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The Story of My Life

James Carroll talks about his memoir, An American Requiem, winner of the 1996 National Book Award for non fiction.

April 24, 1997

My father was dead. A fallible man. A noble man. I loved him. And because I was so much like him, though appearing not to be, I had broken his heart. And the final truth was, he had broken mine. -- An American Requiem
reqcvr picture James Carroll's memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us -- which won the 1996 National Book Award for non-fiction and has recently been released in paperback -- documents the events of Carroll's life during the period between the first mass he celebrated as a priest in 1969 to the death of his father in 1991. "All my stories are about people falling short," Carroll explains. "An American Requiem is the story of my life."

Carroll was born in 1943, the son of a United States Air Force general. He spent his youth in Washington D.C. -- in the shadows cast by several of this country's historic monuments and crises -- before entering a Paulist seminary in 1963. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1969, but six years later, after devoting much of his ministry to the anti-war movement, Carroll left the priesthood to pursue a full-time writing career.

"An American Requiem," from the April, 1996, Atlantic

* * *

Other excerpts from An American Requiem

  • "Elvis Disappears"
  • "The Leap of Faith"
  • "A Defender of Justice"

    * * *

    An excerpt from The City Below, a novel by James Carroll

  • from Chapter Three

    * * *

    Essays by James Carroll

  • "The Cardinal of Repression," from the July, 1992, Atlantic
  • "God's Patriots," from the December, 1993, Atlantic

    * * *

    An Essay on James Carroll

  • "The FBI and Leo Tolstoy" by Martin Green, from the July, 1994, Atlantic

  • In 1976 Carroll published his first novel, Madonna Red, which has subsequently been translated into seven languages. Since then he has published eight additional novels -- most notably Mortal Friends (1978), Prince of Peace (1984), Memorial Bridge (1991), and The City Below (1994). His essays and reviews have not only appeared in The Atlantic Monthly but also in such publications as The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. In addition, since 1992, Carroll also has written a regular op-ed column for The Boston Globe. About his mission as a writer he says: "I try to find a voice that combines the personal and the political. This continues to be a central part of my life's work." Carroll currently lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall, and their two children.

    Carroll spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's David Watta.

    carphot picture You are known primarily for your semi-autobiographical novels -- which seem to employ only a thin veil of disguise -- but An American Requiem is a memoir. Is the distinction between memoir and novel a blurry one for you? How hard is it to remove the scrim that separates the two?

    For me there exists a clear distinction between the two genres. Fiction grants the writer license to invent, to respond to the requirements of narrative itself. Non-fiction, on the other hand, binds one to the story as it actually happened.

    While I was working on An American Requiem it never occurred to me that I was writing in the genre of memoir -- I was simply utilizing the voice I had discovered through my newspaper columns. The book is a personal story, and in that sense it's a memoir, but it's also a reflection on the political and religious experiences of my life. My main commitment in telling the story was to be as direct and truthful as possible. I not only worked as hard as I could to get the story down the way it happened but I also asked the people involved, including my brothers, to read what I had written and to check their memories against mine. So in one sense An American Requiem is a memoir but at the same time it is a work of research. The story I've told belongs to my brothers almost as much as it does to me, and that's why I felt obliged to share it with them before it was published. Though I never said it aloud, I had resolved inwardly that if any of them objected I wasn't going to publish the book. As it happened they were grateful to have the story told.

    I am aware, however, of certain moments in An American Requiem that seem quite fantastic. The turn in my father's life, for example, from being an FBI agent who hunted draft dodgers in the late 1930s and early 1940s to becoming the father of a draft dodger -- well, that's the kind of coincidence one expects from novels.

    An American Requiem continuously circles back upon itself instead of proceeding chronologically, particularly in the arcs of your and your father's clerical lives. How did you decide on the theme-and-variation structure of this book?

    Although I said a minute ago that I see a clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction, it's also true that in An American Requiem I make use of the techniques I have learned as a fiction writer. The book doesn't follow a straight chronological line, as a traditional history or biography would; instead it follows emotional and thematic lines. Each section is built around a central image -- which is what makes it a work of the imagination. For instance, the section about my youthful religious awareness is built around the image of the pope. Of course there are two popes representing the polarities of that experience: Pius XII and John XXIII. I found that by the time I had moved through the various segments of the book (Catholicism, Vietnam, Civil Rights), I had moved from one image to another, but always within the brackets of the dominant image of the Mass -- from my first mass as a priest to my father's requiem.

