An Interview with James Carroll

Joseph and James Carroll were casualties of the Vietnam War—a father and a son who, like many of their respective generations, were torn apart by the battles that raged at home, forever divided in their clash of loyalties. In his haunting memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came between Us (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, $12, 280 pp.), James Carroll tells the story of their struggle which revolved around fiercely different understandings of God and country, faith and honor.

Joseph Carroll was a reserved man, sure of his own authority and the system that had given him extraordinary success. He was an FBI agent who captured the notorious Chicago gangster Roger Touhy in 1942, and quickly rose to become a trusted member of J. Edgar Hoover’s inner circle. At thirty-seven, he was commissioned as a general in the Air Force. Eventually, he became founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. His job: to pick bombing targets in Vietnam. Carroll senior had also been a seminarian who hoped James, the second of five sons, would pick up his abandoned calling to the priesthood.

When James entered Saint Paul’s College, the Paulist Fathers’ seminary, it was 1963, a period of ferment in the church, and soon he realized he was becoming what his father considered "the wrong kind of priest." He embraced reform theologians like Hans Küng, he supported Martin Luther King, Jr., and he protested the war. His father felt betrayed by Carroll’s antiwar activity; Carroll criticized his father for not understanding his opposition. By 1969 they were no longer speaking.

The gulf between father and son deepened further when Carroll left the priesthood in 1975 to pursue another callingas an author. Two years later he married the writer Alexandra Marshall, with whom he has two children. He has written nine novels, including The City Below and Mortal Friends. An American Requiem won a National Book Award in 1996.

Recently I met with Carroll in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where this spring he is a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. We discussed An American Requiem, "God, his father, and the war that came between them."

JOHN SPALDING: You dedicated An American Requiem to your wife and your children. Tell us how they were a motivation for you to write it.

JAMES CARROLL: Neither my wife nor my children knew my father except as a senile old man who was incapable of relating to them personally. When I met my wife my father was already in decline, and by the time our children came along he was infantile. Once, my son, who was three or four—he’s fifteen now—shrank back in fear from my father, and this was such a shock to me because I realized that he knew nothing of my father—what a great man he was and what a great life he’d lived. Nor did he understand really how ironic, and how tragic, the story of me and my father was. So it was very clear to me from that moment that I had to write this book.

SPALDING: You describe your father as a "fluent patriot" whose sense of himself, as a father and a general, depended on the survival of the world of hierarchy. "Defending it was his one real passion," you write, "his vocational calling, and his religious duty." What were the sources of his patriotism?

CARROLL: He was typical of that generation of the sons and daughters of immigrants who were both deeply grateful for what this country gave them and quite determined to establish their American identity. That was always a powerful motivating factor in my father’s life. My mother never lost hold of her Irishness and loved carrying Irishness into our family life. My father didn’t particularly do that. He was an American, and it had a religious aspect for him—it was a piece of this hierarchical world view he had which was ultimately a religious world view. With God at the top somehow. From an early age I understood my father’s motto to be Pro Deo et Patria—church and country, twin loyalties. He was of the generation for whom it was inconceivable that [patriotism and religion] should ever be in conflict.

SPALDING: You wrote that your father thought Pope Paul VI’s plea for peace before the United Nations in 1965 was naïve. He said that it’s the pope’s job to lay out general principles and that it’s the job of those who are "in-the-know" to apply them.

CARROLL: Right. And of course he’s showing his seminary education there, because epistemologically he’s able to distinguish between theory and practice. And he’s an expert in the world of practice. It’s why there is this built-in irony of being Catholic. It’s why we can have a radical rejection of contraception when the pope and bishops understand that every priest in the world goes into the confessional and has the authority to be pastoral in the confidential discussion with a penitent, saying "Our principle rules out contraception, but if in the practice of your life you find that impossible, then God is not going to judge you, and I am not going to judge you." So my father was basically applying that principle. And at one level it’s a kind of wonderful, humane, wise realism, and at another it condemns us to a kind of inevitable dishonesty with each other that undercuts the integrity of not only the church but one’s life. What is integrity if not a match between internal and external truth? And if the internal truth is "We don’t accept this," but the external truth is, "Of course we accept this," then you’ve got a real problem. And that’s built into the terrible mistake the church has made in our lifetime on all these sexual matters, I think. So there it was, right there. My father and I—the conflict gets joined.


