Venturing Strange Terrain

Seasoned journalist Tom Shroder waxes hip on provocative subjects.

Tom Shroder
Photo by Aaron Spicer.

In his personal narratives, Tom Shroder sometimes comes across as an old worry wart—a self-proclaimed “geezer” who frets over mortal dangers and, sometimes, peculiar annoyances.

Yet, at the Amphora Restaurant in Vienna, where the writer is sipping a cup of hot tea to shake off the bitter cold of a winter afternoon, it’s possible to imagine him as his younger, lighter self, maybe because of his easy smile and small, slim build, or because he waxes hip on a wide range of provocative subjects.

A calm-spoken 59-year-old with a graying beard, Shroder is not the man you might have expected, especially if you’ve been reading his edgier ruminations—like the Washington Post travel piece in which he devotes the first eight paragraphs to the various perils he might encounter while kayaking in the Florida Everglades, everything from back spasms to homicidal mosquitos. Or the article about his family’s Christmas vacation in Spain, which begins with his recollections of a near-desperate desire to escape another holiday season filled with plastic reindeer and tortuous rituals, urgency suggestive of a minor mid-life crisis. (Among his treasured memories of the landscape in the Spanish town of Ronda: “Not a reindeer in sight.”) Then there are the angst-filled passages of “Old Souls,” his chronicle of children with past-life memories. The book follows Shroder’s extraordinary journey with Dr. Ian Stevenson, a University of Virginia psychiatry professor who studied the phenomenon for decades. Together they travel to the Third World in pursuit of subjects, encountering extreme road hazards and the threat of contagion. Contrasted by the aging scholar’s unflappability, Shroder’s suppressed anxieties become a humorous motif in an otherwise serious and compelling study of reincarnation.

After a nearly thirty-five year career as an author and journalist, including a decade at the Washington Post, Shroder clearly enjoys the chance to reflect on the writing life and the vital role of narrative nonfiction, a genre he has passionately embraced since his earliest days at the keyboard. He wanders comfortably between the far-flung topics he has probed in his books and articles, both those he has authored and those he has edited—among those topics, the oil industry, psychedelic drugs, even quantum physics.

Given what he calls the “visceral interest” he takes in such heady matters, it’s no wonder that Shroder recalls being a pint-size scientist starting in elementary school. His second grade teacher would cancel the weekly science pod—a hands-on lesson on some living organism like the spider or the cactus plant—on days when young Shroder was absent. As a little boy he agonized over what he’d be when he grew up. “I couldn’t decide between dinosaur scientist or space scientist,” he says with a breezy shrug.

That this budding savant of science ended up as a writer may likewise seem surprising, especially considering the rich, literary style of his prose. With a hard-hitting blend of voice, imagery and suspense, not to mention penetrating sidelights on the human condition, Shroder’s work often reads like fine fiction. And yet the science-loving brainiac is alive and well, evident in the methodical parsing and probing of some enigma—a search for truth clearly rooted in a bold rationalism.

His stories range from the comic to the tragic to the poignantly tragicomic. Some of the territory he ventures into is downright scary. Even the most lighthearted are somehow provocative. His work has the power to pierce sensibilities, maybe even reshape perspective on the universe.
Sea crashes and strange territory

Born in New York City in 1954, Shroder hails as a fourth-generation writer. His literary lineage includes his mother, who wrote a published novel. His grandfather, MacKinlay Kantor, authored a Civil War novel titled “Andersonville,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956.

As an underclassman at the University of Florida, Shroder dreamed of becoming a novelist himself. “I wanted to be able to affect people the way the best novels I had read had affected me,” he recalled in an online interview with The Ink Reader Network. A creative writing class taught by a “quirky writer” further spurred his desire, but his dream changed course in a pragmatic moment while he was studying abroad in Spain. On a mountaintop overlooking the Mediterranean, he experienced an epiphany—the result, perhaps, of a collision between left- and right-brain proclivities: “As I watched the sea crash against the cliffs, I realized that I wanted to write but I didn’t seem to actually write anything unless I had a deadline. I decided to join the student newspaper.”

