I Couldn’t be Part of that Anymore; it Just Ended for Me
June 1996 After writing nine highly regarded works of fiction over the past twenty years, best-selling novelist James Carroll determined that the most powerful story he had to tell was one he didn’t have to invent, merely recall truthfully from his own experience.
A former Paulist priest who renounced his holy orders in 1975, Carroll has titled his poignant new memoir American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us (Houghton Mifflin, 279 pages, $22.95).
“I call this book a requiem because there is, for me, very much the end of something,” Carroll said in a recent interview. And along with a degree of closure, he added, comes the prospect of finally laying to state his late father, an Air Force general and senior official of the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War.
The story quite pointedly begins and ends with a Mass,” Carroll explained. It begins with my first Mass as a priest, and ends with my father’s funeral Mass in 1991.
Between those two solemn milestones is the honest recollection of an Irish-American family caught up in the events of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the story of a young man torn between love and respect for his parents and their wishes, and his own deep moral sense of right and wrong.
As an undergraduate at Georgetown University in 1960, Carroll had enrolled in Air Force R.O.T.C with the intention of following in the footsteps of his father, a three-star general who spent much of the Vietnam war selecting targets for American warplanes to bomb.
Usually reserved with his children, Joseph Carroll once confided in James his fear of a coming war with the Soviet Union in which nuclear weapons would be used; it was a moment of tremendous closeness and warmth’’ that forever changed his son’s life. Deeply touched, Carroll announced that he wanted to become a priest calling his father had once seriously considered himself while growing up in Chicago during the 1930s.
The Mass that opens American Requiem took place early in 1969 at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., when the war in Vietnam was tearing America apart at the seams. There, in a military chapel and in the presence of his parents and assorted military dignitaries, the newly ordained Father Carroll who by then was firmly opposed to American foreign policy gave his first sermon.
To emphasize a biblical metaphor, he used the word napalm, a catchword for antiwar activists that he knew would arouse the congregation. There was a sick silence in the chapel, Carroll writes, and an irreparable breach had been made with his father.
Carroll supported the anti-war activities of fellow priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and found himself differing more and more with the Church on numerous fundamental matters. In 1975, after a year’s leave of absence, the Paulist Fathers granted him a full release.
It was the culture of hierarchy that was destroyed for me, Carroll said. It wasn’t poverty, chastity or obedience, exactly, it was the way in which the whole culture presumes superiors and inferiors, and I couldn’t be part of that anymore; it just ended for me. But I am still a Catholic who cares very much about the Church.
Once on his own, Carroll plunged forward with dreams he had always harbored of being a writer. His work on a play brought him in contact with a literary agent, who not only placed his first novel, Madonna Red, with a publisher, but introduced him to another client, the novelist Alexandra Marshall, whom he married in 1977.
The couple has two children, and live in Boston, where Carroll served as Catholic Chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974. Mortal Friends, the 1978 book that Carroll readily admits gave me my career, grew out of a profound wish to discover the ethnic roots of his adopted city.
A full selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Mortal Friends is still in print, and has sold more than a million copies worldwide.
In American Requiem, Carroll tells how his 1982 novel, Family Trade, was an attempt at reconciliation with his parents. Dedicated to his father, it was a political thriller that tells the story of a senior American intelligence official and his worshipful son.
General Carroll’s first reaction was positive, but a feature story published in the Washington Post under the headline, Confessions of an Ex-Priest, occasioned a bitter letter that concluded, Never, repeat NEVER dedicate another novel to me! Never!
For all the heartbreak these memories bring, Carroll said he wrote American Requiem so that his children would have a sense of family, and a strong grasp of where they came from.
One day, when I watched my children shrink back in fear and mystification from my father, who by that time was in the grip of Alzheimer’s, I was overwhelmed with sadness because I knew they would never have a memory of him when he was great. I want them to understand who he was, who my mother was, and what we’ve been through together.
A practicing Catholic, Carroll still attends church every Sunday, often at the Paulist Center where he lived years ago as a priest.
For me, prayer is handing over to God the things we can’t carry by ourselves, he said. In this case, I feel like I’m handing over to whoever reads the book what I couldn’t carry by myself.