The Marc Bekoff interview on Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

THE FULL TITLE of Marc Bekoff’s latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.

In our interview today, Marc admits the first part of the title is to catch the eyes of new readers. Yes, he does address those two topics in his book, but they’re only part of this absolutely marvelous, world-circling voyage into the minds, emotions and values of non-human creatures.

If you haven’t discovered Marc Bekoff’s unique work until today, then you’re in for a real treat!

He has emerged as the world’s leading scientific voice translating the latest research on the psychology of animals—and human-animal relationships—into everyday language for general readers. He writes regularly for Psychology Today magazine. He writes so regularly, in fact, that he has produced more than 500 columns over the past five years. Don’t worry if you’ve missed this treasure-trove, until today. His new book collects the best of those hundreds of columns for readers … just like you.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we’re excited to tell you about this book—so excited, in fact, that in addition to this interview featuring our Editor David Crumm and Marc Bekoff … our colleague Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

Eager to find out more?
Let’s jump right to …


DAVID: Since we’re a magazine about spiritual and cultural diversity, I have to ask: Isn’t your basic message about the inherent value in animal life something that we’ve seen for centuries in Eastern religions—and, in the West, in the teachings of those Christian leaders who were sensitive to animal life? We all know about St. Francis, of course, but there were other Western Christian voices as well. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous for preaching that animals will be in heaven with us when we leave this world.

So, my question is: In this book, you’re really touching on a universal theme, right?

Marc Bekoff with a friend

Marc Bekoff with a friend. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

MARC: Absolutely. I was at a conference in 2012 at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London and there was a good discussion there about how this relates to Jainism. In my earlier book, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, I wrote about Buddhism and compassion for animals. There is a strong Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all beings and the unity we share.

I believe: We all are one. I don’t mean that in any frivolous sort of way. What I mean is: We all depend on one another. We all work very hard to have good, social, amicable relationships with one another. We need to be very careful about separating ourselves from other animals.

I’m not bashing humans. I do believe that humans are exceptional. We’re a wonderful species. We do horrific things, yes, but we also do amazing things.

DAVID: Then, the second question is: What you’re reporting in this new book is solid science as well. How do you do that?

MARC: When I write for Psychology Today or in books like this one, I take scientific work that’s being reported around the world and I make the findings digestible to non-researchers. And, I do provide all the references to the scientific work on this, so readers can go deeper if they want to learn more.

DAVID: You’ve got 326 footnotes neatly listed at the end of this book, if readers want to check further into what you’re describing in the chapters. How do you manage to find all of these studies?

MARC: I read widely, but I also have lots of people who are in touch with me constantly, sending me links to new articles and essays being published both in popular and scientific journals. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and my email is so overwhelming that I almost want to shut it down! But don’t misunderstand me when I say that. I love this work! Love it! You can’t go a day or two without finding a new headline about animal behavior, psychology and cognition.

DAVID: Here’s one of your columns that caught my eye—and I wound up telling friends about it: You wrote about rats helping each, motivated by what appears to be a clear sense of empathy. I certainly wouldn’t have expected empathy among rats. But you write that this is consistent with studies of mice and chickens that showed those species were capable of empathy and what you call “pro-social action.” You describe a study that was first reported in the journal Science in which researchers documented untrained laboratory rats trying to free some companions who were restrained—sparked to free them by empathy for those other rats. What floored me was when the researchers tried to keep the rats from paying attention to their restrained companions by giving them an option to go eat chocolate—and the rats still helped each other.

MARC: The pro-social behavior didn’t surprise me—but the chocolate part of their study, that did surprise me a bit. I’ve been studying social animals for decades. People tend to set up these basic boundaries in which they separate us from other animals. They’ll say, “We’re the only animals who show antruism.” And that’s obviously not true. What we’re seeing here are pro-social behaviors among these untrained rats—even when they’re offered chocolate not to do so.


DAVID: When people read your book, they will discover a whole host of careers that—honestly—I knew little about until you explained them to us in your columns. Some of these admittedly are emerging fields, so please give us Marc Bekoff’s thumbnail explanation of each one, OK? And let’s start with Anthrozoology.

MARC: Anthrozoology is basically the scientific study of human-animal relationships. It’s the study of how we interact with other animals. This is broadly interdisciplinary work. You’ll find biologists involved in this kind of research—but you’ll also meet people in university English departments who are working on this, too.

DAVID: OK, next: Ethology.

MARC: Ethology is the study of animal behavior and it’s differentiated from comparative psychology by more of an interest in the ecology and evolution of behavior. People sometimes define ethology as the study of animal behavior by biologists rather than psychologists.

DAVID: Then, Cognitive Ethology.

MARC: Cognitive Ethology is the study of animal minds—asking questions about the evolution and ecology of animal minds. This is being done by a broad spectrum of academics: biologists, psychologists and even philosophers and theologians are involved in this. It’s called cognitive ethology mainly because, in order to fully understand the evolution of mind, cognitive skills and emotional interactions, you have to pay attention to what animals do in the wild. You can study animals in the lab, but that may be quite different than what we would see in the field.

DAVID: One more: Conservation Psychology.

MARC: I think of Conservation Psychology as a branch of Anthrozoology mainly because it deals with human beliefs and attitudes towards other animals and the environment. It’s really growing. Susan D. Clayton at the College of Wooster in Ohio is one of the leading figures in this field. She earlier published a book called, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for NatureThen, she was the editor for the new Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.

DAVID: Thanks for running through the titles of those emerging fields. We have a lot of readers who are parents, educators and media professionals. Many of our readers may know of young people who are interested in studying an emerging field. If so, there are four of them. Read Marc’s book and you’ll learn about even more types of research.


DAVID: That was pretty heavy-duty science, so let’s tackle the title of your book. Anyone who buys this book hoping to discover “Why Dogs Hump …” well, I think we should warn them. You conclude: We don’t know. There’s no scientific consensus on this behavior.

MARC: We put the phrase on the cover of the book because it’s an attention getter. But there is an important point in that chapter. It’s an important point that I’m trying to make throughout the book: People just assume we know everything about animal behavior—and we don’t. Here’s a behavior that we’ve all seen and people will tell you that they know what causes it. They’ll say it’s sexual. Or, they’ll say it’s a dominance behavior by dogs. But, the research shows neither explanation accounts for this behavior. We don’t know why this happens. There’s so much research needed even on very common behaviors we think we understand. That’s the point I make in that chapter.

DAVID: I’ll admit the phrase is attention getting. And, OK, it’s a valid point: Animal behaviors are greater mysteries than we may assume. One of the eye-opening chapters for me was about jellyfish. I’ve watched jellyfish along the ocean shore and I can’t imagine a less-intelligent creature. They look about as simple as empty plastic bags floating in the water. But you report on research that shows jellyfish are actually interacting with their environment in a more sophisticated way than people ever imagined.

MARC: We’re too mammal-centric in our thinking about the world. In fact, many of us are basically primateocentric—just paying attention to primates. Most humans are interested in big-brained animals, but what we’re learning in science today is that big brains don’t necessarily rule. For example, honey bees have small brains—but, as I write in this book, they can get depressed. They show the same neural psychological changes that we get when we get depressed. What I’m saying is: Keep the door open on what other animals can and cannot do.

