[Mad Creek Books; February 2021]
In 1633, the Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo was tried and condemned to indefinite imprisonment by the Roman Catholic Inquisition for his support of heliocentrism — the astronomical model that the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System. This affair, along with others associated with the scientific revolution and Age of Enlightenment of the early 17th century, led scholars to postulate a conflict thesis between religion and science that has since solidified into our modern beliefs. Today, we see this conflict playing out in the tension between evolution and creationism and the disregard for scientific evidence on climate change.
Raised by an agnostic mother and atheist father, I have always perceived science as the razor-sharp, concrete “fact” that cuts through the fluffy idealism of religion, mysticism and spiritualism — all of which are arguably airy, intangible, ethereal. Science was something I could hold in my hands and feel the sturdiness, the weight of its truth, while religion and spiritualism felt flighty, slipping through my fingers like sand or water.
But what if religion, by which I also mean mysticism and spiritualism, can find a basis, a grounding in physics? Or, conversely, what if science is more porous and ethereal than we ever imagined? What if, as Susan Paola Antonetta points out in her book, The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here, Einstein’s theories of relativity and the principle of quantum superposition, can prove the hidden and bendable worlds of spiritualists, such as that of Mary Baker Eddy and Andrew Jackson Davis?
In The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here, Antonetta questions the very nature of our being. Does time exist? What is consciousness? Do infinite versions of ourselves live in infinite other universes? What does it mean to have a physical body? What is paradise? What is real? What is life and what is death? In this way, the book is meant for anyone who, in Antonetta’s words, feels the need to “scratch life and make it bleed a little and know you’re here.” Antonetta asks the same questions that many of us ask ourselves when spiraling into an existential crisis. Questions that we often try to ignore, to sweep under the rug in order to keep up with our fast-paced, often detached, lifestyles. Questions that usually only appear in the darkness of night, in our isolation. Questions that we are often too afraid to confront. Antonetta though, comes at these questions fearlessly, with a lifetime of thoughtful reflection and with years of research, providing them the necessary space for exploration.
The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here is a complex interweaving of scientific research, history, family story, memoir and travelogue that centers around the author’s grandmother, May Boxill. May was born in 1895, growing up on the west coast of England and immigrating to the United States in her twenties during the spiritualist movement, which Antonetta writes, saw thousands of churches and groups whose focus was on communicating with what was called ‘the beyond.’ One of these churches was that of Christian Science, which resonated with May Boxill. Founded by Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science teaches that the body has no presence and is just an emanation of the mind. Antonetta writes that with work, the body can free itself from its doomed love affair with a belief in its own existence. Christian Science argues that sin, disease, and even death are elaborate illusions that come from a lack of faith or knowledge in God. “Healing is done by prayer designed to realign the patient with the true nature of reality,” Antonetta writes.
May Boxill also believed in the existence of the “Summerland,” the coastal paradise approach to the afterlife put forward by the nineteenth-century American spiritualist, Andrew Jackson Davis. “The Summer Land isn’t quite material and isn’t quite immaterial,” Antonetta writes. “People exist in bodies, but those bodies are luminous, ‘flaming emanations’ coming from the tips of the fingers.” Davis wrote that the Summerland is built of “800 million tons of atomic emanations that rise each year from human bodies to become the physical realities—plants and rooms and water—in the Summer Land.”
Using the two bungalows that her husband built for her on Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, May recreated the Summer Land for her family. Antonetta writes in precise detail of the childhood summers spent at that cottage on the shore — the blue-claw crabs, the field of cattails next to the estuary, the buckling linoleum in the kitchen where they drank Lipton tea and ate BLTs, and the bioluminescent bacteria in the water that she and her cousin trailed their fingers through at night. This poetic language makes the later destruction of the Summer Land, by hurricane Sandy, all the more poignant: “The surge filled the house four feet up, ripping apart the furniture and floor but leaving even little papers, grocery lists and calendar pages, intact above.”
