Review: Jim Forest’s new memoir delves into his ‘unusual conscience’
How did the son of communist parents—not antagonistic toward religion, but atheists nonetheless—become an Orthodox Christian convert and committed peace activist? The answer can be found in the illuminating and frequently surprising pages of Writing Straight With Crooked Lines, a new memoir by Jim Forest.
Undoubtedly a familiar name to some readers, Jim Forest is most often recognized through his fruitful friendships with (and personal biographies of) some of the most influential Catholic leaders of the 20th century: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan, S.J. (Full disclosure: I know Forest and hosted him for a lecture on Berrigan at Fordham University in April 2018.)
Now the subject is himself, and it is Forest’s own fascinating life, bolstered by his association with a colorful cast of radical characters, that makes this autobiography an engrossing read. It functions as both a personal history and a snapshot of a tumultuous era in American society—the 1960s—when Forest solidified his opposition to unjust war and his faith in active nonviolence.
Jim Forest is most often recognized through his fruitful friendships with some of the most influential Catholic leaders of the 20th century: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
Forest begins his work with a disclaimer. “Writing an account of one’s life is a kind of archaeology, but instead of digging trenches into multilayered tells, I’m digging into the rubble of my own memory which, like earth, hides more than it reveals,” he writes. Despite this warning, Forest then embarks on an impressively detailed account of his life.
Both of Forest’s parents were active members of the Communist Party when he was born in 1941. Forest viewed his mother’s communism as primarily concerned with the common good. “For her, Communism boiled down to doing whatever she could to protect people from being treated like rubbish,” he writes, adding that she was horrified by the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Lenin and Stalin.
Forest was baptized at the age of 10 after attending his first church service at Christ Episcopal Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. He describes the experience of the liturgy as overwhelming him with “tidal force,” and answering some questions about himself:
It was as if some puzzle about my own identity had been resolved. Every action in the service was directed toward the invisible God, while the bread and wine on the altar, in a compelling but ungraspable way, became an entry point into the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Another formative religious experience occurred in 1959, when Forest enlisted in the U.S. Navy after watching the Fred Zinnemann film “The Nun’s Story.” He had a religious experience during a post-film stroll: “The old question, ‘Is there a God?’ evaporated.”
The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 rattled Forest’s conscience: “I felt implicated in a collective sin.”
The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 rattled Forest’s conscience: “I felt implicated in a collective sin.” In response, shocking and angering his military superiors, he joined a protest with Catholic Worker members posted in front of the original C.I.A. headquarters in Washington, D.C. Seeking discharge as a conscientious objector, Forest then told the Navy that he refused to heed any military orders that would kill innocent civilians or betray his convictions. “I was presented with two choices: ‘cooperate’ or be sent to the brig, the Navy term for prison,” recounted Forest.
“Even my military chaplain, though bewildered that I had such ‘an unusual conscience,’ backed me up, crediting his support to a street-corner encounter he had had many years earlier with Catholic Worker [co-founder] Peter Maurin.” This episode linked Forest to the Catholic Worker and set the stage for later actions of nonviolent resistance. Several years before, Forest got his first glimpse of Dorothy Day, who chose him at the age of 19 to be managing editor of the movement’s pacifist newspaper.
Forest’s story is not without struggle, and the entire memoir is marked by a constant moral questioning: What is the right thing to do? Am I doing it? Where do I go next?
“While I have no doubt that Dorothy Day warrants inclusion in the church calendar as a model of sanctity, it was not just to pass the time of day that she went to confession every Saturday night,” writes Forest. Through Day, Forest came into contact with yet another essential spiritual mentor, the Trappist monk and acclaimed author Thomas Merton. Forest began corresponding with Merton in 1962, after publishing Merton’s essay, “The Root of War Is Fear” in the Catholic Worker.
In late November 1964, three months after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Forest co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship with Jim Douglass and Daniel Berrigan, S.J. According to Forest, the intentions of the C.P.F. were “to organize Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War...and to make known the fact that conscientious objection to war was an option not only for those in pacifist churches such as Quakers and Mennonites but for Catholics as well.” Merton, who would later call the Vietnam War “an overwhelming atrocity,” joined the group’s board of sponsors.
Forest’s story is not without struggle, and the entire memoir is marked by a constant moral questioning: What is the right thing to do? Am I doing it? Where do I go next? The year 1967 found Forest lonely, depressed and separated from his first wife. Dan Berrigan began to question the viability of the C.P.F., while his brother, Philip Berrigan, distanced himself from the organization and from anti-war activities “devoid of risk or suffering.”
Jim Forest: “The problem is that I’m not by nature an activist. Perhaps there is something of Thomas Merton’s monastic temperament in me.”
On May 17, 1968, Dan and Phil, joined by seven other Catholic activists collectively known as the Catonsville Nine, burned 378 draft files with napalm in a Catonsville, Md., parking lot, an incendiary protest that divided Catholics and collected criticism even from Merton and Day. The action was repeated on a larger scale that September, when 14 activists, including Forest, burned some 10,000 draft files in Milwaukee, Wis. Forest’s civil disobedience landed him in prison for over a year.
His work for peace did not conclude with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In 1977, Forest began leading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, where he and his wife, Nancy Forest-Flier, currently reside. (He later became general secretary of the organization.) Along with Nancy, Forest converted in 1988 to Orthodox Christianity and made their spiritual home the Amsterdam parish of St. Nicholas of Myra. He also served as general secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship during this time.
Forest’s book abounds with unexpected anecdotes. When Joan Baez was falsely warned that Forest might be a C.I.A. agent, she responded: “Jim Forest is much too nice—and much too disorganized—to work for the C.I.A.” Other stories include a phone call with Bob Dylan, talks with Graham Greene and Gregory Peck, and, in one of the more disturbing revelations, repeated episodes of sexual harassment by a well-known social critic.
Despite his extensive involvement with religious peace organizations and his acts of nonviolent resistance, Forest does not comfortably define himself as a peace activist. “The problem is that I’m not by nature an activist. Perhaps there is something of Thomas Merton’s monastic temperament in me.” Forest does not even describe himself as fully Christian, but rather as one “attempting to become a Christian.”
This emphasis on “becoming” is useful for understanding Forest’s book, which portrays a man moving ever toward something, becoming someone new through interactions with his friends, his mentors and his faith.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “His 'Unusual Conscience',” in the Spring Literary Review 2020, issue.