DAVID: You argue that many animals are what we, as humans, would call “moral beings.” They are not simply driven by instincts and natural urges. You pose this, from the beginning of the book, as a provocative conclusion you see emerging from all of this research.

MARC: I pose that thought starting with a biological way of looking at this. I use Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity, which means that the differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. I like the bumper sticker about animals that says: “If we have something—they have it, too.”

We see lots of examples of animals taking care of other animals in in need. You’ll read about an elephant who was taken care of by other animals in her group. She couldn’t walk without a l imp. She’d been injured for many many years and had a deformed right-rear leg. Other elephants waited for her. The matriarchs in her group made a point of seeing that she was fed. But we see this behavior beyond mothers looking out for others. There are many examples where animals seem to understand clearly that others are in need—and help them.

DAVID: And I’d say we’ve come full circle to the first question in the interview. If animals are moral beings, then Buddhism and Jainism and John Wesley were correct in pointing out that there is an over-arching spiritual connection we share with non-human animals.

MARC: Yes, this gets back to that Buddhist notion that there’s an umbrella of compassion, a unity. People may say to me: Why do you care about aninals? You should care about humans! Well, I do care about humans and it’s true of a lot of people who work with animals. But, the reverse is not always true. A lot of pepole who care about other people don’t always display compassion to other animals. I want to encourage more of that.
DAVID: I’m going to conclude our interview by recommending that people also read our 2010 interview, when you and I talked about your book, called, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. I began that interview by telling readers that your overall goal is “to win people over with the pure good-hearted logic about scientific and ethical positions.” Once again, today, you’ve made that eloquent point. We’ll talk again when your next book is published.


ReadTheSpirit publishes two popular books with stories about human-animal relationships: You can learn more about Conversations with My Old Dog and The Spiritual Wanderer in our bookstore.

AND, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Amish return to PBS with Saloma Furlong in ‘Shunned’

PBS American Experience DVD cover for The Amish Shunned

CLICK this image of the DVD cover to visit its Amazon page.

One of our most talked-about author interviews, in recent years, was our 2012 conversation with former-Amish writer Saloma Furlong. A shortened version of her story was featured in the PBS American Experience documentary The Amish, which was both gorgeous and absolutely fascinating in its exploration of Amish life in America.

Now, on Tuesday February 4, 2014, PBS American Experience will debut another major documentary, American Experience: The Amish—Shunned. (Note: That text link takes you to the Amazon page where the DVD version is sold. This DVD eventually will be offered by Netflix. Some libraries may stock the DVD, as well.)

PBS WEBSITE: This American Experience website for the film includes a preview video, background materials, plus information about the series’ broadcast schedule, other upcoming films and some “bonus videos” related to Shunned.

‘The Amish—Shunned’

Review by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

For some strange reason, the same Americans who are fearful of other traditionalist cultures around the world seem to love all things Amish. Mainly, this is because the Amish appear to be a living museum exhibit of America’s past. By driving through “Amish country,” eating at “Amish-style restaurants” and shopping in “Amish markets,” millions of Americans feel as though they are able to step back into their own families’ rural past. So, every year, millions of us pack up the kids and enjoy the smells, the rural vistas, the hearty food, the lovely hand-made goods and we return home to our busy lives feeling as though someone continues to preserve “our past.”

The truth is—as PBS’s American Experience series already has shown in its earlier documentary on The Amish: “The truth isn’t plain—or simple.” Like traditionalist Jews, Muslims, Hindus—and adherents of a host of other centuries-old global cultures—the Amish enforce rigid rules that leave many young Amish men and women sorely torn. Education—even a high school diploma—is strongly discouraged if not outright forbidden. Women are expected to play submissive roles. Everyone is expected to follow the Amish commitment to pacifism to the point of even forgiving extreme abuse within the community. Yes, many Amish families live very satisfying, faith-filled lives of love and grace and hard work.


Well, this new documentary is about the many former Amish men and women who have weighed their experience with Amish life and have finally said: “But—this is not for me.” The documentary shows us how the strict Amish code of community then cuts off these wayward souls. In fact, in one story included in this new film, a family that spent years hoping to join the Amish community finds itself painfully shunned. That comes after the family has labored mightily to prove itself a part of Amish culture—yet is never able to properly measure up to the core traditions of the group.

This is a movie about painfully torn relationships and one of the leading figures in the film—and one of the most sympathetic figures overall—is Saloma Furlong herself. In my home as I previewed this film one evening for this ReadTheSpirit review, I found my wife absolutely fascinated, as well. She watched every minute of this film with me. We kept talking about the issues raised, long after the movie had ended.

You likely will find yourself captivated, as well.

Care to read more about the Amish?

ReadTheSpirit has reported extensively on the Amish, over the years. Our readers keep telling us—and showing us with your clicks and your Facebook sharing of these articles—that you find this subject as fascinating as we do. Here are some recommended links:

REVIEW OF PBS’s THE AMISH: As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I also reviewed the earlier American Experience documentary, calling that movie, “by far, the best film I have seen about Amish life in America.”  That assessment still stands. I am also highly recommending this new sequel to the first film, but Shunned is limited to one aspect of Amish life. The first film is a broad overview, so I continue to rate that first film even higher than this one.

MEET THE LEADING EXPERTS: This new documentary features Amish voices and the true stories of a few men and women who have left the Amish community. But this whole approach to careful, balanced media coverage of the Amish has been shaped by the leading experts in Amish studies. We featured this in-depth interview in 2011.

AMISH NOVELS AND MOVIES ARE POPULAR! We have interviewed Vannetta Chapman, one of the leading novelists writing best-selling tales of Amish life. We post movie reviews, occasionally, of new Amish-themed movies like this one that was broadcast by Hallmark. And, to help point out some of the better Amish movies, we published this overview of lesser-known movies that “get it right” in portraying aspects of Amish life.

READ MORE BY SALOMA FURLONG: Our earlier interview with Saloma Furlong was published when Saloma only had one volume of her memoirs. Watch Saloma’s own website for updates on her new volume, debuting in February, which continues her story past that first book.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Dr. Wayne Baker: How 10 core values can rebuild a ‘United America’

Click on the cover to visit its Amazon book page.Best-selling author Brian McLaren says, in his Preface to United America: “This is a book to be shared and translated into thousands of healing conversations across America. Our values matter, and you and I can help them survive and thrive.”

This couldn’t come at a better time. Dr. Wayne Baker’s book reports his conclusions from years of research conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The book’s full title is, United America: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear.

United America appears just as the Glenn Beck apologizes for “helping to tear the country apart” and says he wishes we all could focus on “uniting principles.” The problem is: Glenn Beck doesn’t know what they are.

UofM’s Institute for Social Research is known around the world for its painstaking, nonpartisan research. Now, in Dr. Baker’s book, all Americans have a roadmap to find and discuss our uniting principles.

