Seeing Together: Care, Community, and Connection in Jeff Sharlet’s “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers”

This is a big statement, I know, but This Brilliant Darkness feels as transformative and essential as anything I have read in years. “I stepped back,” Sharlet writes, “the birds returned. Mike’s getting out of the donut business and plans to go into house-painting, but in Sharlet’s photo he poses tough in front of a tray of donuts, a tear tattooed under his eye for his son who, as he tells Sharlet, “died when he was two months old.” Later in the book, a shocking photo: a riot of feathers as more than a dozen pigeons alight on a homeless man prone in a doorway. This Brilliant Darkness is an eloquent, bracing invitation to look at the human cost of this human suffering. We think we’re good at it. Sharlet spends pages discussing Charley, a Cameroonian immigrant, whose dreams of returning home as an accomplished actor soon fall apart, landing him on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. I was distracted by how much of my dad’s final hours had been spent waiting for Tylenol. As Sharlet writes late in This Brilliant Darkness, “You realize just how fragile everything is. Even people who disbelieve in the utility of a generalized social safety net still bray on and on about how quick they are to help their neighbors. Written over a span of time between two heart attacks — the first Sharlet’s father’s, the second Sharlet’s own — Darkness is an intimate travelogue of human suffering, confusion, and, in fleeting moments, transcendence. We often say that a book has changed our lives. Sharlet digs into Charley’s story, initially offering a frame-by-frame analysis of cell phone footage of Charley’s murder. But it’s rare to say that a book made us more human. Sharlet has written or co-written five previous books, including his best known, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, an investigation of one of the United States’s most connected, politically potent, and financially robust fundamentalist ministries. But in his other work, both his books and his many excellent long-form magazine pieces, purer faith often anchors his tales, and his writing is often as luminous as his subjects’ belief. APRIL 25, 2020
I FIRST ATTEMPTED to read Jeff Sharlet’s This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers sitting next to a hospice bed as my father finished his life. You’ve seen a Mary Mazur in your life, probably more often than you realize. The easiest comparison is to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans’s photographic and literary chronicle of impoverished Great Depression farmers. Sharlet encounters Mary late one freezing night at a fried chicken joint. As I type this sentence, Italy is under a nationwide lockdown, most of my friends are working from home, and my local market has bare shelves. The result would have been the same: an annihilation of the myth of American compassion (the book has bracing chapters set elsewhere in the world, including an incredible sequence set in Putin’s violently homophobic Russia, but the heart of the book is the United States). Succinct and devastating, through Charley’s story Sharlet shows just how perverted the flaccid news reports of police shootings can be. We have added a pandemic to our usual docket of tornadoes and train wrecks. LaRose offers himself as a photo subject and then unzips his fleece to reveal several lanyards around his neck. This web includes our home, our connections and networks where we find — or at least can profitably seek — security. The surface narratives of This Brilliant Darkness are thin skins stretched over lush, teeming social disorders and attempts at self-preservation. Sharlet could have examined any of his subjects with this extended care, revealing the complexity of their lives and our society’s disregard. A near destitute person in a fast food restaurant or grocery store parking lot, nearly incoherent in their paranoia, trying somehow to navigate an indifferent world in a way that helps them retain some kind of dignity. Sharlet’s book, though rooted in the same powerful synergy between images and text, feels even more expansive in its attempt at community. Instead of standing on land you realize you’re on a boat, and it’s a small boat and the ocean is all around you, and the best hope is just to stay on the boat, because there is no land.”
This is a beautiful metaphor for life generally, but it becomes painfully poignant when used as a lens through which to look at the poor, indigent, or forgotten people who are allowed to slip through the system. This is particularly poignant because the book is Sharlet’s own necessarily distorted but miraculously complete compression. ¤
Michael Washburn is the director of Programs at Humanities New York. The man coaches Sharlet to step back before snapping his photo, to steady the pigeons’ anxiety. “‘Now you have everything,’ [La Rose] says, pleased. These were worthy interruptions, life and the world asserting themselves with callousness enough to render impossible the kind of focus This Brilliant Darkness rewards and deserves. But even through my distracted readings, Sharlet’s book helped me resist the barriers people sometimes erect to numb their suffering, to dull their empathy pains. Together they ate.”
