have a system for ferreting out the studies you cite in the book? If so, how did it work?
A lot of the research we write about is, once again, Levitt's academic research, often done in concert with people whom we write about in the book, like John List, Sudhir Venkatesh, Craig Feied, Ian Horsley and others. But we also both spend a lot of time talking to people and hunting down other interesting research.

Did you amass much useful material that didn’t make it into this book?
Yes, quite a bit, but some chapters got too flabby, some stories just didn't gel, and so on.

Do you anticipate that the two of you will collaborate on other projects?
We've talked over a number of things, including future books, but nothing's decided now.

What’s your appraisal of Malcolm Gladwell’s use of the material you cited in your New York Times Magazine article about the “birth date bulge” and the origins of talent?
Malcolm's a wonderful writer. I think he could successfully rewrite the phone book—which, if you think about it, he kind of did in that great section in The Tipping Point about "connectors."

Have the conclusions the two of you reached in writing the Freakonomics books altered your behavior in any way or changed your views on how life should be lived?
Personally, I'd say that it's made me more optimistic in general. One major theme in SuperFreakonomics is that problems that seem virtually unsolvable inevitably do get solved, often by cheap and simple means, and often by someone or something that we weren't expecting.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

Even before it hit the bookstores, SuperFreakonomics was inciting scorn and outrage. That may have had something to do with its flashing-lights subtitle: “Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” This verbal torrent virtually stampeded reviewers toward the juicy parts. The authors couldn’t have hoped for better publicity than seeing […]
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Go big or go home. He who dies with the most toys wins. There's no end to the figures of speech we've created to explain—or is it justify?—our growing belief that bigger=best. Sarah Z. Wexler, a resident of one of America's largest cities—New York City—traveled around the country exploring this idea in her new book, Living Large. From test-driving Hummers to getting a plastic surgery consultation to seeking out the world's largest ball of twine, Wexler chronicles her adventures with wit, humor and insight. She answered a few questions for us about the topic and the inspiration behind Living Large.

This is your first book—can you tell us a little about how you chose the subject?
I got the idea because one time I went back to Northern Virginia to visit my parents, and I noticed that more and more, small businesses were being replaced by big-box stores, perfectly nice houses from the 1950s and '60s were being bull-dozed to build identical McMansions, with a super-sized SUV in every driveway. It seemed like the norms were shifting, as they had in fast food, where a large is labeled medium, and XL is labeled large, etc, but with everything. I wanted to understand how all of these super-sized things about American life were connected, and why we were defaulting to XXL as the new norm.

There are moments in the book when you seem to be seduced by the larger lifestyle yourself—the Hummer chapter comes to mind! Did you expect to have that reaction?
Definitely not! My goal was to go into every chapter with an open mind and earnestly try to understand what people were getting out of super-sizing this aspect of their lives. But some chapters, like the Hummer, I had a difficult time putting my preconceptions aside and really struggled with it, since I had a lot of judgments about people who drive Hummers. That's why I was surprised that when I drove one myself, after getting over the initial terror of driving something that felt like a school bus, that I was seduced by the comfort, the feeling of safety and machismo and superiority. I understood the appeal–and I understood why I needed to get out of the car, stat!

Is there a time when bigger IS better?
The biggest ball of twine, or the biggest cow sculpture, those kinds of Big America roadside attractions, are just fun, wacky Americana. And there are times when bigger certainly feels better—like saving time when shopping at a big-box store and buying a T-shirt along with Windex and a gallon of milk, for example. If you'd asked me when I was trying on three-carat engagement rings at Tiffany's, or even trying on triple-D breast implants at a plastic surgeon's office, if bigger is better, I would've had to answer yes. But once I did the research about the impact of these choices, bigger consumption is rarely better—it rarely leads to us being happier, better off or more fulfilled.

Did researching the book change any of your own daily habits?
After spending time at the country's largest landfill, I became completely paranoid about how much trash I create, so I've tried to cut down on buying things with lots of packaging that goes straight to landfills. I got rid of my SUV and take public transportation. I also promised myself that whenever possible, I'd avoid shopping at big-box stores. Though you can save about 15% by shopping at a Wal-Mart, in communities where Wal-Marts have opened, the unemployment rate goes up, and participation in PTA groups and even voter registration goes down. The impact on my community is not worth it to me to save a few bucks on dish soap.