To help promote a United America, you can …

  • Buy a copy of Dr. Baker’s book. (Click on the book cover with this interview.)
  • Tell friends. (Click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the little envelope-shaped email icons.)
  • Read more about the book. (After enjoying this interview, visit the United America resource page, which includes a free download of the 10 Core Values and a video of men and women already talking about this book.)
  • Read more about the 10 values. (For years, Dr. Baker has developed as part of his research into promoting civil dialogue. This week, he is launching a 10-part series of short columns about each of the 10 values.)
  • Plan a small-group series with friends. (This book is designed to spark small-group discussions in any community. Questions in the book are ideal for classrooms and team-building series in any setting.)


DAVID: I’ve been a journalist for four decades now and I can say with confidence: This book is big news. As a social scientist, you’ve proven that Americans agree on a whole lot more than most of us ever thought possible in this era of Washington gridlock, red-blue stereotypes and angry media pundits. You’re really busting some myths here, right?

Dr Wayne Baker University of Michigan author of United AmericaWAYNE: Definitely. The research we are publishing now in this book clearly shows Americans share more common ground than a lot of people thought possible. I have documented 10 core values that are strongly held by Americans; and we have strong evidence in support of that.

DAVID: When you say “10 core values,” you’re not talking about simple majorities. You’re talking about almost universal agreement among Americans on these deeply held beliefs.

WAYNE: That’s right. Before I could determine that something was a core value, it had to meet a number of characteristics. To include a value on the final list, it had to be held by a very large majority of Americans over a period of time. In some cases, these values are held by 85 or even 90 percent of Americans across four national surveys, conducted over a two-year period. If people felt strongly about a value in the first survey, but a later survey didn’t show such strong agreement, then it wasn’t a core value. These beliefs are stable over time. They are widely shared across demographic, political and religious lines. We agree on them whether we are conservative or liberal, young or old, rich or poor.

DAVID: This research involved a very elaborate process, beyond the four national surveys. I know that you explored nearly all of the past studies on this issue. Tell us more about how you reached the final 10.

WAYNE: Working with the Institute for Social Research (ISR), we started by looking at more than 100 questionnaires that researchers had used over the years to explore American values. We held focus groups, talking to people about values and about how they talk about values. We compiled a very long list of possible core values and then we pared down this list, further and further through these stages of the work. We actually held focus groups where we asked people to debate the values. Finally, we reached a list of 24 possible core values that we tested in our four surveys. After the data came back from the surveys, I asked our top data people to throw every kind of test they could think of at these conclusions. Was this research solid? Had we missed something? Were these conclusions true? After all of that testing, we know the conclusions are solid.

DAVID: And these aren’t your recommended values. They’re not your opinions about what values we should hold.

WAYNE: That’s right. I did not start with any conclusions about what I would find. If we had found that there are no core values, I would have reported that. If we had found a different list of values, I would have reported those. I’m a social scientist reporting the evidence from some of the most exhaustive and rigorous research ever conducted into American values.


DAVID: Your book, revealing our 10 core values, is going to be good news for a lot of weary Americans. Polls show Americans actually hate the angry atmosphere of name calling and gridlock nationwide. How have we gotten into such a mess?

I think we’ve got a clue in Glenn Beck’s recent apology. He now says: “I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language because I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping to tear the country apart and it’s not who we are and I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were.” Well, you know as a researcher, Wayne, that Americans do hope for unity. So, why did Glenn Beck do this for years? He now says: “I remember it was an awful lot of fun”—not to mention that it made him a wealthy celebrity!

WAYNE: A lot of people, today, make careers out of controversy. And, for a lot of people, these battling voices are a form of entertaining reality television. But, the polarization we see today is largely coming from media commentators and political elites in this country. And, there’s no question that the elected officials in Washington are deeply divided.

But my research was not among political elites—we were interested in what Americans really think.


DAVID: Your findings make a lot of sense, when we look at the major trends in American life that Pew researchers have just documented. This new Pew report on “milestones” was not designed to look at values—certainly not in the way you define values. But the Pew team’s list of “milestones” did identify some major shifts underway in American culture. And, when you look at those dramatic lines moving across the Pew charts—they make sense when compared with your list of values.

Here’s an example: Pew now finds that a majority of Americans favor legalizing same-gender “marriage.” And if you describe this as a form of civil “union,” there’s an even bigger majority approving legalization. Beyond that, big majorities of Americans feel this legal change is inevitable—whether they like the idea or not. In your study, you found that “Equal Opportunity” is an almost universally held Core Value. Now that same-gender unions are largely being seen as an example of “Equal Opportunity,” the whole country seems to be shifting toward approving the practice.

WAYNE: Yes, in that milestone identified by Pew, I think we are seeing an expression of one of the values I describe in my book. Proponents are calling this a case of “marriage equality.” This change we are seeing in this issue is a good example of how people can tap into our what I have identified as Core Values to promote a particular issue or agenda.

DAVID: Another Pew milestone is the record number of 40-million immigrants in the U.S. right now. In addition to Equal Opportunity, you also name “Respect for Others” in your list of 10. Your book is going to be good news, I think, for immigrants coming to this country. But it also suggests that we are really going to be testing our values over the next few years. Can we live up to our ideals?

WAYNE: That’s a good question we all should be discussing. This Pew report also reminds us of what people around the world think about our country. Remember that the U.S. still is the global destination of choice today, if you look at the numbers of people moving around the world. Russia is second, but it’s a distant second.

In other parts of the world—think about the Middle East or Africa—immigration can result in violence, death and even genocide in extreme cases. But, in America, a very high percentage of men and women believe that we should respect others. For example, a very high percentage of Americans believe that the sacred books of any faith should be respected—and that’s not a value in many other parts of the world. Americans believe that all races should be respected—and that’s not true in other parts of the world.

DAVID: But there are big gaps between our beliefs—and what we actually do in public policy. When people read your book, they’ll find lots of examples where we’re still pretty far from our ideals. One example is racism. While most Americans say we should respect all people and provide equal opportunity—the truth is that we’re also experiencing records in the wealth gap separating rich and poor, black and white. That’s part of the discussion you’re hoping people will undertake.

WAYNE: Yes, there is an obvious gap between our values and reality. We still see vast differences in actual opportunities, by race. This is an ongoing struggle. I tend to be optimistic. I think we should acknowledge the truth about the problems we face, then talk about what we might do together based on the deep values that unite us as Americans.

DAVID: You also point out in the book that—even if we completely agree on our ideals—we will have honest disagreements about the best policies to reach those goals, right?

WAYNE: Yes, working out policies to reflect our values is the tough part. But we cannot even start on that process unless we can find common ground to talk as Americans.  The problem is that we’ve forgotten we even have common ground. That’s what Brian McLaren writes about in his Preface. One of the strong messages of this book is that we do have far more common ground than most people realize.

Usually, when we talk about the difficult issues we face, we start with disagreements and we don’t get very far. Or, we may never even bring up these issues because of the mistaken impression that we can never hope to agree.


DAVID: Readers don’t have to take your word for it. You’ve proven that civil conversation is possible—even in the Wild West of the Internet. Part of the ongoing research that went into United America is the daily project you’ve produced, as a department of ReadTheSpirit.

