[Content Note: Sexual Abuse of Teenagers, Racism, Murder, "Honor" Killings]
Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries
by Jon Ronson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Lost At Sea / 9781594631375
I read this book because it was selected for our book club, and I am terribly disappointed with it. I don't recommend this book at any price, for I found it to be very poorly researched and (more importantly) to put forth some really contemptible ideas about marginalized people and victims of abuse.
I initially thought this book to be a collection of journalistic articles on various interesting and zany topics, but I found the "journalism" part to be very lacking. In almost each of the cases presented, Ronson does little-to-no research, and instead just shows up to interviews and/or classes, and merely records what he observes. He doesn't even stick with his subjects over the short term: whenever there is a class that lasts ten weeks, he misses several of the sessions, so the material presented is spotty and incomplete. And whatever is told to him directly in interviews, he makes little attempt to confirm or refute with actual research after the interview is over.
A good example of this is the chapter entitled "A Message From God" where Ronson attends the Alpha Course. He incorrectly states that everyone attending the class is an agnostic ("We are agnostics."), even though it's easy to verify online that the Alpha Course is frequently -- and some contend primarily -- marketed to and attended by new Christians seeking guidance after their initial conversion, and that the marketing of the course as a silver bullet for agnostics is deliberately misleading to make it seem more effective. (Ronson doesn't mention any of this; I had to look it up myself out of curiosity.) He then presents C.S. Lewis' trilemma as an impressive and unassailable logical argument, even though perusal of the Wikipedia article will indicate that the trilemma has had serious argument since it was first presented.
Ronson then presents the Alpha Course leader Nicky Gumbel's mention of the Book of Joel as a "message from God" (the chapter title) because Ronson's own son is named Joel, but he does not attempt to point out that he was signed up for the course ahead of time, under his own name, and that his family members' names can be easily discovered online. (An undercover journalist, I feel, would have signed up under a false name.) Despite the fact that he tells us that Gumbel has had significant criticism leveled at him, Ronson only quotes a single complaint that is clearly entirely hearsay. Ronson misses classes, and the entire chapter chattily refers to Gumbel as "Nicky" and ends with the glowing observation that Gumbel is "quite brilliant" and "wonderful".
This is not the first nor the last time Ronson will glowingly condone controversial persons: it seems like the only factor in whether or not people receive a good write-up in this book hinges on whether or not Ronson found them personable or sympathetic. In a chapter about Chris Foster, a man who murdered his wife and daughter before committing suicide, Ronson extols repeatedly how hard it must have been for Chris -- whom he regularly refers to only as "Foster", forgetting that Chris Foster was not the only Foster in residence -- while completely sweeping aside his wife and daughter, the victims.
Ronson sympathetically writes: "As I sit in Ian's kitchen, it suddenly makes sense to me that Chris Foster would choose to shoot Jill and Kirstie in the back of their heads. It was as if he was too ashamed to look at them. Maybe the murders were a type of honor killing, as if Foster simply couldn't bear the idea of losing their respect and the respect of his friends." The rest of the chapter is taken up with interviews with Chris' friends who talk about their empathy for his actions, and also a charming joke about prostitutes. Apparently actual sympathy for the victims, or interviews with *their* friends and family, couldn't have been worked into the chapter. (And it would have been a shame to lose the prostitute joke! Oof.)
The worst chapter in this book, however, is the one innocently titled "The Fall of a Pop Impressario", which deals with the trial of Jonathan King, who was convicted of sexually assaulting several teenage boys. Ronson doesn't tell us how old King was during these assaults, only that the boys were between 14- and 16-years old, but since King was born in 1944 and the assault charges spanned 1982-1987, he must have been between 38 and 45 years old. I can see why Ronson doesn't tell us this, though, because it rather hurts his continual suggestions that the sexual assaults must surely have been consensual and King must really only be guilty of a statutory crime, because King is so very personable.
Or at least, that's what I'm getting from passages where Ronson notes that "there is no statute of limitations for underage sex--or for sexual assaults" but then candidly tells us: "In one e-mail, [King] asked me if I would consider it fair if, say, Mick Jagger was arrested today for having sex with a fifteen-year-old girl in 1970. I agreed that it wouldn't be." Putting aside for a moment the fact that the witnesses in this case were complaining about sexual assault, and *not* statutory rape, I just want to let it sink in that a supposedly-unbiased journalist decided to take space here to register the opinion that sexual crimes against 15-year-old girls shouldn't be prosecuted in the name of 'fairness'. And he frequently in this chapter uses this opinion to strongly imply that the charges against King are motivated entirely by homophobia (rather than put forth the possibility that perhaps crimes against underage girls are under-prosecuted because of sexism).
