January 11, 2020 - 7:00am

This weekend’s long read pick comes from Atavist magazine, which publishes a single long-form nonfiction narrative essay every month. Lost In Summerland recounts a Spiritualist road trip taken by the author, Barrett Swanson, with his brother Andy.

In spacious, reflective prose, Swanson recounts the brothers’ “Cain and Abel–ish” relationship, the family’s horror at Andy’s near death of a brain injury in 2005, his miraculous recovery and the bafflement of both Andy and his family as, following his recovery, he began to report being contacted by spirits. Swanson is initially sceptical:

“Andy, who is three years older than me, has long had a weakness for showmanship—his coworkers nicknamed him the Bull for his ability to B.S. his way through corporate presentations—and to those who know him well, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that he has coasted through life on the wind of his own charisma.”
- Barrett Swanson

And yet, he holds his peace as Andy’s reputation for mediumship grows — seemingly without Andy particularly wishing for it.

Out of the blue, as the brothers slide toward middle age, Andy invites Swanson to accompany him to Lily Dale, home of the Spiritualist movement in the United States. After some hesitation, Swanson accepts. At Lily Dale they attend Spiritualist workshops — where Swanson retains his scepticism despite Andy seeming to show abilities that he cannot explain — and meet a cross-section of Spiritualist pilgrims who appear to be “suffering from all manner of emotional or financial disaster and […] desperate for a more hopeful story”.

Beneath the offbeat road-trip vibe, the accounts of Spiritualist workshops and the outer fringes of American New Ageism, the exploration of fraternal tension, contemporary politics, and the spiritual vacuum of much contemporary culture lies another layer to the story. In an underlying theme that emerges over the course of this leisurely read, the author unpacks his own mental and emotional difficulties and the way those have been interwoven with his and Andy’s relationship. These elements come together in a final revelation whose strangeness and emotional impact give Lost In Summerland a near-novelistic quality. The essay left me with a haunting feeling of having, in some small way, spent a short while inhabiting someone else’s experience. A wonderful read.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.