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Jersey Jim

Jim McGreevey did not enter politics for the money; of that we can be certain after Channel 2 News (in New York) last night showed viewers the interior of the Woodbridge condo McGreevey continued to call home even after being elected New Jersey's governor in 2001 (until a mold problem at the official residence outside Princeton was resolved). The tour guide was none other than Golan Cipel, the Israeli national whose purported affair with the Governor--and subsequent threats of exposure--prompted McGreevey to resign his office in August 2004. Cipel made some very rough charges last night in contradicting the account of their relationship offered by McGreevey in his recently published memoir, The Confession.

We called the Confession a "spiritual autobiography" in a post last week because that's the genre to which McGreevey and ghostwriter David France turned in structuring the work. It also belongs to the subgenre of "conversion narrative," the most venerable of American literary traditions. Critics of the market-driven tendency of celebrities like McGreevey to publish accounts of their spiritual conversion before its fruits are fully manifest overlook the tradition's source in the near-spontaneous quality of oral conversion narratives offered in Protestant churches of colonial times (in places like McGreevey's hometown of Woodbridge along with more familiar New England locales).

Something much more important is also overlooked: works of spiritual autobiography including those presented as narratives of conversion or "recovery" offer no guarantee of the author/subject's virtue or truthfulness. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), one of the greatest books ever written by an American, William James explained that the power of conversion narratives resides in the degree to which their authenticity can readily be verified over the course of a subsequent lifetime. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, truly did live by the light of his conversion experience as did so many of the other subjects James studied. At the same time there is no shortage of fraudulent conversion narratives crafted by figures in a jam or otherwise seeking to evade responsibility for previous misdeeds. Yet this is not a tradition one dishonors lightly; Americans are a forgiving people but don't care to be taken for a ride by those in who they've invested sympathetic interest.

Perhaps the best that might be said of The Confession is that it reveals an individual in the process of becoming honest. McGreevey lived in denial of his homosexuality for forty-seven long years, but his recovery--as he sees it--is not from the effects of shame and guilt over his orientation but from his addiction to "having a public" which served as audience in his perpetual campaign for adulation. McGreevey is, that is, a recovering politician who happens to come from one of the most politically-charged places on earth. In this sense the most revealing observation on his resignation was found in a headline from the Onion: "Homosexual Tearfully Admits to Being Governor of New Jersey."

This is in fact the most revealing book ever published on politics in the Garden State and surely the only book we'll ever have in which Sharpe James (long-time Newark mayor and legendarily rugged in-fighter) competes for influence and space with William James (un-credited inspiration for such chapter titles as "What a Divided Self Can Do"). The Confession arrived at a fateful moment in the Garden State's political history, when the three regional "warlords" of Democratic politics who each played a large role in McGreevey's ascent find themselves in a state of major flux: George Norcross (South Jersey) is reportedly eyeing a move to South Florida; John A. Lynch Jr. (Central) will be sentenced next month to federal prison for fraud and tax evasion; and Ray Lesniak (North) has undergone his own spiritual conversion which will certainly bear watching since unlike his fellow Bosses (and his protege the former Governor), Lesniak will apparently continue to exert his influence in the rough and tumble of Jersey politics.

McGreevey's observations on Lesniak and Lynch are especially fascinating; the two had a bitter falling out prompted largely by McGreevey's own volatile conduct while Governor in the wake of the now-legendary "epiphany" that inspired him to cut Lynch off from access to guberatorial power (greater in Jersey than any other state) despite his having risen from the obscurity of Woodbridge's mayoralty to the Statehouse via Lynch's constant intercession. Lynch is a brilliant guy, a Holy Cross graduate that blended a mastery of old-school ward politics with a visionary gift for urban planning and redevelopment. During the decade I lived in New Brunswick, Lynch's hometown and laboratory, I never doubted for a moment there was more to be learned about American cities by following him around for a day than could be had from a lifetime of urban studies seminars at Rutgers; let's just say he was not the kind of political leader one casually hung around with.