    As for the emotional arc, An American Requiem is a typical human story. There are lots of particularities that make it different from other people's stories, but basically it's the story of a father and a son -- a man who raised his son to be like him and a son who was so much like his father that the son had to reject almost everything the father believed in. The emotional notes associated with such an experience include anger, defiance, chaotic personal questioning, and, finally, a deep and essentially unfinished grief. We're taught that the stages of grief are supposed to bring us to a final point of acceptance, but it's clear to any reader of this book that I haven't quite finished grieving. Furthermore, I think unfinished grief describes the way many people of my generation feel about their lifetimes, from wildly promising youthfulness to a certain kind of resignation. The overriding note of An American Requiem is of sadness. Reviewers have made this clear to me.

    In many respects An American Requiem is a book about the loss of faith -- faith in self, in family, and in country. Nevertheless, you write, "the very act of storytelling, of arranging memory and invention according to the structure of narrative, is by definition holy." In writing this book have you been able to restore a sense of faith in yourself? How does your faith inform your life today?

    I discovered in writing An American Requiem that what had originally felt like the loss of faith was in reality -- at a much more important level -- the claiming of faith. I'm still a deeply committed Christian and Catholic, and it was exactly because I lost my faith in the old idea of the Church that I was able to embrace a new notion of the Church, rooted in the gathering of believers who pass on the story of Jesus and the stories of biblical faith. Every journey of authentic faith involves a stripping away of idols. In my case, these idols were not only religious but also patriotic. I had to lose faith in a certain way of being American in order to become a more deeply committed American.

    Both you and your father are what you label spoiled priests -- he having left God waiting at the altar just before his ordination while you abandoned your calling after a six-year marriage to the priesthood. You write, "In recalling the power of that first ideal in which virtue was not the opposite of masculinity but the essence of it, I recognize that the man I still long to be is the one I first thought my father was." What do you see as the basic differences and similarities between the two of you?

    The single largest difference between me and my father is that I became a writer and storyteller whereas he never did. I make sense of the experience we shared by telling the story of it, and there's something quite redemptive about that process. It enables me to accept the past of my own life, but also to see more clearly the powerful integrity of my father's. Telling his story changed its meaning for me. It is through storytelling that I have discovered that the perceptions of my youth were far too narrow and unforgiving. Not only my perceptions about him but also perceptions about myself. I'm much less hard on the two of us now. Dad was a man of silence and secrets -- even professionally, as an intelligence officer. He responded to intense emotion by bottling it up. He told no stories. I, on the other hand, received the gift of expression, a gift from the Paulist Fathers at the Seminary, from my teachers, my editors, and ultimately from readers who enable me to live as a writer. I am talking, literally, about a gift -- not something I deserve any particular credit for.

    I would love to be compared to my father for personal integrity and truth telling; those were his strongest traits. But I would also hope that I can temper such a commitment with the tenderness and large-heartedness that eluded him. It's partly a generational difference -- the generation of the Second World War was a group of men and women who had to spend most of their lives in ferocious conflict against the deprivations of the Depression, against the powers of Nazism and fascism, against the nuclear arms of Stalinism -- and that sequence of threats really took up their energy, their lives. The world is in relatively good shape today because those people found a way to succeed in what they had to do, and I think people of my generation are insufficiently appreciative. Our parents paid a price for what history required of them, and as their children so did we. As young people, we rejected their world view but in our maturity perhaps we now can see more fully that if world peace remains a possibility, it's because we can build on what they did. Of course, that means first we must dismantle the war machine they constructed as protection, but which corporate America preserves as a profit center.

    Early on you sum up the Vietnam War as a personal "lesson in mortality" through which you learned a deeper truth: "And now I know, as privileged twenty-six-year-old American men never do, that my bones too will be scorched, and the breath will leave my body forever. Far more devastatingly, I know already that I will die as my father did, as a man who fell short of his first and most generous dream. I will die as the flawed compromiser . . . " Could you explain this statement?

