Human Connections Light Up 'This Brilliant Darkness'

Feb 20, 2020
Originally published on February 21, 2020 12:08 pm
The darkness is always there. It can be very beautiful. I don't necessarily want to shine a light that dispels it. I want to live with it. - Jeff Sharlet

This Brilliant Darkness is a book born of insomnia. It's a collection of snapshots and written profiles by author Jeff Sharlet that take us deep into other people's lives.

And by doing that, Sharlet says, he's really trying to tell us his own story. "I originally sort of thought of it as a memoir through other people's lives. It's bookended by two heart attacks, my father's, and then two years later, my own," he says. "I'm a journalist, and my life was sort of falling apart and the only way I knew how to put it together was through stories. So it's a collection of the strangers whose stories I shared, they shared with me in those years between those heart attacks, and attempting to find a narrative together."


Interview Highlights

On telling his own story

I've been a journalist for a long time, a non-fiction writer, and when we write about other subjects, I think sometimes people don't realize that, of course, the stories that we tell, we're driven to tell those stories, we're always telling our own story. There's a phrase out there that I really am not fond of ... especially if you're writing about the poor or people who are marginalized, "giving voice to the voiceless." And I don't like that phrase. I don't like the idea that I'm telling other people's stories. Their stories are their own. The only story I can tell is mine, of the encounters between us. And that's always happening in non-fiction. And I think in this book for me, encountering strangers, taking their photographs, taking just sort of these snapshots of these moments that we shared together was a way of narrating this experience that I was having, encountering them, and then thinking about how these stories work together to account for what was happening in my own understanding of the world.

On breaking away from the idea that journalist has to be impersonal and objective

"Spice pet" Jared Miller, photographed on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
Jeff Sharlet / Jeff Sharlet
Sharlet took this photo of a scale at his local hardware store while buying his daughter Play-Doh.
Jeff Sharlet / Jeff Sharlet

You know, this book began when I was working in a Dunkin' Donuts in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. There's not a lot that's open late around here. So I was there working on a magazine deadline. And I've been a magazine journalist for a long time. And I know how to tell those stories. And I think those stories are great value. But I was getting frustrated — don't want to say the formulas, but the patterns, and telling those stories over and over, and the story were you have a trend or a larger point or an argument where the people you meet are not so much people in themselves, as illustrations of some larger conversation.

And look, that's important work and it needs to be done. I was burned out from doing it. And that night I looked up and I see the night baker. He's wearing this T-shirt with this sort of baroque, ornately drawn skull, which is not the Dunkin' Donuts uniform, you know. And I get to talking to him and it's his last night on the job. He can't stand the night shift anymore. This is his way of expressing his feelings about that job. And I ask if I can take his picture. And I notice there's this little tattoo of a tear beneath his right eye and ask him about it. And it was for his son who had died at two months old. And we suddenly sort of stumbled into this space of intimacy. And we were both there together — for me to pretend that I was a fly in the wall at that moment in the middle of the night with this person, that would be inaccurate. That would be false. And I was trying to tell a true story.

On talking to people on the margins of society

A torched church. Location unspecified.
Jeff Sharlet / Jeff Sharlet

You know, I'd been reporting for years and I'd collected a lot of stories. And I'd sort of always thought that you moved from one story to another. And it hadn't occurred to me that stories accumulate, and they had accumulated for me, and they were keeping me awake at night. You know, the hard stories one sees and absorbs over the years. And these were sort of other night shift people. The book began with me sort of posting these pictures in an Instagram and I'd put a hashtag #nightshift, and then I'd click on the hashtag and I'd see these thousands of other people who were awake at night documenting their existence. And there was a kind of a a community and solidarity there. And those were the people I guess I found.

On the idea of brilliant darkness

I have some images of, well, you know — we go around the world to Moscow, to Nairobi, to L.A., and then we return to this of this little part of Vermont where I live in and this field that I love to take photographs of. And especially after the heart attack, as I was recovering, I would go for these long walks at night, and think about the night shift and think about darkness and think about that it's always there. And the line that accompanies one of those images is, "this brilliant darkness with which I am coming to terms." The darkness is always there. It can be very beautiful. I don't necessarily want to shine a light that dispels it. I want to live with it.

