November 16, 2012
Guests: Tanya Luhrmann â Katherine Boo
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God, as many evangelical Christians say they have, to believe that God cares about your welfare and interacts with you like a friend? Those are some of the questions our first guest, Tanya Luhrmann, set out to answer in her book "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God." It's now out in paperback.
Luhrmann is an anthropologist who has taught a seminar in divinity and spirituality and is a professor at Stanford University. To understand how God becomes real for many evangelical Christians, she attended weekly services at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church in Chicago.
After moving to California, she found another Vineyard to join. She's interviewed many members of the church, attended local conferences and special worship sessions and joined a weekly prayer group. The Vineyard is a relatively new denomination, just a few decades old, and Luhrmann says it represents a shift in some people's concept of God. Terry Gross spoke with Tanya Luhrmann last April.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tanya Luhrmann, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were interested in understanding a certain type of relationship with God. Tell us what you wanted to understand.
TANYA LUHRMANN: I wanted to understand what people meant when they said that God spoke to them, that God had heard from them, and that they had heard what God wanted them to do. I was at - first became intrigued by this when I was doing a different project, and it was on religion and community, and I went over to the house of an evangelical woman. And she told me that if I wanted to understand, I should have a cup of coffee with God.
She had coffee with God all the time. She hung out with God. She chatted with God. She talked about God as if he were a person. And I was blown away. I was just so intrigued by what that meant and how she was able to do that.
GROSS: So that gets to more specifically what you were looking for, was not just hearing God speak to you, but a personal relationship with God, where God gives you advice. You can even ask God what to wear in the morning, and it's as if God is by your side all the time and your buddy, and you're talking.
LUHRMANN: Right, he's your best friend, your kind of - you feel his presence as you're walking down the street.
GROSS: Now, let's talk a little bit about the point of view that you're coming from or the background that you grew up in. What was the role of religion in your family? Because it sounds like there was a lot of action and reaction in your family.
LUHRMANN: Yeah, I'm a spiritual mutt. My father's father was a Christian Scientist. My father became a doctor. My mother's father was a Baptist minister. She, you know, she drifted away from the church. She still goes to church. It's still really important to her, but, you know, this belief commitment is kind of a struggle for her. But she still goes to church.
All three of my cousins are theologically very conservative Christians. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I was a Shabbos goy, which means that on, you know, Friday nights, I would go over to people's houses and turn on and off the electrical switch so that, you know, they would have lights.
So I guess the perspective that I brought to this book, or the reason that I wanted to do it is that I grew up knowing all these wise, good people who had really different understandings of what was real. And that has always fascinated me ever since.
GROSS: And you grew up going to the Unitarian church.
LUHRMANN: That's right. So I'm very comfortable with kind of a stance of belief that's betwixt and between.
GROSS: OK. So describe the church that you went to for your anthropological study and why you chose it.
LUHRMANN: So this is a Vineyard Christian Fellowship church. It is an evangelical church, and it's experientially oriented. It kind of represents the way that American spirituality has shifted since the '60s towards a much more engaged, responsive, intimately experienced sense of the spiritual.
This is a kind of church that's - you know, there's 600 Vineyards in the country. There are thousands and thousands of more churches like them. Every church is different. Every person within a church has a somewhat different experience of God. But I thought that this represented something really important about American spirituality.
GROSS: This being the personal relationship with God?
LUHRMANN: Yeah. So - you know, it's hard when you look across the American landscape to figure out how many people experience God the way I saw people experience God in the Vineyard, but the poll numbers are pretty startling. So the Pew Foundation found that nearly a quarter of Americans have what they call a renewalist Christianity, in which they experience an interactive sense of God's presence.
Something like 26 percent of all Americans say that they have been given a direct revelation from God. Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose Driven Life," he sold over 30 million copies in hardback. And that book is, you know, not as experiential as the church I went to, but it invites you to experience God as your best friend.
And I would go to churches that were not explicitly experientially oriented, and those were churches in which people told me that I should be having coffee with God. So I think it's - this style of encountering God has become much more a part of the American experience.
GROSS: Will you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learn to do in prayer training classes?
LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn't mean that you're treating God as imaginary. It means that you're using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.
They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.
The second thing they're invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of "Mere Christianity" entitled "Let's Pretend," and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they're sitting on a bench in the park and God's arm is around their shoulders, and they're kind of talking about their respective days.
And so what's happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation, and they're seeking to represent God the way that God is represented in church - you know, in this kind of church, unconditionally loving, always wise, always responsive, always there. And then they're trying to experience that God as talking back to them and to experience what God says as being really real, and not the creation of their own imaginations.
GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?
LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts - you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God's thoughts?
Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They're different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God's character. They're the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You're supposed to feel good when you recognize God's voice.
And so, you know, what I was fascinated by was that as, you know, people would enter the church, they'd be - you know, I don't know what people are talking about. God doesn't talk to me. And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form, imagination-rich kind of way.
And after, I don't know, six months, they would start to say that they recognize God's voice. Some people told me that they recognized God's voice the way they recognize their mom's voice on the phone.
GROSS: Because, I mean, so distinctly, like it had a different sound to it?
LUHRMANN: That's what they said. And they - you know, and the way that I think about that is that - I mean, so the challenge of this kind of religious experience is to make the experience real, to make what you imagine real and to make it good. And I thought there were two parts of that story.
There's a psychological story. There are consequences of sort of attending to your imagination and taking it seriously. And there's also a cultural story about kind of the cognitive content you give to that imagined experience. And so by creating a God that is so good and so loving and experiencing - it became a way of asking yourself: What should I do if I am compassionate and loving and the mature person I believe I can be?
GROSS: So you said that there are certain consequences to believing that you are hearing God's voice, to using your imagination to hear God's voice and to have regular conversations with him. And let me just stop right here, and I know what I've said will be offensive to a lot of evangelical Christians because I've said that they're imagining they're hearing God's voice, and they would probably say: No, I am hearing God's voice.
So I'm not even sure what language to - what language would you use here, imagining or hearing?
LUHRMANN: You know, I would use both. It's a recent part of American history that we treat the imagination as mere imagination. The church fathers thought that the imagination was the route to God, and if you were going - and the way that I think about it is that if you are going to represent a being that is not visible the way tables and chairs are visible, you need to use your imagination.
And the church talks about using the imagination. It's just - you know, it just makes some Christians uncomfortable to actually use that word because of the connotations that the term has in early 21st-century America.
GROSS: Well, speaking of imagination, I mean, this might be an unfair comparison, but many children have imaginary friends. And at a certain age, that upsets their parents, and the parents have to explain to them that that friend doesn't exist, and it's time to outgrow the imaginary friend. And...
LUHRMANN: Right. And that's a mistake, by the way.
GROSS: OK, if you're a rationalist, you know, you would say: Well, what's the difference between the imaginary friend that you're supposed to outgrow and this approach to believing that, you know, God or Jesus is like your friend, your buddy, you're talking to each other?
LUHRMANN: In some sense, none. It depends on your ontological stance, what you take to be externally real about the world. So the way that I think about it is that I, as an anthropologist, I don't have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or God is not real.
I don't feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks through the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing.
And so when people experience God as a companion in their lives, they're using their imagination the same way a child is using the imagination to experience an imaginary companion. But at the same - but, you know, that person doesn't experience God as being imaginary because they have a different ontological stance.
GROSS: One of the things that the congregants at the church that you studied are supposed to come to understand is that they are unconditionally loved by God. What are some of the faith practices that are supposed to help you feel that unconditional love?
LUHRMANN: So I would say that of all the challenges of learning to pray and learning to experience God, the hardest one is feeling unconditionally loved by God. It's just not something that humans do. We don't - we expect that love should be conditional on right behavior.
And so people - I saw these practices in the church in which, in some cases, the humans would step in for God and enable people to practice being unconditionally loved. And my favorite example is the prayer circle.
So you have somebody in the center of the circle, and that person is being prayed for, and that person is in pain. Otherwise, they're not getting prayer. They're often crying. They feel worthless. They feel inadequate. They need some - they need something. And the people around them have their hands on that person's shoulders, and they're all saying some variant of God loves you just as you are.