One of the things you investigated here is the backlash to the "more more more" stuff—like freeganism, a lifestyle you conclude is just as unsustainable. Can you tell us more about that?
Freegans were fascinating to me, because they live entirely on what the rest of us throw away. They're the antithesis of "living large." It's not that they're financially forced to do it—they're making a conscious choice and a political statement about waste and American excess, and most of them claim they live very well. But even if you can get over the idea of foraging for your dinner in the trash, freeganism is unsustainable for the majority of Americans, because if we all started living off the excess, there wouldn't be enough waste-makers to provide the excess. It's a fascinating ideology, and I learned a lot by Dumpster diving with freegans, but to suggest my mom or my grandma get her food or clothes that way would be completely unrealistic.

A lot of the people you talked to—from Tiffany's store owners to the manager of the MGM Grand—seemed to think that their luxury businesses were here to stay despite the recession. What do you think is the future of the "living large" movement?
Americans have short-term memories. Many Americans have had to downsize in the recession, especially those who lived large above their means; for example, eight times as many McMansions are in foreclosure as the national housing average. But as long as we continue to see living large as good, a sign of success, influence and prosperity, and downsizing as a punishment, when we have money again, we'll go right back to super-sizing. That's why I'm hoping that the silver lining of the recession is that some of us see that living with less doesn't have to be a negative thing—that a smaller house can feel just as, or even more, homey, or that a hybrid will get you there as well as a mega-SUV. Hopefully, this moment is a chance to hit the pause button on our rampant super-sizing—and that in the long run, we'll be able to find the right size, rather than just defaulting to the biggest because we assume it's best.

author photo by Andrea Volbrecht

Go big or go home. He who dies with the most toys wins. There's no end to the figures of speech we've created to explain—or is it justify?—our growing belief that bigger=best. Sarah Z. Wexler, a resident of one of America's largest cities—New York City—traveled around the country exploring this idea in her new book, […]
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Ape, chicken, cow, dog, pig, rat, sheep, snake, beast. Each of these words has a distinct connotation, none of them positive. The fact is, though, that no animal behavior can compete with the aggressive and destructive violence exhibited by humans on a regular basis. Animal advocate Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has published numerous bestsellers about the rich emotional lives of animals. In his latest thought-provoking book, Beasts, Masson turns his attention to humans, posing the questions: who are the real beasts, why, and what can we do about it? We asked Masson—who lives in New Zealand with his family—a few questions about the book.  

How did the idea for Beasts come about?
It occurred to me that we easily recognize animal superiority when it comes to strength, or even some emotions (grief in elephants, for example), but have not commented very much on an even more important fact: Animals are less aggressive than humans.

What’s one of the most surprising things you discovered—about humans or another species—while researching the book?
While in the 20th century humans killed about 200,000,000 other humans, during that same period, as far as we know, no orca killed a single orca in the wild.

Is there a particular (biological or societal) factor that you feel is the most responsible for our inclination toward aggression or violence?
Yes, education. We learn war; we are not destined to it, no matter what Obama says. War did not begin with the first human, as Obama claimed in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. 

Which derogatory animal insult (ape, chicken, cow, snake) that humans lobby at one another do you feel is the most ironic—why?
Beast, simply because it is so common, and so off the mark. Humans are the only real beasts.

What do you think is the most common misconception about animal (non-human) aggression?
Nature as red in tooth and claw. It is not. Ninety percent of all mammals are vegetarians.

The book focuses on the worst of human behaviors: war, hatred, killing, exploitation. Is there a bright side?
Yes, indeed there is: We are the only species that creates hospitals for sick members of another species. We have schools of veterinary medicine, that, in theory (alas, rarely in practice) are there not to exploit other animals, but only to help them.

What do you want people to take away from reading the book?
We need to seriously rethink our attitude toward nonhuman animals. Should we eat them (no); should we exploit them in zoos or circuses (no); should we use them for fur or milk or eggs (no)? If we keep them in our homes (cats and dogs,) we should recognize the great honor they accord us.

(Author photo by Corina Koning)

 

Ape, chicken, cow, dog, pig, rat, sheep, snake, beast. Each of these words has a distinct connotation, none of them positive. The fact is, though, that no animal behavior can compete with the aggressive and destructive violence exhibited by humans on a regular basis. Animal advocate Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has published numerous bestsellers about the rich emotional lives of animals. In his latest thought-provoking book, Beasts, Masson turns his attention to humans, posing the questions: who are the real beasts, why, and what can we do about it?