WAYNE: We have published more than 1,500 columns over the years. I write most of those columns. We have some very talented guest columnists who have contributed, as well. We all follow a similar approach: We take a values-related issue that’s making headlines, so we know it affects a lot of people. Then, we try to present a bit of news with each column—sometimes a new survey, or some another piece of news we’ve spotted about that issue. Then, we ask questions and we moderate readers’ comments. People who comment are not allowed to personally attack each other. If that does happen, we email the author of the comment and explain why the comment was held back. This rarely happens anymore, but when we do have to intervene, the people who post offending comments respond and agree to revise what was written. This has worked surprisingly well.

DAVID: You’ve proven the potential of civil dialogue in other was, too. In recent months, two pilot groups in two different cities helped you to test the United America book in a series of discussions. Readers can watch a 6-minute video on this page, which shows some folks in those sessions talking about values from their own perspectives.

WAYNE: The first thing we learned from those two pilot groups was: People will show up to talk about this! We had big groups show up in both locations and people were eager to talk. It is true that some people did show up the first time feeling rather anxious about what might happen. They said they were afraid this might devolve into the kinds of angry confrontations we see in the media. But people were willing to give it a try and people quickly realized that we can have civil dialogue.

It was very interesting to see how this unfolded. As we talked, week by week, people resonated with every one of these values. Most people said: “We’ve never thought about it this way before.” They’d go home and talk about this with relatives and friends and co-workers, because they were so relieved to discover that we do share core values. People kept asking when this was going to go nationwide, so they could urge friends in other cities to start discussion groups. Well, that’s happening with this launch.

In some of the discussions we held, the stories people told were very personal and very touching. A lot of people were sad to see the series come to an end. They had formed new connections with others by sharing personal stories about how these values played out in their lives. The most common one-word response we got from people in these groups was: Hope.

Help promote a United America

  • Buy a copy of Dr. Baker’s book. (Click on the book cover with this interview.)
  • Tell friends. (Click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the little envelope-shaped email icons.)
  • Read more about the book. (After enjoying this interview, visit the United America resource page, which includes a free download of the 10 Core Values and a video of men and women already talking about this book.)
  • Read more about the 10 values. (For years, Dr. Baker has developed as part of his research into promoting civil dialogue. This week, he is launching a 10-part series of short columns about each of the 10 core values.)
  • Plan a small-group series with friends. (This book is designed to spark small-group discussions in any community. Questions in the book are ideal for classrooms and team-building series in any setting.)

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Review: Don’t miss ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

WHERE TO SEE ‘THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK’—Visit PBS’s webpage for this documentary to learn more about its background and viewing options. PBS provides links to local listings. Since this is a well-researched documentary, the PBS website also offers educational resources. There’s even a step-by-step curriculum for science teachers to reproduce some of the then-groundbreaking lab techniques used by New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner and his staff.

You also could opt to purchase the DVD from Amazon, titled American Experience: Poisoner’s Handbook. Eventually the film will reach Netflix. Your local library may choose to stock a copy.


REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Why should people of faith care about a bone-chilling documentary on the early history of forensic sciences in criminal investigations? Why should you help us to highly recommend this PBS American Experience debut to your friends, small group, congregation and community?

First, we all should promote this film because it’s flat-out fascinating. The two-hour documentary takes us back to the dawn of real-life CSI—the birth of modern homicide investigation and the spawn of thousands of hours of prime-time TV dramas. So, the first reason to see this PBS offering is: You’ll enjoy it!

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and his chief toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and, at left, is his chief toxicologist Dr. Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

Second, by the end of this two hours, the real pioneering triumph of the film’s two main characters will become crystal clear: They proved to New York City and then to the entire nation that government must play a crucial role in scientifically investigating the vast array of potentially poisonous substances coming into our world—and protecting all of us, including the most vulnerable, from dangerous vultures. Most religious groups around the world hold human rights—caring for and protecting the vulnerable—as a sacred mission. The Poisoner’s Handbook is the true story of two men who fought against almost impossible odds to establish the government’s role in the science-based protection of public health.

Given the wall-to-wall prime-time status of CSI-style shows, you’ll be startled to discover that—before the arrival Dr. Charles Norris and his right-hand researcher Dr. Alexander Gettler—poisoners regularly got away with murder. There was no way to catch them. In 1922, 237 men and women died of fatal gunshots in New York City, but researchers believe nearly 1,000 died of poisoning!

The producers of this documentary have organized the two hours like a series of mini-CSI tales—all true stories. They begin with this new scientific team’s most puzzling early case, the 1922 death of an elderly couple in what appeared to be “a locked-door mystery.” I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing what they found.

Just as in the TV dramas, there’s even a recurring character, a woman accused multiple times over the years of what amounted to serial murders. And, yes, just like the TV series today, these early scientists head into the laboratory over and over again. Sometimes, they must devise new tests. Occasionally, they must exhume a body and look more deeply into the human remains.

In the second half of the film, Norris and Gettler tackle huge public-health issues. Viewing this in 2014, you’re likely to be startled by the official government position on what amounts to massive crimes against vulnerable people. Officials in New York City and Washington D.C. felt that these threats weren’t a part of their responsibilities, until Norris and Gettler joined the campaign to change their minds.

You’ll have a whole lot to talk about after watching The Poisoner’s Handbook. Bravo to PBS and The American Experience for kicking off 2014 with such a landmark film.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Wow! MSU students produce a guide to America in 70 days!

Michigan State University School of Journalism students who formed the staff to produce "100 Questions and Answers About Americans" FRONT ROW FROM LEFT: Merinda Valley, Emily Jaslove, Jessica Warfield. MIDDLE ROW: Stephanie Dippoliti, Jasmine Watts, Marissa Russo, Michelle Armstead and Gabrielle Austin. TOP ROW: Max Gun, Katherine Miller, Alexandra McNeill, Celeste Bott, Danielle Woodward and Aaron Jordan. Missing: Ashiyr Pierson and Marlee Delaney.

Michigan State University School of Journalism students who formed the staff to produce “100 Questions and Answers About Americans” FRONT ROW FROM LEFT: Merinda Valley, Emily Jaslove, Jessica Warfield. MIDDLE ROW: Stephanie Dippoliti, Jasmine Watts, Marissa Russo, Michelle Armstead and Gabrielle Austin. TOP ROW: Max Gun, Katherine Miller, Alexandra McNeill, Celeste Bott, Danielle Woodward and Aaron Jordan. Missing: Ashiyr Pierson and Marlee Delaney.

A NOTE from ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm:
100 Questions and Answers about Americans MSU cover
We crowed last year when Michigan State University School of Journalism students produced an important book, The New Bullying, in just 101 days. Those 101 days were counted from the original idea, through extensive nationwide research, to writing, editing and final publication. Well, this year, another MSU class has trumped that accomplishment by producing a valuable new guidebook to America, written to help newcomers from abroad feel welcome in the U.S.—in just 70 days!

ReadTheSpirit Books works regularly with the MSU journalism teams to produce these books and, today, we’re celebrating with this latest group of talented students. Even more importantly, we’re celebrating on behalf of the thousands of visiting international students who will be helped by this book!

(Want to get your copy now? Here’s the Amazon page for 100 Questions and Answers about Americans.)