    I'm thinking of the way in which I now live in contrast with the generous spirit with which I gave myself to God as a nineteen-year-old boy when I swore to live under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the rest of my life. My first religious profession was as total a gift of myself as I could make. I felt a tremendous joy in embracing God, giving myself to God -- and I almost immediately then began the process of taking the gift back in small -- and eventually large -- pieces. What I came to understand is that God didn't really put me on the earth to give myself to Him. He's the giver. He put me here simply because He loves me -- not as some kind of perfect holy person, but as the man I am, as much a "flawed compromiser" as everybody else. Flaws are built into our human condition, and it took me a long time to make peace with that fact, to accept it. We flawed compromisers are the creatures God loves. So even though there's an almost lugubrious note of disappointment in what you have just read back to me, I respond now by saying there's also a note of triumph in having faced oneself -- in being oneself. And that's why, despite what I earlier referred to as the sad tone of this memoir, this is also the work of a deeply happy person. I am a deeply happy person, even if I still have unfinished business. In fact -- it is in being unfinished that I've learned to be happy.

    Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the life you hoped for (as soon as you realized that the life your parents had raised you for was not entirely yours), yet both he and your father had to hide powerful conflicts within themselves for the sake of the "soldiers" under their command. Do you see these two men as somehow linked to each other?

    I was raised to believe, and I accepted, that the world was divided between failures on one side and saints and heroes on the other, and I decided early on that I wanted to be on the winning side. Both my father and Martin Luther King Jr. were my role models, and, of course, An American Requiem is the story of how I discovered that neither one of those men was perfect. It was precisely their humanity that enabled both men to achieve a level of greatness, even if in very different ways. Only when we begin to appreciate Martin Luther King Jr.'s private struggles can we understand the true magnificence of what he accomplished as a public leader. For example, as we read the record of his torment while being unsuccessfully blackmailed by the United States government, we are able more fully to admire his steady dignity and courage. So with my father. His secret struggle with sons who defied him over the Vietnam War made him, I believe, a better general, especially at the end when he refused to participate in an escalation of the arms race.

    I no longer see the world as divided between saints and heroes on one side and flawed compromisers on the other. I said a minute ago that everyone is a flawed compromiser. Our basic attitude toward each other, therefore, should be one of forgiveness. It's what makes us a community.

    Could you comment on the reality of the Civil Rights "dream?"

    Recently I read that a federal court upheld California's rejection of affirmative action. This seems to embody the triumph of the spirit of segregation. More black children are in segregated schools now than ever before in this country. More than a million people -- most of them black -- are in prisons. This is a tragic falling short of the dream we embraced as a people in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. defined it for us. The victory of the spirit of segregation is the largest disappointment of my life, I'm sure, and I think it would make Martin Luther King Jr. weep to be alive in the America of today.

    One of your teachers asked you to make a conscious choice between your two vocations, priest and writer. Are these two callings mutually exclusive?

    Both are ministries of the Word, and are therefore sacred callings. For a believing writer, it can seem no accident that the Bible applies the image of the Word to God and invites us to think of God as a Word, to think of creation itself as the Word of God. Early Christians further associated that image with Jesus. Anybody who has felt the healing power of the right word, spoken at the right time, in the right tone of voice, knows what this mystery is about. The Church has built itself on the Word, even to the small words of sacraments. Writers try to build their entire vocations around the Word -- a secular word, of course, but also somehow sacred.

    As to my own history, I was unable to find a balance between pastoral ministry and the impulse to be a writer. But that doesn't mean that many haven't found exactly that balance: some of our greatest writers have been simultaneously priests and poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins and Daniel Berrigan.

    Much of An American Requiem deals with your relationship with your father, yet there's another story going on underneath this: how your mother managed to bridge the gap between the two of you. Could you say a few words about Mary Carroll's role in both of your lives?

    My mother was the emotional center of our family. Even when we were otherwise split apart from each other, we all continued to have a powerful bond with her. While one of her sons was a draft dodger and another -- like his father -- an FBI agent looking for draft dodgers, while our father was alienated from two of his sons, while the national split cut right through our dinner table, through all of this my mother managed to hold the family together. She was a straightforward woman who never minced words; you always knew where you stood with her. I was often "in her doghouse" as she used to say, especially when I left the priesthood -- which was a very large disappointment to her -- but I never for an instant doubted her love for me or my love for her. That love imbues An American Requiem -- the love from her. Even though her Irish inhibitions would have made it difficult for her to like the book, I think that finally Mary Carroll -- Mom -- would have recognized this story as a tribute, above all, to her.

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