Interview by

“Kids, far more than adults, tend to ask questions about the body. And if I had to choose just one thing to learn about for the rest of my life, it would be the many adventures of the dead body. So kids are sort of interested in the same things that I’m interested in,” Caitlin Doughty says, laughing. We’re on the phone between Tennessee and Los Angeles on a sunny day—perhaps too sunny, given the content of our discussion—talking about her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

An author, mortician and death activist, Doughty has filled her third book with answers to questions posed to her by children—who tend to ask, with characteristic bluntness, about the gruesome details that adults won’t. For example, why do we turn colors when we die? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you swallowed a bag of popcorn before you die and were cremated? (A cremation machine is three times hotter than the ideal temperature for popping corn, so the kernels would just burn.) 

It’s not that Doughty doesn’t want to answer questions about the afterlife—those aloof, philosophical questions that grown-ups tend to ask. “We just also need education that’s a little more frank and basic than that,” she says. “Sometimes it can feel like we don’t even have the vocabulary to have the more adult conversations about death.”

Doughty begins building that vocabulary—and issues an invitation to join her—in this straightforward but humorous meander through thanatology. A more traditional Q&A book, informed by the distance and politeness of adults, might pose questions like, “What happens during an embalming?” And Doughty, the mortician, would answer. But in our death–phobic society, Doughty believes we can all benefit from children’s deep curiosity about mortality—those “really specific, kind of gory, kind of just great questions about death.” (What would happen if you died on a plane? Do conjoined twins always die at the same time?)

Children won’t know the answers to the questions in Doughty’s book, of course—but most adults won’t either. After all, adults are simply kids “who have long since given up on getting the answers to questions like that.” Therefore, says Doughty, “I’m speaking not only to children but to the adults who never got to have this open conversation about death.”

Engaging in these conversations has been Doughty’s passion throughout much of her adult life. At the age of 22, with a newly minted medieval history degree concentrating on death and culture, she embarked on a bit of an independent personal research project by working at a San Francisco crematorium. The connection was instant.

Doughty went on to become a mortician with her own funeral home, as well as a high-profile death activist with a massive following on YouTube and Instagram. “It was pretty immediate. And this is kind of woo-woo, but as soon as I started, I just knew, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do. I am supposed to help people understand this and be an advocate for this,’ and that’s what I’ve done every day since then.”

Frustrated by exploitative practices in the commercial funeral industry and what she calls a “culture of silence” surrounding death, Doughty advocates for more transparency in the funeral industry and for practices that better lend themselves to death acceptance in American culture. She explains that our squeamishness about death “has a lot to do with the modernization of culture in general.” It wasn’t until the early 20th century that people started dying in hospitals instead of at home. Around the same time, funeral homes rather than family members started caring for the deceased. The rise of slaughterhouses took the killing of animals away from the home and into a private, secret area at the edge of town. “You used to have all of this death around you all of the time—people dying, dead bodies and wakes, killing animals for food—and all of a sudden, all of that disappeared. You know that’s going to have a profound effect on your culture.”

In Doughty’s first and second books, she pulled back the curtain on the American funeral industry and presented a window into the varied death practices in other countries. Equal parts intrigued by the questions she received from children at her events and bothered by the lack of honesty they had received about the final transition, Doughty set out to provide some facts. “Every time a parent brought a kid to the event and they asked a really good question, I was like, ‘Excellent, we’ll file that away.’”

Boasting answers to “100% ethically sourced (free range organic)” questions from real kids, Doughty covers questions from funeral practices to the biological ins and outs of decomposition with the grace, humor and candor that she feels all people (small ones included) deserve. Providing the younger generations with facts and a language for death gives Doughty hope for how we address death and dying moving forward.

“What I’ve found from working with adults, and I don’t think that kids are any different, is that you fear death less the more that you know,” she says. “So I don’t think that a kid who already has an open mind and already wants to know about decomposition and these harder things is going to think that’s terrifying. They’re going to think that’s cool and interesting.”