NEWS UPDATE DEC 11: Xconomy business news magazine’s Sarah Schmid covers the launch of the new guide. Schmid describes the guide as evidence that “Michigan is poised to become a hot spot for global talent because of its popularity with international students, particularly those studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” (Read the entire Xconomy story.)

NEWS UPDATE DEC 11: Center for Michigan’s BRIDGE magazine’s Kathy Barks Hoffman says this guide fits perfectly into Michigan’s push to welcome newcomers. She writes: “Gov. Rick Snyder is pushing for more international students to study and stay in Michigan. The Global Talent Retention Initiative, funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and a grant from the New Economy Initiative of Michigan, is bringing together Michigan universities, economic development groups, ethnic chambers of commerce and professional organizations to help retain top international talent in the state by finding them jobs with Michigan companies.” (Read the entire BRIDGE story.)

And here is Joe Grimm’s story about the launch, posted December 9:



Some Michigan State University journalism students spent the last day of classes, Dec. 6, giving copies of their semester’s labors to international students at a book launch.

In just 10 weeks, the students published a 60-page guide, 100 Questions and Answers about Americans.

Their aim was to use journalism to help international students better understand American customs and behaviors. The need for this kind of outreach has grown. International enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities has gone up for seven years in a row and was at 819,000 in 2012-2013. Michigan State, with more than 7,000 international students, is in the top 10 among American universities.

The project was proposed and supported by a grant from MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. The guide is the second in a series of guides to cultural competence published by the MSU J-School and Read the Spirit Books.

Several more guides are in the works for 2014.

Dr. Ijaz Ahmad, a research scholar at Michigan State University from Lahore, Pakistan. said he wants to see other guides n the series. He was interested in American definitions of "Indian." The first guide in the series is about Indian Americans. The next one is about American Indians.

Dr. Ijaz Ahmad, a research scholar at Michigan State University from Lahore, Pakistan, said he wants to see other guides in the series. He was interested in American definitions of “Indian.” The first guide in the series is about Indian Americans. The next one is about American Indians.

The class of 16 students asked students from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America for their questions about life in the United States. The answers were researched, written and vetted. The students added a glossary of idioms and slang.

The guides are created with a four-dimensional approach that stresses respect, accuracy, authority and accessibility.

Powered by proprietary Read the Spirit publishing technology, the guides are available on paper, Nooks, Kindles and e-books. The entire process, from getting their assignment to having the guides appear on Amazon, took just 70 days.

Some of the questions:

“People in the United States smile at strangers for no reason. Why is that and what is the meaning?”

“What does ‘How’s it going?’ mean?”

“How can I connect with people here if I don’t understand cultural things like old TV shows, celebrities or sports?”

“When should I tip and how much should I leave?”

“What is included in a date?”

Do these sound like simple questions? Not if you come from a culture where customs of hospitality and relationships are quite different. As our American university students researched these guides—and talked to a wide range of people in their reporting—they wound up with many new insights into the challenges newcomers face in the U.S. Common phrases and small gestures that “we” take for granted are confusing, and may even seem offensive, to people who are trying to form new friendships but don’t understand “our” signals.

Student Marlee Delaney wrote, “The project was really eye-opening for me, as a student and as a journalist. I was really surprised to hear some of the questions that these international students came up with. I had no idea international students felt intimidated by Americans because oftentimes we feel intimidated by them.”

Merinda Valley expressed similar feelings. “As I asked and answered questions for our guide, I realized that many international students have trouble starting conversations and forming friendships with Americans. Though I feel that I’m attuned to the difficulties of living in a foreign country, this really surprised me. So, if our guide can take away some uncertainty about American culture, I think it will be valuable to a lot of people who want to interact with Americans and simply enjoy their experience here.”

Joe Grimm is the Michigan State University School of Journalism instructor in this course and series editor for the cultural competence guides project.

The Rodney Curtis interview on his Laughing in the Face of Fear trilogy

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis's author page.

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis’s author page.

Laugh in the face of fear.

Wow! Do we need this now!

Just in time for gift giving, our beloved ReadTheSpirit columnist Rodney Curtis finally has completed his trilogy of books about tackling each new day with friends, family—and laughter. That idea may sound simple, but this is deep wisdom. We all remember, “Laughter is the best medicine.” We recall how the famous journalist Norman Cousins laughed himself back to health in the 1970s—and was played by Ed Asner in the movie version of his inspiring story. Now, there’s scientific research on the value of laughter—ask Dr. Bernie Siegel, who we interviewed recently in these pages.

Rodney has weathered life’s toughest challenges—and has taken this hard-earned wisdom in a fresh direction. He invites readers to laugh along with him in these real-life stories. His books also are packed with photos and even links to audio and video.

That’s the big news from ReadTheSpirit this week: Just in time for Christmas, we are releasing Rodney Curtis’s third volume, Getting Laid (off). His first book—before Rodney was hit with the twin plagues of cancer and job loss—is Spiritual Wanderer. That was followed by A “Cute” Leukemia. Now, it’s a complete trilogy, perfect for that hard-to-shop-for friend or relative.

In this week’s Cover Story, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Rodney Curtis about this amazing and amusing journey.


DAVID: I think your books are perfect gifts for someone who desperately needs a little laughter.

RODNEY: (laughs) Oh, now that’s a pitch! Who wouldn’t want to find cancer and unemployment under their Christmas tree! Just look at what Rodney’s brought you!

DAVID: Hey, no kidding. This trio of books can be the perfect gift for a lot of hurting people. And, right now, you’ve reached a pretty wonderful milestone yourself, right? You’re feeling so good, now, that I understand you would like to be back in a classroom again in 2014, teaching college students.

RODNEY: I’m up for almost anything the future may hold.

DAVID: That phrase really does describe you as a writer: “Up for almost anything.” So, let’s begin this interview by bringing readers up to speed about your three books. I’ll ask you to describe each one. Let’s start with Spiritual Wanderer. In just a few words: What’s it about?

RODNEY: That first book is a mishmash of stories, full of my meanderings and a lot of my silliness, too. The stories go from walking my dog to really deep spiritual issues. Although, now that I think about it, we should probably put the words spiritual issues in quote marks because—when it comes to religion and me? Or, when it comes to spirituality and me? We go together like hot sauce on candy bars.

DAVID: Good point. I often tell people that Spiritual Wanderer is the first book I’ve read in years that always makes me laugh out loud. I mean, I’ve read that book a dozen times—and I still laugh when I read the story about your dogs—”Dog Duty.”

RODNEY: Yeah! That’s one of the funniest stories in that first book—and it’s absolutely true. Our dog went out in the back yard one day in December and—well, if you’re a pet lover you know what happens: The dog relieves himself—except, this time, out pops figures from our Advent calendar!

DAVID: No “spoilers” here, so we’ll leave the dog story with that one strange image. In reading that story, I’ve seen grown men and women spit their morning coffee out their noses because they get to laughing so hard. Let’s describe the second volume.

RODNEY: My next book, A “Cute” Leukemia, is about what happened when I got leukemia. The title comes from June of 2010, when I checked into the hospital and they told me, “You’ve got acute leukemia.” And my immediate thought was: “Oh, this is fun! I’ve got A ‘Cute’ Leukemia.” That’s how my mind works. My first response was to try to treat the cancer as some kind of little, tiny, ridiculous baby that was fussing at me. And you know what we’re supposed to do in those situations, right? We use good humor with a fussy baby.

