Father, son, and an unholy war

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Article Spirituality

Imagine being a supporter of the Vietnam antiwar movement and the son of a lieutenant general who is the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Imagine your mental and spiritual development placing you in total opposition with the person you admire most. Imagine a faith that helps you through all of this. James Carroll, a best-selling author, does not have to imagine these things: he has lived them.

Once a Paulist priest, Carroll is now a husband, father, and op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, and author of nine novels. In his memoir An American Requiem (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), which won the National Book Award, Carroll shares how family, country, and church influenced his relationship with his father.

In an interview with Peter Gilmour, Carroll discusses his own memoir, the value of narrative, and the power of memory. 

How do you account for the great number of memoirs making their appearance today?
There are, I believe, two reasons, one good, one bad. The good reason is that the experience of our own lives is rich material for reflection, imagination, and coming to terms with experience. It's appealing both to the writer and to the reader. There is something wonderful about knowing things happened.

The bad part is that we as a people are losing our sense of imaginative truth that is available to us through what didn't happen. Publishers find it easier to promote memoirs because of the way books are marketed in this country. Interviewers and talk show hosts find it easier to talk about real life experiences as opposed to entering into the imagined world of the novelist they have never been in before.

We would be an impoverished people if we surrendered our commitment to the imagined form of art. For example, if all we knew of the Holocaust was through the work of memoirists, we would only know one part of it. It's not for nothing that Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel comes to us first as a novelist, even though we know he is drawing very much on his own personal history. It's his identity as a novelist that is powerful to us because when he plumbs his imagination, we know that is how he has access to what these Holocaust experiences felt like and what it meant at the most basic level.

Works of fiction are precious and crucial. The fact that the publishing industry is losing its grip on the publishing of fiction is cause for alarm for me. We have surrendered the narrative form of imaginative storytelling for a too banal form of television which too often represents the least common denominator of storytelling.

What led you to write this specific memoir?
My father died in 1991; my mother died in 1993. As an act of grief and coming to terms with the loss of my parents, it was time. My children were also coming of age, and they knew their grandfather only as the senile old man he had become in his final years of life because of Alzheimer's disease and stroke-related dementia.

I wanted my children to know the power of my father's story and the power of my conflict with him. I wanted my children to understand where I was coming from.

The memoir form was, therefore, inevitable for me. The book's subtitle, "God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us," touches on the three main aspects of this story-personal, political, and religious.

It's personal to my family. It's political in that it centers on the war in Vietnam. And it's a work of theology.

What unites these three aspects of the memoir is the basic story form. My father is the central character. My brothers, my mother, and I, of course, are spokes on the wheel around the central figure of my dad.

Who was your father?
His story is an unusual and powerful one. My dad, born in Chicago, was a seminarian there for several years. He leaves the seminary before ordination, becomes a lawyer, joins the FBI, and arrests a notorious Chicago gangster, Roger Touhy.

This event captures the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who brings my father to Washington, D.C. There he begins an amazing career, eventually finding himself Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the early '60s, the top of the pyramid of American military intelligence.

How did the '60s shape your own life and your relationship with your father?
I was gradually and almost against my will pulled into the antiwar movement. Even though I remained a marginal part of that movement, it is a central part of my own personal identity. The antiwar movement came just at the time my father was at the pinnacle of his own power. But, ultimately, it was our religious values that conflicted.

Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was a personal, political, and religious figure for me. I, like many other Americans, found myself transfixed by his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial demonstration in 1963.

Already at the age of 20 I had spent a lot of years listening to sermons in Catholic parishes. I never heard the Word of God preached like that. Martin Luther King gave me a whole new idea of what preaching the Word of God was about. His obvious commitment to the scripture itself and his ability to connect it to the lives of the people who were listening to him was unique.

That speech was both a judgment and a source of hope and redemption. White Americans found themselves addressed in that speech, not just by having a finger pointed at them, but also by having someone offering a way out of the dilemma and their denial of racism.

King himself is an absolutely transforming figure for me. I found myself moving closer and closer into the circle of people who devoted themselves to him.

Your father didn't share your enthusiasm for King, I take it.
My father was appalled by Martin Luther King. He saw him as a communist, a degenerate, and a revolutionary. I agreed with my father only that King was a revolutionary as evidenced by many events-Selma, the Nobel Peace Prize, his meeting with Pope Paul VI. King helped redefine ministry itself.

I remember calling my parents when he was assassinated. Washington, D.C. was aflame and my dad said, "See." Of course, he meant, "See, I was right about Martin Luther King." But I took it to mean, "See the difference between us," and by that time I knew the difference.

Just as Martin Luther King spoke eloquently about faith and life, how do you understand the relationship of words, the Word, and faith?
They are so tied together. Our faith is the faith of the Word. The central statement we make about God is that he comes to us through the Word and words. If we want God to be present to us, we tell the story.