CARROLL: It’s a wonderful irony of our relationship that the person who had first joined it for us was, of all people, Pope John XXIII, who begins to raise questions in his encyclicals about basic assumptions of American policy. Pacem in terris raises the question whether nuclear weapons could ever be used in a just war, which is the question that no one could ever answer in those years in America. We don’t ask that question any more, but we should. We still have a huge nuclear arsenal, and whatever justification there was for it during the cold war is gone. It’s as if it isn’t there, but it is there, and we’re still spending billions of dollars to maintain it, to improve it. Whoa! Wait a minute. Where’s the disconnect here?

SPALDING: Your father originally intended to become a priest.

CARROLL: Yes. He went to seminary at age thirteen, and left at twenty-five with a superb education. And if he hadn’t gone to seminary he’d have been a worker in the stockyards.

SPALDING: So it was a great risk for him to leave...

CARROLL: A huge psychological risk. His decision was always a mystery to me as a young man. And when I was a priest, and later found myself contemplating the decision to leave the priesthood, this mystery at the center of my father’s life became paramount to me though, as you know from the book, we never had a satisfactory, honest discussion about it. I’d say this was because my father could never honestly confront it himself. It was too loaded, too painful, and I think he felt too guilty about it. The only fully honest moment we had about this was a totally nonverbal one after I was ordained—I blessed him and had my hands on his head, and he burst into tears. And I understood what he was telling me.

SPALDING: Which was what?

CARROLL: Well, this was in February of ’69, and by then his life as a general is already in ruins. I don’t know this at the time. Nixon has just become president, and Nixon, Laird, and Kissinger have just reiterated that they will not lose this war. The people who created the war—my father’s generation of colleagues, McNamara’s people—are all gone. And 30,000 more Americans are going to die. It’s a disastrous moment in my father’s life. My assumption at the time was that he was weeping because of me. But looking back on it, I think he had so much more to weep about. By then I’m sure he felt, as many of those military people felt, that he was in a terrible trap. They knew they were losing the war and that the only way to win was to use nuclear weapons, which he wasn’t going to be part of. And sure enough Laird and Kissinger and Nixon embraced the illusion that we somehow might be able to pull this thing out, so they spent 30,000 American lives, another million Vietnamese lives, and six more years. Those are the years that destroyed this country for our generation.

SPALDING: Yet your father never said anything publicly against the war, as none of the generals did.

CARROLL: No. And they never have, really. The closest anyone has come to saying anything was McNamara in his memoir, In Retrospect, which is a deeply flawed attempt to confront these questions, though I give him credit for attempting it.

SPALDING: How did you spend time with your father growing up?

CARROLL: Mostly playing golf. He was a great golfer, and it was his one recreation. As a youngster I took pleasure in being his caddie, and then as a teen-ager I took up the game and he became my instructor. Which was true hell—true hell! Even today, whenever I swing a club, I can hear this voice in my head, "Don’t bend your elbow!" "Drag the golf head!" "Slow up." "Head down, you lifted your head up!" And every time I swing I know what I did wrong even before I see what the ball does, because I can hear my father’s voice.

SPALDING: When did you first want to become a priest?

CARROLL: As a young child I was naturally religious, and by that I mean I felt at home at Mass and in church. I was an altar boy, and I can still remember the feeling of tranquillity and blessedness on those early mornings before serving six o’clock Mass with the monsignor. I took great pleasure in being close to the altar and watching the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is still the place where I draw the most solace in my life. It’s a kind of centering act for me. And because the priest presided over the world of those feelings it seemed very natural to me to be drawn to the priesthood.

I was not dragged into it kicking and screaming. But going through high school and coming of age sexually and discovering the pleasures of girls and life in the world—all of that did set up a conflict for me, and I realized that to become a priest I really had to say no to something. But I did it consciously, freely, and I wouldn’t want to be understood as claiming there was a lack of freedom in my decision to become a priest. I’d still be a priest today if the reforms of Vatican II had taken and if the church of John XXIII had become what it was in the process of becoming. It was the failure of the reform movement that undercut my ability to be a priest.