Of course leukemia is a savage disease—very serious.  Yet, when you’re faced with it yourself, the question is: How do we respond? What do we do? And this humorous approach I took really did help me get through this.

DAVID: What’s the correct way to describe your relationship to leukemia today?

RODNEY: I am cured. That’s how we say it. I had a stem-cell transplant in October 2010. It is true that after some kinds of cancer treatments, people say they are in remission. That usually means the cancer isn’t visible anymore, but still may be lurking. I say: I’m cured. After a successful stem-cell transplant, the goal is to make your chances of getting cancer just like the chances for anyone else. And, that’s what happened to me. Thank goodness! Right?

DAVID: And the third book?

RODNEY: The third book, Getting Laid (off), is about just what the title says—losing your job. I worked in journalism and journalism cheated on me. I had been married to journalism for many many years and, then all at once, journalism went out and decided it didn’t want to be faithful to me anymore. It left me—and I was out.


Rodney Curtis and Darrel Ellis Dreadlocks For LoveDAVID: I tell people that in facing all these challenges—from ordinary daily adventures to big life-threatening crises—you write like a cross between Mitch Albom and Dave Barry. You’ve got the heart of Mitch—the inspiration and the sentiment of Mitch—but you’ve also the humor of Dave. You’re funnier than Mitch and you’re often more serious than Dave. Your style is somewhere in the middle, I’d say.

RODNEY: Well, thank you for saying those very nice things. That’s high praise.

I’ve written all my life. For years, I did it in the background of my work as a photographer. I’ve always felt that writing and photography can go hand in hand. It was the fall of 2006 when I think I found my voice for real and started writing intensively at home—and couldn’t stop. I’d be out mowing my lawn and I’d think of something—and I’d just have to write it down. That was really an epic change for me. I’m amazingly thankful for all of that.

DAVID: When you write, you often write funny stuff—but these aren’t joke books. You’re not going for a laugh specifically. You’re more of a storyteller than a jokester.

RODNEY: That’s how I think of what I’m writing. I tell stories I’d like to hear. I like to hear people tell real stories about their lives, so I write stories about my real experiences. I’d probably be a failure as a fiction writer. And, no, I don’t set out to tell jokes. I’m sharing stories and I am inviting readers to have fun with me.

DAVID: Tell us the story behind the hair photo, in the cancer book, which took place when you were losing your own hair. One day, you decided to share someone else’s hair.

RODNEY: That was the day in July of 2010, when my friend from the Detroit News, Darrel Ellis, visited me along with his wife Leslie. He had these long, long dreadlocks and I was mostly bald by that time. I said, “Oh, man, Darrel! I wish I had your hair!”

Then, we said: “Wait a minute! We’ve got a camera. This can happen!” We lay down on the bed and his wife snapped that photo.

I think that photo epitomizes my stay in the hospital—which my family and I often called the hotel. From my first day in the hotel, I tried to follow the advice: “Make it your own. Be Rodney.”

DAVID: What does that mean? “Make it your own.”

RODNEY: My aunt works for the Mayo clinic and she happens to study my exact illness. She told me, “You’re going to be in the hospital for a while. Try not to wear hospital clothes and lay there all the time. Wear your own clothes. Move around.” I did listen to what she told me. She said, “Be Rodney.”

DAVID: That matches up with a lot of other advice we’ve published in WeAreCaregivers, which is hosted by Heather Jose, and I know that she’s asked you to write a guest column for WeAreCaregivers about this very issue. So, I’ll recommend that to readers.

The attitude you’re describing here really shines through in your book, A “Cute” Leukemia.

RODNEY: It was therapy for me simply to put together that book—one story and photo and media clip at a time. And I’ve already heard from readers that it has helped them, too, as they try to deal with what really is a dreaded and deadly disease. My father died of lung cancer at age 56, so I know all about the tragic side of cancer. I dreaded it like nobody’s business. When I faced it myself, I said: “This is huge. This is my choice, now, as to whether this will be the end—or it will be the beginning of something new.”

And, believe me: I wanted this to lead to something new!

DAVID: We just published an interview with Dr. Bernie Siegel, who was widely slammed by his colleagues when he began writing about his unorthodox approaches to healing. Now, in fact, a lot of his early unorthodox ideas have become by-the-book orthodox approaches to healing. With Bernie, we talked about this whole history of changing perceptions. We talked about Norman Cousins, who checked himself into a hotel room and got—at that time—a bunch of VHS tapes of funny TV programs. He insisted that laughter was a huge part of healing. Cousins was slammed, too, at the time. Now, Bernie Siegel points out that no one doubts this wisdom, anymore. I see you in this tradition of Norman Cousins, coming at this from a journalistic perspective. Now, there’s even solid research into the benefits of intentional laughter—actually helping yourself by making yourself laugh.

In your case, Rodney, you were confined for a long time, right? You were laughing in some very tough situations.

RODNEY: I was in three different facilities. The first one was for six weeks night and day. Then, a second time I was in for several days. And, finally, I was in for about a month.

DAVID: You spent about three months in hospitals in 2010.

RODNEY: That’s right. And the staff loved the way I approached this. They laughed with me. You know, at the end of that year, a bunch of them came to my house and surprised me with some Christmas presents. It was amazing! I made friends I continue to chat with on a daily basis, several years later.

‘Ello, I’m Nigel! (and other tales of comic coping)

DAVID: Self image is a big part of this. It’s tough to see yourself change so dramatically. Hair loss is a big issue.

RODNEY: Some of my friends began bringing me funny wigs. I remember one time, they brought me this wig that made me look like some kind of aging British rocker. That led to this whole story I spun out of being just that—not Rodney in the hospital with leukemia, but a British rock star in rehab. I had this IV pole with me all the time, at that point, and I remember I put on the wig and grabbed my IV pole, which I called, “Ivy.” I found these crazy Elton John-style glasses. And, that day, we wandered around the wards with me appearing as this wild old rock star. “‘Ello, I’m Nigel!” I’d say in this crazy accent. The nurses got into it and pulled out their camera phones. They were the paparazzi. It made us all happy. We all felt a lot of caring and a lot of love that day.

DAVID: I know you live your life this way, every day, wherever you are. But let’s address those readers who are saying: “Well, of course, Rodney can do this. He’s a funny guy. I’m not funny. My family isn’t funny. And these things he’s writing about—cancer or losing your job—those certainly aren’t funny.”

RODNEY: I’d say, “OK, well, humor may not be your thing. So, find your own thing and focus on it.” Music is great and a lot of people enjoy singing. They may not be great musicians who can play an instrument—but singing is a lot of fun. Anybody can sing. Do you like poetry? A lot of people write or read poetry. Maybe sports is your thing. So, focus on sports. Talk about sports with the people you encounter; keep up on sports. Ask yourself: What’s my passion? What can I focus on, every day, that makes me as happy as possible?

