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Carney's Death on Diamond Mountain covers far more ground than the death of Ian Thorson; it's a sweeping look at Western adoption (often cafeteria style) of some extreme Eastern spiritual practices without concern for the potential dangers.
Scott Carney has done a fine job of researching and telling the story of a spiritual quest gone bad. In many ways, this story has the feel of Krakauer's Into the Wild -- a book about Christopher McCandless' naive (and ultimately fatal) pursuit of wilderness.
After years of meditation and divine pursuit, 38 year-old Ian Thorson retreats to a cave, and in the presence of his wife (who was declared a Goddess by her former husband), essentially meditates himself to death.
Death on Diamond Mountain reads a lot like one of Krakauer's investigative works; there is no shortage of effective research and reporting, yet I never felt like I was reading filler. For that, Carney's to be congratulated -- with the exception of Ian Thorson's mother, almost no one involved in Thorson's death wants to speak publicly about it.
The book winds through a narrative that often feels like fiction. The organization at the center of Thorson's death -- Diamond Mountain University -- offers up a laundry list of misconduct and suspect behavior, and while Carney never goes so far to label the organization a "cult," I'd have little hesitation labeling it as such.
Diamond Mountain's charismatic leader -- a person accepted by followers as a near god -- offers a very public front, yet the behind-the-scenes truth is very different. Allegations of financial impropriety, sexual escapades, conspiracy and ultimately a power play for control of the organization all contribute to Thorson's death.
My only real complaint is the paucity of detail about Thorson's final retreat and death, but given the reluctance of his wife and friends to discuss the tragedy, it's not surprising. (You can't help but wonder why Thorson's wife waited so long before summoning help).
Carney looks hard at the adoption of extreme Eastern spiritual practices (often in search of divine revelations), and how those practices (like extreme forms of meditation and sensory denial) can affect the brains of practitioners -- sometime to the point of death.
This is a good, deeply researched book.
Carney's a working journalist who is currently asking questions that other writers seem willing to ignore (chiefly, "Are freelance writers getting paid enough for their effort?").
This guide touches on that question, but is essentially an insider's guide to navigating the sometimes byzantine freelance world.
Thankfully, Carney assumes you can write; he doesn't embarrass himself (or us) with a lot of "How to write gooder" advice.
Instead, he focuses on the big picture concepts that are often overlooked by new writers. (You're far more likely to get assignments if you're the only writer in a news-rich area as opposed to a general assignment writer in New York.)
The online world is filled with dull, me-too articles about succeeding as a freelancer. Too many of these are written by stiffs who have only succeeded at the basement level of the industry, and their advice is typically obvious and lacks insight.
Carney avoids covering the same ground, and while his short (free!) guide is a little lacking in specifics (he does helpfully include several of his better pitch letters), the book still offers plenty of useful advice about making a living in the freelance writing universe.
I wouldn't call it a fun read, not like Mary Roach's Stiff, but it is significant. Someone has to think about where bodies and their parts come from, and how best to limit coercion. And really, as long as there is money to be made, from selling blood, from international adoption fees, from skeletons to hang in classrooms, from kidney transplants, etc., then there is the possibility of things going very badly wrong. Sunshine, says Carney, and transparency, these are the keys to having a system which functions without abuse. I'm not convinced that they will do anything much without an international effort to respect and defend human rights, but they won't hurt in the meantime.