Who is Miranda Lamden? As the main character in C. L. Francisco’s new gothic mystery-thriller series, she deserves an introduction. If you were to come across her on campus at Obadiah Durham College, she’d resemble many other 30-something university women–tall and athletic, with a flyaway tangle of long dark hair, and an apparent preference for denim and comfortable shoes. Large eyes, prominent cheek- and jawbones, and a wide flexible mouth lend her a striking appearance, but not conventional beauty.
When Miranda isn’t teaching religion and philosophy to college students from the backwoods hollers of Kentucky where coal once ruled, she’s out gathering material for scholarly books on folklore and obscure religious practices. This Madness of the Heart opens in the midst of a worship service in one of Appalachia’s remaining snake-handling churches, where Miranda is struggling with a momentary lapse in concentration.
Miranda normally keeps her balance in situations like this with techniques developed by the discipline of phenomenology. Depending on whom you talk to, phenomenology is a philosophy, a psychological theory, a research technique, or a combination of all three. Very simply speaking, it has one core idea: human perception of phenomena in the world (how we experience life) is subjective and finally knowable only by the one who is experiencing it. Out of this basic conviction comes the idea of the researcher as participant observer. This is someone who does his or her best to leave behind all personal prejudices, the many invisible lenses that make up a person’s worldview—to bracket them, shut them away into a closed compartment of the mind. When this is done successfully, the observer is free to merge into the mindset of the people being studied, taking on their responses and perceptions without judging them by his or her own standards. Questions of truth do not arise, nor does “truth” have a place in a phenomenologist’s working vocabulary.
The training required before anyone can claim to be a participant observer is intense. It’s not so much a question of learning objectivity, but of simultaneously observing whatever exists to be seen, along with mastering the skill of taking on the intellectual/emotional/spiritual mindset of the culture being studied. Such research requires lengthy periods of trust-building and on-site experience in understanding how an unfamiliar people think and feel.
In the first chapter of Madness, Miranda lets her mind wander, and relaxes her bracketed self. She has become comfortable enough with her hosts (and sufficiently tired) that she forgets to approach their worship as a disciplined participant observer. She becomes vulnerable to her personal fear of snakes–an almost unforgivable error, considering her years of phenomenological study and her many published books on the spiritual experience of cultures around the world.
When Madness opens, Miranda is gathering material for a new book on Appalachian folklore and superstition.
As a female professor in a small private college in the patriarchal backcountry of southern Appalachia, Miranda walks a fine line between her feminist principles and the gender roles expected of her by her neighbors. But apart from her own skills at protective coloration, Miranda hails from a conservative Virginia family. She knows the social drills, and where the Rubicon’s crossings lie–valuable know-how when it comes to informal PR for her relationship with artist Jack Crispen. She faces an even more delicate balancing act with her own obvious spiritual gifts and the closed-mindedness of most of her friends and colleagues. Her personal beliefs (when she admits to them) tend toward what she calls panentheism–not pantheism, or belief in many gods–but belief in the presence of deity in all of the created universe.