The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here is separated into five parts, each consisting of multiple micro-essays, mimicking the makeup of quantum particles — always dividing into smaller and smaller pieces. Of these essays, I found those that described the vibrancy, beliefs and contradictions of the grandmother, May, to be the most compelling. May believed she had no physical body, yet she enjoyed the glory of swimming nude at the seaside cottage. “Her denial of the body, her worship of it, seemed struck from the same bell,” Antonetta writes.
Through fragments sprinkled throughout the entire text, we learn about Antonetta’s eccentric and remarkable grandmother, May. Antonetta writes that she’s “never known anyone who so fully inhabited her own life.” Despite her Christian Science beliefs, May chain-smoked cigarettes, drank wine, held seances and communicated with Simon, the spirit she contracted on a small, circular table at their house on the shore. “May believed she could control and change the world with her mind,” Antonetta writes. May did not believe in death, but she could never articulate what she thought happened in its place. May was neglectful of her children, preferring to travel solo: she once stayed in a brothel in Amsterdam and she trekked through Kenya alone at age 78. Antonetta writes that May “loved the version of herself she could be without ties, those ordinarinesses that yoke us: children, a person you live with whose paycheck gives you the money to survive, a living space, some set of rooms.” Antonetta imagines her grandmother traveling without her wedding ring and reinventing herself with each change. “She made her own world.”
Antonetta writes that she loved her grandmother in a “charmed and hopeless way.” Her grandmother “swam, lazy circles, and floated” and “didn’t care who the hell loved her.” But for some reason, May confided in her granddaughter, sharing her beliefs in the nonexistence of bodies and the Summerland. Antonetta “spiraled around” her grandmother when she talked about God and Mind and Jesus the Scientist. Antonetta loved the things May said but they also made her uneasy. She couldn’t make literal or emotional sense of her musings. “I loved her code, but I couldn’t crack it,” Antonetta writes. This book seems to be her attempt to crack the code, or at least to unpack the code, and perhaps support the code.
A strength of this book is Antonetta’s confident, unblinking and direct voice. She unflinchingly admits, right off the bat, that she entertains her grandmother’s beliefs: “Unlike other members of the family, who reacted to her with a bit-off skepticism, I did and do rule out nothing.” This unabashed attitude is admirable and aligns the reader with her thought process, guiding us through Antonetta’s lines of rational questioning. Antonetta believes but also disbelieves. She writes that May’s beliefs keep looping back to her and seeming true, “or closer to true than most people get, in spite of the fact that they’re false.”
At times though, Antonetta’s connections between her grandmother’s beliefs and metaphysical tenants felt thin and weak or even nonexistent, which was due to the discontinuity and dissonance between sections. Antonetta would refer to a complex physics term, such as constructor theory, which she only previously mentioned once, maybe fifty pages ago, and there’s an expectation for the reader to remember it. I kept hoping that the memoir sections would include more direct references to, and explanations of, the metaphysical concepts that appeared in a dense chunk in Part II of the book, titled “Interrogations: Hard Problems and Harder Problems.” I think the book would have benefitted from having Part II interspersed more evenly throughout the text allowing the reader to understand the parallels between metaphysics and spiritualism that seem so obvious to Antonetta.
When the connections between metaphysics and spiritualism did work, though, it was intriguing and fascinating. Antonetta points to the fact that atoms are vastly empty as a possible explanation for May’s disbelief in the physical body. “If you wanted to compress yourself into just mass, you’d be a speck of dust,” she writes. And she explains how quanta exist in superposition, meaning that quanta particles behave as “unruly possibilities” and cannot be said to exist in any definable way unless they’re detected. Basically, a quantum, which is a discrete quantity of energy, can exist in two places at once, that is unless it interacts with another quanta, or it is observed. Antonetta extrapolates this finding to make an interesting observation: “You could call a family a quantum system, coming to be and popping out through interaction, like quantum particles, never quite in a fixed state unless banging into one another.” In this way, the entire book could be read as Antonetta’s attempt to bring her deceased mother and grandmother back into existence: “My observations may cause them in some way to exist.”
