Jeff Sharlet writes about what Americans believe, what Americans do, and how the one thing informs the other. Sharlet believes, among other things, that he has an elevated risk of dying from coronavirus because of a cardiac event. He believes this because he’s worked around fringe religious communities long enough — he’s most famously the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, an investigation of an evangelical conspiracy to dismantle government programs — to have a very healthy respect for science and scientists. When it comes to doctors, he does what he’s told. And, right now, that means sitting in a room by himself while his son, his daughter, and his wife live their lives on the other side of the door.
It happened like this: His wife and daughter had mild, flu-like symptoms until Friday night when his wife started suffering from shortness of breath. They went to a drive-thru testing site. She got tested. His daughter got tested. Eventually, he got tested — despite not having symptoms.
“The advice we got was that is someone showed symptoms they should be quarantined,” says Sharlet, possessor of what might be this country’s most genuinely interesting Instagram account. “If we quarantined my wife and my daughter I’d still be playing with my 6-year-old son who would presumably be a carrier. So right now I’m in my home office, which has a bathroom, with a bunch of dried food.”
So there he is, an extremely accomplished and moderately famous author, Rolling Stone contributor, and political contextualizer and he’s just… stuck. He’s alone and also not alone. There are plenty of parents who will wind up in similar situations. There are plenty of parents who already have. As such, Fatherly spoke to Sharlet about how he’s coping and how he’s considering his situation in personal, historical, and social terms.
The obvious thing to say at the outset is that your situation sounds shitty. How are you holding up?
I’m trying to parent from behind a closed door. I’m shouting “What’s going on in there?”
I have to admit that my authority has been diminished.
It’s a curious thing, but a lot of men — perhaps fathers most of all — seem reluctant to discuss their health much less put it first. They explain how they’re helping their kids or wives, but there’s some sort of personal disconnect. Do you feel any tension there? Is taking care of yourself uncomfortable?
I don’t generally like to think in gendered terms like that, but I think you’re right. I think men struggle with that. In my household it’s just a bit reversed. My wife has more of the typically male denialism. In my friends and family in the weeks coming up to this, I’ve been speaking mostly to female friends about husbands not taking this seriously enough. It just happens to be the opposite in my house.
You’d think there would be something about men wanting to prepare for disaster, but their anxiety management seems to centered on diminishing and downplaying. I think I’d be the same if it weren’t for my condition, but here we are.
Your health, not your children’s health, is the main concern in your household — and rightly so. Does it feel weird to make yourself a priority like that?
My mother’s goal had been to see my sister and I graduate from high school but she died at 47. She didn’t make it. When I was having my heart attack, I thought… I’m getting my kids through high school. That means 59. So that’s the centering of my health. I make decisions based on that idea. That’s what made it easy for me to start running and become a vegetarian. I’m going to make it.
Given that mentality and also your history of reporting on fringe elements, I wonder what you make of the folks downplaying this.
Watching this is like watching a slow 9/11 with several million people playing the role of the hijackers. We should do spectral photography like in the 19th century so we can have photographs of people going out and see the ghosts of the people they are killing. People who ignore this threat are firmly stating that they are not part of the beloved community, but the hateful society. This is not limited to the right. This is the experience of mistaking selfishness as bravery.
That bravery thing is definitely part of the dialogue on this issue. People want to be brave, but that bravery seems to take the form of a sort of ill-informed generosity. Have you experienced that?
I think that — and I feel weird saying it because I’m a mostly healthy person — a lot of ableism. There’s an assumption of health that creates some disregard for people who are not readily identifiable as at-risk or sick or whatever. It’s kind of ignorant paternalism. I teach at a college. We’re thinking about students. We’re talking about the students. But a few of us have underlying conditions. And we’re like, ‘Hmmmm, slow down. We have concerns about ourselves as well.’
I think we tend to build plans on assumptions.
What are you thinking about behind that door? What will you build your next plan on?
There’s going to be so much damage. This is going to be a hugely traumatic event. I see people posting that we’re going to come through this stronger and we’re not. We’ll be weaker and maybe wiser. So, I’m not looking to pretend that everything will be okay. But we’ll probably still be alive. That’s pretty good.
You’re a cheerful cynic. As someone who has reported on the current administration, I suppose you have some perspective on America’s preparedness and response to this crisis.
My father was a Sovietologist, a job that doesn’t exist anymore. He told me a story that I think about a lot. It might be apocryphal but it’s profound. Towards the end of the Soviet Union they could not rely on their airfare to get in the air because the men on air force bases had figured out how to distill fuel into bootleg vodka. So there wasn’t any fuel left. The truth is that Incompetence explains more than conspiracies ever will or ever have.
So what’s next for you in the confines of your office?
I have a book out now. I just canceled the second half of the book tour. Now, this is the only publicity I’ll get. It’s called This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers. It’s based on my Instagram and it’s good. I hope someone will read it.