SPALDING: It was your parents’ great wish that you would become a priest, and at times they encouraged you indirectly. Such as when you were fifteen and first met Cardinal Spellman at your home, and your parents had told him privately that you were destined for the priesthood...

CARROLL: [Laughing] Yes, and Cardinal Spellman put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I want to ordain you." And the love of the priesthood was vivid in my family life; my mother was devoted to it, and there were often priests around the house, especially in the military. These young chaplains regarded our house as a second home. And see, once I saw chaplains I was really lost because they were masculine. There was something disturbingly effete about some of the parish priests back home. But military chaplains, with their ID bracelets, their crew cuts, their fast cars, their robust physiques, all of that—you could be a man and a priest both. It was irresistible!

SPALDING: Your ordination service at Bolling Air Force base in Washington, D.C., was attended by several Air Force generals, including your father, who were involved with orchestrating the Vietnam War. In your sermon you referred to Ezekiel’s "valley of dry bones" and asked, "Can these bones live? Dried and burned by time, and by desert wind, by the sun, and most of all by napalm." After the service you viewed this reference to the war as self-indulgent and an act of cowardice because you felt you’d merely infuriated your father. Years later you realized it wasn’t cowardice. How had your feelings changed?

CARROLL: Well, I was so unforgiving of myself. This was 1969, very late in the history of the war, and I had not openly confronted my father about it—even though he knew I was opposed to the war, even though we’d argued about Phil Berrigan, even though I had participated in demonstrations outside his office at the Pentagon. We’d simply stopped talking to each other, and I’d never really declared myself publicly. Yet it was impossible for me to be at Bolling, in that season, and to give my first sermon as a priest without somehow, somehow letting him know, letting them all know, that no, not for one minute did I accept this thing. Given how strongly I felt at the time, and how clearly wrong the war was by then, and how Nixon and Laird were continuing it—one mere little reference to napalm seemed awfully weak to me. I was appalled that that was the most I could do!

SPALDING: How did your mother respond?

CARROLL: She was heartbroken by the whole thing.

SPALDING: You didn’t write as much about your relationship with your mother. You say that when you left the priesthood her unspoken question was, "How does the mother of an ex-priest get to heaven?" How did she react to your decision?

CARROLL: She was a woman who found a way to affirm all of us, even when she wildly disapproved of what we were doing. So even though I knew I’d hurt her, there was never any doubt in my mind she would be at my wedding, which she was. My father wasn’t. The reason he stated was because I had not been properly dispensed from my vows. It came through afterwards. But because I decided not to wait for that, he couldn’t in conscience come to my wedding. Obviously that was merely a pretext. My mother was just a very loving woman. She is why we stayed together as a family. This is not a family that disintegrated. Even though there was a lot of antagonism and conflict, we were intensely involved with each other right to the end.

SPALDING: One of the things that sealed your decision to become a priest was meeting John XXIII. Explain.

CARROLL: I was raised in the Irish church, which is anti-sensual. The Italian church is very sensual. And so I was prepared for the visit with Pope John by our visit to Rome, and the grandeur of Rome and the grandeur of Saint Peter’s, and the magnificent art. Even an uneducated and unsophisticated youngster like me could not stand in the presence of the Pietá and be unmoved by it. And one of the things that’s interesting about the Pietá, of course, is how young Mary is. It’s the adult Jesus, thirty-three years old, in the arms of his mother at age fourteen. And to be a teen-age boy looking at that statue—it’s subliminal! I didn’t know this at the time—but why is this so moving to me? It’s like she’s my girlfriend—she’s beautiful, like my girlfriend! She’s not somebody’s mother. She’s somebody’s girlfriend. Jesus is in the arms of somebody’s girlfriend! Subliminally, it’s fantastic. Deeply sensual. So there are doors opening in my subconscious all over the place. And you see I’m seventeen years old, and I’ve just come alive sexually, and I’ve just come alive to all this stuff, and I want it! And I’m at Saint Peter’s, and what is Saint Peter’s a celebration of? It’s a celebration of this very thing. It’s not Irish Jansenism, that’s for sure.