I would rather read Lynch's (unwritten) autobiography than McGreevey's but the book before us is compelling in its provisional fashion. McGreevey does accept responsibility for his actions especially those that clearly devastated his second wife (his first wife moved back to her native
Vancouver
and wants no part of the publicity surrounding McGreevey or the book). He does not blame the Catholic Church for his struggles: in fact he is extraordinarily appreciative of the communal ethos of the Jersey City Irish-Catholicism into which he was born (and raised, in nearby
Carteret, a working-class suburb). Apart from one reference to the "Church's pointlessly cruel war against gays and lesbians" found very late in the book McGreevey has nothing but good things to say about church and clergy. Before he outed himself McGreevey had ceased receiving Communion in public, in response to attacks from several New Jersey bishops who, he accurately notes, attempted to derail his support for the nation's first publicly-funded stem-cell research institute by indicating he was no longer welcome at the Communion rail.

McGreevey now worships in an Episcopalian faith community, the same tradition that elevated Gene Robinson--an openly gay priest--to Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. In an April 2006 New Yorker article on the looming schism in his church, Robinson observed that his harshest critics failed to understand homosexuality is something that I am; its not something that I do. Such battles over identity politics are of course integral to the endless culture wars of religion on which I have nothing useful to add. Except this: most culture warriors may not be lucky enough to reside in New Jersey but other venues offer their own opportunities for personal reflection grounded in real places, real experiences, and an honest accounting of the human heart and its longings for love, commitment and community. Perhaps we should all write our own Confession before rushing headlong into the fray.

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James, you know that this is a modern practice. It is called memoir. In writing his second memoir, "Furthermore", Andrew Greeley noted that a friend told him that memoirs are basically narcissistic.I agree with Greeley's friend though I did enjoy Mary Karr's book "The Liars Club" which started the present craze. I still like Greeley because he has been really courageus in the church, especially against pedophilia. He does, however, have a very large ego.Augustine who started the practice is quite interesting. O'donnell, who recently wrote a bio on Augustine, maintains that we would have never known anything about Augustine if it were not for the Confession. Which means it was Augustine's great propagator. Amazing that he fusses over stealing a pear yet easily orders Donatists to be killed by the authorities.So there is perhaps problems with the very first public confession.Many Evangelical preachers are good at this but bad when they have to acknowledge the sin they were hiding.Confession is indeed good for the soul. We might be wary of those who flaunt it. Especially, if they feel we need to have the story straight. And how good they really are.Augustine was on the surface quite humble in his Confessions. But when Julian, Jerome, Pelagius gave him ample opportunity to be humble, he hardly was accomodating.

I always get my Augustine's confused, but weren't the Donatists dispatched well after the pears -- and several traumas after The Confessions (perhaps we should follow Garry Wills and call it The Testimony)?Not to mention that the point of the pear story is with the motivation, not the nature of the act.

Yes it is about the motivation in the pear story. But isn't there some inflating going on. After all he was a child. Certainly a child has the duty to be responsible but to give something like this magnitude is silly in my opinion. Good think auricula confession was not around in Augie's day. He might have really tortured some penitents.If he were looking for something to feel guilty about, how about sending his concubine away whom Monica insisted was not good enough for him because she was from a lower class.

My post was long enough without going into distinction between Augustinian and Ignatian conversion narrative traditions, but it's worth noting that Jim McGreevey contemplated entering Society of Jesus while Georgetown law student and later was struck by similarity between the 12-Step spirituality he's embraced and the Spiritual Exercises. He's not the first to make the connection: AA founder Bill W's deepest spiritual guidance came from a St. Louis Jesuit, Ed Dowling. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of McGreevey's narrative of spiritual recovery is that he--like his political and spiritual mentor Ray Lesniak--wholly embraces the 12 Step regimen as a universal spiritual discipline apart from its application to a traditional 'addiction' issue. Finally, rest in peace Robert Altman, surely no devotee of the 12 Steps (he once described himself as a 'pot-smoking grandfather') but a brilliant artist. We always thought his great movies of 70s changed our way of seeing only to discover he'd already done that for us as little kid, in his direction of the most memorable episodes of the early 60s WWII TV drama, "Combat.'

I understand James. If I may, I am challenging your premise. The jury will be out for a long time on Jersey Jim and Augustine literally got away with murder while tainting Christian thought for many centuries.We have to carefully choose our heroes.