And that happens Sunday after Sunday, house group after house group. People practice experiencing God as a therapist. They, you know, they have a sense of God as being wise, good and loving, and they talk to God in their minds and talk about their problems. And then they are seeking to experience themselves as seen from the perspective of a loving God who then reflects back on their anxieties and interprets them differently.
GROSS: Well, you know, you write the basic task of learning to respond to God in a church like this is learning to believe that you are truly loveable just as you are. And I would imagine that it would be very reassuring to think that. Not everybody thinks of themselves as being loveable.
LUHRMANN: Absolutely. I should also say that, again, it's really tough. You know, they still drive home from church and yell at their kids and feel like they failed at work. It's more as if they have a little bit of extra bolstering to carry with them.
GROSS: What about the wrath of God? What about sin and hell and damnation, which has been the emphasis in many churches?
LUHRMANN: Yup. I'd be willing to argue - although I'm sure this is controversial - that God has been unconditionally loving since about 1965, that this - the big change as - and the huge social upheaval was that atheism was an allowable life identity. There were many different ways to be spiritual. There were many different ways to be in the world, and Christianity tried to - then became a buyer's market.
People chose if they were going to be Christian. They could decide which church they were going to join, and the churches like the Vineyard really see themselves as trying to offer a God who is quite different from, you know, that God that terrified poor James Joyce.
GROSS: So let's get back to something we were talking about before. We were talking about unconditional love. And tell me if you think that the people at the churches that you studied were like this. Some evangelicals who believe in unconditional love from God, who believe that God loves you unconditionally, some of these evangelicals are also very judgmental, like God loves you unconditionally and that's why he wants you to change.
That's why he wants you to stop being gay. That's why he wants you to remain a virgin until you're married. And, you know, and on and on and on. So was there this kind of paradox in the churches where you were between this unconditional love and this judgmental quality toward others who are not members of the church? Because the other thing that God wants is for you to know God and to convert to or conform to this type of Christianity.
LUHRMANN: The particular churches where I was in were much more conscious about reaching out to people who might not be churched, and so there was less overt judgment. You could say that this was a, you know, friendlier kind of church.
The Vineyard sees itself as trying to be more inclusive, that actually talks about what is - calls the center set mindset rather than the bounded mindset. You know, so some churches the question is are you inside, or are you outside? And, you know, will you make the right signals to demonstrate that you are a member of this church? And the Vineyard's more concerned that you're kind of oriented more or less in the same direction.
So it was easier for me to be an anthropologist, for one thing, easier for me to, you know, people didn't feel they had to save me at every opportunity. It is true that different people come with their own sense of what is required of a good Christian and what is required of a good Christian with respect to homosexuality.
There was actually a pretty wide range of opinion of that in the churches where I spent time, pretty wide range on evolution. So, I mean, in the Chicago church somebody once said, if God didn't want us to do stem cell research, why did he make the scientists so darned smart? Other people were, you know, really very committed to a Republican agenda and shocked when other people seemed not to be.
You know, it's just hard to figure out where people are at. So I think this is one of Robert Putnam's statistics that 83 percent of evangelicals say that a good person not of their faith can go to heaven. And if you say supposing they're not Christian, over 50 percent still will say that that person can go to heaven. So I think there is a lot of variation.
BIANCULLI: Author Tanya Luhrmann speaking to Terry Gross last April. Her book "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God," is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from earlier this year with Tonya Luhrmann. Her book, "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God," is now out in paperback.
GROSS: Well, you know, you end your book by saying that although you don't call yourself a Christian, you don't consider yourself a Christian, that you've started working with a spiritual director and that you've been praying. And I wonder what prayer means to you now and how - like if you've tried to take some of the things that you learned in the Christian prayer group that you were studying and re-fashioned that in a way that works for whatever your view of the human condition is.