On whether he's kept in touch with people in the book

Sharlet photographed this pair of plastic, painted hands in front of a homemade lawn sign that reads "PRO WRESTLING."
Jeff Sharlet / Jeff Sharlet

Some, and some I wish I could. Mary Mazer, who was a 61-year-old woman living in a transient motel, welfare motel in my hometown of Schenectady, New York, and who really participated, and wanted to participate and sort of collaborate in deep way. But Mary goes in and out of homelessness. She is very suspicious of everybody. Her best friend is a plant that she carries around, and she understands how people see that. But, you know, she has this great line, she says, "it's my brain and I'll do what I want with it." And that's how her view of her mental health is. And when she is back out on the street, it's very, very hard to find her.

Others, there's a man named Jared Miller on Skid Row who, he was what the local dealers called a "spice pet." Spice, a street drug. And in return for a certain amount of drugs, he ran errands for them. He had a young son to whom he wanted to get back. He was hoping to clean himself up. And I ended up coming to know his mother, and knowing he went to rehabilitation. He, you know, there was a chance that he made it. And in the end, he didn't. He died. But to me, one of the things I learned from this reporting is, I think that the temptation of tragedy and tragic stories is this sort of the constellation of inevitability, the sort of belief that well, they couldn't have been any other way.

And I look at Jared Miller and Jared Miller did die. But always, always these moments remind us that it does not have to be that way. That's what I mean about sort of setting the pictures and emotion with words, and stories and emotion with images. I don't want these to be frozen moments, isolated from time. I don't want them to pretend to omniscience. I want them to suggest the very fragmentary nature of life that leaves those possibilities that are not tragic open.

This story was produced for radio by Aubri Juhasz and Jolie Myers, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"This Brilliant Darkness" is a book born of insomnia. It's a collection of written profiles and photos. The author, Jeff Sharlet, takes us deep into other people's lives. And by doing that, he told me he's really trying to tell his own story.

JEFF SHARLET: I originally sort of thought of it as a memoir through other people's lives. It's bookended by two heart attacks - my father's, and then two years later, my own. And it's a collection of the strangers whose stories I shared - they shared with me in those years in between those heart attacks - and attempting to find a narrative together.

SHAPIRO: I love the idea of a memoir told through other people's lives, but I'm not totally sure I understand what that means.

SHARLET: There's a phrase out there that I really - not fond of. Some people - especially if you're writing about the poor or people who are marginalized - giving voice to the voiceless. And I don't like that phrase. I don't like the idea that I'm telling other people's stories. Their stories are their own. The only story I can tell is mine of the encounters between us. And that's always happening in nonfiction.

And I think in this book, for me, encountering strangers, taking their photographs, taking just sort of these snapshots of these moments that we shared together was a way of narrating this experience that I was having encountering them and then thinking about how these stories work together to account for what was happening in my own understanding of the world.

SHAPIRO: What you're describing - telling your own story through the story of others - sounds antithetical to so much of what we're taught about journalism - that we're supposed to be the fly on the wall, the impartial observer. And as a journalist, I imagine you've had to adhere to that for a long time. What did it feel like to do the opposite?

SHARLET: You know, this book began - one night, I was working in a Dunkin' Donuts, working on a magazine deadline. And I've been a magazine journalist for a long time. And I was getting frustrated by the story where you have a trend or a larger point or an argument where the people you meet are not so much people in themselves as illustrations of some larger conversation.

SHAPIRO: Right. We're going to represent somebody who wants "Medicare for All," or we're going to represent somebody who is an immigrant. Yeah.

SHARLET: Yeah. And look; that's important work, and it needs to be done. I was burned out from doing it. And that night, I looked up, and I see the night baker. And he's wearing this T-shirt with this sort of baroque, ornately drawn skull, which is not the Dunkin' Donuts uniform.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SHARLET: You know, and I get to talking to him, and it's his last night on the job. He can't stand the night shift anymore. This is his way of expressing his feelings about that job. And I ask if I can take his picture, and I notice there's this little tattoo of a tear beneath his right eye. And I ask him about it. And it was for his son, who had died at two months old. And we suddenly sort of stumbled into this space of intimacy, and we were both there together. For me to pretend that I was a fly on the wall at that moment in the middle of the night with this person - that would be inaccurate. That would be false. And I was trying to tell a true story.

