What Can We Steal From Jeff Sharlet’s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power?

Title of Work and its Form: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, nonfiction book
Author: Jeff Sharlet (on Twitter @JeffSharlet)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was a New York Times bestseller and can be found in all fine bookstores.

Bonuses: We must resist the temptation to be jealous, but Mr. Sharlet is pretty much a superstar.  Here are some articles he’s written for Harper’s MagazineHere‘s an interview Mr. Sharlet did with NPR.  You will also find an excerpt of The Family on the page.  Mr. Sharlet is also a contributing editor for The Revealer, a very cool online publication that is focused on the intersection of media and religion.  Here is an interview Mr. Sharlet did with the incomparable Rachel Maddow.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Journalism

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power is a must-read for anyone who is interested in politics or religion or what is happening in the United States.  (That should be everyone in the country.)  The Family was my read-before-bed book a few summers ago, and what value the book offers; it took me the whole summer to read it.  (I savored the book.)  Mr. Sharlet’s book is ambitious in scope and makes good on each of its goal.  Between the covers is the whole story of how fundamentalist Christianity developed and planted itself so strongly in American culture.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first chronicles Mr. Sharlet’s personal experience with fundamentalist Christians and what it was like to spend time with the “brothers” at Ivanwald.  The second painstakingly recounts the origins and development of the philosophy that gave rise to folks like Billy Graham and Doug Coe.  Along the way, Mr. Sharlet tells you approximately twelve zillion fascinating anecdotes about these influential men and women.

I try not to get too political here on Great Writers Steal; there are plenty of outlets for editorials and real journalism.  (Perhaps my byline will grace them at some point.  Stranger things have happened.  I’m all ears if anyone wants to share magical incantations that might work.)  Instead of telling you what I think about the Family and the group’s politics, I’ll focus on what we can steal from Mr. Sharlet’s writing.  And this is the first big point.  Mr. Sharlet is a world-class journalist for reasons that may be unexpected to some.  REAL journalism is not about presenting all sides of a story; it’s about presenting the truth.  Mr. Sharlet is not at all “superbiased” or vindictive in his assessment of the group or its ideology.  He is simply describing it in an honest fashion and drawing fair and reasonable conclusions.

Some journalistic outlets (that shall remain nameless) bend over backwards in hopes of presenting “all sides” of a story.  Sometimes, a story doesn’t have multiple sides.  When folks get together to discuss the Apollo missions, do we have an obligation to invite moon landing deniers to the table?  Of course not.  If we’re discussing affirmative action, must we see what the Klan thinks?  No.  It’s not a journalistic sin to have an opinion or to make your subject look bad.  It’s only a problem if you are doing so dishonestly.  Mr. Sharlet was not interested in doing a “hatchet job” on the group; he simply learned all he could about the movement and its effects and reported what he learned and the experiences he had with the Family and its members.

Mr. Sharlet researched a ton for the book; that much is clear.  (I highly suspect, Dear Reader, that you don’t need to be told that it’s important to research when you’re writing…well, anything.)  Mr. Sharlet, however, immersed himself in the story and applied an objective viewpoint.  Mr. Sharlet had already published his account of life at Ivanwald when folks started reaching out to him.  As more and more people with connections to the Family contacted him, Mr. Sharlet saw there was more of the story to tell.   Even though he describes several entertaining scenes in which he took part, the book is not ABOUT HIM.

Yes, he received a phone call from “Kate,” a beautiful young woman who said she wanted to meet him because she was a big fan.  Before long, Mr. Sharlet got her to admit that she had been sent to spy on him.  I love what follows:

We ended up talking for three more hours and drinking a lot of wine.  I tried to persuade her that the Family was a secretive, undemocratic organization that aided and abetted dictators.  She agreed, only she thought that was a good thing.  She said the Family still loved me.  I told her about some of the killers the Family had supported.  She rallied by pointing out that we’re all sinners, and thus shouldn’t judge those whom God places in authority.  “Jeff,” she said, holding my eyes, twisting her wine stem between her fingers, “in your heart, have you ever lusted for a woman?  Isn’t that just as bad?”

The description may not be flattering to the Family, but it is honest.  Mr. Sharlet may have been a character in the story, but he does not make himself the protagonist.  I’m reminded of one of the great pieces of literary nonfiction: Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”  Mr. Talese profiles the great Frank Sinatra in an honest light that is not always flattering and is a participant in the story, though his piece keeps its focus where it belongs.  (If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now!)

I’m sure that The Family was not an easy book to write.  Many lesser books on the same topic lack the breadth and scope of Mr. Sharlet’s tome.  I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but I would rather write one stellar book than multiple mediocre books.  The Family is certainly the former.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ignore the sides of the story that deserve no consideration and acknowledge a subject’s blemishes in order to deliver truth to your reader.  Like it or not, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.  We can all agree they were brilliant and fascinating men, but we can’t pretend they were without flaw.  (And we certainly can’t pretend that Jefferson was an advocate of the idea that the Constitution is anything other than secular.)
  • Remain an objective outsider, even when you are an involved insider.  Being an insider gets you insight; being an outsider allows you to understand and digest the experience.



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