LUHRMANN: You know, I have. And again, you know, what do I think about this? I don't know. At one point I ran an experiment because people had told me that prayer was hard, you had to work hard to pray and practice, some people would be better than others and that people who are good and who practice would change. And one of the things they would sometimes say was that their mental imagery would get sharper. That didn't sound like theology. That sounded like psychology. And so I ran this experiment in which I randomized people into prayer and lectures on the Gospels and I made sort of an equivalent of imagination-rich prayer, Bible study on the iPods. They came in, they did a bunch of questionnaires, computer exercises, we interviewed them. We sent them out with a brown envelope that contained one of these iPods and the rule was they had to listen for a half an hour a day, six days a week for four weeks. When they came back, the people in the prayer group were more likely to say that they experienced their mental imagery vividly. They were more likely to use mental imagery. They were more likely to say that they experienced the near tangible presence of God. They were more likely to say they experienced God as a person, and they also had some additional kind of objective cognitive advantages. They had a better sustained attention. They could solve little problems a little more easily.
GROSS: So what I'm wondering hearing that is would you have gotten the same results with a relaxation tape, with secular meditation? Do you think that that kind of - the calming or reassuring effect or the effect on the imagination, the cognitive things that you are talking about are something that the human mind and body are capable of with training and discipline...
GROSS: ...as opposed to it being necessarily like the intervention of God?
LUHRMANN: Absolutely. So I think that there, again, you know, if God speaks, God is speaking through the human mind. And one of the features of the human mind is that when we pay attention to our minds differently, our experience changes. And what I saw was this millennia-long tradition of using the imagination to experience God by attending intensely to this internal world. It becomes more alive. It feels more real. And occasionally I noticed it kind of almost slipped over the edge of that boundary that defines the difference between the inner and the outer and people would hear God speak audibly or they would see something that somebody else wouldn't see. I don't think that has anything to do with ontology. If there is a God, God is choosing those moments when you have that unusual experience. But the psychological technique of prayer is independent of religion. It is a way of changing the inner experience of the person.
GROSS: You write that this near-magical God that people in the evangelical church that you studied believe in is an expression of what it is to be modern. What do you mean by that?
LUHRMANN: The thing about modernity is that doubt is more available. Any Christian in this country knows that there are wise, good people who aren't Christians, and it just makes the question of whether God is real more salient, even if you never utter your own doubt. What this kind of magically real God does, a God that is so immediately present, a God that is having coffee with you across the breakfast table, even perhaps in front of his own ceramic cup of coffee, it enables you to understand - it forces you to experience God not as real in the way that tables and chairs are real, and not as fiction, but as somehow in between.
It makes God of the mind because you are experiencing God in the mind. That's very intimate, and nobody can take that away from you. It sort of protects God by putting God in a sort of different place in people's experience.
GROSS: We only have like about a minute left, but I'm wondering if you think the people from the church that you studied would recognize themselves the way you describe them in a much more, you know, distanced intellectual way than they probably describe their own experiences.
LUHRMANN: I'm beginning to find out. I think they kind of do. They do - in order to read the book, they need to imagine me as the outsider onlooker, but you know, I really think they were thoughtful. I really think that their experience is beneficial for them, and I really try to capture the contradictions and the struggles in the way that they experience what they would call their walk with God, and as far as I can tell, they like that.
GROSS: And I should say, you really like the people who you met.
LUHRMANN: They're great people. They're - yeah, some of them are my friends. They're lovely people.
GROSS: OK. Tanya Luhrmann, thank you so much for talking with us.
LUHRMANN: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Tanya Luhrmann, speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. Luhrmann's book, "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God," is now out in paperback.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The first book by our next guest, author Katherine Boo, just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Its title is "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity." And the book doing takes us inside a shantytown on the edge of India's thriving financial capital. The residents of that slum called Annawadi, experience a level of poverty hard for most Americans to imagine. Doing research, Boo spent more than three years among residents of that slum. Her book reads like a novel, but the characters are real.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times said of Boo's storytelling gifts: Comparisons to Dickens are not unwarranted. Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius grant. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in February.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Katherine Boo, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's good to have you. Let's begin with a reading from the book. This is in the prologue. Early on, we are introduced to this character Abdul. Tell us about him and set up this reading, if you will.