And then to be in the presence of the pope, which is already a profoundly physical, sensual experience. And these were the days before we used to hug each other. I mean hugging today, everybody hugs—"I love you, man!" But the pope hugged me. The pope hugged me, and he spoke to me. I didn’t understand a word he said, and I wasn’t even sure if he had spoken English. But he hugged me, and I leapt instantly to the idea that this was God. I felt that it was a fulfillment of my religious wish.

SPALDING: You write that it wasn’t until you met the pope that you believed in God.

CARROLL: That’s right, in the sense that I’d spent my life taking in my parents’ God or the church’s God, but suddenly, with him, it became personal to me. And I believed in God. I realized that after all that kneeling in the early morning shadows of the first Mass, and after a lifetime of religious sensibility, that it was mine, and that I’d been in flight from it. Trying to have a girlfriend, trying to be in the Air Force, trying to think of another way to live. And it was with Pope John that I felt a very contented sense that this was meant for me. It was a religious experience in the way that the church wants to be for people.

SPALDING: The other key to your decision to become a priest was when your father told you, in 1961, that he believed nuclear war was inevitable.

CARROLL: This was again a physical experience for me, but it was about fear. It was a foretaste of death, and there is nothing like a foretaste of death to put us in touch with the religious question, since, after all, religion comes to human beings out of the foretaste of death. Religion is basically an answer to the question, "What happens to us when we die?" And my father had this palpable sense of the coming nuclear war. Remember, this was during the Berlin crisis when it seemed sure that the world was going to end. And, of course, the world is going to end; it may not end in a nuclear exchange, but it is going to end. And that became very palpable to me—another kind of religious experience. I’d already decided for myself, in some way, that I was going to become a priest, but that’s when I actually told my father for the first time.

SPALDING: What was his reaction?

CARROLL: He was pleased. Quietly, proudly pleased.

SPALDING: You say you were transformed by your experience with the Paulists in three ways: personal, religious, and political.

CARROLL: Personal—well, there were a number of things about that. One was the experience of friendship and community, and to discover that my own impulses and intuitions were trustworthy. Related to that, of course, is the religious transformation, which is about learning that the basic word God has to us is about trust. Trust in your life. It’s a way of saying, "Trust me, God your father." The key to the revolution for me was the discovery that for Jesus, God was Abba, the father, which of course was potent for me because I’m already deeply, if unconsciously, engaged in the struggle to understand God as father in relation to my own father. So to discover that Jesus had gone through his version of this very same experience made Jesus a friend forever. Really, like a brother. He felt very trustworthy to me. And you can’t have an experience like that without wanting to talk about it with somebody, which is what the ministry is about. So it really did confirm my wish to be a priest.

Of course, all of this is clothed in the sixties’ language of politics. Not unrelated is the fact that I’m also hearing the same messages from that great preacher of the word, Martin Luther King, Jr., who shows me what the ministry means—that it’s a political calling. Which was news to me. Good news, because I was already politically awakened. John Kennedy had addressed himself to me and had invited me to be politically engaged, and I wanted to be. In the old days, to enter the church was to turn your back on political engagement. But what Martin Luther King was saying, and ultimately what Daniel Berrigan and others were saying, was, "No, no, to be in the church is by definition to be politically engaged." Thrilling! Happiness itself! The grief I felt for the loss of John Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in ’68 was in the context of just as powerful a happiness to be part of this movement which was partly about the Vatican Council and Pope John, partly about civil rights and Martin Luther King, partly about the peace movement and Daniel Berrigan. It was really glorious. And then to be ordained and come to Boston University as a chaplain where my job was to talk about these very things to kids who were desperate to have a language for what they were going through! And I had the language. I knew the words. I’d been through it myself just a little bit ahead of them. I knew how to talk about the politics. I knew how to talk about the personal and the religious. And it was great. Being a priest in those years was heavenly.

SPALDING: When did Daniel Berrigan become an influence on you?