Or there’s the story of Larry LaRose. He wears an elaborate skull T-shirt, headphones draped around his neck, hands halfway in the pockets of his dark jeans. This simply isn’t true, attestations to our limitless empathy notwithstanding. If we were exposed to even half of these American tragedies — the striving, the attempts that people make that conclude with their murder at the hands of the state — well, I don’t know what would happen. I approached the book a second time two months later, but failed again, my mind preoccupied by wildfire-incinerated Australia. This trip ends with the police and the EMS, but Sharlet stays the course, befriending Mary and showing us just how resilient the woman is to have overcome a series of traumas that would destroy most people. On a charmed third attempt, the book locked in — though the world attempted to intervene yet again, this time with foreboding news alerts of increased hostilities between the United States and Iran. It is only through this — through exercising compassion for people we don’t know, or who we find alien, or who we, quite frankly, do not like — that we might possibly remain human as life continues to mutate into crisis and the world as we have known it recedes beneath the rising tide of manifold devastation. Take the photo and essay about Mike, a 34-year-old night baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. The Family rightfully positioned Sharlet as one of our more provocative investigators of conjoined political and religious power. ¤
As he writes early in the book, This Brilliant Darkness is part of a “deeply democratic, or maybe even religious, notion that what I see — one person’s vision — could matter to you so much that we could see together.” By taking things that are so often greeted as disposable — cell phone snapshots, Instagram posts, impoverished people — and giving them his singular attention, Sharlet offers a powerful text resembling the humanity it seeks to document: as painful as it is beautiful, as durable as it is instructive. I have a wife and a child, friends. Things would be different? Each contains a fragment of his life: “[T]he names of his caregivers; a Kiwanis Club group for the mentally disabled; an invitation to a Halloween dance.” After LaRose invites Sharlet to the dance, he shows one final lanyard, this one containing a photo of LaRose’s deceased twin brother. One of the book’s most arresting sections concerns Mary Mazur, an unstable elderly woman who has been boarded at a cheap motel by the state and whose only companions are a tattered, taped-together house plant; three spectral presences that seem to trail her through her life; and, for a brief moment, three goldfish. ‘So you didn’t come out here for nothing.’”
We who are lucky surround ourselves with a disaster-diffusing web, something that dulls life’s blows enough to be bearable. Other people, like Larry LaRose, have the social services that assist them, or they have scraps of paper and random invitations that they have imbued with their social significance. Bloomsbury published Southern Accents, his contribution to the 33 1/3 music series, in April 2019. It took a long time to write this piece. All of this is nested in Sharlet’s powerful, evocative prose. Everything I’ve mentioned in this modest summary of Sharlet’s book occurs in a world whose foreseeable future can only be deepening crisis. The LAPD kills Charley — executes him, holds him down and shoots him five times — for nothing. The violence of compression that takes place in any review feels particularly brutish here, without the accompanying photos or the cumulative resonance. During the course of many insomnia-afflicted nights, Sharlet began going for walks, observing strangers, and taking photos, quick shots on his phone during his graveyard-shift wanderings. Holding yourself together by embracing loss seems excruciating, but it’s still a way to hold yourself together. Then Sharlet moves deeper, unearthing Charley’s personal and family history, his life on Skid Row, and the ways in which he strived to remain human in the tense, brittle moments that often make up life on the streets. The result is a wholly hypnotic series of short essays, most of which are accompanied by Sharlet’s tender, bare photos. Or, like Mike, they have loss, like the loss of a child, that they nurture in order to not entirely forget themselves. Sharlet’s work is an incantation, a prayer for and summoning of the human powers of observation, empathy, and compassion. She’d set out on foot from her hotel room, houseplant in tow, to buy a Thanksgiving turkey. Americans often pride ourselves on some unique capacity to care. All of this occurs against a backdrop of disappearing ice sheets, entire continents battling conflagration, and desperation run amok. Receipts of at least some kind of interaction with the world.