Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
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Hunting for Hermits

How do you track down a bunch of hermits to interview?

I recently needed an answer to that question when an editor at The Saturday Evening Post asked me to write an article about the lives of contemporary hermits. I agreed to give it a try if my story could focus on people with spiritual motivations for finding seclusion, rather than the misanthropic aims of the Unabombers of the world. But how could I find spiritual recluses?A nineteenth-century Szechuan hermit

I began by spreading the word of my search through social media, and I also broadcast requests to two popular repositories of experts: ProfNet and HARO. Going this route led me nowhere — not surprising in retrospect — and only unearthed an assortment of pranksters and anti-social people. I heard from a man who prefers to vacation alone, for example, and a public relations and social media executive who confessed she likes working in her house better than in her office, among many other candidates badly suited for my purposes. I then turned to news databases, hoping to find hermits mentioned in articles of months or years past. The few I found proved impossible to contact.

I kept looking, although I began to wonder whether any spiritual hermits still existed. At this point I found two great resources through online searches. The first was Karen Fredette, the co-author of books on the hermit life and the manager of Raven’s Bread Hermit Ministries, an organization that supports hermits and publishes a newsletter for them. Who knew that hermits had a newsletter? A former hermit herself, she provided essential context and background, although she declined to connect me with any of her clients. Soon after, I located Sister Laurel O’Neal, a hermit in the Camaldolese Benedictine tradition. I was astonished to learn that she had set up her own hermitage in an apartment in the middle of Oakland, California, plays in a community orchestra, and blogs (prolifically).

But I needed at least one more hermit to interview, and in desperation I decided to try what initially struck me as an unlikely source of help, LinkedIn. Many writers do not know that LinkedIn — alone in its emphasis on career among the social media — offers excellent ways to search for people by occupation. Had any LinkedIn members listed themselves as hermits? A quick search led me to many people who had. Most of these, I could see, were not really hermits; they used the term sardonically. But I found a few with actual experience as hermits. 

And that’s how I tracked down Roger Cunningham, a former hermit in the Buddhist tradition who listed his email address in his LinkedIn profile. I sent him a message and was soon interviewing him, his voice faint on the phone as he explained eremitical living to me from aboard his sailboat off the Florida Keys. The addition of his experiences made the article complete.

I had naively assumed that contemporary hermits would want to avoid technological connectedness. But the hermits I ended up quoting in my article — a blogger, the creator of an online clearinghouse of information for hermits, and a user of social media — showed that seclusion is not necessarily anti-technological, which became a point of my article. Hermits could live next door to us, digitally or in physical fact.

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