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

“Kids, far more than adults, tend to ask questions about the body. And if I had to choose just one thing to learn about for the rest of my life, it would be the many adventures of the dead body. So kids are sort of interested in the same things that I’m interested in,” Caitlin […]

When Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s landmark work of history, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Kendi became the youngest writer to ever receive that award. Now Kendi has partnered with award-winning children’s and YA writer Jason Reynolds on Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a book that will introduce young people to the ideas in Kendi’s work.

BookPage spoke with Dr. Kendi about what a book like Stamped would have meant to him as a teenager, what he feels Reynolds added to his work and his advice for young change-makers today.


Your co-author, Jason Reynolds, has probably read your book Stamped From the Beginning quite a few times. Had you read any of his books before you embarked on this project together? If so, which ones were your favorites and why?
I’m absolutely jealous of young black boys today and of young people in general. Completely jealous. I was not much of a reader in middle school and high school. I wish I could jump back into time with all of Jason’s books. It is hard for me to choose a favorite. Ghost? Possibly because it’s the first Jason Reynolds book I read; possibly because of how he weaved together difference and made those four kids strikingly different and strikingly the same. Perhaps the whole Track series? Perhaps All American Boys because of how it resonates and captures our political moment? It is hard to say.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jason Reynolds shares what the process of creating Stamped was like for him.


How important and impactful would a book like Stamped have been to you if you had encountered it as a teenager?
Utterly life-changing. I spent 20 agonizing years figuring out what we drop in Stamped. To have learned this as a teenager would have saved me from so much, would have protected me from so much, would have clarified so much for me.

As you read Stamped, was there anything that Jason brought to the proverbial table that surprised you? Anything that made you see your own past work in a new way?
Stamped From the Beginning is about 500 dense though accessible pages. The original manuscript was two or three times the number of pages. I had no idea how to capture this complete and comprehensive story in so few pages, in so few words.

But he did it, shocking me. And the book tracks this ongoing debate between two kinds of racists—segregationist and assimilationist—as well as antiracists. Jason brilliantly remixes these people as haters, likers and lovers.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Stamped.


Young people today have a lot to feel discouraged about and even more to feel disempowered by. What would you say to a young person who feels like the seismic shifts they hope for are too far out of reach and that their own individual actions—particularly while they’re young—will never lead to real impact?
I would tell young people that the shifts are out of reach if they are reaching alone. But the shifts are not out of reach if they are joining with other young people, with other older people to reach collectively at power and policy change. There are organizations and institutions and campaigns working on those seismic shifts, and young people can figure ways to join or support these collectives of people. 

What advice would you give to teens and adults seeking to open up spaces for communication across generations about racism and antiracism?
The lines of communication should be opened by definitions of racism and antiracism. We can be speaking the same language and using the same words, but if we have different definitions, then it is like we are speaking a different language with different words. We need common definitions. And we have to develop the antiracist capacity to admit when we are being racist, to challenge our own racism as we challenge racism in society.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi shares about what a book like Stamped would have meant to him as a teenager, what he feels Jason Reynolds added to his work and his advice for young change-makers today.

To celebrate Memoir March, we spoke to the authors of this spring’s most exciting memoirs about their research processes, writing roadblocks and biggest fears as they put their personal stories out into the world. Georgina Lawton shares some of the joys and difficulties behind her book, Raceless, about growing up in a family that fiercely insisted, despite all outward appearances, that she was white.


What do you love most about your book?
That I cover multiple themes and places, that it looks at identity in a way we don’t see very often, that it’s not boring! I write about love, grief, secrets and shame by working through my family lore. And the physical journey I undertook to learn more about race and community brings the reader from London to the U.S. to Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam and back again. Examining DNA testing, Afro-futurism, Black hair and my own past took me on a journey of self-actualization while helping me understand my parents’ choices, too. 

What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book? 
Those who navigate personal identities in the spaces between, anyone who has wrestled with family secrets—and readers with impeccable taste, of course.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
Perhaps on first glance, readers will find it hard to understand how an educated woman who looks like me grew up believing she was related to her white family. Or that my parents really did not ever discuss our differing racial backgrounds unless I pressed. Or that boxes were checked that declared my ethnicity as “white.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Raceless.


What resistance did you face while writing this book?
The turmoil of writing about my father, our life together and the strength of his love, while also attempting to understand his silence around our racial differences and to work through issues with my mother, was incredibly tough to overcome. I’m proud of the chapter “My Lot,” which is all about my dad, but I detest rereading it because it still makes me cry. 

Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
No one prepares you for the emotional time travel that a memoir necessitates. Writing something traumatic from your past is hard enough, but constantly editing and reworking it means that internal wounds take longer to heal. I was surprised by how draining some of it was.

Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
I’ve done a lot of memoir-style writing about me and my family over the years and received lovely, compassionate emails from strangers online, as well as some predictable trolling. It’s actually the other parts of Raceless—the analysis of the subjectivity of race and transracial identities—that I really hope readers are open to understanding.

"I learned a lot about love and belonging and the corrosive power of community secrets."

How do you feel now that you’ve put this story to the page?
Like I still want to go back and rewrite bits! I’m very pleased with the final product, but if I hadn’t had actual deadlines, I’d probably still be tinkering away. I am a perfectionist.

What's one way that your book is better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel?
Raceless
is a hybrid of memoir and analytical writing. If I had just written it as a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to bring in other perspectives and studies. Situating my personal experiences within some sociological discourse added weight to my narrative and hopefully made it more persuasive. 

Many people think writing memoir means you just write from memory and don’t have to do research, but obviously that’s not true. What is the most interesting thing you had to research in order to write this book?
Mining the memories of my Irish mother and English family members for insight into how and why my race and parentage remained a hidden truth for years was quite the mission. But I learned a lot about love and belonging and the corrosive power of community secrets.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.

 

Author photo credit: Jamie Simonds © Loftus Media

Georgina Lawton shares some of the joys and difficulties behind her book, Raceless, about growing up in a family that fiercely insisted, despite all outward appearances, that she was white.
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A cultish group is one that promises to improve your life if you follow its regimen, buy its products or obey its leader. In Cultish, Amanda Montell peels back the linguistic layers of these groups and demonstrates that even mainstream brands and organizations use “cultish language” to draw people in.


Your father spent part of his childhood in a cult; more recently, your close friend joined Alcoholics Anonymous. How did these two loved ones’ stories prompt your interest in how cultish groups use language?

I grew up on my dad’s absolutely riveting tales of the four years he spent in a notorious socialist “utopia” in the Bay Area called Synanon, which started out as an alternative drug rehabilitation facility and later came to accommodate “lifestylers” who just wanted in on this unique communal way of living. (My dad joined in 1969, totally against his will, thanks to his communist absentee father, who was kind of a pseudo-intellectual hippie.)

To me, the most fascinating part of my dad’s stories was the special language they used in Synanon—buzzwords, slogans and terms that would sound utterly inscrutable to an outsider (like lifestylers, for example). The language was clearly meant to separate members from the outside world in a powerful psychological way.

Years later, in early 2018, I was talking to my best friend, who had just started going to AA, and I was equally bewildered by the sheer robustness of AA’s lexicon. AA is obviously a very different kind of “cult” than Synanon was, but that conversation with my friend prompted me to wonder: How exactly does cult language work to lure people into fanatical fringe groups? How does it make them stay?

Why do you think cults are a pop culture obsession at the moment? (The Girls by Emma Cline, Godshot by Chelsea Bieker, “The Path,” the “Escaping NXIVM” podcast, etc.)

In American culture now, much like in the 1960s and ’70s (another peak cult era), we’re experiencing a great deal of social tumult and mistrust of mainstream institutions such as government, religion and health care. So we’re looking to alternative sources to fill these voids.

At the same time, since the 1970s, dangerous cults (as well as relatively harmless “cult-followed” groups) have taken on a sort of perverse vintage cool factor. Fringe groups are spooky and fascinating, but they’re also very much afoot in our culture right now, so we find ourselves falling down these culty rabbit holes, unable to look away, almost like a car accident. We’re rubbernecking, scanning these stories to tell whether or not these groups are a threat to us. My argument in the book is that to some degree, we’re all under cultish influence. The proof is in how we speak every day.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Cultish.


How many cult survivors did you interview for this book? How did you find them? 

Oh gosh, dozens and dozens. Not all of them made it into the book, but the conversations were all enrapturing and invaluable. I met them all sorts of ways. Some I came across in documentaries or in articles, some I already knew or was connected to through friends, and some I just met at parties around Los Angeles (which I think says a lot about this town). You can’t go to a dinner party without running into some dreamer who was in Scientology or Kundalini yoga or at least some sort of pyramid scheme.