Back on campus, he enlisted at the Florida Independent Alligator, unleashing a newfound passion by writing news copy beneath the hood of an old oven in a former fast food joint, a place still slick with grease. He soon rose up the ranks to become editor. At a time when news media were enjoying something of a heyday—what with the glory that came with breaking the scandals surrounding Watergate and with the advent of a new journalism that invited writers to infuse their articles with the artful techniques of literature—Shroder reflects that “it was a great time to get into journalism.”

Nevertheless, Shroder majored in cultural anthropology—not journalism (to the lasting dismay of journalism faculty at the university). But the choice of majors was not so odd, he points out, considering that the whole point of cultural anthropology is to take a foreign culture and examine it from within. Providing inside-out perspectives has always informed his craft: “The goal is to go inside a strange bit of territory and make it not so strange,” he says.

Shroder landed his first paying job as a journalist at a bureau of the Fort Myers News Press where he covered the local utilities beat probing topics like heating bills and swale enlargement. He longed to write affecting features, the kind that had captured his fancy while writing for the Gators. But the bureau chief was an alcoholic who spent workday afternoons parked at the bar next door, and his only other colleague was “this ferocious bitch” who wrote the society column. Languishing, Shroder considered a legal career, earning high scores on a law school aptitude test. But after writing an edgy story about smalltime corruption in the local police department (and scoring a few threats from an indignant police chief), he suddenly netted the interest of his paper’s editors, who gave him a seat in the newsroom. Besides news articles, he started contributing features for the paper’s Style section, stories he wrote mostly on his own time. His big break came in the form of happenstance after one of his articles wound up on the back side of a piece that had been submitted as an entry to the Gannett national awards contest. By a sheer stroke of luck, one of the judges stumbled upon Shroder’s story (about becoming a first-time father, a topic he now concedes “sounds like a tremendous cliché”). The coincidence landed the 23-year-old a prestigious award and a permanent place in the field he had first glimpsed from a romantic height.

 

Tom Shroder
Tom Shroder at his home office. His newest book “Acid Test,” a look at the psychedelic drug ecstacy and how it has been used throughout history, is out this fall. Photo by Aaron Spicer.

Pulitzers and puzzles

In the decade that followed, Shroder’s reporting experience included stints at the Tallahassee Democrat and the Cincinnati Enquirer. In 1985 he joined the Miami Herald as associate editor of Tropic, the paper’s weekly magazine. Two years later he took the editor’s helm, embarking on what would become the best-loved episode of his career, one wistfully defined by lunches on South Beach, an office that boasted a ping-pong table as its centerpiece and the chance to rack up a couple of Pulitzer Prizes.

Three days before the Tropic stopped its presses in 1998—a casualty of the rapid decline in print media that was taking hold at the time—Shroder accepted the position of Sunday Style editor at the Washington Post that would move his young family to the Vienna home where he and his wife Lisa still reside. Within a few years he would become editor of the Post Magazine, working with accomplished writers like Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten, famed humorists he had first met down in Miami.

In the nation’s capital, the wonks would transplant their flair not just for storytelling but for inventing crowd-pleasing puzzles: the Post Hunt, DC’s version of the Herald Hunt, is an annual odyssey that sends throngs of area residents through downtown streets in pursuit of clues to mind-bending riddles. Still planned and executed by Shroder and friends, the event last year attracted some 10,000 participants, some of whom walked away with big prizes.

 

Penchant for the profound

By the time he reached the Post, Shroder had grown affirmed in his conviction that human beings are genetically wired to make sense of their world through story—the reason narrative will never die, he maintains, despite ominous cultural trends suggesting otherwise.

The seasoned journalist had also acquired a penchant for the kind of story-telling that forges inroads in a reader’s consciousness, rejecting the more vapid variety: “There are two schools of narrative journalism. On one hand, people read stories on topics they’re comfortable with, stories that follow a familiar pattern and reinforce their worldview. That type bores me to tears. The other is stories people read because they’re curious, because there’s something they don’t understand.”