KATHERINE BOO: OK. Abdul Husain is 16 or maybe 18 or maybe 19. His parents are hopeless with dates. And for nearly his whole life, he's been supporting a family of 11, buying and selling the recyclable garbage that rich people throw away. And as the book begins, he's been accused of a terrible crime, which is the burning of a disabled woman, and the police are coming for him, and his parents tell him to hide because if he's arrested, then the family will go hungry. And so that's where the book begins.
DAVIES: And he runs into the shed where he keeps his material, right?
BOO: He's - in the Bollywood movies, the outlaw kid would be running off across the roof of a train, but Abdul, his whole world is this slum of Annawadi, and the only place he knows to go to hide is in the shed where he keeps all his garbage.
(Reading) Inside was carbon-black, frantic with rats, and yet relieving. His storeroom - 120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoon, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-Tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies.
(Reading) Somewhere in the darkness, there was a Berbee or Barbie itself, maimed in one of the experiments to which children who had many toys seemed to subject those toys no longer favored. Abdul had become expert over the years at minimizing distraction. He placed all such dolls in his trash pile chest-down.
(Reading) Avoid trouble. This was the operating principle of Abdul Hakim Husain, an idea so fiercely held that it seemed imprinted on his physical form. He had deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks, a body work hunched and wiry - the type that claimed less than its fair share of space when threading through people-choked slum lanes. Almost everything about him was recessed save the pop-out ears and the hair that curled upward, girlish, whenever he wiped his forehead of sweat.
(Reading) A modest, missible presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived.
DAVIES: Thank you. That's Katherine Boo, reading from her new book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." So Abdul was a guy who grew up picking through trash. He had a particular dexterity for sorting through garbage, right?
BOO: He'd been doing it since he was six. His muscles had developed around the labor. And so he became able to take what people threw away and make not just a subsistence living for his family but one of the best livings in the slum, and that caused some people to wish his family ill.
DAVIES: And that's because he graduated from just picking through trash but actually buying it from others and then getting it to recyclers, right?
DAVIES: So you were there for more than three years.
DAVIES: How did people react at first to this blonde American woman, you know, in the slum?
BOO: Oh, god, at first I was a circus act. I was a freak. Everywhere I went, people would be like the Sheraton, the Hyatt, the Intercontinental. Because this slum, this slum was surrounded by luxury hotels, five luxury hotels, and people thought I'd lost my way, going from the airport to the Hyatt.
But the people in the slums had concerns a lot more pressing than my presence. They had work to do. They had families to raise. They had hopes to fulfill. And so after a while, they kind of relaxed and let me just follow them as they lived their lives. And one of the things that I would do was - I was just going where they went. I was doing what they did, whether it was teaching kindergarten or stealing scrap metal at the airport or sorting garbage, and I would sit and listen and talk to them intermittently as they did their work because it was very important to me not to get in the way of their ability to make a living, but I also really wanted to know them.
DAVIES: Let me ask you to describe Annawadi, I mean, this slum. When you walk in, what do you see? How are people living?
BOO: Well, I'll describe it this way. You come into the Mumbai International Airport, you make a turn, and you go past a lavish Hyatt and a beautiful hotel called the Grand Maratha. By the time you get to the Hyatt, which is about three minutes in your car, you've already gone past this place.
There's a rocky road that goes into it, and you turn in, and the first thing you notice when you get into this landscape of hand-built, makeshift, crooked huts is one of the borders of the slum - or it was I came in 2008 - was this vast lake of extremely noxious sewage and petrochemicals and things that the people modernizing the glamorous airport had dumped in the lake.
And so it was almost beachfront property on this foul, malarial lake, and all around it in this, the single open space in the slum were people cooking and bathing and fighting and flirting. And there were goats and water buffalo. There was a little brothel, and men would line up outside the little brothel. And there was a liquor still.
And mainly there were families and children who were trying their best to find a niche in the global market economy. Almost no one in Annawadi had permanent work. Six people out of 3,000 last I checked had permanent work.
DAVIES: One of the most remarkable things to read here was that you tell us in the book that no one in Annawadi was actually considered poor by traditional Indian benchmarks. Is that right?
DAVIES: I mean, if they're not poor, who is poor?
