Father, Son, and an Unholy War

By Gilmour, Peter | U.S. Catholic, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Father, Son, and an Unholy War


Gilmour, Peter, U.S. Catholic


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. …

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