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An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us

"Told with integrity and style, this is a moving account of the generational strains of the Vietnam era, and the timeless agonies of fathers and sons." —The New Yorker

In this dramatic, intimate, and tragic memoir, James Carroll recovers a time when parents could no longer understand their children and when young people could no longer recognize the country they had been raised to love. The wounds inflicted in that time have never fully healed, but Carroll accomplishes a personal healing in telling his family’s remarkable story.

The Carroll family stood at the center of the conflicts swirling around the Vietnam War. A former FBI man, Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency through most of the war and helped choose enemy bombing targets. His wife, Mary, a devoted friend of the hawkish Francis Cardinal Spellman, felt sympathy for antiwar priests and tried to balance her devotion to her husband with love for her sons.

This shattering history is shaped by the choices made by three of the five Carroll sons. Dennis became a draft fugitive. Brian joined the FBI and hunted draft resisters and Catholic radicals. James, fulfilling his father’s abandoned dream, became a Roman Catholic priest. But he soon allied himself with Catholic radicals who were one brother’s target and another’s support. While America’s streets exploded with protest, the Carrolls’ precious and privileged world collapsed.

An American Requiem is above all James Carroll’s story. An Elvis fan, an altar boy, a general’s proud son, a civil rights organizer, a Eugene McCarthy volunteer, a college chaplain, a resister—he was also a priest who broke his vows. And all the while he loved his family and war—Stephen shipped his father, even as the war came between them.

Only after he left the priesthood to become a writer and husband and father did Carroll come to understand fully the struggles his father had faced. And in this book he draws on his novelist’s skills to tell his —and part of his country’s —story. An American Requiem is a heartfelt —and heart-rending —benediction on his father’s life, his family’s struggles, and the legacies of his own generation.

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of An American Requiem for every reader.

1. How did Lieutenant General Joseph Carroll, in his person and his history, embody the forces that shaped James’s life and behavior?

2. How are various hierarchical authorities, both institutional and individual, portrayed in the book? How do father and son, individually, relate to them?

3. What is the significance of Carroll’s beginning the book with his ordination Mass and closing with Joseph Carroll’s requiem Mass? Is this framing device appropriate to the progression of the book’s narrative?

4. In chapter 1, Carroll writes that, during the early years of his anti-war activity, “I was two people, and . . . each of my selves seemed to have a coherence and integrity that were belied by the fact that I could not bring them together.” Does he succeed in integrating his disparate selves?

5. In chapter 1 and again in the final chapter, Carroll writes, “I believe that to be made in God’s image is to do this: arrange memory and transform experience according to the structure of narrative. The story is what saves us.” How does this belief relate to both Carroll’s personal development and his book?

6. The concept of redemption recurs in various contexts, not all of them religious. What kinds of redemption are presented? Does one eventually assume precedence?

7. What are the similarities and differences between Carroll’s life and his father’s? How did his father’s life and career shape Carroll’s own?

8. What photographs in the book seem of particular importance? What is their significance in the progression of James Carroll’s life?

9. Several men play important roles and have profound influences, both positive and negative, at key points in Carroll’s life. Who are these men and what are their roles and influences?

10. In chapter 3, Carroll writes that “[presidential] inaugurations had been like a sacrament of the streets to me, rituals of rebirth,” and he later refers to “the holy mysteries of Washington.” What other religious or liturgical terminology is used to characterize political and social events, places, and people? What effect does the use of this terminology have?

11. What biblical allusions and images occur in the book? How do they enhance Carroll’s narrative and our understanding of his story?

12. Does Carroll succeed, at the book’s conclusion, in achieving “the acceptance and forgiveness and affirmation” that, in chapter 4, he longs to bestow on his own younger self?

13. In chapter 5, Carroll identifies “three distinct but related revolutions&emdash;interpersonal, religious, political&emdash;that I underwent as a Paulist.” Does he convincingly demonstrate the occasions and nature of each of these “revolutions” as the book proceeds?

14. In chapter 6, Carroll refers to “the worship of false gods, the making of idols” as “the sin to watch out for.” What does he mean by this? Can you identify the false gods and idols to which he refers?

15. What bearing on his personal story do Carroll’s narratives of events outside his own direct experience or observation have (e.g., political corruption in 1930s Chicago, the FBI’s harassment of Martin Luther King)? Are they necessary to his, and our, understanding of his experience?

16. The words “priest,” “poet,” and “prophet” can be applied, individually or together, to specific persons who appear in Carroll’s narrative. Who are these priests, poets, and prophets, and how do they embody the qualities of each role?

17. Does Carroll present a coherent picture of the true dynamics of his family, including his own relationships with his mother and four brothers? Does he focus too narrowly on his relationship with his father?

18. On the book’s final page, Carroll makes a number of statements that reflect on both his life and his book. How does each of these statements relate to everything that has come before?
“War had come down to war between us. I saw the lesson of it clear: we both lost.”
“The broadly political is always personal for me.”
“The story is a victory over the need to be victorious.”

About the Author

Born in Chicago in 1943 and raised in Washington, D.C., where his father was an Air Force general and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, James Carroll was educated at Washington’s Priory School and at an American high school in Wiesbaden, Germany. He attended Georgetown University before entering St. Paul’s College, the Paulist Fathers’ seminary, where he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees. Carroll has been a civil rights worker, an antiwar activist, and a community organizer in Washington and New York. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1969.

Carroll served as Catholic chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974. During that time, he studied poetry with George Starbuck and published books on religious subjects and a book of poems. He was also a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter (1972—1975) and was named Best Columnist by the Catholic Press Association. For his writing on religion and politics he received the first Thomas Merton Award from Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center in 1972.

Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer, and in 1974 was a playwright-in-residence at the Berkshire Theater Festival. His plays have been produced at the BTF and at Boston’s Next Move Theater. In 1976 he published his first novel, Madonna Red, which was followed by—among others —Mortal Friends (1978), Prince of Peace (1984), and Memorial Bridge (1991). The City Below (1994) is now available in a Houghton Mifflin trade-paperback edition. He has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, and his op-ed column appears weekly in the Boston Globe

James Carroll lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall, and their two children.

Carroll on Carroll

“Like many writers, I really only have one story to tell. In my case, it is a father-son story. Appropriate enough, I guess, since, as I say, my way into it was through the father-son story of God and Jesus.”

“All my stories are about people falling short. An American Requiem is the story of my own.”

“For me, prayer is handing over to God the things we can’t carry by our selves. In this case, I feel like I’m handing over to whoever reads the book what I couldn’t carry by myself.” —Publishers Weekly, May 27, 1996

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