A Sceptic's Search for Meaning by Mike Willesee

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Having read this book I have to say that I do not understand what Mike Willesee meant by a ‘search for meaning’. What does ‘meaning’ refer to? I have to assume he meant ‘a search for God’. Many, who don’t believe in God, find meaning in a fat wallet, or the power of seniority over people ranked below them. I have difficulty with the word ‘sceptic’ in Willesee’s case as at the beginning of the book at least, he rejects God completely. To me, given the Catholic attitude as played out in headmaster Brother Murphy or in the Bindoon Brother’s evil as Willesee describes it in his A Current Affair journalese, I would have agreed with him. “Religion was just another scam. There was no God” (36). The words are Mike Willesee’s.

These are minor reservations. Fortunately, they are largely irrelevant to a reviewer’s task. However, of more relevance for the popularity of this book is the way readers might view the author and the professional reputation he bore. A presenter of nightly current affairs programs that emphasize aggression, that delight in putting so-called but unjudged offenders in embarrassing positions, are not front-line contenders for impartial research. Yet as an investigative journalist – whatever that might mean – Willesee had the experience to at least know people who do have the qualifications his research required. Taking the book on its merits has to be the way forward, but the reservations have to be acknowledged.

Willesee has not made liking him at all easy. He wrote that “everything just seemed to go right for me” (27). In his book work-related events were going well but he had divorced having fathered one child and had then remarried and produced another child with more on the way. On another occasion he provides a throwaway line in his “after all, I was Australia’s most famous sceptic” (42). There was an Australian Sceptics’ Society that might have taken exception to such a boast. Reflecting on the general public’s apparent interest in his life, “I couldn’t help thinking they were stupid questions. It was all in the past. Gone. Whatever I’d achieved hadn’t amounted to much. Everything was so ephemeral. I was bored talking about it” (45). Not quite the same message as he was telling earlier in the book.

Apart from other stories which don’t advance the ‘search for meaning’ all that much, there is a long, long section that deals with the claims of a Bolivian woman called Katya. We hear the tribulations of Katya as a young woman, but don’t mind too much as she quickly comes across as a generous-minded soul to whom wondrous things appear to have happened. She is easily readable and a firm believer. The word ‘genuine’ comes to mind when Katya appears.

Willesee alludes to an apparent mistake made by Jesus in referring to the date of the Feast of the Rosary. In Katya’s journal there appears an entry in which Jesus angrily chides Ricardo (one of Willesee’s helpers) for questioning his veracity: IT DOES NOT PLEASE ME FOR YOU TO QUESTION MY MESSAGES (132). Such an angry response brings my mind back to Brother Murphy from Willesee’s youth. It strikes a jarring note in the narrative.

The investigation into Katya’s story was exceptionally thorough. Such thoroughness is normal with a scientific experiment. But one might reasonably expect some degree of sensitivity when dealing with ‘subjects’ of an investigation. When the old woman began showing the signs known as stigmata, Willesee set about collecting blood samples in the hope that he might actually be collecting the blood of Jesus and not that of Katya. He was quite pleased to be telling his audience that he had collected the blood samples himself, “I continued taking swabs, as she made noises of obvious distress” (167). Surely the mark of an ‘investigative journalist’, not that of a dedicated researcher.

Willesee’s telecast demonstrated a rock-solid faith on the part of Katya. She made it quite clear that Jesus was standing immediately behind Willesee while he was conducting an interview and gave her information to pass on to him. Having reported to the world on these matters, Willesee made the following extraordinary statement:

But while I might have given viewers the impression that I’d swallowed the whole enchilada. I hadn’t. I still did not consider myself a believer. I’d seen some amazing things, things that I could find no explanation for except the existence of some external, unknowable force, but seeing such things did not convert me (184 – 85).

This is Willesee, the television presenter, conscious of his reputation as a tough investigator, a man who cannot be fooled by any confidence trick. Most would be asking for the grounds on which he made his decision not to believe. Many readers would be asking why he knew he still had so much to do. Willesee is silent in the face of these questions.

The book goes on to other examinations and analyses but the real heart of the book is Katya. What conclusions are to be drawn from Katya’s story are for individuals to determine. Willesee’s book is certainly a conversation starter for those who make it through to the end.

A Sceptic’s Search for Meaning

(2019)

By Mike Willesee

Macmillan

ISBN: 978-1-76055-675-4

$34.99; 288pp

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