BOO: Go to the village, and you'll see what poor is. No, so officially, the poverty lines in many countries, including India, are set so low that officially the people that I'm writing about look like part of the great success narrative of modern global capitalism. They look like the more than 100 million people who have been freed since liberalization in India in 1991 from poverty.
So usually in my work, I'm not looking to write about the poorest and abject. I'm not looking to make you feel sorry for people. I want readers to have a connection more blooded and complex than pity or revulsion.
But really, the main point I have to say is that on the books, these men, women and children have succeeded in the global economy. They're the success stories. But I hope what my book shows is that it's a little more complicated than that.
DAVIES: Well, I mean, so many of them are just on the edge of losing, you know, food and shelter for the day. I mean, are the truly poor, are they rural poor who sleep out in the open? I mean, who are they? Who are the...
BOO: Well, many people in Annawadi sleep out in the open, too, but when Asha - in the book, I follow Asha, the mother, who has used politics and corruption to try to give her daughter a college education. I follow her back home to Vidarbha, a very poor agricultural region.
And when Asha walks through the door, everybody can see on her face and the face of her children how good life is in the Mumbai slums. Asha's grandmother walks on all fours, she's so bent from agricultural labor. And when Asha walks in that door, she stands mast straight.
So however you think - however tough it is in the Mumbai slums, as Abdul Husain says once, you know, the city is hard on migrants, and it's terrible sometimes, but it's also better than anywhere else.
DAVIES: You know, as I consider how much time you spent among these folks, I have to believe that you must have felt a lot of affection and sympathy for so many of them. And, you know, given the poverty that they suffered under, I can imagine that you must have at times felt compelled to help them. I mean, what you or I spend for lunch would have been a windfall to so many of these people.
DAVIES: On the other hand, you know, the need is so immense that you could give everything you own, and there would be more of it. How did you deal with that feeling?
BOO: When I first came to Annawadi, I explained that I was there to write about them and that the constrictions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, involve that I didn't end up paying them for their stories. It's a convention in my profession that I struggle with.
But at the same time, I know that if I had gone to Annawadi and started handing out money to some people and not to others, first of all it would have been a very disruptive thing, and also my hope is that by following people I'm looking not just at - often in journalism, stories about the poor began with a reporter going to an NGO and saying tell me about the good work you're doing.
And let me follow you, and maybe if you could just pick out some real success stories, I'll write about them. I think that those kind of stories do an injustice to the enormous amount of creative and enterprising problem-solving that low-income people do for themselves, that most of the ways that people get out of poverty in the United States, in India and anywhere else I've ever been, is through their own imaginations and their own fortitude.
And I don't automatically presume that my way - there were certain moments where I wanted to intervene and say no, this is what I would do. But it's not necessarily the case that in their societies, my way would have been the best way.
There are as a journalist, for me there are certain times when you absolutely stop being a journalist and you start being a human being. And there was one particular instance that I describe - a very, very brutal eviction, where a gang of drunken men set upon a young mother.
And there's a case where, no, you're not going to sit back and document this, you're going to do whatever you can to diffuse the violence. I will say this, that I have a few friends who do this kind of immersion journalism, and it's extremely difficult sometimes to remember that you're there as a journalist and not a social worker.
And I guess the only thing I can say is that what you end up seeing is you get a very close idea of what the needs really are, and then you come from that reporting and try to think in your own charitable giving, well, you know, what can I do to do the most good, not just for one person who I happened to be writing about but for people that I've never met.
BIANCULLI: Well, Katherine Boo, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BOO: Thank you for having me, Dave.
BIANCULLI: Katherine Boo spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies earlier this year. Her nonfiction about a slum in India, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," just won a National Book Award.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: The sixth feature film by writer/director David O. Russell is "Silver Linings Playbook" based on a book by Matthew Quick. It's a dark comedy set in the suburbs of Philadelphia where a bipolar man, played by Bradley Cooper, obsesses over his estranged wife while being pursued by an unstable widow. The widow is played by Jennifer Lawrence. The movie also stars Robert De Niro. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The best thing about David O. Russell is that he cultivates his disequilibrium. In "Silver Linings Playbook," his hero is disturbed and his heroine possibly more so, and his other characters have a grip on reality only marginally more secure.