Why are phrases like brainwashing or mind control insufficient to describe how people get involved in cults? Were you surprised that the experts you interviewed said they don’t find those terms useful?

This was one of my first and favorite discoveries of the book. Popular media tends to explain how people end up in cults by talking about brainwashing, but I learned from cult scholars like Eileen Barker and Rebecca Moore that brainwashing is nothing but a metaphor (no one cuts open the brain and scrubs it clean) and a pseudoscientific concept (you can’t prove brainwashing doesn’t exist). In fact, using the word brainwash often does nothing but morally divide us: “You’re brainwashed!” “No, you’re brainwashed.” Once shots like these are fired, they choke the conversation, making it impossible to figure out what actually motivates people to become involved in cultish ideology, which is a much more interesting question and the one my book aims to answer.

You were previously a beauty editor at a women’s interest website and saw firsthand how the beauty, wellness and fitness industries use cult in marketing-speak (e.g., “a cult favorite”). What’s your take on that kind of usage? 

I actually don’t think it’s harmful or offensive to use cult as a sort of hyperbolic metaphor in a marketing context like this. Linguists have found that we as speakers and listeners are generally quite good at assessing the meaning and stakes implied whenever a familiar word is used in natural conversation. So when people liken a beauty brand to a cult, few listeners are going to become concerned that there’s a manic preacher making all these lipstick consumers engage in satanic rituals or something.

The only challenge with the word cult is that it’s become so broad, judgment-loaded, sensationalized and even romanticized, and is used in so many different contexts, that it really has no official or academic definition. In fact, many of the cult scholars I spoke to for the book don’t use the word formally, favoring more specific terms like new religions or alternative religions instead. The word cult has become kind of useless when describing groups that are actually dangerous, because it’s so unspecific. I think this haziness surrounding the word cult also says something about our culture’s extremely weird relationship with community, spirituality and identity.

“How exactly does cult language work to lure people into fanatical fringe groups? How does it make them stay?”

How is elitism—wanting to be part of the in crowd—exploited by cultish groups? 

Life as a human being is extremely confounding, and most of us spend a great deal of our time searching for satisfying answers to life’s biggest questions. When a guru or leader promises that they have the answers, and that you are special and smart enough to access them, that’s a really compelling message.

It’s a stereotype that cults or cultish groups prey on the weak and needy. But in fact, research shows that cults usually exploit people who are idealistic, optimistic and hardworking—people who don’t give up when things get tough. How can someone’s idealism, optimism and good intentions become the inroad to cultish groups?

Those are the types of people that cult recruiters actively go for. They don’t want people who are liable to break down quickly or get antsy and quit right away. Being an active member of a cult is hard work, so they want the best and brightest—people who hopefully have money to spare, are service-minded enough to give it to the group, and have enough optimism and perseverance to remain loyal even after things inevitably go sour. 

As a linguist, what is the difference between a religion and a cult? Did researching Cultish make the boundary between the two seem more or less blurry? 

A Jonestown survivor I interviewed for the book said something funny to me. He said, “A cult is like pornography. You know it when you see it.” It’s a pithy and humorous aphorism, and it totally rings true, but in terms of actual social science, instinctive judgments like that are not how one tells if a group is dangerously culty or not.

There’s another quote I included in the book, which I think is more logically sound. It comes from the religious studies community, and it goes, “Cult + time = religion.” Cultural normativity has so much to do with whether or not a spiritual group is considered a cult, even if its tenets and behaviors are no wackier or more dangerous than a better-established religion. After all, in Catholic Belgium, Quakers are considered a deviant cult, and Quakerism is just about the chillest religion around.

“A cult is like pornography. You know it when you see it.”

The word gaslighting is used frequently online and in media. What does it really mean, and what does it have to do with cults?

Gaslighting is a term that derives from the 1938 British play Gas Light, which chronicles a husband’s attempts to drive his wife to madness in part by dimming the lights in their house and then denying that anything is different when she points out the change, causing her to doubt her own sanity. Today, gaslighting is used metaphorically to describe any situation in which someone tries to force another person to question their own completely valid, grounded reality as a means of gaining and maintaining control over them. It’s a tactic employed by not only toxic romantic partners (who are more or less leaders of their own minicults) but also cult leaders, who thrive on causing followers to mistrust their own thoughts and feelings so that they depend on the leader to tell them what they need to do to feel safe. In Cultish, I talk all about how to recognize gaslighting in language. (The section on Scientology is particularly disturbing. Those folks are the ultimate linguistic gaslighters.)