DAVID: What prepared you for this approach to life? Let’s go back for a moment. You’ve got some stories sprinkled through your three books about your childhood and early family life. Now, I’m 58 and I grew up, I’d say, in a Leave-It-to-Beaver-era home. You’re about a decade younger than me. So, did you grow up in a Brady Bunch home?

RODNEY: Yeah, Brady Bunch and maybe a little Partridge Family thrown in there, as well.

DAVID: So, one thing that never happened in those classic TV shows was: cancer. And, of course, none of the Dads or Moms in TV families had to worry about job loss. I guess the Partridge Family did have a single Mom raising her pop-star kids. But these huge anxieties so many of us face now—cancer and job loss—are things that in many ways we were not well equipped to anticipate in the eras when we were growing up.

RODNEY: Yeah, the anxiety is huge. And it hits you hard. And most of us aren’t prepared. It’s especially bad when you start to think: You’re someone’s father. You’re someone’s husband.

Comparing the two—job loss and cancer—I have to say that the cancer diagnosis is many rungs higher on the anxiety ladder than job loss. You’re suddenly faced with a life-or-death situation. To this day, I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve got all the anxiety resolved. The stresses still arise in my life—and this is long after the trauma with cancer—when I sit there recalling it for some reason. The worst for me is realizing how unfair this was for my daughters. I feel bad that they had to face this with me.

When you lose your job, you feel like you’ve let down your family and that’s terrible. Then, with cancer, especially if you’ve got kids at home like I did, this feels like you’ve let down your family 10 fold more than that! Thankfully, my family and I, now, have gone through these deep black holes together—job loss and cancer—and now, as we’re sitting here talking, I think I can say we’re all safely out the other side.

You can get through this. If I’ve got one message in all of this, that’s it: Yes, you can get through this.

DAVID:  See, that’s not a bad message to wrap up and put under your Christmas tree this season: Life’s tough. But, you know what? We can get through this.

Care to read more from Rodney?

VISIT RODNEY CURTIS’S AUTHOR PAGE IN OUR BOOKSTORE: Learn more about Rodney; read sample chapters—and use the easy links in our bookstore to buy copies of his book through Amazon, Barnes &  Noble or other retailers. (Yes, you can buy print or e-editions.)

ENJOY RODNEY CURTIS’S LATEST COLUMNS: His department within ReadTheSpirit has been a favorite destination for our readers over many years.

READ & SHARE RODNEY CURTIS’S ADVICE FOR CAREGIVERS: His new guest column in our WeAreCaregivers department contains some of Rodney’s savvy advice that you’re sure to want to share with friends.

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Kent Nerburn interview on Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy

Great Plans vista

Cover Kent Nerburn The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

For thousands of Kent Nerburn fans, all we really need to say is: Kent’s back on the road on the Great Plains! Come along! Click the cover, at right, to visit the book’s Amazon page and start reading!

But, first, you might want to read this new interview with Kent, the best-selling author of 16 books and a longtime friend to our online magazine. If you are meeting Kent Nerburn for the first time, here are a few things you need to know about him:

His vision is vast: Best known as an author, Kent also is a scholar, theologian and artist. He studied in the U.S. and Europe and finally earned a doctorate in religion and art. His sculptures, many on religious themes, are in collections around the world.

He invites us on pilgrimages: Best known for his books exploring Euro-American relationships with Native Americans, Kent also sees himself in a long and rich tradition of American arts and letters about the nature of journeys and cross-cultural connections. His road trips start humbly and we are half way through the bumpy ride before we discover these truly are pilgrimages.

He shares his wisdom in many forms: Some of his best books—such as Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life—are spiritual reflections drawing on Kent’s broad knowledge of faith and culture—but not necessarily focusing on Native American themes.

Ultimately, Kent is a unique American theologian—working his way through cycles of stories and artworks, travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in the geography and peoples of this continent. It’s a grand goal—an immense lifelong project—and we all are richer that, once again, we are invited to hop into Kent’s old car and roll down back roads in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

Now, Kent talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about his travels, his new book and the grand vision behind it all …


DAVID CRUMM: You have touched lives around the world with your art and your stories. This year is the 20th anniversary of Native American Wisdom, the first collection you published jointly with your wife Louise Mengelkoch, the journalist and educator. We’ve been on the road with you, Kent, for quite a while.

Author Kent NerburnKENT NERBURN: For me, the journey began long before that. My Dad was an American Red Cross regional director for disaster relief and, as a boy in the 1950s,  I would go with him in the car to places where he took care of people in the midst of great distress. I remember a big apartment-house fire one winter where he was called to help with the people who had lived in the building. There was one woman in her 80s who Dad showed over to our car and asked me, “Just stay with her.” I was 12 years old and I remember trying to console her as best I could, sitting beside her in the car and listening to her. Of course, I was confused. I was young. I remember her talking, over and over again, about her hope that they could get her cat out of her apartment. These were experiences that most people, at that young age, would never encounter. In those experiences with Dad, I suppose that I saw too much too early that was far too large for me to understand.

And so, I became a watcher. Even working as an artist, I didn’t sign my sculptures. I didn’t want to put my name on the pieces. I wanted to step back from them and be the watcher.

DAVID: Let’s remind readers that you are not a Native American. You’ve never claimed to be Indian and your books really are about how Euro-Americans can bridge the gap after so much pain and death—to build new relationships with Native Americans. Am I saying that correctly?

KENT: That’s right. I have never claimed to be Native American. You’ll never find me putting on native trappings or trying to claim native ceremonies. And, I have no patience with Euro-Americans who go out and claim Native American ceremonies as their own and start teaching them. There is a lot of legitimate anger on the part of native people who have seen their world appropriated in so many ways by non-native culture. I don’t want to be one of those who tries to take their culture from them, once again.

But I am helping in the retelling of our American narrative in a way that includes Native Americans. Our national narrative is so badly served by the way it is commonly retold. One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first. Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time—we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools and tried to expunge their history from them by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy—to erase—their stories from our national story.


DAVID: This connects with the much larger vision behind nearly all of your books. You argue that all of us living on this continent are called to envision a larger North American theology—a philosophy of this place, this geography, and our ultimate place in it. And you argue that the native peoples on this continent could have been—and still can be—an essential doorway in that journey.

KENT: Around the world, monumental forces have shaped people’s understandings of the gods and of our ultimate human concerns. People who live in mountainous regions tend to understand the gods differently than those whose culture is based along oceans. In North America, we ought to have a spirituality that speaks to the great forces embodied in this continent. As you know, I studied theology. My academic background is in theology and the arts. Native Americans have a connection to the theology of this land, a connection we worked for centuries to eliminate.

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to create some artificial pan-Indian theology. Native people tell us not to do that. Native American traditions varied widely. But there are elements they hold in common. One is the sense that God is in every rock and river and aspect of the landscape. We European Americans have this assumption that nature is just out there for us to conquer. We have this idea of building cities on hills. Native people know that God is in the hill itself. Native peoples are mindful on a much deeper level of every hill, every stream, every cloud that passes through the sky.