Ultimately, says the writer, “Good narrative helps the reader say, ‘Now I see. Now I get it.’” A powerful story also accomplishes something even more profound: “It helps people understand that as human beings, we are all connected, we’re all one consciousness.”

Humorous narrative, like the self-deprecating reminiscences that sometimes spring from Shroder’s keyboard, similarly facilitates a kind of transcendence. In a published interview with the Nieman Foundation, he notes that, “Humor comes out of our vulnerable and frightening position in a huge and uncaring universe. What humor does is turn the table on our fear.”

At the Post, Shroder helped produce provocative stories that would once again earn acclaim, including two that won a Pulitzer. One prize-winner was Weingarten‘s “Pearls Before Breakfast,” a rich, lighthearted piece that presents an experiment in human sensibility: What would happen if a world-renowned violinist (in this case, a virtuoso named Joshua Bell) set up shop as a street musician in a Washington metro station? Would the mellifluous sounds emanating from his instrument prompt the rushing masses to stop and listen? Would anyone toss spare change into his violin case?
Shroder also conceived and edited Weingarten’s award-winning “Fatal Distraction,” an altogether serious, heart-wrenching narrative that probes the rising national incidence of young children who die after being forgotten in parked cars by harried parents—and the controversy over whether that devastating error constitutes a crime.

Shroder authored his own pieces, too, including a hilarious personal narrative titled, “Murdering My Piano.” The story traces the writer’s tortured relationship with a baby grand, a fixture from his early childhood that he had reluctantly inherited as an adult. After decades of moving the tone-challenged behemoth from city to city, he resolves to get rid of it, only to discover that he can’t even give it away. The result is an obsessive fixation, suggestive again of mid-life challenges, culminating in a homicidal solution involving an ax.

 

Dog-walking and self-loathing

After accepting a buy-out from the Post in 2009 (another result of the budget ax still being wielded at print journalism), Shroder became a stay-at-home writer and the daytime custodian to a part-beagle, part-yellow lab named Sally, who sleeps at his feet while he soldiers through manuscripts. His home office was formerly the bedroom of daughter Emily, one of the Shroders’ three adult children. His wife Lisa works as editor of Bethesda Magazine, so there is plenty of editorial talk at the dinner table. Since he rises each morning at 6 a.m. and heads over to the Fairfax Racquet Club, Shroder can also boast of a not-so-geezerly tennis game.

On his website, where Shroder pitches his editorial services to fellow writers, he makes a confession: “I’m sure there are writers who don’t find writing to be a bone-crushing, nausea-inducing festival of self-loathing. I just don’t happen to be one of them …”

Editing is more tolerable than writing, he says. There’s nothing like a blank screen to torment and confound. Nonetheless, he just finished writing his fourth book, “Acid Test,” due out this fall.

Prior to his current project, he wrote “Fire on the Horizon,” a harrowing account of the 2010 Gulf oil disaster, co-authored by oil rig captain John Konrad. The book chronicles the events that led up to the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, exposing corporate corruption and what the front flap calls “engineering hubris at odds with the earth itself.” Despite positive reviews, book sales were modest, probably because interest in the tragic debacle waned once news cameras retreated from the contaminated coasts.

Shroder’s best known book—one that sold 125,000 copies and still draws interest fourteen years after its publication—is “Old Souls: Scientific Evidence for Past Lives.” Shroder begins his journey into this eerie field of paranormal psychology with skepticism but ends up, if not convinced of its legitimacy, entirely open to the possibility that souls can somehow transfer themselves from one human vessel to another after the body’s physical death. (The fact that no one can identify the mechanism of transfer is the theory’s Achilles’ heel, he notes.) Shroder’s transformation emerges as he travels through India, Lebanon and rural Virginia with Dr. Stevenson, who championed the theory of reincarnation for more than 40 years. Together the two investigate cases that are uncanny, even shocking—cases of children as young as three years old who spontaneously and persistently spout past life memories. In one typical case, a 4-year-old boy in Beirut recalls being a 25-year-old mechanic who died in a car crash several years before the boy was born. The boy cites details about the crash and startling facts about the mechanic’s personal life, all of which turned out to be accurate. In this and other cases, Shroder methodically tests the theory of reincarnation against alternative explanations—including fraud, cultural influence and the human need to believe in the soul’s survival. In nearly all cases, the alternatives come up strikingly short.