Multilevel marketing (MLM) and direct sales have a long and ignominious history of targeting women, especially stay-at-home moms. How have more recent MLMs such as LuLaRoe employed phrases like boss babe and entrepreneur to their benefit? 

MLMs have always preyed on folks locked out of the labor market, especially unemployed middle-class wives and mothers. Since the dawn of the modern direct sales industry, MLM recruitment materials have employed pseudo-female empowerment language as a way to “inspire” (read: deceive) potential “affiliates.”

In midcentury America, Tupperware promised to be the “best thing to happen to women since they got the vote.” Now, in the era of Lean In commodified feminism, these insidiously nimble companies use trendy, Pinterest-y #girlboss language as a way to convince women that they’re signing up to be the SHE-E-O of their own business, as opposed to just another cog in the predatory wheel of multilevel marketing.

What are some of the features of cultish language used by Q, the supposed leader of QAnon? What was it like writing and editing this book while QAnon rose to prominence? 

The language of QAnon has now spread far beyond the terms initially used by the group’s faceless “leader,” Q. QAnon has since melded with New Age wellness communities and anti-vax/anti-mask circles, so the language has several dialects, if you will. It’s basically a weird hybrid of conspiratorial speak (“deep state,” “liberal elite,” countless code words, acronyms and hashtags) and woo-woo talk of “vibrations” and “great awakenings.” And it’s always changing, in order to accommodate new QAnon offshoots and to outrun social media algorithms, which become trained to recognize QAnon language and disable the accounts using it.

It was interesting, to say the least, to write about QAnon as it was taking root and then exploding and evolving; it required a lot of last-minute updates. Actually, the final part of my book was about something entirely different before it became clear that QAnon was becoming a big deal. I’m saving the content that got cut for a rainy day.

“None of us is above cultish influence, not even me.”

Jeff Bezos is known to use vague aphorisms such as “think big,” “dive deep” and “have backbone” as Amazon Leadership Principles. Self-help bloggers on Instagram tend to embrace similarly vague “You can do it!” messages. What sets off your alarm bells when you read these types of so-called inspiring messages?

I think fauxspiration can be more sinister than it sounds. It’s the sort of language that triggers a strong emotional response in people, but it doesn’t actually mean anything specific, and cult leaders benefit from that vagueness. When their rhetoric is lofty and nebulous, ill-intentioned gurus can hide pernicious intentions or even change their fundamental ideology whenever it’s convenient, and meanwhile, people will just project whatever they want the language to mean onto it.

One example of how this can play out in a dangerous way is in the form of the fauxspirational quotegrams that the “Pastel QAnon” community uses. A Pastel QAnon person might post a millennial pink cursive post that says something like, “You have the power to raise your own vibration,” which may not sound like a culty message to outsiders (we “sheeple” can be so “blind”), but those who are already amenable to New Age-y conspiratorial thinking might interpret that to mean “You don’t need pharmaceuticals to heal your depression or the vaccine to protect you from COVID.”

Toward the conclusion of Cultish, you say that writing this book led you to have a “stronger sense of compassion” for people who get involved in cultish groups. Why is that?

Ironically, when talking about cults and cult followers, a lot of us do the same thing that people in cults are trained to do, which is to morally and intellectually separate ourselves from those people. We like to tell ourselves that folks who wind up in cultish groups, from NXIVM to QAnon, are naive, messed up idiots and that we would never get involved in a group “like that” because we’re too smart and virtuous.

But I’ve found that oftentimes the people who are the most judgmental of cult followers (which, again, is a subjective term) are people who are involved with pretty culty groups themselves—whether it’s a startup that puts the “cult” in company culture or some all-consuming online community. None of us is above cultish influence, not even me. And in general, I find that understanding the psychological motivations underlying people’s seemingly bizarre behaviors makes you feel calmer and more compassionate. Knowledge is power, but knowledge is also empathy. And that’s ultimately what I hope my book does for people.

Amanda Montell peels back the linguistic layers of these groups and demonstrates that even mainstream brands and organizations use “cultish language” to draw people in.

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