The chapter on Jonathan King is astonishingly one-sided. Ronson quotes the defense copiously in large blocks of both direct quotes and paraphrase, yet he can barely make room for any quotes from the prosecution. What is possibly most classy about the court scenes is that Ronson manages to take a statement about King's crimes being the "the tip of the iceberg" and twist it into an implied dick joke ("I looked over at the arresting officers. They chuckled wryly at the words "tip of the iceberg.""), because that is obviously something that should be included in any chapter concerning the anal rape of underage boys. King's friends are interviewed, and are used as the conduit to read the victim statements, so that we can have the full force of things like: "Deniz reads the statement with mock, burlesque horror." Ronson offers his own view of the victims' horrifying descriptions of their rapes: "I always find it hard to look Jonathan in the eye after hearing some detailed recital of his sexual behavior. But I wonder whether any act of sex, when described with such precision, would sound equally unpleasant."
Ronson's flagrant disregard for journalistic research shows up in this chapter as well, as he seems bound and determined to not interview a single expert on sexual abuse, nor to do a moment's worth of research on victim behavior. Ronson asks at least half a dozen times in the chapter why the victims didn't refuse to see King after the assaults, or as Ronson puts it: "why [they] continually went back for more". (Because when a victim of sexual assault doesn't distance themselves from their abuser, they are actively asking for it if it happens again, apparently. Oof.) Any psychologist worth their salt could have easily explained to Ronson that abuse victims are entrained to go back to their abusers, and that this is a common feature of abuse. They could have explained that a 40-year-old man with fantastic amounts of financial and social power, not to mention years of experience in selecting and grooming victims, would have been skilled in manipulation.
But experts are for other journalists; Ronson asks this burning question of only four people: his reader (multiple times), King (who "won't be drawn on the subject"), one of King's friends who admits to helping King ply young boys with whiskey ("How many times do you have to go back before you decide that you don't like being fucked? Does it take three sexual experiences for you to realize it was bothering you?"), and one of the victims (who was, to his everlasting credit, more polite about the question that I would have been). And that's it. The question of why the boys "went back for more" is repeated over and over again in this chapter, but only as a means to cast doubt on the charges, and never as a genuine question to be explored by actual experts on the complexities of abuse and victimization.
As with the Chris Foster chapter, the chapter on Jonathan King ends not with any kind of sympathetic statement for the victims, but with a sentimental statement on the difficulties faced by people who are attracted to underage boys and who are willing to abuse and sexually assault them for their own gratification: "Chris Denning asked me if I wanted to know the worst thing about being attracted to underage boys. "Sadly," he said, "they grow up. They disappear. The person you were attracted to has gone. He doesn't exist anymore. You can never have a lasting relationship with them. It's very sad."" And then -- lest people complain that Ronson didn't allow the victims an equal voice in this chapter -- he quotes a spiteful email from someone using the name of one of Chris Denning's victims, and who may or may not be who he claims to be.
Possibly the worst line in this book occurs when Ronson interviews a Haitian dishwasher named Frantz. Frantz' daily life is affected strongly by racism: his shoes are thrown in the garbage when he's not looking, he is clocked out of work early by his coworkers while he's still washing dishes, and he won't be promoted because of his skin color. These aren't just inconveniences; the racism that Frantz faces tangibly impoverishes him. But Ronson blithely observes: "Frantz talks a lot about respect and the opposite of respect--humiliation. Like the other day, he says, he was working so hard the busboy told him, "Look at your face. You look like a slave." He says that insult really stung. It's as if he's lowered his ambitions to the level that he can take all sorts of awfulness as long as people talk to him with a little respect. It occurs to me that his life would be better if he spent less time worrying about feeling disrespected and more time actively working to improve his conditions, but then I realize he is doing all he can. Putting his head above the parapet to talk to me is a brave step."
Ronson, who is light-skinned and by his own admission makes $250,000 a year, actually thinks it's appropriate to write that a black man should worry less about trifling things like "respect" and more about "working to improve his conditions" and it does not occur to him that the disrespect Frantz is trying to push back against is the *reason* he lives in poor conditions, because it is disrespect -- i.e., racism -- that drives people to rob him of his hard-earned money and keeps him from being promoted. By pushing back against disrespect and racism, Frantz *is* trying to improve his conditions. But Ronson knows better than Frantz, because how could he not? He himself has copious experience with being black in a racist society... oh wait. But he surely interviewed a number of experts and activists about... oh wait. Well, I'm sure Ronson has spoken to a lot of black people at any rate, and therefore is very well equipped to tell the world in his books what men like Frantz should and should not be worried about. Because telling the world that Frantz's priorities are wrong will definitely help people to respect him better! Oof.
I just know that someone is going to pop up in the comments to ask why I bothered reviewing this book if I disliked it so much, so let me head that off at the pass: my book club selected this book, I read it to the final page, and I'm leaving this review here so that the next book club to consider this book will have fair warning that this book contains almost no research, is a meandering "day in the life of a journalist who throws soft-ball questions to interview subjects", and contains copious amounts of victim-blaming of murdered women, molested boys, and Haitian dishwashers while constantly reminding the reader that the real people to be sympathized with are the white, rich, powerful men. And I didn't receive a lot of enjoyment from reading that.
~ Ana Mardoll