In the end Shroder comes to share in Stevenson’s longstanding lament—one that followed the doctor to his grave—that the study of reincarnation is unfairly scorned and dismissed by mainstream science. Despite strong Age of Reason sensibilities and an abiding reverence for empiricism, Shroder declares “really, science doesn’t know squat.” He expounds the limits of quantum physics, noting, “It’s the height of arrogance to think we as human beings have figured out what makes the universe tick.”

Even for readers with little interest in the soul’s capacity to reincarnate, “Old Souls” is richly rewarding for its portrait of strange terrain. Take, for instance, this snapshot of third world chaos in the Indian backcountry: “Everywhere, people, animals, cars, bicycles, and garbage coexisted in stunning profusion, as if generations of life were all trying to happen at once.” Or this: “At one point … a red hawk fell from the sky, plunging into the surging crowd to emerge with a rat, squealing, in its talons.”

Just as strange as recycled spirits is the terrain probed in Shroder’s upcoming title “Acid Test,” billed by Amazon as a “transformative look at the therapeutic powers of psychedelic drugs, particularly in the treatment of PTSD, and the past fifty years of scientific, political, and legal controversy they have ignited.”

The peculiar history of psychedelic medicine first captured Shroder’s interest more than twenty years ago, right after he stumbled upon a story in the Tampa Tribune about an activist named Rick Doblin, who was waging a vocal campaign for the use of MDMA (better known as ecstasy) as a psychotherapeutic tool. Shroder immediately recognized the name. Ten years earlier, while still a Gator, he had written a feature on Doblin, then an eccentric college dropout who was building “this fantastic house of cedar and stone” in the woods outside of Sarasota.

In 2007 Shroder wrote something of a precursor to his book, a cover story for the Post Magazine titled “Peace Drug.” The article provided startling and little-known perspectives on the use of psychedelics in the treatment of serious mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder. True to the writer’s devotion to narrative, the article wove vivid accounts of trauma patients—their agony and successful therapy experiences involving MDMA—with the story of a robust movement founded by Rick Doblin, then a Harvard Ph.D. in public policy, to promote such therapies. The story also probed the fierce debates that Doblin’s movement was unleashing.

“Acid Test” explores the subject of psychedelic drugs on an epic scale, unearthing annals stranger than fiction. Readers may be shocked to learn that when LSD was discovered in the 1940s it was hailed as a revolution in psychiatric medicine. For nearly two decades it was the most studied psychoactive drug in history, deemed useful for a wide range of psychological disorders. Then came the cultural upheaval of the ’60s. Suddenly emblematic of the nightmare scenarios in the book “Go Ask Alice”—and forces utterly antithetical to American values—LSD was quickly banished from clinical studies, its medical potential discarded. MDMA has an equally bizarre story. Shroder recounts the medical renaissance of these and other psychoactive substances through a convergence of stories, including Doblin’s and that of an Iraq war vet whose treatments with MDMA reportedly helped him confront and surmount the anguishes born of combat. Unlike many FDA-approved substances used to treat PTSD and other disorders, says Shroder, the drugs are effective after short-term use and are not addictive. The movement’s goal is to enable psychiatrists to alleviate suffering by administering the drugs in closely supervised medical settings. This is not a push, the author stresses, to legalize the substances for recreational use—a thorny matter given popular fears of the slippery slope.

Asked if he worries about potential backlash for this probe of a subject that strikes at the heart of the American conscience—“Acid Test” is clearly Shroder’s most provocative venture yet—the author shrugs. “One can only hope,” he says. Pretty bold for an old geezer.

(May 2014)

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