Faith, for Catholics, is a work of literature. The Eucharist is a work of literature. We reiterate this absolutely honed narrative; it has thediscipline of a poem. It's not just that we are moved by it; we are forgiven by it. And it's not just that something happens to us, something happens to God because of it!

Because, our faith is a work of literature, it follows that we have absolute respect for all forms of secular expression. We understand the importance of reading, storytelling, and recognizing each other in this way. This is the basic way in which human beings are in community with each other.

It's bigger than Christianity, bigger than theism. It belongs to all human beings. It's a good example why we should relax about who's in and who's out, who's saved and who's damned, who's practicing and who's lapsed. These questions have little to do with what God is telling us about himself in coming to us as the Word. Every person who has the capacity to give expression to feeling is in communion with God, and that's every human being.

You have strong words about the American Catholic Church's support of the war. You write, "I knew that if, in that season, B-52s had been dropping condoms on the hills and valleys of Vietnam, Cardinal Cooke and Washington's Cardinal O'Boyle and all the other 'ordinaries' would by now have solemnly condemned the war as intrinsically immoral, forbidding Catholic participation. But instead, they called it justified because the B-52s were only dropping napalm."
It's a powerful image and a sad one because we all recognize the truth of it. Even today if the American military establishment were devoted to family planning and population control instead of destruction, there would be a much larger question asked about its purpose.

The church's obsession about matters of sexual morality is rooted in a correct impulse, which is, that the whole person is to be taken seriously and sexual choices are choices made with the whole self. Still, the way the church isolates the sexual experience from everything else and makes it a source of absolute pronouncements is a terrible foible.

The late Paul Monette, himself a writer of powerful memoirs, once said that every memoir is a kind of manifesto. Is An American Requiem a manifesto of sorts?
There is a clear position I come to at this point in my life and it goes back to the three elements I've already mentioned: the personal, political, and religious. The personal story is resolved when I admit the difference between my dad and myself. I don't believe in war, and I don't believe in victory as a goal.

If there is a manifesto quality to this story it's that we need victory over the need to be victorious. War, inevitably, always ends tragically. This is not an abstraction. I have come to this position through the bones of my own life's struggles as a general's son. But I do see it differently than my father did.

Doesn't your novel Memorial Bridge tell a similar story through fiction?
Memorial Bridge (Ivy Books, 1995) is a story about an FBI agent who becomes a general. His son is a draft resister. His father defends his draft-resister son in court. It's the story of my brother.

The experience of writing that novel prepared me to write this memoir that included my own part of the story. The truth is that I was afraid of my own part of the story. As heartbreaking as the war was, it wasn't enough to break our relationship. The sad truth is that only the church could do that.

It was the difference between us about the meaning of Christ's coming into the world that broke our relationship. My decision to leave the priesthood did that.

My brother, who opposed the war, was able to stay with my father as a treasured son. I could not do this because my father and I carried this intense experience of the church like no other members of my family did.

What characterizes memoir as storytelling?
Memory itself is a function of the imagination. We remember our lives not as a video playback, but we are drawing up from the past what has meaning for us. People remember the same events differently.

Memoir is not autobiography. I'm telling a piece of my life story centered around a certain theme, a certain key experience. The only way that my story has meaning for anyone is if I can render it subjectively. Otherwise, you might as well read Best and the Brightest (Fawcett, 1993) by David Halberstam or one of the other great works of history about Vietnam.

The point of my memoir is its subjectivity. It's not the only thing to read about Vietnam or the Catholic Church in those years, but if it has value, its subjectivity is its value. The questions memoir answers are: What did it feel like? and What does it mean to have gone through these experiences? This is what subjective narrative exists to tell us.

What advice would you give to people considering writing their own memoirs?
Wait until the right moment. Don't worry about chronology. Worry about the central theme, the feeling. Tell one small piece of your autobiography. Explore the ramifications around it. There are always personal, political, and religious ramifications to everyone's stories.

What memoirs have been influential in your own life?
Peter Davison's memoir, Half Remembered (Story Line, 1991). It, too, is about father and son. Several of May Sarton's books she wrote in her late years impress me. And theologian Hans Kung's Credo (Doubleday, 1993) is a marvelous record of what he believes. I think we measure this genre by Frank Conroy's masterpiece Stop Time (Viking Penguin, 1977). Donald Hall's Life Work (Beacon Press, 1994) is yet another impressive memoir.

What kind of books do you envision writing in the future?
Who knows, years down the road, whether some day I will bring this story of my relationship to my parents full circle and write about my own relationship with my children.

Right now I'm working on a nonfiction book about what my religious faith means. It comes out of the experience of the memoir. As I tried to put into words where all this leaves me as a believing person, I realized I'm not finished with that. While I am deeply Catholic, I am not Catholic in any way that I read about. I think many Catholics have that experience. And I'd like to write something these new kinds of Catholics could recognize themselves in.