The overall and direct tone and style of the book, however, is also a weakness. In an early essay titled “Stakes,” Antonetta lists 23 theories and events that define and defend her position, such as the fact that time bends, the fact that physicist John Wheeler believes awareness changes the past and the present, and the fact that her grandmother preceded John Wheeler. I found this section overwhelmingly and unnecessarily dense — she rushes through these concepts so fast, I barely had time to catch my breath, which made me question who is the intended audience for this book. The book is labeled as “21st Century Essays,” which made me think that this book was not written for experts in metaphysics, and instead, I assumed it was meant for the general literary audience; so I picked it up thinking that I could learn about metaphysics through the more accessible form of the essay. That’s not exactly what I got though. The book is written with an expectation of the reader to possess a general understanding of physics, but I did not, as a result of which, the first reading was almost unintelligible for me. I was intimidated by the way Antonetta brought in words like dark matter, quantum reality, and antimatter, without explaining these concepts or waiting until later in the text to provide full explanations. After the first read, I watched YouTube videos and listened to three popular books about physics. Then, I read the book again. Better. Much better. But still not as illuminating as I had hoped for.
Maybe it’s not a bad thing to expect a lot from your reader, as Antonetta does, and maybe we, the readers, should rise to the challenge; but I also think it’s a lost opportunity to bypass the basics. Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation is similar to The Terrible Unlikelihood in that it weaves history, scientific research, literary criticism and memoir to create an investigative tapestry into a topic. Biss investigates immunity and inoculation but doesn’t presuppose the reader to have an understanding of these concepts. In fact, Biss starts off by providing necessary background information — conversations with friends, New Yorker articles, detailed explanations and myths — that prepares the reader for the more rigorous scientific debates to come. This baseline and methodical approach strengthened the book because she didn’t take the basics for granted; she hesitated and interrogated every aspect, from the ground up, which is what made her work so rich and fascinating. Conversely, Antonetta started in the thick of things, flitting between interviews with physicists and complex concepts, instead of gradually ascending, which resulted in a choppy structure.
The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here is very dense, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, I think the book possibly bit off more than it could chew. There is so much additional content in this book that I didn’t mention — Antonetta’s drug addiction and electroshock therapy, her trip to Sedona to communicate with her grandmother through a medium, May’s experiences as a nurse in World War I, the child murderer in Antonetta’s childhood neighborhood, the interrogations of consciousness, constructor theory, etc. Some of these topics were expressed beautifully in essays, or prose-like poems, that seemed to exist as their own entity that could be published separately from the book, such as “Wendy,” which explored the brutal death of a girl in Antonetta’s neighborhood. But other essays and topics felt half-baked and, at times, this book read as an unpolished manuscript, full of ideas intended to be pulled out and developed elsewhere in other forms.
In its non-chronological, non-cohesive micro-essay structure, The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here is like the image that physicist Julian Barbour put forward in an interview with Antonetta: “Time has no reality—there are just an endless series of Nows that exist like Polaroids laid out on a table, all together.” This is exactly how Antonetta’s book reads — the snapshots of each micro-essay serve as one “now,” and the fact that all of these “nows” are not organized chronologically or cohesively perhaps suggests that each “now,” each moment, exists on its own, in its entirety, like a polaroid. But then again, Antonetta does build on ideas presented in earlier sections, which suggests that time is still moving forward somehow, through change and the increase of entropy — the increasing chaos and uncertainty that always comes with learning and discovering more and more.
This Polaroid structure has its strengths and its weaknesses. Its strengths, as I mentioned, are the ways in which it reflects the content of the book and the fragmented, undecipherable nature of time; but conversely, it also creates a book that is not entirely cohesive. A book that seems less like a focused investigation of one topic, and more like a collection of prose poems or micro-essays.
Then again, what is life if not a series of discordant snapshots that may or may not line up to create a cohesive narrative?
Jacqueline Knirnschild is a writer and educator currently living in Brunswick, Ohio. Her work has been published in Product Magazine, Number: Inc, Burnaway, The Cleveland Review of Books and The Key Reporter. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Mississippi.