Russell might have made them seem the dreaded "q" word - quirky - and OK, he does, a bit, at the end, which broadly conforms to the rom-com template. But until then, Bradley Cooper's Pat Solatano is someone you'd be less likely to dream about than get a restraining order against.
In fact, that's what his wife has done at the start, which finds Pat, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in a mental hospital - a place where the phrase "silver lining" as in "every cloud has a ..." is a mantra. In the novel by Matthew Quick, he's been there for four years after violently assaulting someone. But here, it's a mere eight months - and he acts like he could have used the extra three-plus years.
After his mother, Delores, played by Jacki Weaver, drives him home to the Philly suburbs, he throws "A Farewell to Arms" through his bedroom window because of the tragic ending, and he smashes furniture outside his psychiatrist's office when "Ma Cherie Amour" - his wedding song - plays in the waiting room.
While Pat pines for the reunion with his wife he's certain will come, he lives with his mother and obsessive-compulsive father, Robert De Niro's Pat Sr., who has started gambling heavily on the Philadelphia Eagles. Pat spends the days working out with weights and running for miles. And that's all.
Until his friend Ronnie, played by John Ortiz, invites him to dinner - where Ronnie's wife, played by Julia Stiles, fixes him up with her widowed sister, Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany. We think: Who would fix her sister up with him? Until we meet Tiffany, and wonder which of the two has more to fear.
In a diner, Pat wants to know why she's not working.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")
BRADLEY COOPER: (as Pat) How did you lose your job?
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) By having sex with everybody in the office.
COOPER: (as Pat) Everybody?
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) I was very depressed after Tommy died. It was a lot of people.
COOPER: (as Pat) We don't have to talk about it.
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) Thanks.
COOPER: (as Pat) How many were there?
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) Eleven.
COOPER: (as Pat) Wow.
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) I know.
COOPER: (as Pat) I'm not going to talk about it anymore.
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) OK.
COOPER: (as Pat) Can I ask you one more question? Were there any women?
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) Yes.
COOPER: (as Pat) Really?
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) Yes.
COOPER: (as Pat) What was that like?
LAWRENCE: (as Tiffany) Hot.
COOPER: (as Pat) Oh, my god.
EDELSTEIN: To director Russell, Pat and Tiffany are a hell-match made in heaven. Russell is, by all reports, a tempestuous fellow given to screaming matches and fistfights with actors - and I mention that not for gossip's sake, but because his films are similarly unruly.
Think of "Flirting with Disaster," "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees" and "The Fighter," in which the title character is the least pugnacious. Russell relishes the escalating momentum of people rubbing each other wrong. Although Tiffany likes Pat, Pat doesn't want to date her; he wants his wife back. But despite - or maybe because of - the friction, they bond indelibly.
Actors covet roles like these, and, indeed, Bradley Cooper co-executive-produced "Silver Linings Playbook" to get it made. To convey Pat's state of mind, he speaks loudly, with little variation in pitch. His eyes are unblinking. It's not an imaginative performance, but it's scary pure.
It's Jennifer Lawrence who stunned me. I loved her in "Winter's Bone" and "The Hunger Games," but she's very young - I didn't think she had this kind of deep-toned, layered weirdness in her. Chris Tucker plays a fellow patient of Pat's whose few scenes are dazzling in their topsy-turvy rhythms, and the rest of the cast is fine, although De Niro's funny turn struck me as Method throat-clearing with no launch - but that's the role.
"Silver Linings Playbook" has a conventional climax. There's a dance competition featuring non-dancers Pat and Tiffany with a lot riding on it. It's exhilarating but unsurprising. I like the movie best when it's discombobulated.
Here's my favorite line, Tiffany's, when she intervenes to keep Pat from being arrested after a fight. The officer recognizes her as the wife of a late cop, saying, you're Tommy's widow. And she says, yes, I'm Tommy's crazy whore widow, minus the whore thing, sometimes. The zigs and zags in that line - the exhibitionism, self-hatred and defensiveness - it could make you crazy trying to diagram. Which is just how David O. Russell likes it. And me too.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr on nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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