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Sociologist Searches Out the Soul of the Country in Hidden Corners


Michael Cuneo, Ph.D.
Photo by Michael Dames

You’ll be hard pressed to find someone with more unusual interests than Michael Cuneo, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and anthropology. Although he grew up in Canada, it’s the contradictions and quirks of America that fascinate him most. And his brand of Americana doesn’t feature apple pies, Independence Day parades or Disney World.

“I tend to be drawn to more of the funky, the offbeat, the eccentric,” he said. “Sometimes some of the more interesting and more revealing things are happening out of the mainstream.”

The pursuit of those out-of-the-way places has taken Cuneo to places that few Americans have heard of, let alone visited. To write American Exorcism, Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (Broadway Books, 2001), he sat in on 50 exorcisms conducted by Christians around the country. For his most recent book, Almost Midnight, An American Story of Murder and Redemption (St. Martins, 2004), he ventured into the Ozarks, a mountainous region in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

There, he met Darrell Mease, a man who’d been convicted of a triple homicide and sentenced to die by lethal injection, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison in January 1999 after Pope John Paul II made a personal appeal to the governor during a Papal visit to St. Louis. As if that weren’t bizarre enough, Mease had a religious awakening while on death row and began claiming that because God was his lawyer, he wouldn’t let him die. But while the book could have been merely “true crime” material, Cuneo approached it as an examination of the hillbilly subculture of the Ozarks that he says is full of paradoxes that make it unique.

“One the one hand, it’s a real outlaw culture, where historically they’ve celebrated the moonshiners and outlaws of various natures, because there’s a real mistrust of established authority and the laws and the courts,” Cuneo said. “So they’ve celebrated the outlaw. And then also, simultaneously, they’ve celebrated the preacher, the holy man. So, it’s outlaw culture on the one hand and on the other hand it is deeply steeped in spirituality.”

That aspect of American culture and religion is a common thread in his books Catholics Against The Church, (University of Toronto Press, 1989) and The Smoke of Satan (Oxford University Press, 1997), which like Almost Midnight have been reviewed in publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Review of Books, Newsday and the New Yorker. Although he found in American Exorcism that the popularity of exorcisms increased along with the rise of the quick fix, therapeutic culture, he found in Almost Midnight a culture that did not condone a triple murder but was unfazed that God would save the perpetrator from death.

“It was taken as something which was providential, that was meant to be. Which was, in a sense, a mystery that mere mortals would probably never understand,” he said. “But, nevertheless, it was a religious mystery, a spiritual mystery.”

Cuneo, who has been at Rose Hill since 1990, blames the decline of subcultures like the Ozarks on economic factors like expanding residential development and big-box stores, but also the influence of popular culture.

“We wind up consuming the same thing, consuming the same movies, the same television programs, and so as we consume the same things, we become more alike, and local options are frittered away,” he said.

So how does one get to know people who are suspicious of authority and openly hostile to outsiders? “Some of my best research is undertaken in local bars and strip clubs,” he said. “Also, conversations with the local, nonacademic historians, they’re just gems.”

He encountered a lot resistance at first, spending much time trying to convince people that he was not a federal agent. But he said that patience and relentlessness are the hallmarks of a true sociologist.

“There’s an artistry to doing ethnography, to doing fieldwork,” he said. “If you truly love that and are engaged by that, then you stick with it, and over time you will make contacts and cultivate informants and people will embrace you and you’ll find out more than you would have dreamed possible.”

Cuneo’s ability to connect with people is being put to test these days as his latest book involves an examination of the transient subcultures that ride freight trains. To reach this group, he has ridden freight cars himself, the legality and safety of which he acknowledges is questionable.

“This is fringe behavior and at the same time it is connected in so many terrific ways to the soul of the nation,” he said. “Riding freight trains for a lot of them, especially for the younger breed of train tramps, is guerilla theater. In many respects, it’s a spiritual protest because they are asserting not only their economic and cultural disaffection and independence from the broader culture, but also their spiritual disaffection.”

Cuneo actually rode an open train car once in Yuma, Ariz., when he was 19 years old, and it was this ride that inspired the title of the book, Searching for Moon.

“Contemporary freight train riders feel this real kinship, and this real spiritual identification, not only with each other, but with the history of wandering people in the United States,” he said. “This is an act of resistance precisely against the homogenized tendencies of the greater culture.”


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