SHAPIRO: So many of the people whose stories you tell in this book are on the margins of society. I mean, there's a homeless immigrant who was shot by police in California. There's an elderly woman in a wheelchair who depends on social services in upstate New York, queer people in Russia who are bashed for protesting an anti-gay law. Why were these the kinds of people you gravitated to, do you think?

SHARLET: You know, I'd been sort of reporting for years, and I'd collected a lot of stories. And I sort of - I'd always thought that you moved from one story to another, and it hadn't occurred to me that stories accumulate. And they had accumulated for me, and they were keeping me awake at night. The book began with me sort of posting these pictures and I - on Instagram. And I'd put a hashtag - night shift - and then I'd click on the hashtag, and I'd see these thousands of other people who were awake at night, documenting their existence. And there was a kind of a community and a solidarity there.

SHAPIRO: Did writing this book give you the kind of purging or catharsis that you were hoping for?

SHARLET: In a sense. Twice, I wrote what I thought was the last line of the book. And then I started to feel this sort of weight in my chest. And I was 44, and I was having a heart attack.

SHAPIRO: On the day that you wrote what you thought would be the last line of the book.

SHARLET: Yeah, literally at that minute. And stranger than that, the book began, in the sense, in a clock tower. I was going to use it to write, and then I got a call. My father had had a heart attack. I had to go. And I'd been borrowing it from a friend, a poet. And I didn't return to that room for two years. And then finally, now I was going to rent it. It was going to be my writing room. I go there to write the last page of my book, and I have a heart attack.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SHARLET: And after that, I had to sort of rewrite the book again. I had to sort of think about the stories I was telling. And it's where the - sort of the title of the book comes from - this brilliant darkness and that - the rest of that line is with which I was - I am coming to terms. And that's an ongoing process. So I...

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say the rest of the line is with which I'm coming to terms?

SHARLET: Throughout the book, there's some images of this field that I love to take photographs of. And especially after the heart attack, as I was recovering, I would go for these long walks at night and think about the night shift and think about darkness and think about that it's always there. And I don't necessarily want to shine a light that dispels it. I want to live with it. And so when you ask if this book is cathartic, catharsis would suggest that I have achieved some serenity. Of course not. It's an ongoing story, I hope.

SHAPIRO: You had such intimate experiences with the people who you feature in the book. Have you kept in touch with any of them?

SHARLET: Some, and some I wish I could. Mary Mazer, who was a 61-year-old woman living in a transient motel in my hometown of Schenectady, N.Y. and who really participated and wanted to participate and sort of collaborate in a deep way - but Mary goes in and out of homelessness. She is very suspicious of everybody. Her best friend is a plant that she carries around, and she understands how people see that. But you know, she has this great line. She says, it's my brain, and I'll do what I want with it. And that's how her view of her mental health is. And when she is back out on the street, it's very, very hard to find her.

Others - there's a man named Jared Miller in Skid Row who - he was what the local dealers called a spice pet - spice, a street drug. And in return for a certain amount of drugs, he ran errands for them. He had a son to whom - a young son to whom he wanted to get back. He was hoping to clean himself up. And I ended up coming to know his mother and knowing he went to rehabilitation.

He - you know, there was this chance that he made it. And in the end, he didn't. He died. But to me, one of the things I learned from this reporting is I think that the temptation of tragedy and tragic stories...

SHAPIRO: I wrote this down. It was one of my favorite lines in the book. The temptation of tragedy is the illusion of inevitability...

SHARLET: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...The retrospective consolation that it could not have been otherwise.

SHARLET: Yeah. That's exactly it. And I look at Jared Miller, and Jared Miller did die, but always, these moments remind us that it does not have to be that way. That's what I mean about sort of setting the sort of pictures and emotion with words and stories and emotion with images. I don't want these to be frozen moments isolated from time. I don't want them to pretend omniscience. I want them to suggest the very fragmentary nature of life that leaves those possibilities that are not tragic open.

SHAPIRO: Jeff Sharlet, thank you for talking with us about your book.

SHARLET: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: He's an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth, and his new book is "This Brilliant Darkness: A Book Of Strangers." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.