CARROLL: Dan was a powerful influence on me first as a poet, before he became famous as an antiwar activist. I wanted to be a priest who was also a poet, and the one really first-rate poet who was a priest was Daniel Berrigan. So it came as a bit of a surprise to me to find him on the front rank of the war protest. I paid acute attention to him and read everything he wrote. He was central to the American Catholic transformation of our understanding not just of the war but of our place in society. More than any other person he broke that connection between Deo and patria, and invited the reverse of it—that if you really are committed to God then you have to question your country. And I did not come to that easily or quickly. It took me a long time. It was a source of enormous happiness to finally encounter Dan Berrigan and even to discover him as a friend, which I did in the seventies. He was of tremendous importance to me, and I still admire him enormously. I’m sure he’ll live in history as a great Catholic figure in this country.

SPALDING: You write that the end of the war diminished your reason for being a priest.

CARROLL: My priesthood had come to be defined in relationship to the war, especially because I was a campus minister at a very antiwar university. But more to the point, the war had undercut my ability to claim a place in that hierarchical world, because to oppose the war was to step outside of it and say no to it. And it didn’t matter whether the top of that hierarchy was Henry Kissinger or Pope Paul VI or Cardinal Medeiros [archbishop of Boston]. As long as the war continued, I would get up every day and do my modest part in the effort to end it. Once the war ended, it was like, "Now what?" And the answer to "Now what?" was to go back into the hierarchical world and behave. Not that I’m a misbehaver. Constitutionally, I’m a good citizen. I’m not a rebel at all-I mean, here I am in my blazer. But I could not go back into that hierarchy and behave in religious terms, because by then the movement to renew the church had failed. I know that’s controversial, and I’m sure some readers of Commonweal would disagree with me, but that’s how I experienced it. There was no question of my not being a Catholic, or a Christian believer, but I couldn’t serve the hierarchical structure of the church any more as a priest exactly because I could no longer keep that secret—"Oh yes, I accept the authority of the church. But, between us, you don’t have to accept the church’s teaching on birth control." I couldn’t do that any more.

SPALDING: What was the most difficult part about writing An American Requiem?

CARROLL: It wasn’t difficult in the usual sense. I’ve written lots of books, and they’re all difficult. But I was quite concerned that I would be intruding on the privacy of my brothers because two of them are involved in the story intimately. Especially Dennis, who was a draft resister, and Brian, who was an FBI agent. And yet I couldn’t tell my story without telling at least an important part of their story. So I wrote it, and of course I sent them the manuscript and then held my breath. If they’d said, "This is my story and you can’t tell it," it would have been a crisis. I don’t know what I would have done. I can’t imagine I would have published a book they would have found wounding. But as it happened they didn’t react that way.

SPALDING: Did writing this book give you a sense of closure?

CARROLL: No, it didn’t. It was just unfinished business. My father’s senility took him away from me before we could do that. I’ve simply finished the business as best I can with the rest of my life and other relationships. The relationship between me and my father is an open wound—that’s all.

SPALDING: What do you think your father would have thought about An American Requiem?

CARROLL: He would have been offended by the violation of his privacy, certainly. But if we set aside that question, I think he would have found it to be the truth. The truth of his own experience and the tragedy of it, really. And what was that experience? A young man trying only to do the right thing, the good thing, in response to an urge from some place he doesn’t know. He doesn’t do it—he doesn’t become a priest. And that’s the same thing that ends his career—trying to do the right thing as a patriotic officer [he’d refused to back the Nixon administration’s push to build antiballistic missiles]. There’s some response in him that doesn’t let him do it, and he refuses, because he realizes that if we don’t change the way we resolve conflict in the era of mass weapons then the human race is finished. That’s the basic condition of the pacifist impulse from the nuclear age, and my dad got it. I want my children to know that.

And if there’s a tragedy in all this it’s that my father raised a son who is exactly like him but that we never recognized each other as such. He thought I was so unlike him. And yet my rejection of the war was exactly what he raised me to do. And I would hope that he’d have read the book and recognized that. I’d like to think he would have, and that he would have realized that, in the end, we were together.

Of course, the main thing the book did for me was give me a way to look at his life, not judgmentally but respectfully.


Related: Paul Baumann, "Re: James Carroll"
Robert Louis Wilken, "Dismantling the Cross"
Thomas Baker, "An Offer You Can Refuse"

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 

John D. Spalding’s writing has appeared in the Christian Century and other magazines.

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