DAVID: One of the central arguments that runs through all of your work is that we will never connect with this continent if we don’t leave our homes and start traveling around in this vast land. Most important in traveling is getting to know the people we encounter. When I read the opening pages of your new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, and I read about this woman asking you to drive her to the cemetery for a visit—wow!—right away my mind was connecting with one of your most famous stories: The Cab Driver, or sometimes it’s Called The Taxi Driver. These stories span your entire career.

KENT: Hey, you’re a sharp guy! I wouldn’t have thought of that connection—but you saw it and, sure, there it is! Yeah. We have to go out into the world and meet people and talk to them. That’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what the cab story is all about. It’s true: I really did work as a cab driver and I encountered many experiences as powerful as that one I wrote about. I wish I’d kept better notes or a journal. Today, I’d have 100 stories like The Cab Driver from that time. That’s just one I managed to write down from that time.

Highway in the Great PlainsDAVID: You’ve been making a much bigger case through the decades. The quintessential American story is a tale of the road. We could list all the writers from Melville and Twain to Steinbeck and Kerouac. The list could go on and on. You’re trying to tell us something about repairing and clarifying what we might call The Great Story of America and, at the core of it, you’re telling us is a great, wide, nearly endless road.

KENT: The journey is my American experience. The road is my path. When I was very young, The Beats fascinated me. I actually did go out and hop freight trains. I hitchhiked. I can tell you some stories of experiences on the road that, now, I realize could have ended my life far too early. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I had to travel. I had to keep moving. I had to look everywhere to meet people and learn their stories.

For me, a kid from Minnesota, I always looked West. That part of the American mythic journey—looking West—is part of my life story as well.

DAVID: Let me read a passage from the middle of this book. It’s just one of many descriptions of the road itself—literally the act of driving across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains. I’ve crossed the Plains a good number of times myself, as a journalist, and it’s hard to describe this kind of driving. Here’s how you put it:

We rode on into the growing twilight. The tar strips beat a hypnotic rhythm beneath us as the lonely asphalt highway cut a meandering line through the treeless hills toward the horizon. It was a peaceful, almost empty landscape. Every few miles, a gravel road would cut off from the main highway, and a small house could be seen sitting alone and isolated far up in the hills. Here and there a rusted car body sat solitary in a field, or a broken farm windmill rose above the landscape on its spindly, triangular stilts. But mostly it was just earth and sky and the thin ribbon of roadway coursing like a fierce, dark river through the great, unpopulated land.

KENT: I’m so glad you read that passage. There’s nothing I love more than observing the passing landscape, whether from a train or a car. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I wrote those lines. But I was in South Dakota. As I was moving through that landscape, it was all about the watching and the emotion I was feeling. Then, later, I would recollect that journey and write down the telling details. I do make notes as I travel. I noted: windmill with broken vanes, road going back into the hills … Things like that. But, then, I go back and in memory I recapture the emotion and the essentials to put down on paper.


DAVID: You write so beautifully in this new book, not just about the landscape, but about the culture stolen from native people through the whole array of institutions where Indians were locked away for so many years.

In your earlier book, the second volume in this Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy, you wrote about the boarding school era. Then, in this book, you write about other kinds of prison-like institutions that were set up. Now, more and more Americans are learning about what took place in our collective name over so many years. The “boarding school tragedy” is becoming a part of our common knowledge. But one thing that is so crucial to convey is the voices of people who actually experienced being locked away until their culture was—in many cases—literally beaten out of them.

Let me read from later in the book, a man describing how the boarding schools left him:

Every day I was scared of dying. I was scared of being beat. I was scared of burning up in the Christian god’s fire. I was scared of dying in a white man’s bed surrounded by the bird women and men with the yellow teeth. I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. But I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to follow the rules. So that’s what I did. That’s all that I did. I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t smile. I didn’t cry. All I did was keep my mouth shut and follow the rules.”

KENT: Again, thanks for reading that passage. I do want to say that, in these books, I am not trying to beat readers over the head with the endless litany of horrible things that took place. Many of these horrors now are well documented. There are lots of tragedies I could have described—but, in our world today, there are so many tragedies and murders that our hearts become inured to it all.

I remember once I was teaching a class and I began to show the students Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, and this one girl raised her hand. She asked: “Why are you making us watch this? I don’t need to be aware of this.”

Of course, I thought she was wrong but I understood that response. In this new book, I tell a story through the voices of one or two main people.

DAVID: And it is a lively and engaging story. It’s part a travelogue, part a cycle of great tales from the Great Plains, part a vivid slice of Indian life today. But there is this subtext to the book, always asking us to remember what was done in our collective name. As people learn more about the boarding school era, they’re likely to be shocked to learn that a lot of this occurred right up into the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t ancient history. There are people living today who were locked away in schools and other institutions. There were international parallels, of course. In Australia, where the national government now has come to terms with the tragedy more completely than our government has even attempted, this pattern continued right into the 1970s, as well.

KENT: And often the people running these places were doing it with what they perceived as the best of intentions. We should say that the worst of the boarding school abuses ended by the 1950s, but these institutions did continue. There are some boarding schools today, although they are of a different kind than the schools we’re describing in these earlier eras.

I went to visit one of these places. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, “Sure.”

I asked, “Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?”

He said, “Yeah, I went.”

“How was it?”

He said: “I learned good language. I learned good Christian.” Then, he paused. Finally, he said, “And now I’m no longer myself.”

To me, that was a dagger in my heart. This was a kindly man, a good man. And yet he was telling me that the boarding school experience had taken a boy and made him into someone who was cut off form his roots. The boarding schools did give many young people a good trade. It taught them good English. It gave them a warm place to stay and regular meals at a time when many on the reservations were starving on those reservations. So the whole experience is a very mixed narrative.

DAVID: I want to close by asking you about the loyalty of your fans. I went into Amazon and looked at the reader reviews of quite a few of your books. You’ve accumulated hundreds of reviews—and the vast majority are 4 or 5 stars. In fact, most of them are 5-star raves. To what do you attribute that strong enthusiasm for your books? Maybe that’s an unfair question to ask. But do you have an answer?

KENT: Yes, I actually do have an answer. I’ve thought about this and I think the response is: It’s because I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self or my sarcastic or angry self get into my books. I had a professor in graduate school who ended a seminar on Creativity and the Sacred with these words: “I don’t care where all of you come out spirituality, but I hope you all realize you have a ministry.”

I understand exactly what he meant. As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart.

I don’t live from the heart every day. I often feel like I’m a troll beneath a bridge holding up an angel on a stick. People look down and see me, that troll down there, but what I’m interested in doing is having them focus on the angel I’m holding up. It’s easy to write with a wry edge or to drip sarcasm on the page. I am sometimes like that in my life—full of sarcasm. But that’s not the ministry with readers.

I’m called to hold up the angels. I’m giving readers stories with heart. I’ve worked very hard on this. I’ve had years of spiritual formation. I’ve spent years developing this voice from an open heart. And readers respond—because they recognize a good heart when they encounter it.

Care for more from Kent Nerburn?

Get the books! Click on the linked book titles, above, to visit their Amazon pages.

For more on the two previous books in the “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy—including more historical details on the Native American boarding schools—read our earlier interview with Kent Nerburn. That interview focuses on Kent’s second book in the trilogy, “The Wolf at Twilight.”

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)